Interview with Satyashree Das

In Conversation with Satyashree Das

in Interview
Published on: 16 April 2020

Ankush Bhuyan

Ankush Bhuyan is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, New York. He has a MA degree in Arts and Aesthetics and an MPhil degree in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He works on local digital film cultures, film-media history and pop culture.

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Satyashree Das, the third daughter of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala.

Ankush Bhuyan (AB): Tell us a little about yourself and your childhood.

Satyashree Das (SD): When we were very young, we lost our parents, so we grew up with our uncles in Tezpur. We were with father for five years in Tamulbari, and I have vivid memories from those times. It was by the end of 1945, that our father took us three sisters—Joyshree, Gyanoshree and me—and moved to Tamulbari gardens. He had to join there as the resident director of the gardens. We stayed with our father for five years before our mother and brothers could join us. It is very surprising that father was so good at looking after his children that he would monitor our food, bathing, clothing till we went to bed.

AB: Did you, as a child, realise that your father was a cultural icon in Assam?

SD: Actually, when we were young we would see that different kinds of people used to come to meet father and we knew that father used to go to preside over meetings. One day I had asked, ‘does father want to preside over meetings?’ Then, mother said- ‘no they invite father to preside over those meetings’. Therefore, I understood that father was a well-known person.

Often he used to write and read out to us, sometimes children’s poetry, sometimes the Ramayan that he had written for children—Jyoti Ramayan. That’s how we knew that he wrote. People used to come to learn his compositions also, our cousin Bonti Pandey would learn the songs composed by father from him and always sing those songs in meetings. Two young men, Sarat Borpujari and Nirmal Chakravarty came daily to meet father. They listened to father’s writing and song compositions. Nirmal Chakravarty was a singer and he would then teach the songs in Dibrugarh. That is how we knew father wrote lyrics too. By then, however, two of father’s books were published, Xonit Kuwori and Karengor Ligiri, which mother used show us. So we knew a little that way but it was only after his death that we realised his status in Assam and how well-known he was.

AB: What else do you remember about him from your childhood, could you tell us, what kind of work he was involved in?

SD: Initially, father led a family life, he was very disciplined. He used to wake us up in the morning, and then go to supervise in the garden; after he completed that he came and sat in the lawn in a chair. When we woke up he made us exercise in the morning. After breakfast we had to sit for studies, while he was writing.

In the evenings however, he would read poetry to us every day; during winter, we would all sit by the chimney, and he would roast onions and garlic and feed us. He would read  poems and the Jyoti Ramayan; since it is written for children, it had stories of animals and birds that he read out and we really enjoyed and laughed a lot.

AB: Tell us about your father’s journey to become a writer, composer and poet?

SD: Father had written Xunit Kowori when he was fourteen years old. He wrote it because the plays that were staged in Assam were mostly translated from Bengali. When he turned seventeen, he edited it. Then the people at Baan Stage, which was very well-known for good quality plays and good actors, agreed to stage it. There were quite a few songs in the play.

His father Pramanada Agawala, who was a music composer, would play the organ and violin beautifully. Every evening the classical music expert Lakhiram Barua used to come to their house, and with Pramanada Agarwala they used to sing together in the living room. Father used to see and hear that every day, but one particular evening he heard his father playing one particular kirtan song on the organ: ‘tuloxir tole mirgo porbhu sore . . . take dekhi ramochondroi xorodhonu dhore’. The kirtan songs from Shankardev’s work he had heard his mother sing, when played on the organ, surprised him. That whole night he couldn't sleep as the tunes kept playing in his head. Early next morning, he hurriedly went to the Baan stage, and with the organ, composed the song gose gose paati dile . . . the first song of Xunit Kuwori, in pure traditional Assamese tune of aai naam and biya naam.

When the people who were rehearsing there heard it, they were not very impressed in the Baan Stage. Father said it was his idea to compose the songs with such traditional Assamese tunes. The actors and singers were angry that such rustic Assamese traditional tunes were to be performed on stage. However, Lakhiram Barua’s son, Parashuram Barua, a close friend of my father was very impressed with father’s compositions.

After that Assam Xahitya Xabha was held in Guwahati in Latasil field. He was about seventeen then. At the sanmelan Praffulla Barua sang three of father’s songs—gose gose paati dile, Rupoh Kuworor suma poroxone . . . and one more—and my father got a roaring response from the audience. All the women in the audience who were familiar with the Assamese tunes used in his songs, started humming. That was the beginning for my father.

AB: Could you elaborate a little bit on your father’s family; how did they come to take an interest in literature and music, and mingled so well with the Axomia society?

SD: My father’s family came from Rajasthan in around 1827 or 1828. Noborongo Ram Agarwala established an export-import business by trading under the Ahom kings, the British, while also maintaining a stable trade relationship with the Aaku tribe in Dofola hills. He settled in Assam and started a family in by marrying an Assamese girl.

Noborongo’s son Horibilas was a very successful businessman too. He is also credited with publishing Shankardev’s Kirtanputhi (book of hymns) and Bhagabat (holy book) for the very first time, making it available to almost everybody. Horibilas had five sons—Bishnuprasad, Chandrakumar, Paramananda (my grandfather), Krishnaprasad and Gopalchandra. Chandrakumar Agarwala was a well-known poet in Assam.

Horibilas’s brother Kasiram’s son is Ananda Chandra Agarwala, a famous writer. He  did a lot of translation from English to Assamese.

My father [Jyotiprasad Agarwala] grew up amongst his uncles who were dedicated to the fields of literature and music.

AB: Your father studied in Germany. Can you shed some light on this phase of his life?

SD: As you know, father was also involved in the Independence movement as well. Although he studied in college in Kolkata for a few days, he left his education to join the national cause. His mother was very upset because of this, and was pressurising him to complete his education. Therefore, in 1926, he went to study at the Edinburg University. He stayed there for one and a half years studying economics and maths, but these were subjects in which he wasn’t interested. Therefore, he left his education once again and took a house on rent. There, he found an old lady who allowed him to use her piano. It is there that he created songs and set them to popular Assamese tunes. In 1929, there was a Students Conference in Tezpur. Bishnu Rabha and Kamala Prasad Agarwala (my uncle) had approached father to compose a few songs to be sung at the conference. One of the songs amongst that was ‘jonojir xontaan’. These songs became extremely popular.

AB: Tell us, what drew him towards cinema (film making)?

SD: Oh, I think Father was interested in cinema since his youth. I have heard that after watching the film Adherer Alo (Bengali) in Kolkata, while still studying in college, he told his friend Phunu da (Poroxuram Boruah, who played the role of Godapani in Joymoti) that he wanted to make a film. While in Germany, he realised that Himanshu Roy—who was working in the UFA Studios—and Devika Rani were in Berlin those days. Father went straight to meet him, and spent seven months with him learning about filmmaking. I have seen their photographs in father’s album; there was a photo signed by Devika Rani in father’s album. After that Father wrote Xunit Kunwori as a script called ‘Dance of Art’ in English and sent it to UFA Studio. This we came to know when we found the regret letter from UFA stating that they could not produce this script.

AB: How did Joymoti happen?

SD: By end of 1930s, he came back to Assam from Germany. As soon as he came back, he joined the Non-Cooperation Movement, and then was jailed for one and a half years. While he was in jail, he was writing a script based on Lakhinath Bezbarua’s Joymati Kuwanri. When he completed his term and came out, he was extremely ill. That is when his father took him to a family estate, Bhulaguri Tea garden, for recuperation.

There he told his father about the script, who agreed to support him.

Father started the Chitraban Studio in Bhulaguri itself. He established the studio and advertised for actors and actresses in newspapers. He received over one hundred and fifty applications, but there was none from girls, only boys. I have seen them, the applications. I have also seen Phani Sharma’s application; he used to act in plays those days, near Dibrugarh.

In the meantime, his mother fell ill suddenly. Father stopped all work and stayed with his mother for a month in Tamulbari. He started work again after his mother passed away, but within a few days his father also died—in 1934.

Father struggled a lot while making the film. There was even financial crisis at one point in time. During those days, outdoor shooting was dependent on the weather. Sometimes the entire set was made ready, and then suddenly a storm would destroy the entire effort, in this manner a lot of loss was incurred. Then he couldn't find a heroine, that was a huge challenge. Though father brought the Faizi brothers to work on the sound of the film, when he finished the film and took it to Kolkata for processing, he found that in most parts there was no sound. Father then had to dub for all the 28 odd characters himself, even the female voices. It was greatly disheartening for father, but he took it in his stride and courageously completed and released Joymoti on March 10, 1935, in a cinema hall named Ronakhol in Kolkata. Lakhinath Bezbarua and others also came to watch the film, along with K.L Saigal and Prithiviraj Kapoor, who were prominent people the Indian film world. In Assam, however, those days there were no cinema halls, so my father took touring projectors and went around showing the film.

AB: After Joymoti he made another film Indramaloti, can you speak a little about that.

SD: Indramaloti was made in 1939. In making the film, father’s aim was to cover the losses he incurred for Joymoti. He completed the shoot for that film in about fifteen days and everything was outdoor. He didn't hire a studio this time. The story was his own and it was in that film that Bhupen Hazarika, a young boy of around fourteen years, sang for the first time.

AB: Jyotiprasad Agarwala was also the President of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). What was his involvement with theatre, with that organisation?

SD: Father was made the president of IPTA. When he was made the president, a lot of the people opposed saying that how can a tea estate owner be made president of IPTA. However, when the members met him, they agreed that he is a fit person to become their president.

AB: Your father away in 1951, how did his legacy go forward? Who took it forward?

SD: I think my father was much ahead of his times. That’s why so many people in Assam still remember him. Here I will only quote what Munin Barkataky had to say about father: ‘I have sometimes wondered if the decade before independence and a couple of years thereafter, during which Jyotiprasad strode across Assamese scenes like colossus aptly could not have been named as the age of Jyotiprasad for there was none else who towered her so high. No other movement in Assamese drama had greater range and power or left a stronger or longer impact than the one sparked off by him.’