Deben Bhattacharya interviewed by Kevin - Part 3: Abroad at last

When I got back to Benares, I started to work in this insurance company, and a newspaper, a radical one called ‘The Nationalist’. The newspaper job was only part-time. And I was at that time dreaming of going out of India. Just at that time, I met two Europeans who were living like Indians in Benares, a man called Raymond Burnier, and his partner, a man called Alain Danielou. He was a French man. I was excited by their involvement with Indian culture: one was working on Indian music, and the other on art and sculpture. I asked them if I could interview them for the paper, but they were not interested at all. I was too timid to pursue it – I was a most unsuitable journalist! We got a little friendly, we began to meet from time to time. Burnier asked me if I would like to help him with his work, and offered me a hundred rupees a month. It was practically twice the money that I was earning from both of my other jobs; this was just about precisely the moment when I was thinking of going abroad. I thought maybe something might come out it, through them to help me leave India. I worked with them for five years. 

In, I think about 1943 or ’44, they told me that a young Englishman who had been ill – caught malaria or something – was in a hospital recuperating in Manital, and they’d invited him to Benares for a few days of holiday, and would I show him around? He was my age. He was a young officer in the Royal Engineers, and his name was Alan Colquhoun. As you know, it happens sometimes to react to some people at once, and with Alan, our friendship sprang up immediately; we were both in our very early twenties, and it worked instantly, and when Alan came next time, when he came to Benares, he came and stayed in our home, which was very modest compared to Burnier and Danielou’s – I think they were a bit annoyed about it! After Alan returned to England, we corresponded, and in a way he was a kind of instrument for my coming to Europe. We kept correspondence for years, and in 1949 I wrote to Alan saying I was thinking of coming to Europe; he wrote me, “Deben, you are most welcome, I will do all I can. But let me warn you – don’t get disappointed. Life here is totally different, problems are very different, which you are unaware of.” It was a very matter-of-fact, but friendly, warm welcome at the same time. 

I had no money at all. A friend bought my ticket, the fare was £48, and another friend gave me £5 – which I promptly drank up in the bar of the P&O boat Stratheden on the voyage! Fifth of November, 1949. I landed in Tilbury. Then took a train to St. Pancras, where Alan was due to meet me. It was chaos – hundreds of Indian students being unloaded, arriving in Britain for their technical education. I had precisely eighteen shillings in my pocket, and here I was in a totally unknown land, except for a friend called Alan Colquhoun. I can’t describe the anxiety, how I was looking out for Alan, and in that crowd, every white face looked like the other. I couldn’t recognise any face at all. Then suddenly I heard from the distance, “Deben! Deben!” That was Alan. I could have cried, you know, suddenly that weight was lifted from my neck. There was a friend. I had an enormous steel trunk, carrying my very precious poetry books. I had very few clothes and was hardly prepared for the English weather. I still remember the sound of Alan dragging that steel trunk across the platform.

My first job in London was in a post office, not very far, just behind Selfridges, filling out forms for pensioners. The BBC was advertising at that time for a sort of associate producer for their Bengali programmes; I applied, and got the job. After six months, the BBC had a series of cut-backs, and I was out of work. I went back to the dear old post office, and then got a job at John Lewis’s store, as a porter. 

With my recent experience, I decided to try and get back into the BBC. In those days, the Third Programme was the most distinguished programme, so I one day wrote to them, saying that I would like to do some programmes on Indian music, which as far as I know has never been done before. I got a reply, signed Alec Robertson – I couldn’t believe my eyes, because he was a man who I’d admired as a great scholar of music, and I’d read his books. I was so anxious ahead of our meeting that I turned up one hour early, went to the local pub and drank gin until it was time! He was charming and informal. I’d asked for three programmes: one on classical ragas, one on folk music, one on modern film music. He said, “You do one, because we have a listener research department, and if you get a good reaction – or no reaction – we’ll continue; a very bad reaction then we may have to stop it.” Luckily people liked it, they had a lot of letters, all saying, “Why haven’t we had programmes like this before?” Alec rang me and said, “alright, get on with the others.” I had no problems with the film music programme as of course I had to use comercial records, but I felt really upset with the other two programmes, because there was so much material that I really wanted to use that just didn’t exist on commercial recordings. All I had to use as illustrations were some HMV 78s made in Dum Dum. The pay for the three programmes was not so generous that I could leave John Lewis. The other porters were nearly all cockneys, and they were always very sweet to me. They were very encouraging when the broadcasts went out, one said, “Hey Deb, I wanted to hear your voice on the wireless last night, but my wife switched it off because she couldn’t stand the music!”

Read Part 4: First recordings »

Text taken from Kevin Daly’s taped interviews with Deben Bhattacharya
Interviews recorded 23rd and 24th February 1982, Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris
Transcribed and edited by Michael Daly
© 2010 Michael Daly