Dilipkumar Roy: A Musical Spirit

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If labels were the measure of a man, Dilipkumar Roy would tower above most others, head and shoulders. He was a singer, songwriter, composer, musicologist, biographer and a playwright, and a giant of the artistic and intellectual firmament of 20th century India.

But Roy was much, much more than a creative talent. His work, whether musical or literary, was imbued with his unique spirit and the soulful turn his life took as a disciple of Sri Aurobindo.

While he was still young, Roy met literary luminaries like Romain Rolland, Bertrand Russell, Georges Duhamel and Hermann Hesse, and had a meaningful discourse with great Indians such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and, of course, Sri Aurobindo. Each of these experiences left a deep impact not only on Roy; they also broadened his outlook and influenced his body of work, whether musical or literary.

Dilipkumar Roy
Dilipkumar Roy

Let’s start at the beginning and explore the incredible journey this prodigy.

Roy was the son of Dwijendralal Roy, who had received a degree in agriculture from England but eventually became a reputed dramatist and composer-songwriter in Bengali. He went on to write more than 500 compositions, which form an entire body of work known as Dwijendra Sangeet.

Dilipkumar Roy, born on 22nd January 1897, started to develop his artistic sensibilities early as he was exposed to art and other creative pursuits right from his childhood. His ancestry can be traced to Advaita Goswami, a saint and follower of Sri Chaitanya. His grandfather was the Dewan of the princely state of Krishnagar and a fine classical singer himself. Roy’s mother died when he was just 6 and his father passed away ten years later. He was then raised in his grandfather's house in Calcutta.

Early Influences

An early influence on him was that of his elder cousin Nirmalendu, who infused the spirit of devotion in him and also acted as an early mentor. In this phase, Roy read Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita and met its chronicler, Sri Mahendranath Gupta (Sri M), and also visited the Kali Temple at Dakshineswar, where Sri Ramakrishna had spent many years.

Sri Mahendranath Gupta
Sri Mahendranath Gupta | Wikimedia Commons

Roy had his early tutoring at home, where he was taught English, Mathematics, History and Geography. He learnt Sanskrit by reading great Indian epics and also Bengali by reading the great literature of the day, including his father's works.

Like his father, Roy too joined Presidency College in Calcutta and secured a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. He, thereafter, went to Cambridge University in England, to get a Tripos in Mathematics and simultaneously enrolled for a degree in Western music. There were some expectations of the family that he might try his hand at the much-coveted Indian Civil Service but Roy, by then, was drawn towards a vocation in music.

In Pursuit of Music: Early Notes

He did not complete the Tripos and went to Berlin to take lessons in voice training and the violin, and to be exposed to German and Italian musical traditions. He learnt to speak French fluently and could handle German and Italian too, to a reasonable degree. There he was exposed to the great strides Western Classical Music had made during the preceding two centuries and gained knowledge of the masters such as Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner.

Roy studied under the great Hungarian musician Jukelius, who hoped that Roy would become a great 'Opern Sanger' (Opera Singer). However, the young and budding musician had no such intentions and was trained in Western music, including the operatic tradition, only to widen his musical horizons.

Subhas Chandra Bose
Subhas Chandra Bose | Wikimedia Commons

It was during this time that Roy made up his mind to take up music as his life's mission even though it was a very unconventional choice in those days. One heard of musicians only under the patronage of royal courts and his family and friends found his choice rather bizarre. Roy was, however, encouraged by Romain Rolland with whom he had interacted extensively during his European sojourn and also later by Rabindranath Tagore. His close friend Subhas Chandra Bose too, who himself had cast aside a career in the Indian Civil Service, encouraged him. He believed that Roy, through his music, could help to amplify India’s patriotic fervour.

Return To India

Roy returned to India in 1922 and immersed himself in deepening his knowledge of musical traditions of the land. He was very impressed with the musical expertise and musicological insight of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande, a lawyer-turned-musician credited with writing the first modern treatise on Hindustani classical music, a genre which till then was only comunicated in orally through the Guru-Shishya tradition.

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande
Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande | Wikimedia Commons

Bhatkande had travelled all across India, particularly visiting the princely states that patronised music like Baroda, Gwalior and Rampur. He eventually built a theory of North Indian music in line with its ancient traditions. He was, like V D Paluskar, one of the pioneers who started schools to train students in Hindustani music, again a departure from the traditional gharana system.

During the last years of his father’s life, the latter grew a little estranged from Tagore due to some misunderstandings that had cropped up between them. But the younger Roy always received a lot of affection from the Poet.

As early as the 1920s, Tagore had offered Roy a Professorship of Music at his Viswa Bharati in Santiniketan, but Roy declined. Roy had been the Poet's guest at Santiniketan on several occasions. The two also debated whether Rabindra Sangeet should be confined to standardised musical notations, or whether a performer should have the freedom to interpret it. While Tagore was in favour of standardised notations, Roy thought an artiste should have his interpretative freedom. However, it seems that with time, Roy saw merit in Tagore's position.

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore | Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, Roy’s attention was drawn to Sri Aurobindo by a friend, Ronad Nixon, who later chose a life of renunciation and came to be known as Yogi Krishnaprem. Roy met Sri Aurobindo for the first time in 1924. However, Sri Aurobindo felt that he was not yet fully ready to wholly take a life of Yoga and did not invite him to join the ashram.

Documenting A Musical Legacy

Between 1923 and 1927, Roy travelled across the country, collecting songs and bhajans in different Indian languages. He also studied music under great teachers like Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Agra Gharana and Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan of Kirana Gharana. He documented a very large number of songs along with musical notations, ensuring that they were not lost to posterity.

In 1927, Roy again travelled to the West, delivering lecture-demonstrations in many places. In the Cote d' Azur, on the he French Riviera, he spent some time with his European friends and met Paul Richard, author and seeker, who strongly impressed upon Roy the greatness of Sri Aurobindo. Richard believed that Sri Aurobindo was a manifestation of the world's greatest spiritual force of the time. Roy did not lose time in making a final decision.

Drawn To Aurobindo

In 1928, when he was just 31 years old, Roy finally joined the ashram of Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry, and spent more than two decades in his master's company till the latter died in 1950. He called Sri Aurobindo "one fixed star in his otherwise kaleidoscopic life". For about eight years, he did not leave the ashram. Thereafter, with his guru's blessings, he continued with his work in Indian music – singing, composing and collecting rare songs all over the country. He was largely responsible for collecting songs that were used in the film Mirabai, immortalised by the voice of M S Subbulakshmi.

Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo | Wikimedia Commons

Roy also set Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's Vande Mataram to a new tune and also sang this great song with Subbulakshmi. He had hoped that Vande Mataram would become the National Anthem after Independence and was disappointed when that did not happen. He also did occasional concerts and through in this manner raised funds for the Aurobindo Ashram. Subbulakshmi had great admiration for Roy’s singing and said that he sang from the very depths of his inner being.

A Prolific Writer

Roy left Pondicherry in 1953 and undertook another world tour. In 1959, he established the Hari Krishna Mandir in Pune along with his disciple Indira Devi. The duo also wrote an autobiographical work titled Pilgrims Of The Stars – An Autobiography Of Two Yogis.

Roy was a prolific writer. He wrote about a hundred books in Bengali and English. He also wrote plays, among them were ones based on the lives of Sri Chaitanya and Mira. He wrote reminiscences of Subas Chandra Bose both in English and Bengali. He published a biography of Atulprasad Sen, with a rich discussion of Sen's art of song-writing and music, and also one on his friend Yogi Krishnaprem, who had settled in Uttarakhand and lived a life of great austerity in the Himalayas.

Atul Prasad Sen
Atul Prasad Sen | Wikimedia Commons

As far as Roy’s contribution to collecting songs from across the country and passing them on to the next generation is concerned, his name should be written in golden letters in India's musical tradition. He translated a large number of songs from Hindi to Bengali and English and also from Bengali to English. He set to tune many songs of Indira Devi (that were written in Hindi) and also translated them. He also sang a number of bhajans with Indira Devi, who, it is said, wrote and sang in trance-like states. In the last phase of his life in Pune, spanning two decades, Roy only sang devotional songs.

Other than that of his father, Roy’s renditions of Nazrul Geeti, the body of work by Kazi Nazrul Islam, as well as songs of Atul Prasad Sen, have also been very popular. He also sang a number of songs of Nishikanth, who too lived at the Aurobindo Ashram.

Discourses With Gandhi

Roy had met and sung for Mahatma Gandhi several times and had interesting discussions on art and music with him. He first met Gandhi in 1924, when the latter was recuperating at Sassoon Hospital in Pune. Roy had approached Gandhi with some apprehensions about the Mahatma's views on art and music. However, Gandhi soon put to rest all these notions and said he did enjoy music, particularly devotional songs, immensely.

Both also thought the rich musical heritage of the country was woefully neglected in educational institutions. Gandhi told Roy that ascetism was the greatest of all arts as it was the loftiest manifestation of beauty in daily life. In a prayer meeting in the latter part of 1947 where Roy sang, Gandhi remarked that there were very few in the country or even the whole world who equalled the singing prowess of Dilipkumar Roy.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons

Roy was delivering a lecture-demonstration at Calcutta University for postgraduate students when news of Gandhi's assassination reached him. He developed a fever that night. Although e didn’t always agree with Gandhi's views and political actions, he was charmed by Gandhi's disarming cheer, humour and affection. His interaction with Gandhi and several other towering figures appear in his marvellous work Among The Great.

In his later years in Pune, Roy was affectionately addressed as 'Dadaji'. He sang great bhajans, many of whose renditions have since then become classics like Mohe Chakar Rakhoji, Mere Giridhar Gopal, Giridgar Aage Nachoongi, Radhey Govind Bol Tu Mukh Se, Kaisi Lagi Lagan and hundreds of other devotional songs in Hindi and Bengali.

Dilipkumar Roy passed away in 1980.