A Song of Our Own: Jyotiprasad, Music and Assamese National Identity

in Article
Published on: 16 April 2020

Gaurav Rajkhowa

Gaurav Rajkhowa is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Cultural Studies at Tezpur University. His doctoral research was on Bhupen Hazarika politics of voice in post-1950s Assamese nationalism and was awarded his PhD from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. His areas of interest include popular culture and ethnic identity assertions in Northeast India.

Poet, playwright, music composer and political activist, Jyotiprasad Agarwala (1903–51) is widely regarded as one of the brightest lights in the firmament of Assamese cultural nationalism. He left behind a corpus of over 300 songs set to self-composed melodies, popularly referred to as ‘Jyoti Sangeet’. His contributions include songs he wrote for his stage dramas, films, gramophone records and even public lectures. Through his ceaseless experimentation in music, he tried to assimilate the influences that he had imbibed, and reorient not just the idea of Assamese culture but the idea of ‘being Assamese’ itself. The horizons of Jyotiprasad’s experiments in Assamese music were framed by the conventions and sensibilities that he inherited from his predecessors. Hence, it is necessary to situate Agarwala’s work in the political and cultural contexts prevalent at the time.

The early Assamese nationalists of the nineteenth century had concerned themselves with ‘cultural’ questions of language, literature, history and religion as they grappled with the idea of a nation. But the 1930s is often regarded as a time when these ideas of Assamese culture, community and nation—articulated over a half a century of literature and activism—were seriously reevaluated. Like many other writers of his generation, the emerging anti-colonial politics of the time left an indelible impress upon his literary imagination. An active Congressman during the Civil Disobedience struggle and the1942 Quit India uprising, he even explicitly acknowledged the formative influence of the Non-Cooperation Movement as ‘a source of inspiration’. [1] While Gandhian anti-colonial mobilisation may not have taken on a mass character until the 1930s, its effect on intellectual currents was unmistakable.

Jyotiprasad always saw his cultural engagements as eminently political—be it on the dramatic stage or in the patriotic songs that went with his political activism. For an entire generation of writers, poets, dramatists and musicians, the 1930s was a time when the idea of Assamese national culture had to come face to face with the spectre of mass politics and the unsettling reconstitution of the ‘popular’ that followed in its wake. The two main questions that they had to ask of themselves were—first, how would they understand the relationship between an Assamese linguistic-national identity and the grand narrative of Indian culture and civilization; and second, what was to be the relation between the artists—who had hitherto been the custodians of linguistic-national identity—and the ‘common’ people, who populated the nation as such. And in Jyotiprasad these dilemmas perhaps found their most eloquent expression. While the official hagiographies would portray him as a model Assamese representative of the idea of India, his life and work defy such neat conclusions. For even as the Indian freedom struggle no doubt provided a strong impetus, his energies were always directed towards articulating the specificity of Assamese national culture. This paradox is embedded in popular memory, too, where Jyotiprasad is remembered both as the quintessential Indian freedom fighter and as a leading light of modern Assamese culture. The tension between these two aspects becomes all the more apparent when we consider that his life and works are equally celebrated by the most patriotic of Congressmen as well as the most radical of Assamese nationalists. This article will look at the ways in which these questions came to be articulated in Jyotiprasad’s new experiments in music.

Music and Morality
For Assamese cultural activists at the turn of the nineteenth century, music was principally a pedagogic instrument. It was thought of as an aesthetic form that could impress upon the listener the purest emotions and the most elevated moral sentiments. But for music to excite such effects in the listener, it was essential that the songs be in one’s own language. In an article in Jonaki in 1889, Lambodar Bora lamented the lack of songs in Assamese, because of which youth from ‘decent families’ were turning to Bengali songs, both for emotional-moral improvement as well as theatrical entertainment. [2] Before long, there were a few efforts to compile Assamese-language songbooks, complete with raga and taal notations—Lakhiram Barua’s Sangit Kos was perhaps the most prominent of these. The targets of this pedagogy were, for the most part, youth and women. For instance, in an article in Usha in 1911, the author Padmadhar Chaliha advocated the importance of music in women’s education as he wrote, ‘Many seem to be under the misconception that there is something shameful about singing. Music is pure. Music has a power of attraction; it is a source of pleasure and cheer; it brings enjoyment to both singer and listener. Consequently, learning music is essential.’ [3]

Needless to say, such endeavours remained restricted within the confines of the emerging Assamese middle class in towns across Assam towards the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, they inevitably ended up being derivative, as they were caught in the metropolitan double-bind of having to embody an Assamese cultural authenticity, while also keeping up suitable appearances of respectability.

Representing the Nation
Jyotiprasad’s own ideas about Assamese music were clear enough even in the preface to his first drama, Sonit Kunwari, where he wrote, ‘At the time, Assamese drama and music were strongly influenced by Bengali drama and music. Most of the dramas were translations from Bengali, and their songs were much in vogue. [4] The anxiety about ‘Bengali influences in Assamese theatre’ is not particularly new—in fact it was a persistent concern amongst Assamese-language cultural activists at the turn of the twentieth century. But for Jyotiprasad, the problem went beyond the linguistic: ‘Even a music expert like Lakhiram Barua was engaged in propagating Hindustani music in Assam. No doubt his efforts went a long way in inaugurating a scientific music criticism, there was nevertheless little effort towards bringing Assamese music before the world.' [5] The problem, according to Jyotiprasad, was that, ‘The educated Assamese looked down on Assamese culture as rustic and didn’t think it fit to be placed alongside Western influences arriving through Bengali culture.' [6] While for the preceding generation, ‘Assamese songs’ implied songs with lyrics in the Assamese language but with Hindustani-based music, Jyotiprasad envisioned a tradition in which both the lyrics and the music were Assamese.

Jyotiprasad elucidated his understanding of Assamese music in his presidential address at the session of the Asam Sahitya Sabha’s Music Wing in 1936. Looking to discern the peculiarities in the broader Indian classical music tradition, he argued that Hindustani and Carnatic music had, over time, developed into distinctive musical streams; their unique characteristics being attributed to regional specificities and incorporating influences from other musical traditions. Turning his attention to music associated with the neo-Vaishnavite Sankaradeva tradition in Assam, Jyotiprasad argued that they were, no doubt, a part of the body of Indian classical music. [7] At the same time, one may distinguish peculiarities in melodic construction, gamak (ornamentation) and meend (gliding from one note to another)that are not to be found in either Hindustani or Carnatic music. [8] Assamese music had also developed regional peculiarities arising out of the influence of local musical traditions that were of ‘Mongoloid’ origin. [9] Over time, this had resulted in the elaboration of some ragas and taals that were unique to Assamese music. [10] Consequently, he argued that alongside Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, a third—Kamrupi sangeet—be recognised as a distinct stream of Indian classical music. This Kamrupi tradition comprised of a wide range of musical forms and styles, including borgeet, kirtan, deh bisaror geet, tokarir geet, bihugeet, ainaam, biyanaam, and so on. [11]

Even as Jyotiprasad’s approach was quite unlike that of his immediate predecessors such as Lakhiram Barua, his ambitious efforts nevertheless remained framed within a discourse of ‘improvement’. In an article, he writes, ‘. . . for instance we can develop our three- and five-note Bihu scales into complex seven-note scales . . .' [12] The idea here was not simply a ‘fusion’ of Western music scales with those of traditional Assamese forms. Rather, the Assamese scales were to be a foundation upon which a more complex musical architecture could be elaborated through a clearer understanding of its internal principles and sensibilities. For instance, those familiar with the traditional biyanaam wedding songs would immediately find the melody of Jyotiprasad’s popular song ‘Gose Gose Pati Dile’ but he also situates the same within a broader chord structure. [13] that gives it a new dimension of expressivity. Similarly, ‘Seuji Seuji Seuji O’ represents a creative blending of the Des raga with traditional Assamese scales. [14]

This point of departure had far-reaching implications on Jyotiprasad’s musical principles. First, instead of the earlier emphasis on using music as a tool to teach the nation, he set himself the task of using it as a tool to represent the nation. In doing this, he inverted the pedagogical paradigm, such that its subjects of reform—women and the youth—now became the sources for building a piece of national music. Traditional forms usually associated with women, such as biyanaams, now provided the basic musical forms out of which the new Assamese national music was to be developed. For instance, ‘Luitore Pani Jabi O Boi’from the film Joymoti was also based on a biyanaam and a nisukonigeet. [15] Jyotiprasad thus offered a new formal resolution to the problem of bringing ‘the people’ into the Assamese literary-aesthetic imagination. Against the pedagogical imperative of musical practice, he sought to make Assamese music a space where hitherto excluded identities could be articulated as part of the nation.

The novelty of his approach is perhaps best evidenced by the opposition he faced from orchestra members during rehearsals for his first drama, Sonit Kunwari. As one member derisively remarked, ‘Are we going to sing these rustic village naams now? What’s next—dancing Bihuon stage?' [16] Despite initial hesitations, his experiment soon caught on in Assamese cultural circles. Eventually, a performance of a few of his compositions by singer Prafulla Chandra Barua at the 17th Asam Sahitya Sabha session won him accolades from some of the most eminent literary figures in Assam and secured the legitimacy of his efforts. Once again, perhaps emphasising the importance of using biyanaams in the songs, Jyotiprasad was eager to point out, ‘. . .there were enthusiastic murmurings amongst the ladies present at the session.' [17]

The new ideological weight that Jyotiprasad brought to bear on the music in his plays, was not limited to what the orchestra played. Subsequent to his return from Edinburgh in 1930, he broke with established theatre convention and placed the orchestra in front of the stage rather than in the wings. No doubt, this new venture related to his fascination for Western opera—his private correspondences even include a floor plan of a concert hall in Edinburgh, with the stage, concert pit, and seating layout clearly demarcated. Having moved the orchestra in front of the stage, Jyotiprasad also made the orchestra members (and their instruments) a synecdochic representation of the Assamese nation itself—for instance, he insisted on uniforms for all orchestra members, included traditionally attired Sattriya (a dance-drama performance art) musicians in the orchestra as part of a collaborative project with Nikamul Satra in Tezpur, and in 1936, also established an all-women orchestra. [18]

Jyotiprasadha's often been simplistically rendered as an artist working to create an authentic Assamese dramatic aesthetic that was free of Hindustani and Bengali pretensions in all aspects. However, a closer reading of his writings on music reveals a far more complex engagement with the fundamental question of how to represent the nation on stage. In a commentary on the use of music in background scores for films, Jyotiprasad writes, ‘Melody alone is not enough to express the complexities of reality. The background score in films must also be able to express the reality that is being shown through the images. Melody alone is not enough to accomplish this, and one must then turn to the use of harmony.' [19] Jyotiprasad here seems to argue that the concept of harmony (which implies the notion of consonance as well as dissonance) opens up the possibility of a polyphonic musical text that allows the co-presence of various voices, which allows it to express the discontinuous complexity of reality itself. Implicitly this consideration may also be extended to the relationship between the cinematic image and the musical score—the complexity of reality cannot be captured through the image alone, and necessarily requires background music as a supplement. To return to the question of Jyotiprasad’s innovations on the dramatic stage, it may be argued that the participation of Sattriya musicians and women in the stage orchestra was not an attempt to make the Assamese drama ‘more authentic’. Rather, the complex layering of representations of the nation in the speech, action, music, and set design for a play tried to negotiate the polyphony of the nation itself. Most importantly, it provided an aesthetic paradigm that could expand the definition of the Assamese nation, even as it opened up a terrain for the articulation and resolution (albeit in only a formal-aesthetic sense) of the discontinuities and fissures in this construction of a national community.

Songs of the Struggle
Jyotiprasad in the 1930s and 40s came to be increasingly involved in anti-colonial politics, imprisoned briefly in 1936, and later active in the Quit India Movement. In the heat of the struggle, Jyotiprasad once again pressed his musical sensibilities into service, producing a corpus of inspirational patriotic songs to be sung usually from the dais in political meetings or by troupes leading marching volunteers. For instance, compositions such as ‘Luitor Akaxot Torar Torawoli’ and ‘Biswabijoyi Naujuwan’ from his anti-colonial drama Lobhita (1947) were said to have been as popular on the stage as in political gatherings. Relocated from the sanctified space of the theatre hall, he responded to the requirements of the moment by re-figuring the mode of political address itself. Through the 1920s, stalwarts such as Ambikagiri Raichaudhry had evolved a vocabulary of the political song that was strongly inspired by the Swadeshi cultural thematic of embodying the nation as a divine being. His popular song ‘Bondu Ki Shondre’, with its invocatory mode of address, religious metaphors, and prayer-like metrical structure, may be taken as illustrative of the songs being written at this moment. In contrast, Jyotiprasad’s most memorable songs from this later period in his life aspire to directly address the listener. For instance:

Biswabijoyi naujuwan, Biswabijoyi naujuwan
Xoktixalini Bharotor
Ulai aha, ulai aha

In these lines, he addresses the youth as ‘conquerors of the world’  and calls on them to join the struggle, for they are the children of Bharat (the nation embodied as a powerful goddess), the children of the revolution. Modelled along the lines of the political speech rather than a hymn, Jyotiprasad’s songs addressed their audience as the collective that represents the nation, rather than speaking on behalf of the people before the nation. The radical democratic impulse of cultural activism during the period necessitated a reconstitution of the relationship between the poet and the people as
such. In a lecture, subsequently published as XilpirPritihibi, he declared, ‘For I am human, I am an artist. You too are human—and each of you is an artist. The world is the artist’s home, the artist’s workshop, and art is the exhibiting of [our] aesthetic-cultural resources.' [20] His idealism, however, also required the work of the artist to be equally connected with the cultural life of the nation. Jyotiprasad argued that in a class-divided society, the artist does not look to follow the rulers in sowing discord amongst the people; rather the artist brings about solidarity by standing steadfast against injustice and oppression. The artist must stand by the people, sharing in their struggles and inspiring them with their art. The complementary relationship between the artist and the audience envisaged by Jyotiprasadis condensed into a song that punctuates his Xilpir Prithibi speech:

Xilpi je moi
Lukailukaiasu . . .

[In the depths of the people’s soul,
And in the people’s mind,
I, the artist,
Lie hidden.]

Jyotiprasad envisioned a new poet to accompany the nation into a new age—a poet who had caught a glimpse of the artist hidden in the heart of the people and could build a national culture that, like a pyramid, rose taller with the widening of its base. His premature death in 1951, at the age of 47, may have put an abrupt end to his indomitable efforts in pursuit of this vision, but the significance of Jyotiprasad’s ideas on Assamese music and the artist resonated far beyond the man himself. His definition of the relationship between the artist and the nation framed a new paradigm of cultural-political representation that influenced the likes of Bhupen Hazarika in the decades that followed.


[1] Agarwala, ‘Preface to the Second Edition: Sonit Konwari,’ 3.
[2] Bora, ‘Gaan,’ 37–38.
[3] Chaliha, ‘Stri-xikhyarupaiaruupokarita,’ 716.
[4] Agarwala, ‘Preface to the Second Edition: Sonit Konwari,’ 3.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Agarwala, “Bortoman Asamiya Sangit: Kamrupi Sangitor Dhara,” 522.
[8] Agarwala, ‘Asamiya Sangitor Dhara.’, 522.
[9] Agarwala, ‘Asamiya Sangitor Dhara’, 522.
[10] Ibid., 528.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 528.
[13] Phukan, ‘Xurokar Jyotiprasad,’ 108.
[14] Ibid., 109.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Agarwala, ‘Preface to the Second Edition: Sonit Konwari,’5.
[17] Ibid., 6.
[18] Sarmah and Baruah, Itibritta, 61.
[19] Agarwala, ‘Dibrugarh Collegeor Bosorekiya Sangit Sanmilonir Xobhapotir Bhaxon,’ 508.
[20] Agarwala, ‘SilpirPrithibi’, 455.


Agarwala, Jyotiprasad. ‘Preface to the Second Edition: Sonit Konwari.’ In Jyotiprasad Agarwala Rachanawali, edited by Hiren Gohain, ParmanandaMajumdar and SamindraHuzuri, 3–7. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.

———. ‘Asamiya Sangitor Dhara.’ In Jyotiprasad Agarwala Rachanawali, edited by Hiren Gohain, Parmananda Majumdar and Samindra Huzuri, 522–524. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.

———. ‘Bortoman Asamiya Sangit: Kamrupisangitordhara.’ In Jyotiprasad Agarwala Rachanawali, edited by Hiren Gohain, ParmanandaMajumdar and SamindraHuzuri, 524–529. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.

———. ‘Dibrugarh College or Bosorekiya Sangit Sanmilonir Xobhapotir Bhaxon.’ In Jyotiprasad Agarwala Rachanawali, edited by Hiren Gohain, Parmananda Majumdar and Samindra Huzuri, 507–510. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.

———. ‘XSilpir Prithibi.’ In Jyotiprasad Agarwala Rachanawali, edited by Hiren Gohain, Parmananda Majumdar and Samindra Huzuri, 453–480. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam

Bora, Lambodar. ‘Gaan.’ In Lambodar Bora Rachanawali, edited by NandaTalukdar, 37–38. Guwahati: PublicationBoard Assam, 2008.

Chaliha, Padmadhar. ‘Stri-xikhyarupaiaruupokarita.’ In Usha, compiled by Laxmi Tamuly, (1911) vol 3 no.12.5:713–717. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam 

Phukan, Birendra Kumar. ‘XurokarJyotiprasad.’ In Rupkonwar Jyotirprasad, edited by Birendranath Dutta, 103–115. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam, 2012.

Sarmah, Bankim and Hemanta Kumar Baruah, eds. Itibritta: The Hundred-Year History of the Ban Theater. Tezpur: Ban Theatre, 2006.