Jyotiprasad Agarwala: Creativity and Context

in Overview
Published on: 16 April 2020

Dr Radha Das

Radha Das teaches History at Gauhati University. She graduated in History from Indraprastha College, University of Delhi and followed it up with Masters, MPhil and PhD degrees from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her doctoral research was on the Social and Institutional Basis of Vaishnava Bhakti Faith in Pre-modern Assam. Her research interests include social and cultural history and gender studies. She has several published articles in books and journals.

Jyotiprasad Agarwala was born in 1903 to Kironmoyee and Paramananda Agarwala in Tamulbari, Assam. This was a time when momentous developments were taking place throughout the sociopolitical landscape of India. The freedom struggle against the British control of India was growing in strength.
Following the Partition of Bengal in 1905, the spirit of swadeshi was gaining ground and soon precipitated in the form of anti-Partition agitations and the call for Swaraj (self-rule). [1] From his early childhood, Jyotiprasad was exposed to nationalist ideas and his outlook was deeply influenced by them.

Heredity, Environment and Inspiration
The Agarwalas, especially Paramananda (Jyotiprasad’s father) and Chandra Kumar (Jyotiprasad’s uncle), were sympathetic to the nationalist cause and were actively involved in spreading the message and spirit of nationalism among the people of Assam. Chandra Kumar was one of the leading figures of the Jonaki era—the period of Romanticism in Assamese literature. [2] During the Guwahati session of the Indian National Congress (INC) in December 1926, Chandra Kumar converted the weekly Asomiya, of which he was publisher and editor, into a daily paper to cover the proceedings of the session. After 1930, it was published as a biweekly magazine with the express purpose of spreading nationalist and Gandhian ideas among the people. It also functioned as a mouthpiece for the aspirations of the Assamese people, including the tea plantation workers. It was from Chandra Kumar that Jyotiprasad received his training in publishing, later taking over the mantle of editorship from him. [3]

His father, Paramananda Agarwala, was an accomplished musician and singer. He played the violin and the organ and sang Assamese folk songs such as biyanaam (songs sung at marriages), bangeet, ainaam, etc.,(types of folk songs) apart from devotional songs such as bargeet (devotional songs) and recitations from the Kirtan Ghosa (compositions of the bhakti saint Sankaradeva). He also sang Brahmo Sangeet. As a young boy, Jyotiprasad would often stand by and listen to his father’s renditions of these songs. Paramananda had attended the Ahmedabad Session of the INC held in 1921. Jyotiprasad also accompanied him, and the speeches of the nationalist leaders, particularly M.K. Gandhi, had left a profound impact on his young mind.

Jyotiprasad’s mother, Kironmoyee, belonged to the Tiru Kakati family of Baliaghat in the Sibsagar district of Assam. It was also from his mother that he acquired familiarity with Assamese folk songs and tunes including nisukanigeet (lullabies), ainaam, biyanaam, bihugeet (songs sung on the occasion of the Bihu festival), and so on. Kironmoyee was a woman of strong will and substance. She was the first president of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti, established in 1919. Responding to the call of Gandhi to do constructive work, she set up the Sipini Sangha, a weaving centre for women, at the ancestral Agarwala home in Tezpur called ‘Poki’. She was a major influence on Jyotiprasad’s life, supporting him steadfastly in the face of family opposition when he expressed his desire to study abroad. It was due to her unflinching support that he was able to go to Scotland for his higher education at the University of Edinburgh.

Jyotiprasad’s great-grandfather, Navrangram Agarwala, had migrated to Assam from Churu, in present-day Rajasthan, in the 1820s. His first wife, Sadari, belonged to the Rajkhowa family of Bebejia. His second wife, Sonpahi, belonged to Kolongpur, where he also settled down as a mauzadar (revenue
collector). The process of assimilation of the Agarwalas into the Assamese society thus began right from the time of Navrangram. His son Haribilash Agarwala (Jyotiprasad’s grandfather) inherited his father’s business concerns, as well as the mauzadari. He married Kumari Maloma, daughter of Bhadram Hazarika of Gohpur. [4]

Undoubtedly, it was the influence of these Assamese women and their families which set the Agarwalas in a new direction and made them receptive to divergent social and religious views. Navrangram was perhaps the first Marwari to be initiated into the nama-dharma (a variant of bhakti in Assam) of
Sankaradeva, the Vaishnava bhakti saint of Assam. The Agarwalas were devout Vaishnavas, and Haribilash ‘pioneered the family’s attachment to literature and the arts by publishing the literary works of Sankardev and Madhavdev’, which ‘till then had been preserved either orally or in manuscripts’. [5] Copies of these publications were also often distributed free of cost. Haribilash had, thus, made a major contribution to the field of publishing and printing, as well as in propagating the message of the two saints. The Agarwalas, despite being primarily businessmen, were thus unusual in some ways.

‘Poki’ and the Ban Theatre
The Agarwalas’ home in Tezpur, called Poki, had been the venue of events of great historical significance. It was here that Gandhi stayed on his two visits to Tezpur in 1921 and 1934. It was in the lawns of Poki that the first bonfire of foreign-made goods in Assam was lit. In 1934, Jyotiprasad had the opportunity to interact with Gandhi closely, becoming a Congress volunteer soon thereafter. At Poki, Jyotiprasad came across personalities from diverse fields and backgrounds—artists, musicians, social workers, political activists and leaders—which helped shape his ideas and outlook.

The other space in Tezpur that provided Jyotiprasad with a stage to hone and harness his talents in music, art and literature was the Ban Theatre. The Agarwalas were closely associated with this institution, and both Haribilash and Paramananda Agarwala regularly visited and performed there. It was here, at the Ban Theatre, that Jyotiprasad staged his first play Sonit Kunwari in 1924, which received an encouraging response from the audience. He had penned this dramatic composition at the tender age of 14. Much later, in the mid-1940s, Jyotiprasad took over the charge of the music section of the

Creative Pursuits and Endeavours
Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s familial background and the cultural environment of Tezpur during his formative years, combined with the impact of nationalist ideas and Western education, were important influences on his works. The idea of building a ‘modern’ Assam was a recurrent theme in his writings. [6] He became one of the foremost advocates of a distinct Asomiya (Assamese) identity and worked towards the revitalisation of the culture of the Asomiya people. He did this through experiments in the fields of folk music, dance, arts and crafts. These concerns are also reflected in his literary works and cinematic endeavours. The influence of swadeshi ideas inherited from his family and his meeting with Gandhi in 1934, strengthened his resolve to carry through with his projects despite hardships. He set up his own film studio at the Bholaguri Tea Estate, [7] created sets out of indigenous materials, used local forms of music and dance, and chose themes located in local history.

Jyotiprasad had trained in the techniques of film-making at the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) studios in Germany. He was familiar with the methods employed in European, Russian and American films, and this was evident in the techniques that he adopted. However, Jyotiprasad innovated and adapted these to suit his own concerns and context. His pathbreaking film Joymoti (1935)—the first Assamese film—diverges from the established style of film-making in India at that time, and turns to the realm of social realism. It was also perhaps the first film that was shot in an outdoor studio, which, at that time and place, was a herculean task in itself because of the lack of technological and communicational wherewithal.

Jyotiprasad was also an accomplished musician, lyricist and composer. His repertoire of songs had a distinct tone, tenor and feel as he experimented with local folk music and elements of Western music, which he learnt during his stay in England. In fact, ‘he successfully integrated melody of Indian music with the harmony of the Western music into unified musical tunes.’ [8] His songs covered a wide range: from patriotic songs to romantic ones to songs for the common masses, such as the toiling cultivator, the tea garden worker, people struggling against all odds, etc. Due to the distinctiveness of the tunes and songs composed by Jyotiprasad, these have come to be known as ‘Jyoti Sangeet’.

Women in the Works of Jyotiprasad Agarwala
A striking feature of many of Jyotiprasad’s creative compositions was that female characters had a central presence in them. Out of the six plays that he composed, five were titled after female characters. However, it was in his sixth (unfinished) play that he addressed the ‘women’s question’ directly, bringing forth the issue of patriarchy and women’s subjugation in society.

In his plays produced in the 1930s, the scenarios depicted show the influence of Gandhi’s ideas on the condition of women. We find in these, a reflection of the idea of ‘self-sacrifice’ as strength. The silence of Nimati (Nimati Kanya, 1936) and the ‘self-sacrifice’ of Sewali (Karengar Ligiri, 1937) and Rupalim
(Rupalim, 1938) is portrayed not to represent their subservience, but to portray their passive and willful resistance to the forces of oppression. These are shown as acts of self-independence and choice. Nimati breaks her silence only when she decides to do so. Again, in both Karengar Ligiri and Rupalim, the self-sacrifice of Sewali and Rupalim, respectively, are their own decisions in difficult social situations. [9] His film Joymoti also had a strong female protagonist. Based on Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s play Joymoti Kunwari, it is the story of a woman’s self-willed sacrifice against the evil forces of oppression. It reflected a certain kind of feminine courage and heroism that was upheld by Gandhi when he stressed the superiority of women’s suffering. [10]

Jyotiprasad’s works in the 1940s offer an insightful perspective on the times. His play Lobhita (1948) provides a vivid picture of the society set in the backdrop of the Quit India Movement of 1942, as well as a realistic portrayal of women’s position within it. The symbol of the self-sacrificing woman was now replaced by an assertive individual capable of contesting the social prejudices of her time. Jyotiprasad gives voice to the woman, and through her, perhaps, also articulates his views on women and the existing social practices. Lobhita (the play) represents the anti-imperialist voice of the simple people/woman, fighting for Swaraj and aspiring to run the government. They are no longer prepared to accept oppression by the agents of the state. The woman, here, is a fearless, assertive and conscious being, who speaks out against the patriarchal values pervading society. Lobhita, the protagonist, boldly confronts Gulap (a male character/protagonist), who shirks from marrying her because she had been contaminated—having resided for a few days in the house of a Muslim—and had been ‘touched by men’. She tells Gulap that he cannot be considered a young man of today as he lacks the courage to stand up to injustice, and question the age-old traditional prejudices of the society.

Jyotiprasad’s lesser-known and unfinished play Khanikar is particularly interesting from the point of view of the representation of women. It takes on the confrontation between the liberal and the conservative forces of the time. Nabanalini, the ‘female voice’, offers a scathing critique of patriarchal norms and represents a liberal, urban and educated view on women. She derides Kalpona (the male character) for failing to grasp the meaning of women’s emancipation, and accuses him of being an example of the ‘selfish male’ who ‘shuts up the woman within the four walls of the house’ to carry out ‘domestic chores during the day’ and to satisfy the ‘sexual desires of the male at night’. [11] She also states that men created the purdah and transformed it into a social norm to serve their needs. [12] Discussions of these nature point to Jyotiprasad’s familiarity with the issues and concerns of women’s emancipation—a debate that he may have been exposed to during the time he spent in England.

On the whole, the dual tasks of chalking out a distinct Asomiya identity and articulating resistance to colonial oppression were responsibilities he took upon himself. His views often found expression in his poetic compositions as well. To cite just one example, in his poem ‘Joymotir Atmar Ukti’, he speaks through her voice when she says, ‘I shall keep awake through the night / to raise the Dalit world / to contest the brute strength and aspirations of beastly forces . . . to show the way to the distressed . . . to shape a new world.’ [13]

A Sketch of Jyotiprasad’s Political Activities
Imbued with nationalistic fervour from an early age and a great sense of social responsibility, Jyotiprasad actively participated in the freedom struggle. At different points in time, he shouldered responsibilities for cultural and political bodies in an attempt to instil these values among the people. In 1919, as a teenager, he was put in charge of the music section of the Asom Chatra Sanmilan (Assam’s first student association). In December of the following year, at the association’s annual session held at Tezpur, he was entrusted with the task of organising an exhibition of paintings and photographs of the freedom movement.

During the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921–22, Jyotiprasad, along with Chandranath Sarma, travelled extensively in the rural areas, enrolling volunteers for the INC, raising funds and spreading the nationalist message. In 1926, when Jyotiprasad was pursuing higher education in Scotland, the INC held a session at Pandu in Guwahati. Despite his absence, he sent two of his lyrical compositions with musical notations, and one of these was eventually sung at the session. He also played a significant role in mobilising support during the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1930s. In April 1931, he led a large group of sevaks, walking through the night and singing nationalistic songs composed by him, to attend the Ryot Sabha (peasant assembly) held at Biswanath. A Confidential Report of the Government of Assam refers to the participation of 500 women alongside men at this meeting. Jyotiprasad’s compositions had a nationalistic tone that evoked familiar images of the rural countryside, which appealed to both men and women. Articulating the space that women shared with men within the movement, he wrote in one of his songs, ‘To die for our country / the young men and women in our village / do not fall behind.’

During the Quit India Movement of 1942, Jyotiprasad’s fiery speeches and political activism at the grassroots level helped in inspiring and mobilising the people. This was also the when he started moving increasingly closer to progressive leftist ideology. He went underground in Calcutta for a brief period, where he came into contact with many leaders, such as Aruna Asaf Ali, Achyut. Patwardhan, Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, and others. His identification with the weak and the oppressed sections of society found clear expression in the songs and poems that he composed during this period, as well as in his involvement in the activities of the Gana Natya Sangha (a people’s theatre group). However, despite certain conflicts in his mind brought about by the political contradictions of the times, he continued to believe in the creed of non-violence and the need for constructive engagement with the people for a better society and world.

Jyotiprasad Agarwala was a music composer, poet, dramatist, filmmaker, social and political activist. His determination and his commitment to art and music, and to the cause of India’s freedom and its people, earned him the epithet ‘Rupkonwar’, by which he is popularly known today. Despite his demise at the relatively early age of 48 on January 17, 1951, he was a major figure who gave both shape and direction to the development of a distinct Asomiya culture and identity. It is in recognition of his efforts and in celebration of his life, that January 17 is observed as Silpi Divas (a day for the celebration of art and artists) throughout the state of Assam.


[1] Sarkar, Modern India.
[2] Chowdhury, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, 5.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Banerjee, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala.
[6] Gohain, Jyoti Prasad Rachanavali.
[7] Sharma, The Moving Image and Assamese Cinema.
[8] Chowdhury, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, 36.
[9] Das, ‘Articulation, Representation and Mobilisation,’ 79.
[10] Ibid.; M. Kishwar, Gandhi and Women, New Delhi, pp.13-15.
[11] Gohain, Jyoti Prasad Rachanavali, 231-232.
[12] Das, ‘Articulation, Representation and Mobilisation.’
[13] Ibid.


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