The legendary Juthika Roy dips into the past for memories of singing in the village, early mentors, Geet, and recording at least a dozen Meera bhajans every year
“I love to be in such a musical ambience,” said Juthika Roy. There was a distinct gasp of astonishment when Vinod Kapur announced her name, inviting her to light the inaugural lamp to bless the ongoing pan-Indian Purab Anga Gayaki Utsav 2012-13 (PAGU, Kolkata Chapter). The regal jalsaghar-like ambience of the famed Chowdhury House, aesthetically created by Kapur’s Delhi-based VSK Baithaks, got overshadowed as the nonagenarian legendary figure, dusky and short,; very frail and plain, got up from her seat next to Dr. Girija Devi, the luminous beacon of the entire fest, and negotiated the isle to face the jam-packed hall. Draped in kalo-norun-paar sada Aatpourey sari (black and crimson-bordered white cotton sari draped the simple Bengali way), synonymous with a life of penance, she stood there.
Overwhelming memories of a bygone era moved the senior members of the audience — mostly veteran musicians who came to listen to a bunch of young thumri exponents, a commendable and rare feat by VSK Baithaks the sincerity of which also succeeded in bringing someone as self-effacing as Juthika Roy under the arch lights!
Everyone was pleasantly surprised when she expressed her wish to say a few words. The mellow voice that used to peak in piety while singing devotional songs, especially Meera bhajans, seemed to waft in from across the ages.
“Music is one of the most precious assets that spring out of love. It can alleviate pain, remove the bars of cast, creed and religion and lead towards the Supreme Being. Gaaner bhitor diye... taarey chini (I become aware of His presence through music),” she said in a hushed tone, revealing the crux of her whole being, the spirit working behind her melodic thoughts and the soul of her immortal songs!
On another day, during an informal but inspired chat, she had confided that this love affair started very early in Senhati, a village in Khulna district of the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The music-loving villagers initially encouraged her melodious singing, and little Renu (Juthika) was the apple of their eyes. Her father, a school inspector, was liberal enough to encourage his six daughters to pursue higher education and music, despite the fact that music was a taboo for girls belonging to respectable families in those days of the 1920s.
That was the time when Juthika heard Sudhira Sengupta. Completely floored by her beauty and talent, she decided to learn from Sudhira’s mentor and elder brother, Bimal Dasgupta; only to be able to sing like this notable singer of her generation who, unfortunately, died young but, ironically, stayed on with her all along.
“Vexed by frequent transfers of my father, my Ma decided to stay put in Chitpur (Calcutta) and help pursue our passions. While my elder sister did her Master’s from Bethune College, I started leaning music from Gyan Ranjan Sen at Baranagore.
That is where Kazi Nazrul Islam noticed me and introduced me to the Gramophone Company. My first record (1930) did not click but Kamal Dasgupta, the composer who was the younger brother of Sudhira, decided to give it another try. There was no looking back since; and he tuned all my Modern Bengali songs, penned by noted lyricists Pranab Roy, Shailen Roy, Subodh Prakayastha and the likes.”
“I yearned to sing devotional numbers. On my request Kazi saheb wrote the immortal ‘Neel Jamunar jal’ and ‘He Krishna priyatamo’. Kamal Dasgupta tuned them and also sang duets with me when, on the occasion of the birth centenary of Ramakrishna Paramhansa in 1937, ‘Parama Purusha’ and ‘Jay Vivekananda’ were being recorded. My ‘Sandhya ghanalo’ mirrored the deep melancholic mood of Bengal when Tagore passed away. His oeuvres had left an indelible impression on Hindi literature as well, and this resulted in Geet, a new genre that blended Hindi with Urdu. Geet, sung by me, also took Holi, Diwali and seasonal beauty in its fold and started a popular trend; and my records successfully ventured out of Bengal.
Gandhiji’s keen ear for bhajans most probably inspired record companies, spearheaded by their Lucknow and Karachi centres, to collate the literature by saint-poets. Prior to that there was no such collection with authentic lyrics. My inherent love for devotion-dipped songs, perhaps, helped me identify with Meera.
The very first record became a national hit. I was humbled when I found that my listeners too identified the legendary saint-poet with my voice. We continued the trend of recording at least a dozen Meera bhajans a year since 1934.”
Juthika Roy was transported to an era of all encompassing love, an era that saw her at the top despite her reticence and despite the absence of the all-exposing media glare. Her gentle features, swathed in the mellowed glow of nostalgia, looked beautiful. I had no heart to bring her back to the harsh realities of our times — an era of sparkling virtuosity that yearns for soul-stirring music and its alluring expressions of total involvement, as voiced by noted vocalist-musicologist Dr. Rita Ganguly and veteran photographer Avinash Pasricha, who came down to judge and click PAGU respectively.