Most of us know of Raja Rammohun Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, from our high school history books where we learnt of his efforts to rid Hindu society of sati, child marriage and idol worship. However, Malini Nair informs us in this article, that the great reformer was not just a music lover, he had thought carefully about how to use music to propagate social reform.

Roy was a fan of Dhrupad, the oldest surviving form of Hindustani classical music, and played an important role in taking this North Indian school of music into the courts and salons of Bengal. Ms Nair writes: “Towards the end of the 18th century, two disparate movements were evolving across Bengal. One was the reformist drive of the Brahmo Samaj. The other was the rise of dhrupad in the provincial courts and zamindaris of Bishnupur, Krishnanagar and Burdwan as well as the elite homes of Calcutta. But Roy could see that there was a way to make the two trends coalesce.

“His was a reformist agenda to locate all that was rational and scientific in our religious traditions and for that, as in all reform movements, he needed to build a new community,” said Partho Datta, who teaches music studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “This of course needed intellectual engagement but it also needed music. He used music as an integral part of this community building, for congregational and mobilisational purposes the way the Church does.”

Using dhrupad as his base, Roy forged a new musical style that he hoped would be spiritual and inspirational for his followers – Brahmo Sangeet. Around 32 such hymns are believed to have been written by Roy himself. It was a path-breaking effort because he was the first to compose dhrupads in Bengal. The lyrics were grandiose, speaking of the One, the Supreme Being, nature, faith, universe, hope and so on. His songs such as Bhabo Shei Eke, Bhoy Korile Jaare and Nitya Niranjana are still the staples of Brahmo congregations, although over 200 years of the movement, this music has evolved, with the Tagore family enriching it with other styles like the tappa, khayal, folk, thumri and kirtan.” 

Roy was one of India’s earliest and most influential social reformers and Ms Nair’s article explains how this erudite man figured out for himself how to use music. She writes: ““Music is the best expression of a new idea, a means to take it to more people,” said music collector Rantideb Maitra. “Rammohun Roy believed that dhrupad had the kind of depth and grandeur he was seeking at Brahmo manchas [platforms] to spread the word of ekeshwarvad [Vedic monotheism]. So the proceedings would start with a pure dhrupad recital by Chakravarti. Later these songs were trans-created in Bengali and emphasised the universality and greater good of mankind and so on.”

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