sENIOR CITIZEN After 35 years with the ICCR, Bijan Mukherjee began afresh with Impressario India, a centre for the promotion of arts in New Delhi, writes SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY
T o the regulars in the cultural ring of Delhi, Bijan Mukherjee, rather Bijan da, is a familiar face. “Everyone calls me dada,” says Bijan da his words suffused with pride, leaving no room for doubt that he simply loves this suffix to his name. His is a happy soul, “simply because I am doing what I like to do,” he declares. In 1993, following his retirement from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) after 35 years of service, Bijan da started Impresario India, a centre for the promotion of arts in Delhi. In 18 years of action, it has certainly shaped a space for itself on the artistic firmament of the city. But Bijan da is still excited about “how it started.”
“It was an interesting story; Vasant Sathe, the then head of ICCR, told me, ‘ Dada, you can't retire, we will do something.' But I told him, ‘Sir, I don't want to retire twice'. I told him I wanted to do something on my own and he supported me. It was vocalist Naina Devi who actually showed me the way. She told me, ‘Our art forms are dying, you do something.' She was unwell those days and yet took me to Sangeet Natak Akademi to garner funds for it. Being in a sarkari establishment like ICCR, funds were never a problem for us, so I had no idea how to generate finances for my organisation.”
Naina Devi told him categorically to breathe life into the traditional form of kirtan recital. “Kirtan is an ancient form of music. Since she was a Thumri singer, she was not too happy with the way people usually recite kirtan, so she went to Vrindavan and learnt it the right way. Thereafter she trained three of her senior disciples. Impresario India began with a kirtan performance by her disciples but she didn't live to attend the programme,” recalls Bijan da.
Today, Impresario India stages a staggering 65 programmes on music, dance and poetry a year, “which means five to six programmes a month.” Its annual festivals on new choreography, Tagore songs and culture from the banks of the Brahmaputra are particularly looked forward to. “We present never-before-performed compositions, particularly in the new choreography festival. Because of my long association with various artistes, it is easy for me to spot people across the country who are doing good work,” he says. Attracting youth to the arts is also a focus of Impresario India. “Unless the younger generation is interested in carrying forward the arts, how can you secure the future?” he asks. So in every programme of Impressario India, “there is a group of students attending it.” It also works with special children.
In his directory of difficulties that he has come upon in all these years, lack of funds is the only entry, but he insists, “The will to go on is more important.”
He is nostalgic about his ICCR days: “There was a keen interest in our political leaders then to promote arts. They would not only attend shows but invite the visiting artistes home. After Indira Gandhi's time, it has lessened because of security reasons.” He particularly remembers the Soviet Union Festival in 1987. “Mrs. Gandhi watched most programmes. While performing in a circus, a girl fell and injured herself. Mrs. Gandhi was concerned; next day, she asked us to send a bouquet to that girl on her behalf.” The festival, he continues, “was year-long and the two countries exchanged 10 groups a month. It was an exciting time for us. A Bolshoi ballet group came to dance here on ice; we had to make a huge ice pool at the Indira Gandhi Stadium for it. We got an orchestra pit made in the Siri Fort auditorium to fit in a 120-member orchestra team. The pit is still there. Our engineers had to visit that country and shoot pictures of their auditoriums to make the changes in our auditoriums.” On a wistful note, he also remembers how “many years ago, Sheila Dikshit, who was then not the Chief Minister of Delhi, watched a dance recital of Uma Sharma sitting on the floor in a packed auditorium.”
Bijan da is 76 years old now but says he has no time to feel his age. “Every day, I have to work to organise shows. The new choreography festival is on from March 23 to 25. Then there are other programmes too.”