On the musicologist’s 39th death anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at his rich musical legacy.
India was a land of mystics and snake-charmers to the world for the longest time. For a culture that remained shrouded in myths and speculation, it was the endeavour of a few aristocrats that took India’s heritage to the world’s doorstep. These elites, in their search for enlightenment in the West, sowed the seeds of Indian culture there. One such pioneer was Bengali musician, musicologist, novelist, poet and essayist Dilip Kumar Roy.
Born to Dwijendralal Roy, the poet, composer and playwright, and his wife Surabala Devi on 22 January 1897, he developed an interest in mathematics, chemistry and Sanskrit at a very young age. But none of these subjects had a central role to play in the rich musical legacy he left behind.
On his 39th death anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the life and work of the musician and philosopher, also known as ‘Dadaji’.
Hailing from an affluent family, Roy enrolled for an honours in mathematics at the Presidency College in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
Soon after completion of the course, he left for Cambridge in 1919 for a tripos in mathematics. It was during his stay there that he came across the likes of British philosopher Bertrand Russell and French writer Romain Rolland and understood the tradition of European music. Alongside mathematics, he also cleared a course in Western music at Cambridge.
From there, he went to Berlin to learn German and Italian music. His learnings in Western music later made him formulate an academic structure to teach Indian music, thereby shelving the master-to-disciple knowledge handover norm.
Rolland often mentioned Roy in his diary. An entry based on their meeting in August 1920 reads: “By listening to the popular melodies one is better able to grasp the pure and natural genius of the Hindu race. Dilipkumar Roy sings some of them, so charmingly, delicately, cheerfully, poetically, exhibiting such a mastery of rhythm – that they could just as well be popular songs of our own (…) One realizes – how popular art admits far fewer boundaries than sophisticated art.”
Establishing music without boundaries soon became one of Roy’s goals. As he returned to India in 1922, Roy ushered in an artistic renaissance.
At a time when India’s freedom movement was gaining momentum, he travelled around the country and learned classical music under the guidance of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Pandit Bhatkhande, among others. His soulful rendition of Bengali poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram with Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi in the 1930s captivated the masses and freedom fighters alike.
In his tribute to Roy, Mahatma Gandhi noted, “I may make bold to claim that very few persons in India – or rather in the world – have a voice like his, so rich and sweet and intense.”
Roy’s fame as a singer was fuelled by his renditions of compositions by Dwijendralal Roy, Atulprasad Sen, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Himangshu Dutta and Nishikanta, among others.
He played a major role in bringing the ghazals of Nazrul Islam, who later went on to be Bangladesh’s ‘National Poet’, to the spotlight.
Some of Roy’s famous compositions include Bharat Amar Bharat Amar, Amar Moloyo Batashe and Banga Amar Janani Amar.
He penned over 80 books, including novels, essays, poems and satires. Among them, he wrote two, Gitasagar and Sangitiki, at the behest of Calcutta University for its music department. Surbihar, Hasir Ganer Swaralipi, Gitamanjari and Dwijendragiti were among his other books on compositions.
Among the Great, one of his most popular books, included his interactions with the likes of Rolland, Gandhi, Russell, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.
At the age of 31, Roy turned to spirituality renouncing his family and entering Aurobindo Ashram in Pondichery (now Puducherry) in 1928. This added another dimension to his music. He now experimented with the traditional model of kirtana. He even persuaded Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore to divulge his study of chhanda (rhythm). This led to Roy penning a treatise on the subject, Chhandasiki.
Tagore heaped praises on Roy, “I have a sincere affection for you. My heart is attracted by your unmixed truthfulness and frankness.”
In Pondicherry (now Puducherry), Roy shared a close friendship with Sri Aurobindo who was known to cherish him like a “like a friend and a son”.
In 1959, Roy established Hari Krishna Mandir in Poona (now Pune) with his disciple Indira Devi. Several saints and seers are said to have visited him there. He later co-authored Pilgrims of the Stars with Devi.
In 1965, India’s National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, awarded him its highest honour for lifetime achievement, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship.
He breathed his last in the Pune temple on 6 January 1980.