Sunil – The Mother’s Musician by Clifford Gibson

Sunil – The Mother’s Musician

This portrait of Sunil Bhattacharya as a composer, teacher, sadhak, and friend consists of his correspondence with the Mother on his music, and his exchange of letters, dating from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, with the many friends all over the world who admired his music. Interspersed throughout the story told in these letters are reminiscences by residents of the Ashram that serve to highlight Sunil’s character and talents. In the first few pages of the book, Sunil describes his early childhood in Krishnagar, West Bengal, and his life in Calcutta, where he learned to play the sitar.

Book Details

Author: Clifford Gibson
Print Length: 356 pages
Publisher: Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Submitted by: Author (Clifford Gibson)
Book format: PDF
Language: English

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Book Review

Sunil – The Mother’s Musician

I was studying English with Jhumur-di in 1968, which was also my most intense period of painting. One day, I showed her my work, explaining that visions appeared whenever I listened to Sunil-da’s music, and that I tried to capture them faithfully on paper. During my next class Jhumur-di informed me that she had spoken to her uncle, Sunil-da, about my work and he had shown an interest to see it.

I only knew Sunil-da as a middle-aged man who regularly went to the Tennis Ground to exercise. The image I retained of him was of someone wearing a white T-shirt over a pair of blue shorts, slowly riding his bicycle back home when I, with other members of group A3, would walk in rows of two from the Playground to the Tennis Ground. We would always cross each other in front of Trésor House.

But now, six years later, I found Sunil-da wearing a light cream-coloured, short sleeve shirt over his white dhoti. I would soon learn that this was his trademark combination. Settling down comfortably in his reclining chair, he straightaway plunged into an examination of each painting. He enquired if I remembered which vision I had seen while listening to a particular piece of music. And I noticed him nodding in silent approval as I gave him the information about the pieces that had engendered each vision. I asked if he ever saw such visions while composing music. ‘No,’ he explained, ‘as a musician, I only feel an intense emotion while composing.’ As the first instalment of his music for Savitri had recently been played accompanied by a slide show of Huta-ben’s paintings, I enquired when he foresaw finishing the entire poem. His reply shook me. Smiling wryly, he soulfully said: ‘Shesh ki haubey? ‘ (Will it ever finish?)

Clifford Gibson’s book, Sunil: The Mother’s Musician, is a valiant effort at recreating the full genius of Sunil-da. Although a bit sketchy, disjointed and often repetitive for entirely understandable reasons, the editor has to be praised for his untiring efforts, particularly in the absence of a complete biography. By clubbing together some of Sunil-da’s early reminiscences, his lengthy correspondence with the Mother, his correspondence with various friends, and comments from fellow members of the Ashram, Gibson has succeeded in recreating the warmth and qualities of Sunil-da. I wonder if anything better can be achieved seventeen years after Sunil-da passed away.

It is interesting to note how Sunil-da became a professor of mathematics even though he held a degree in chemistry because the Mother deemed that he would be more useful to her in that capacity. Likewise, he composed music at her insistence. ‘So, you see,’ Sunil-da explained in a letter to a friend, ‘I would be neither the one, nor the other without Her help’ (284). To someone else he confided: ‘You may think that I am not in my senses if I tell you that I have still to learn why I have been chosen to do such a work as music by the Mother’ (245).

In February 1966 the Mother wrote:

Sunil, my dear child,
We need a music to accompany and frame my readings of passages from Savitri… You alone can do this music the way it should be done.
Would you be interested in this work? It would make me very happy. (52)
To which Sunil-da responded cautiously: ‘The idea is excellent, but what frightens me is I am not sure of my ability.’ The Mother was quick to reassure him: ‘Those who are really capable are always modest’ (53). And the rest is history. However, proving right his earlier question, the work sadly remains unfinished. But it is heartening to note that the Mother did not reject a single piece of music for Savitri that Sunil-da composed. Compare this to the paintings for Savitri done by Huta-ben. The Mother asked her to redo many frames as they were not up to the mark. Huta-ben herself told me this.

But because of some difficulties, the slide show of the paintings and the music could not be continued in tandem for too long. At one point Sunil-da enquired of the Mother whether he should discontinue creating music for Savitri, to which the Mother replied firmly: ‘The Savitri music is a business between you and me and does not depend on anybody else. Continue without anxiety and everything will be all right’ (88–9). As there was no further link between Huta-ben’s paintings and his music, Sunil-da felt relieved to drop a few ‘frames’ from his compositions. ‘I realised that there cannot be music for many lines of Savitri,’ he explained to me. This would also clarify why there are only sound effects and no music in some of his compositions for the epic.

The year 1970 became a watershed in my life after Sunil-da summoned me in late August and asked if I was interested in recording his latest composition for Savitri in place of Victor who had gone abroad. I could not believe my ears! Obviously, Victor’s loss was my gain. And thus began my recording experience under the guidance of Sunil-da. But more than the recording itself what interested me was the time I would be able to spend in the company of this man I admired. I am extremely grateful to him also for generously acknowledging my work (350, Appendix 1).

The first thing that struck me on entering his recording studio was the presence of a Yamaha electric organ, which I knew belonged to Henry Bell, who was the father of my schoolmate Hillary. I was charmed to hear Sunil-da play it, and he quickly explained to me that in order to make his composition compatible to the electric organ, he had to create the new composition on the electric organ itself. Admittedly, the novel music originating from the new organ was different from his usual style. Thus, the music for Savitri, Book II, Cantos I and II, bore the oddity of having some electric organ pieces sandwiched between the many paddle harmonium compositions for the first time. I recollect that there was a particularly delightful electric organ piece that he dropped altogether because he later felt it to be too rhythmic and ‘cheap’ and, therefore, unusable!

Around the first week of October we completed the sound-mixing, the sequencing and the superimposing of the Mother’s readings. And then, on the 9th of October came the worthy climax of the entire enterprise! Accompanied by my friend Rajesh, who had done some recordings for me in the evenings because I was not authorised to skip the group activities, Suresh Hindocha and I went with Sunil-da to the Mother’s room to play the newest music for her (126). The Mother listened to the entire hour’s music without any interruption and she looked ecstatic when Sunil-da knelt down before her after it was over. ‘Excellent! Excellent!’ she exclaimed twice, ‘You see how you are improving with each composition?’ Then the discussion veered to the French version of her readings. The Mother assured him that she would complete translating and recording the readings soon.

Sunil-da shared with me an incident that had occurred during a previous music-playing session in the Mother’s room. For some unknown reason, the big Telefunken recorder refused to work and Suresh, the technician, could not repair it. Feeling let down, Sunil-da then turned to the Mother, fervently appealing to her to intervene. At first she said that she knew nothing about machines. But later she touched the big machine with both her hands, saying, ‘There. Play it now.’ And lo, it started playing! Sunil-da proudly explained to me that for three years the machine had been working faultlessly (83).

After the Yamaha was reclaimed by its owner, Sunil-da received the gift of an electric organ from André Viozat. But he openly lamented the loss of the sonority of the previous, smaller one even though it was far less sophisticated than the new one (159).

Few people know that in the composition ‘Four Aspects of the Mother’ the Mother humming in her own voice has been used in the Mahalakshmi aspect of the four-part music. In this respect, Manoj-da’s reminiscence about seeing Sunil sitting at his organ, listening to the Mother’s voice as she hummed the theme and waiting in quiet meditation for an inspiration to come reveals Sunil-da’s depth of feeling (131). Even more revealing is Sunil-da’s naïve statement made to the Mother: ‘I have often a feeling these days that it is You who made me a musician.’ ‘Perhaps,’ quipped the Mother (54).

I heard that the Mother had remarked after listening to Sunil-da’s ‘The Hour of God’ that ‘Beethoven has been surpassed.’ And on enquiry, Sunil-da did confirm this. Displaying his customary humility, he said it with such detachment that I felt as if the Mother had spoken to him about someone else’s achievement!

I also asked him to corroborate the Mother’s comment apropos the 1967 New Year Music. And he confirmed that she did observe that ‘the composition did not have a single hole in its inspiration.’ Nevertheless, Sunil-da baffled me when he went on to remark: ‘I am not very satisfied with the production. I wanted to use a violin but could neither procure a good instrument nor a competent player.’ When I said that the music reaches its crescendo in the last but one movement where the long chords of the guitar are introduced, he reminisced how the Mother sat up straighter and straighter while listening to that part of the music.

Sunil-da has referred to some of his spiritual experiences in his correspondence. To a friend he wrote:

[F]rom my childhood I knew what I really was and yet always I tried to reach for what I could become. I have always felt the One whom I call Divine very close to me. He had come to me in my dreams both waking and in my sleep. He is my friend and my love and I have unshakable trust in Him. He is much more real to me than you are…However, I am miles away from the experience of the One as Absolute or Infinite.…When I was just a young boy I was on the verge of an experience of an infinite calm and…just when it mattered most I felt within me an unreasonable fear of self-destruction.…This helped me discover my limitations’ (192).
Elsewhere he explained, ‘I have heard the call of that delight— that is to say, I am totally in delight but I haven’t been able to acquire Him. I have seen only the picture, the picture hasn’t yet become alive’ (295). To yet another friend he affirmed: ‘My greatest joy in this life has been my success in discovering Her, who is my true Mother, as well as my attempts to express in my music my deepest feelings for Her’ (202). And again: ‘For me there is only one attraction. Could I, one day, make an entire and utter self-giving to Her a reality in my life, claiming nothing, asking nothing, desiring nothing?’ (271)

Sunil-da never shied away from working on improving his recordings. Once, around the year 1972, I casually visited his studio, knowing that he was in the last stages of recording his latest music for Savitri. ‘Ah, there you are!’ he exclaimed unexpectedly as soon as I entered the studio. ‘Please listen to this piece and tell me if you like it.’ It was the signature tune that he had used on several occasions for the Savitri music, each time modifying it slightly. After hearing it I felt that the usual power that the tune evokes was sadly missing this time round. I was hesitating to say this because Victor was extremely pleased with the standard of recording of the piece and was refusing to give in to Sunil-da’s request to record it again. But when I sensed Sunil-da’s wish, I sided with him openly. Sunil-da was ecstatic! He immediately set about redoing it with Kanak-da. Victor became so cross with me for going against his wish that he stopped talking to me for some time.

Sunil-da told me that the Mother once enquired, ‘Quel âge avez-vous?’ (What is your age?) When he replied that he was forty-eight, she exclaimed, ‘Ah, vous êtes jeune!’ (You are young!) Unfortunately, being young and being healthy are not always synonymous. In 1976 Sunil-da fell ill and had to postpone the recording of the Savitri music (257–8). Although he recovered soon after, this sickness affected his general health for the remaining twenty-two years of his life. In 1978, the centenary year of the Mother’s birth, he came down to the Red House, opposite the Ashram library, to see the life-sized portrait of the Mother that I had painted for the occasion. He liked it very much.

After this, I did not see him as often because I was absent from Pondicherry for some years, although I called on him occasionally on his birthday. But I rushed to see him as soon as I heard that he was admitted to the nursing home towards the end of 1997. He appeared to be happy to see me and called me aside. ‘Do you still visit Calcutta?’ he asked softly. Then he requested me to do him a strange favour: ‘Visit my hometown and tell me on your return how the place looks now.’ I felt saddened by this surge of nostalgia. For, surely, the vast acres of orchards that surrounded his family house during his younger days, creating vibrations of peace that he refers to in a 1992 letter (334), must have made way for multiple housing colonies, which have mushroomed all over urban Bengal six decades later! How could I tell him that, when he seemed to be enchanted with his childhood vision? So, I did not go, and his request remained unfulfilled because I felt happier to let him live in his past.

The inclusion of Victor’s reminiscences of Sunil-da’s last pilgrimage to Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s rooms on his birthday in 1997 aptly rounds off the great man’s life, a life that presented to the world a new brand of music. The editor deserves to be congratulated for giving the admirers of this colossus an invaluable gift in the form of the book Sunil: The Mother’s Musician.

—Arup Mitra