Bengal Bounce

Tangerine by B.E.S.A. SWING TRIO by tajmahalfoxtrot1

BAWFMIn 1939, as Britain entered World War II, it established ENSA – the Entertainment National Service Association – to keep the troops in good spirits. Singers like Vera Lynn and actors like Laurence Olivier toured Europe to perform for field units. In August 1942, three months after the Japanese had driven the British out of Burma, Calcutta was filled with Allied soldiers who had fled South East Asia and were attempting to regroup. That month, members of Calcutta’s British community decided to form BESA – the Bengal Entertainment Services Association.

The Lecture Hall of St Xavier’s College on Park Street was turned into the BESA Theatre and, on Aug 14, 1942, the group gave its first performance – a show called Besabuzzin. By 1944, writes Hemendranath Das Gupta in his four-volume opus The Indian Stage, BESA was mounting nine performances a week. The works of George Bernard Shaw were popular, but in April 1942, the students and staff of Shantiniketan staged Tagore’s dance-comedy Balmiki Prativa.

celia nichollsBESA also conducted dances, and this trio, with vocals by Stanley van Hoorn, seems to have performed at some of them. Andy Gemmell, who recorded tracks featured in this article about Bandra during the war, also performed at BESA events.

Late in 1944, BESA merged with ENSA and took shows on the road through India and Burma.  Among the ENSA performers who came to India was Vera Lynn, as also John Gielgud, who left this account of his trip to Bombay:

“When I was in Bombay at the end of the war I was lying naked in my hotel room when the telephone rang. A voice said there was a lady to see me. Well, I’d been flying all week and was too tired to see anyone. But five minutes later the door burst open and an enormous Indian lady in a green sari looked at me trying desperately to cover myself with a tiny towel and announced: ‘My name is Mrs Sabawala. My house is music in stone. Will you come to lunch tomorrow?’ It turned out she had played Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit with the local amateurs. Her house had a huge gate with a cardboard crescent moon pinned to it. Nothing to drink.

And terrible chairs. As you sat down your back was lacerated by the teak. You had to practically go down on your hands and knees to look out of the windows. The whole thing was absolutely mad! There was a tiny poet in a white suit who read a long poem he’d written in my honour. It once happened with Alan Ginsberg in New York too. I seem to inspire poetry in strange people. But I was so startled by the Indian poet that I stepped back in alarm and fell in a pool covered in lilies.”

These recordings are from the Marco Pacci collection.

On the Sunny Side of the Street by B.E.S.A. SWING TRIO by tajmahalfoxtrot1

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7 Responses
  1. Frank Leadon says:

    As a10year old on my evening return from st xaviers , I,d peek in and never forgot the Vera Lynn visit as I was a fan and used to sing her songs at party’s in my boy soprano,s voice. The older boy who walked with me, was Len Phillips Who,s father was a famous band leader in Calcutta, Len became the bass player in his brother Confrey Phillips trio, recording artists and high society events regulars Con, pianist / singer. but I those early years the pianist with the John Phillips Band was Eric Rosario brilliant, later, resident at THE Golden Slipper and I believe moved to Australia., they all hung out at Baby Menezes,s music shop on Free School Street and a Goanese coffee opposite. Yes, I later appeared on that St Xaviers hall in school plays and choir in early teens

    • Vikas Chandra says:

      Hi Frank,
      Came across this wonderful repository of a site while researching for a film based in the Calcutta of ’40s… Would really like to connect with you as well for the research.

      Could you please let me know how to get in touch with you..

      Vikas Chandra
      (vikschandra at gmail dot com)
      Mumbai, India

  2. Fred de Bradeny says:

    Hi Frank & Vikas

    Confrey Phillips is my father who is celebrating his 85th birthday this year. He is still playing professionally both with his Trio and as a solo artist here in London and in Florida.

    Len passed away a few years ago unfortunately.

    Coincidently Confrey is going to India this Sept. to look up his old haunts!

    Best wishes

  3. Tony Green says:

    Hello Frank

    Fascinated by your site. I am researching BESA 1942 – 1944 – not professionally – but because my father was a musician with the unit and later with ENSA. I’ve managed to acquire quite a lot of information but would love to make contact with anybody who has anecdotes or photographs. I’m in touch with some people who have personal links to BESA including two who were performers (now aged 92 and 100 years old respectively!)

    regards Tony

    • Bob Elson says:

      Hi Tony – My father was the lead singer with ‘The Road Show Band’ which later became the ‘Chindits Road Show Band’ and they made recordings on HMV in Delhi. I have those two records, quiote possible the only ones in existence. I also have quiote a lot of photos and programmes from that time 1943-44. Perhaps we can get in touch. Bob Elson

      • Lesley Griffiths says:

        Hi Bob – just seen your note to Tony on re BESA. My father, David Griffiths, played mainly guitar but also sometimes piano and pianoaccordion with BESA. I’d be interested to hear about your photos and programmes from 1943-44. Please contact me if you have time. Lesley Griffiths

  4. Lesley Griffiths says:

    Hi Frank! Your site is great. Could you please pass my email address to Tony Green who posted a message on 15.9.2013 and who is researching BESA. My father, David Griffiths, who was a musician by night and an aircraft fitter by day, was associated with BESA during the years that Tony has mentioned. I may be able to find some photos somewhere. Regards, Lesley

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