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Calcutta Sonata – The City’s Sustained Love Affair with the Piano

November 26, 2017 | By

The piano is essentially a Western musical instrument. Yet, since the 19th century, the affluent strata of Calcutta slowly got introduced to it, thanks to the British rulers. The piano soon became an integral part of Calcutta’s culture and over a period of time it produced a rich conversation between Western and Indian music. Stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore and Dwijendralal Roy adopted the piano to Indian music and that has its effect on the early westernization of Bengali songs and music.

Documentary film-maker and critic Subha Das Mollick’s Calcutta Sonata looks at this fascinating aspect of the city’s sustained love affair with the piano – a review.

'Calcutta Sonata

The poster of Subha Das Mollick’s Calcutta Sonata

Calcutta Sonata recently premiered at the 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival (November 2017).  It is an exquisite and very fascinating film about the city’s sustained love affair with the piano.  Subha Das Mollick, the Director, explores the history of the piano’s reception in Calcutta with an expert and delicate touch.  From the opening screen shots viewers are taken back to Calcutta of the past, a city of fine mansions built in Western style replete with windows of stained glass evoking the opulent living many enjoyed and the rich musical heritage.

The subject of the film is introduced through an arresting image of the first piano being hoisted by ship onto Calcutta’s marshy shores.  A memorable black and white sketch of an elephant dangling from a crane morphs in a few frames to become a piano to suggest the cultural transformation and exchange that occurred when East met West.

Moving effortlessly between the past and the present we see that the piano is much played and appreciated across the City. The impressive and rather cumbersome instrument charmed the Bengali public and produced a rich conversation between Western and Indian music.  Through a series of interviews we are introduced to past and present piano performers and teachers, classical piano players and jazz performers, and those experts that can restore piano.

Braganza piano workshop

At the Braganza’s workshop: A worker gives a healing touch to an old piano

F Rachals crafted pianos in Hamburg, Germany since 1832, and also made the Mercedes car. While most pianos came to Calcutta from Britain, the grand piano in the old Great Eastern Hotel came from this illustrious maker.  It was the centerpiece in what used to be the legendary Maxim’s Bar.   When the hotel was bought the new proprietors found the dilapidated piano in an old trunk.  Recognizing it as vintage they determined to restore the piano to its initial glory.  They entrusted the broken down piano to the care of Braganzas who restored it beautifully. Today the piano holds pride of place in the lobby of the hotel.

To retrieve so many wonderful tales about the piano in Calcutta, the director conducted meticulous research from historical archives and through extensive discussions with music lovers across the City.  They share their knowledge in conversations and short musical interludes that run through the film.   Some of the music teachers, pianists and music scholars who appear in the film include Jyotishka Dasgupta, Fauzia Mariker, Devajit Bandyopadhyay, Sarbananda Chowdhuri, Sourendra Mullick, Debabrata Mitra, Abhijit Patranobis and Sarvani Gooptu.  Interviewing them reconnected the director with some old acquaintances.  She recalls attending Abhijit Patranobis’s piano recital in Delhi’s Hindu College back in 1975.  At that time, the young Patranobis, representing St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, had played the piano like an Indian classical instrument.

19th Century piano Bengali home

In the 19th Century, the piano entered the well to do Bengali homes

Through the course of the film we learn many other interesting details about the piano in Calcutta.  For example, in the late eighteenth century English men and women in Calcutta enjoyed musical soirees. British Indian painters like Solvyns and Zoffany included such images in their paintings where they painted ladies sitting in gardens with harpsichords.  Just like the paintings, old advertisements were scoured to provide evidence of the musical inclinations of Calcutta residents. There is a 19th Century advertisement featured with a pianola on sale for Rs. 450/-.  A pianola, a self-playing piano, was popular in many Bengali homes.

Some Europeans encountered Indian music when attending musical evenings organized by Calcutta’s rich babus and were interested in exploring ways to adapt it Western musical structures. The transcription of Indian musical notes and tunes gave rise to Hindustani Airs. The Oriental Miscellany, published in 1879, contains the notations of these Hindustani airs.

We learn from Devajit Bandyopadhyay, a music scholar, that Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, a Russian musician, wrote and staged Kalponik Sangbadal.  This Bengali play included a Bengali song set to Western musical instruments.   Another innovative feature Lebedev introduced to the theater-going experience in Calcutta was a musical interlude.  What was especially relevant to the film was that this was the performance where the Bengali audience first heard the piano.

Satyajit Ray's Ghare Baire

Miss Gilby (Jennifer Kendal) teaches the piano to Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire

Whereas Lebedev was the first to introduce the piano to Bengali audiences it was William Carey, a Baptist missionary, who in his efforts to convert Bengalis to Christianity recognized the power of music.  He translated gospel songs to music that Bengalis sang in church, where the piano was used as an accompaniment.  This made the piano a widely heard and familiar instrument to many Bengalis across social strata.

Not surprisingly, it was the Tagore family that adapted the piano to Indian music.  Jyotindranath Tagore composed many tunes on the piano and Rabindranath put words to the music.  Quintessentially cosmopolitan Rabindranath borrowed and liberally adapted Western tunes for his musical compositions.  This became a trend in nineteenth century Bengal.  Tagore’s contemporary, Dwijendralal Roy, thought that Western chord structures and the straight and jump notes could overcome the monotony of Indian music. Dr. Sarvani Gooptu, a specialist in Dwijendralal’s music, treated viewers to a plaintive rendering of some of his songs.

Fauzia Mariker

Fauzia Mariker creates music in her own home

The piano became a popular instrument in affluent Bengali homes. Bengali women learning to play the piano as we indeed know from several of Satyajit Ray films like Charulata and Ghare Baire.  Jews, Parsees and Anglo Indians also played the piano and performed in public.  Bernard Jacob conducted the renowned Philharmonic Orchestra of Calcutta. The piano was also a popular instrument in movie-halls, play-houses and in restaurants. Deepak Puri of Trincas talks about how Park Street till the 1960’s never had offices.  It was the fashionable street famous for up-scale residences, restaurants and bookshops. Carlton Kitto, probably in his last interview on camera, reminisces, “Those days Park Street was like Hollywood. Music poured out from the restaurants.”  Many well-known performers from Calcutta, such as Fauzia Mariker, Jyotishka Dasgupta, Debabrata Mitra and their students have contributed their own particular strains of music to the Calcutta Sonata composition.

The rich history, insights into the dialogue between Indian and Western music, interspersed with beautiful images of the city, together with many wonderful musical phrases, makes the movie-watching experience richly textured.  It is a sensory and intellectual treat.

More to read

10 Most Favourite Salil Chowdhury Songs: Indian Melodies, Western Harmonies

Bengal’s Music and Its Influence in Hindi Film Music

Fifty Years Ago: Films and Music of 1965

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Jael Silliman was a tenured Associate Professor of Women Studies at the University of Iowa, (1996 – 2002). Thereafter she served as Program Officer for Reproductive Rights and Women’s Rights at the Ford Foundation in New York (2003 – 2009). In 2014 she was a Nehru Fulbright Scholar. She is currently an independent scholar and writer and has several books and articles to her name. She has published widely in academic journals and now regularly writes for popular audiences.
All Posts of Jael Silliman

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