Suchitra Mitra (19 September 1924 – 3 January 2011) was an Indian singer, composer, exponent of Rabindra Sangeet or the songs of Bengal’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore, professor, and sheriff of Kolkata, India. As an academic, she remained a professor and the Head of Rabindra Sangeet Department at the Rabindra Bharati University for many years. Mitra was a playback singer, acted in a Bengali films as well, and was many years associated with IPTA.
Mitra studied at the Scottish Church College, the University of Calcutta and at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, India. She was also the Sheriff of Kolkata (2001).After prolonged illness Mitra died of a cardiac ailment on 3 January 2011, in Kolkata.
Mitra’s father, the celebrated littérateur, Saurindra Mohan Mukherjee, was a close associate of the Tagore family of Jorasanko.Suchitra Mitra’s natural aptitude in music was recognised by Pankaj Mullick, who gave her a first lesson in Rabindra Sangeet. From her childhood, as the youngest member of her family, Suchitra cultivated her love for the songs and poetry of Tagore. She had an unerring ear for music and a natural gift of voice and expression.
In 1941, Suchitra Mitra received a scholarship to Sangeet Bhavan in Santiniketan, where she had the opportunity of learning from some of the greatest exponents of Rabindra Sangeet – Indiradevi Chaudhurani, Santidev Ghosh, and Shailajaranjan Mazumdar. Having obtained her diploma from Santiniketan, Suchitra Mitra returned to Calcutta in 1945. In 1946, she received her master’s degree in Bengali from Scottish Church College of the University of Calcutta. In the same year, her inherent love and commitment to Tagore’s music encouraged her to found the Rabitirtha along with Dwijen Chowdhury (which was named by renowned historian and Tagore scholar Professor Kalidas Nag). Rabitirtha named in honour of the Nobel laureate, is one of the leading schools of Rabindra Sangeet in Kolkata. Founder and Principal, Suchitra Mitra was an active figure and inspiration behind this establishment. Her dedication, sincerity and comprehension of the subtle nuances underlying Tagore’s songs is indeed praiseworthy.
She was an exponent and an interpreter of Tagore’s musical compositions. Her other interests included performing arts, including theatrical performances, film-acting, painting, etc. Mitra produced Rabindra Nritya Natyas (or Tagore’s dance dramas); she had acted and danced in many of them. She also acted in stage-plays/dance-drama like Valmiki Pratibha and in films like Dahan directed by Rituparno Ghosh. Her other intellectual pursuits included: reciting poetry, writing short stories, poems and children’s rhymes, publishing essays and books on more thought-provoking subjects, such as the grammar and techniques involved in rendering Rabindra Sangeet or on the aesthetics of the music of Tagore. Her greatest achievements may have been her ability to immortalise Tagore’s songs both at home and abroad to people of all ages. Invited to the USSR and Hungary, Mitra spread the message of Tagore to the western audience. With the Rabitirtha troupe, she performed Tagore’s dance dramas in the USA and Canada. She was the author of many books in Bengali on Rabindra Sangeet, and had recently directed her efforts towards compiling an encyclopaedia of Tagore’s songs for students and researchers. Suchitra Mitra’s repertoire and expertise, coupled with her ability to inculcate in others the love of Rabindra Sangeet, establishes her as one of the notable names in the world of performing arts in India. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan recognises her as his guide into the world of Rabindrasangeet.
Her versatile personality projected when she sang songs of different moods. Her songs evoke visions of beauty and wonderment, color and fragrance, love and pain, memories and longing, joy and freedom. Suchitra was considered to be one of the most versatile exponents of Rabindra Sangeet, and in recognition thereof, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1974. Together with Kanika Bandopadhyay, Debabrata Biswas and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, she formed the Golden Quartet of Rabindrasangeet who popularised the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore and left an indelible impression in the fields of arts and culture.
Her reputation as a successful artiste resulted in her appointment as lecturer in Rabindra Bharati University, where she held the prestigious office of Head of the Department of Music. She also succeeded Pankaj Mullick in Sangeet Sikshar Asar – a very popular programme of Akasvani – a tutorial on Rabindrasangeet that was broadcast live. In recognition of her creative talents, Suchitra Mitra received numerous accolades. Some of Mitra’s notable awards included.
Tagore Hymn Prize in 1945 from London Tagore Hymn Society.
Padma Shri in 1974 from the Government of India
Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1986 from the Government of India
HMV Golden Disc Award,
Shiromoni Puraskar from Asian Paints,
Desikottama from Visva-Bharati,
Allauddin Puraskar from the Government of West Bengal, among numerous others.
She was conferred 3 honorary D.Litt. degrees by the Rabindra Bharati University, the University of Burdwan and Jadavpur University. As aforementioned, Mitra was also the recipient of the Desikottama (or honorary D.Litt) of the Visva-Bharati University, which is regarded as the pinnacle of recognition in the genre of Rabindra Sangeet.
She retired in 1984 from Rabindra Bharati University as a professor and the Head of Rabindra Sangeet Department
Her presence has been an inspiration to younger generations of artists who wish to master the art of Tagore.
She has been the subject of multiple biographic documentary films. One of them, titled Suchitra Mitra (1993) by Raja Sen, went on to win the National Film Award for Best Cultural Film. She was awarded Rabindra-Tattwacharya by Tagore Research Institute, Kolkata.
She became the first female Sheriff of Kolkata in 2001.