By Sankar Ray
Preeti Banerjee (nee Sarkar) who first sang Sare Jahanse Achchha Hindostan Hamara, the lyric of Mohammad Iqbal (written in 1904), scored anew into a song by Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1945 at the Andheri commune of Indian Peoples Theatre Association in Bombay would have been 100-plus, had she been alive today.
Born on 4 December 1922 into a cultured and educated family of Sarkars in Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh). Preetidi’s golden voice remained almost intact even at the age of 88 when I was fortunate among sparingly few to have given audience to the famous song in her voice Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai ((The desire for revolution is in our hearts ) which became immortal by Sardar Bhagat Singh who used to sing this in condemned cell before his martyrdom in 1931. Spellbinding was Preetidi’s melodious singing at the apartment in southeast Kolkata of her elder son, Partha, a professor of physics. We were speechless at the incredible grain in her vocal quality even at that age.
Pandit Ravi Shankar used to leave at Malad in Mumbai and was deeply involved with the IPTA as its chief music director. He played the tune in his Sitar while singing it and Preeti Sarkar set it into her melodious voice. And then other members of IPTA’s central squad, living at the Andheri commune of the IPTA, picked it up for making the great song into a chorus. The newly composed song was first sung by Preetidi and she helped other members of the commune learn and sing it. That was sometime in 1945. The legendary Sitarist’s music was different from the ghazal tune, scored previously when the poet Iqbal was alive.
The maestro will be remembered for turning the song into a household one. In the words of another legend, Prof Hiren Mukherjee, academic and communist parliamentarian, “It’s a song for winning the world. It opened a new horizon that brought into IPTA’s fold Ravi Shankar, the sarodist Timir Baran and dance-exponent Santi Bardhan along with several other stalwarts of the time”.
Preetidi was then a card-holding communist who came in touch with the undivided Communist Party of India in the pre-independence India through the CPI’s student frond, All India Sudent Federation when she was an AISF activist during his undergraduate years. She told in an interview after the demise of Panditji in December 2012. “In 1945, when Panditji – used to stay at Malad, IPTA requested him to set ‘ Saare Jahan se Achchha ’ to music. Robuda, which is what we used to call him, readily agreed. I went to his apartment. He played the song on the sitar and asked me to sing along. I learned the song and came back to the commune at Andheri and sang it before all. Everyone was enthralled and felt inspired to learn it from me. Then it became the opening song for any IPTA programme”. The request came from Puran Chand Joshi, then general secretary of CPI. He conceived the idea of IPTA as also the Progressive Writers Association.
Preetidi had high praise for Joshi all through her life. “Joshi is incomparable. He wrote the script of ‘Spirit of India’. He kept track of everyone and was around the commune to see if anyone was saddened. and inspired all. He knew her mother was a widow, not at all well-to-do. He used to remit Rs 15. A month every month by money order. After all, Preetidi left her home when she was just above 20 to be a whole timer,
Her cousin brother Benoy Roy (her Tutu-da) was instrumental in her joining the central squad of IPTA in Bombay. Roy’s songs like firaiya de de re more Kayyur bondhuder (in memory of Kayuur comrades who were hanged to death) will keep his name indelible in the history of IPTA. The squad needed female voices. Preetidi was then well known as a singer in the AISF in Rajshahi. She wrote to P C Joshi who promptly arranged for taking Preetidi to IPTA in Bombay,
Andheri commune was then truly starred. Came Abani Dasgupta from Uday Sankar’s Almora Centre which was then about to be folded up, Salil Chowdhury, Deena Gandhi (later famous Deena Pathak), her sister Shanta, Hemango Biswas, Prem Dhawan, Kaifi Azmiamd her spouse Shaukat Azmi, Benoy Roy,, Jyotirindra Moitra who wrote and scored the music of Nabajeebanergan (Songs of new life).
She remembered her youth days of Rajshahi. The freedom movement was raging and its flame touched his psyche. “Communalism was then. unheard of in our town and around . I didn’t even know what politics. was all about. Of course, I went to listen to Mukunda Das’s songs. He was a mass singer aflame with patriotic spirit, looked like a flabby gentleman Many medals hanging around the neck. And singing in a loud voice, appealing to the Bengali girls and ladies, ‘Chere dao reshmi churi banganaree( ‘Leave the silk bangles. ho Bengali women- in response to the nationalist call for boycotting foreign cloth) . I was perhaps an eight year-old girl”
The IPTA central squad was folded up in early 1947, Preetidi came back to Bengal but began staying in Calcutta. Things turned worse for all mass fronts of CPI, including IPTA, during the days of ultra-revolutionary adventurism under the then general secretary of CPI, B T Ranadive, who replaced Joshi. Preetidi plunged into the high-voltage revolutionary experiment and was jailed.
Ranadive period heavily damaged the CPI. Preetidi too was among the sufferers. He married a senior party comrade, Ramen Banerjee in 1947. But four members of her family including her husband were CPI whole timers. She had to stay away from IPTA and party work. Although the father-in-law was a lawyer, there was not much expansion. So Preetidi joined the service of the Board of Secondary Education Government of West Bengal. She gave up the party membership but remained a fellow-traveler.
In her last days, she was wholly drawn to Rabindrasangeet – songs of Rabindranath Tagore. During jail days, I used to requisition copies of Swarabitan (notation books of Rabindrasangeet-) which were sent to be with multiple censoring seals I used to learn Rabindrasangeet. Iwish I learn and sing them now, but I am now too old to fulfill this wish”. She was then 88-plus. (IPA Service)