In a real life David vs Goliath story, an unassuming 15-year-old elocutionist gives the mighty Indian broadcaster a stiff and determined challenge.
The year – circa 1957. The event – All Bengal Recitation Competition-Finals. The venue- Mahajati Sadan, Calcutta. The plush Central Calcutta auditorium was teeming with poetry enthusiasts from every corner of Bengal. Judged by the legendary Premendra Mitra1, the annual All Bengal Recitation Competition was one of the most talked about events in the literary circle. The competitions in the Junior (school-level) and Intermediate (college-level) categories were already complete and the judges were now waiting for the contestants in the general category. The audience was waiting as well. After all, one of the participating contestants was renowned elocutionist Birendra Krishna Bhadra2! By then, a household name in Bengal for his oratory prowess, Biren Bhadra’s popularity was sky-high. Bhadra’s Chandi recital as part of All India Radio’s annual Mahalaya (pre Durga Puja) program had given him an unprecedented fan-following.
From the jury panel, Premendra Mitra’s casual glance turned into a frown when he observed a short and skinny, barefooted, adolescent slowly climbing up the stairs towards the center stage. Mr. Mitra immediately sensed something was wrong – he announced hastily that the junior level contest was already over. The boy replied hesitantly – his name was listed in the General Category. Mitra nodded with disbelief, and turned towards one of the members of the organizing committee. “Boyesh koto?” –asked one of the organizers to ascertain the participant’s age. “Fifteen”- murmured the boy.
He had just completed his school leaving examination, which explained why he couldn’t be a part of the Junior or Intermediate categories. He was neither here, nor there (the perfect adolescence crisis?). No wonder his name had been put in the general category where age was not a factor. “But this is so unfair!” exclaimed Mr. Mitra. “Can’t the rules be tweaked to allow this boy in a different category? How can he compete against stalwarts in the generic category?” The organizers shook their heads – they were helpless. Strangely, the boy remained silent despite all the commotion around him. His apparently calm and impassive countenance concealed a raging storm.
As fifteen year old Sandip stood there on the stage, (his recently shaven head drooping a little, perhaps a trifle ashamed to be at the center of the controversy regarding his participation) there was only one thought clogging his mind. He had to win. He could not squander the efforts of the past year – most of all he could not let his mentor Abhay Chakroborty, down.
Abhay Chakraborty, although a lawyer by profession, was a passionate elocutionist. He taught recitation out of his love for the art. When the Head of The Department of Bengali at Park Institution School, where Sandip had been studying, took Sandip to pay him a visit, Mr Chakraborty found his perfect protégé. The master had discovered his disciple and the training begun with full fervor.
Had it not been for Abhay Chakraborty, Sandip’s participation in the All Bengal Recitation Competition, would have remained a dream. Convincing his exceptionally conservative parents was a herculean task which Abhay Babu had single-handedly achieved. Belonging to an extremely conservative North Calcutta family, which considered anything besides studying to be a colossal waste of time and money, was a fate he had resigned himself to. Moreover, being the fifth born in a family of nine siblings ensured that he received neither the attention reserved for the elder children, nor the pampering set aside for the younger ones. Abhay Babu had not only convinced the resistant parents but also had been voluntarily training Sandip for the past one year. To Sandip, the category no longer mattered.
Right after the preliminary rounds of the competition had completed, he had witnessed the untimely and unexpected demise of his father. Yes, that explained the shaven head. As for the barefooted entry – the only pair of good slippers he owned were a pair of ordinary Hawai chappals. Abhay Babu, on seeing him enter, had hurriedly stopped him. “What the hell are you wearing? It is better that you go in barefooted rather than wear these to the stage!” The boy had complied. He couldn’t dream of disobeying his mentor. It wasn’t easy for a shaven-headed, barefooted ill-clad teenager to face an elite, erudite audience and jury panel waiting to listen to the best elocutionists of the time. But then again, for Sandip, it was a dream he had longed to realize since ages.
The bell rang, bringing Sandip out of his reverie. He drew in a sharp breath, closed his eyes, blinked them open, and grabbed the mike. As his heart raced, his mind echoed with Abhay Sir’s instructions –“PAUSE, Sandip, remember to PAUSE!”. The auditorium reverberated with the enchanting “Udbhranto Shei Aadim Juge”-opening lines from Tagore’s “Africa”.
After his recitation, there was a moment of stunned silence followed by an upheaval from the jury panel. Who was this boy? Why hadn’t anyone heard of him before? Premendra Mitra, once again requested the organizers to make an exception and award him extra points for participating in a category which was far too advanced for his age. Yet rules were rules and the organizers were powerless.
That year, my father Sandip Chatterjee stood third in the All Bengal Recitation Competition, a feat unprecedented, for a fifteen year old. As expected, Birendra Krishna Bhadra topped the contest.
My father had narrated this incident, to me, then a nervous thirteen year old, as I was preparing for the annual recitation competition at my school. Till date, the tale has never failed to haul me out of despair!
*Premendra Mitra (Bengali: প্রেমেন্দ্র মিত্র; 1904–1988) was a renowned Bengali poet, novelist, short story and thrillers writer and film director. He was also Bengal’s most famous practitioners of science fiction in its own language (Source: Wikipedia)
Birendra Krishna Bhadra (Bengali: বীরেন্দ্রকৃষ্ণ ভদ্র) (1905–1991) was an Indian broadcaster, playwright, actor, reciter and theatre director from Kolkata, and a contemporary of Pankaj Mallick and Kazi Nazrul Islam. He is most known for his soaring Sanskrit recitation through a two-hour audio program, Mahishashura Mardini (Annihilation of Mahisasura) (1931), a collection of shlokas and songs broadcast by All India Radio Calcutta (now Kolkata) at 4:00 am, in the dawn of Mahalaya. (Source: Wikipedia)
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