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The archaeology of literature

This is a meticulously well-researched book by a historian and ethnomusicologist that will be appreciated by researchers and faculty members of colonial studies and cultural studies as it showcases the contributions of Dwijendralal Roy as a colonial subject as well as a man of letters, a songwriter, a poet and a music composer par excellence… A review

Sanjukta Dasgupta | Kolkata |

Literary archaeology explores, excavates and unearths creative texts that were ignored, elided, marginalised or completely forgotten due to the hegemonic control of the mainstream literary turf by dominant creative personalities. This is a fact perhaps universally acknowledged throughout the world. Sarvani Gooptu performs a brilliant feat by presenting to the interested readers of the history of Bengali literature and culture a meticulous career graph of the multi-talented litterateur, lyricist and musician Dwijendralal Roy, who had generally been regarded as an also-ran creative talent of colonial Bengal.

The book is extraordinary as the author’s training both as a historian and as a practising classical musician has contributed to the meticulous research and thorough explication of DL Roy’s songs and notations rarely noticed in critical biographies of erstwhile creative luminaries of colonial India. The first few chapters inform the readers that Dwijendralal Roy was born in 1863 In Krishnanagar, Nadia, in a considerably affluent and cultured home.

His father, Dewan Kartikeya Chandra was a man of many talents; he knew several languages and was an accomplished singer and songwriter. He was a much sought after vocalist and it is on record that Vidyasagar and Michael Madhusudan Dutt among others came over to Krishnanagar to listen to him. Being nurtured in such an environment Dwijendralal became deeply immersed in practising and performing vocal music apart from composing songs. He published his first book of songs when he was barely17.

In terms of formal education, Roy obtained an MA degree in English from Presidency College. He received a government scholarship to study Agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, England. While in England he delved deeply into English literature and culture and published his first and only book of English poems, The Lyrics of Ind (1886). The views he expressed in the introduction to his book of poems would suggest that he was a besotted Anglophile and had internalised English culture that Franz Fanon had critiqued incisively in his book, The Wretched of the Earth.

So Roy remarked, “If it has pleased God to unite England and India in the strong ties of wedded interest, and in the still stronger, more sacred, and indissoluble bond of mutual love and gratitude, it is the aim of the author to establish a marriage and an intellectual commerce between their poetries as well”. It is, however, important to notice that Roy was just 23 years old in 1886 and he was a colonial subject, who had been granted a scholarship to study in England. The marriage was not a happy one as his career would prove beyond doubt.

Though he was appointed Deputy Magistrate in 1886 and held many other governmental posts mostly due to frequent transfers, he eventually resigned from his job, returned to Calcutta and died in 1913, at the age of 43. Significantly, while Roy was a Settlement Officer he went into a direct confrontation with the British administration as he reduced the unfair taxes levied on the farmers of Sujamuta, in the Burdwan estate.

Roy commented, “I feel proud that in my small and insignificant way I have been able to spare the innocent subjects from the unlawful tax increase though I have done a lot of harm to my own self”. Evidently, the marriage was on the rocks for irreconcilable differences. Between 1899 and 1912, Roy published numerous satirical farces and poems that included Samaj Bibhrat and Kalki Avatar (1895) and Alekhya (1907).

His historical plays with strong political content such as Rana Pratapsingha(1905), Sohrab Rustam (1908), Shahjahan (1909) and Chandragupta ( 1911) were remarkably stage-worthy and anticipated the Brechtian mode of estrangement through the political discourse. Mughal history and the history of Rajasthan inspired Roy a great deal as is evident from the projection of valour, nobility, masculine strength, patriarchal values and the emphasis on patriotism, nationalism, the glorification of the maternal nation and Hindu culture, and somewhat anti-Muslim bias.

In fact, Sravani Gooptu points out that Roy was the first Bengali writer who had used the history of Rajasthan with competence. But as a playwright, he infused into the historical play ideas, imagination and idealism. Gooptu comments, “Intertwining facts and imagination, through real and created characters he established the need for a universal ethos”. Gooptu also draws our attention to the play Sita, in which DL Roy’s empathetic representation of Sita was evidence of gender de-stereotyping, which expectedly invited criticism.

Widely known, even out of context, were Roy’s patriotic songs that resonated in the voices of protest during the Partition of Bengal in 1905. The songs that became phenomenally popular were Banga amar Janani amar, Dhana Dhaney Pushpe bhara among others. These songs vied with the Swadesh songs of Tagore composed at around the same time. But then, there were some songs by Roy that interestingly eulogised the contributions of Britain ~ Sing in deep voices like the rumbling cloud/Sing O sons of Aryans’ glory to Britannia. In the interesting chapter “Gentlemanly Laughter as a Weapon” Gooptu discusses at length the use of wit, humour, irony, satire, sarcasm, laughter, ridicule, fun as effective tools targeting an awareness campaign that critiqued westernised genteel urban Bengali society, the revival of interest in Hindu tradition and practices, the emergence of the New woman in terms of attire and behaviour.

As Roy was well acquainted with English literature and was deeply influenced by it too, he may have been inspired by the 18th century English dramatists, essayists, poets and satirists ranging from Dryden, Swift, Pope, Johnson, Addison, Steele et al. Students of literature are familiar with Henri Bergson’s essay Laughter (1900) where laughter has been defined in succinct terms. Bergson observes that laughter “indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life. It instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance. It, also, is froth with a saline base.

Like froth, it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty, and the after-taste bitter.” But Gooptu reminds the reader that Roy aimed at creating a sophisticated, urbane pure laughter free of vulgarities, in other words, Roy would have shunned Rabelaisian humour. Also, in the chapter on the impact of western music on metre and music, Gooptu informs the readers about DL Roy’s intense training in Hindustani classical music and western music. He appropriated freely the rhythmic elements of western music replicating the prosodic patterns used in English romantic poetry.

He translated English, Scottish and Irish songs. His first volume of songs Aryagatha Part 1 was composed when he was in his high teens. Aryagatha Part 11 comprises 82 songs. It includes Roy’s translations of numerous popular British songs. Gooptu has laboriously compared Roy’s translations with the original songs and has shown how the use of western rhythmic patterns and fast beats were compatible with patriotic songs sung in chorus. This fusion of musical practices was indeed one successful chapter in Roy’s troubled marriage with western culture. In the concluding chapter, Sarvani Gooptu discusses in detail the difficult friendship between Rabindranath Tagore and DL Roy and also Roy’s propensity to engage in debates and conflicts oblivious of the self-destructive impact that such engagements created.

Tagore had acknowledged often the pioneering contribution of Roy in terms of language and creativity. However, Roy had openly criticised the style and substance of Tagore’s poem Sonar Tari, which had experienced phenomenal success. Roy chose to write a thinly disguised parody of the poem. Moreover, DL Roy used songs in his play Ananda Biday to parody Tagore which led to violent demonstrations of outrage from Tagore aficionados. The audience deeply resented Roy’s indiscretion and the play was stopped from being staged. Sarvani Gooptu has cited often Devkumar Roy Chowdhury’s definitive biography of Dwijendralal as well as DL Roy’s son Dilip Kumar Roy’s numerous publications on the life and works of his illustrious father along with many representative books of this outstanding period in the history of colonial Bengal.

The Music of Nationhood is a meticulously well-researched book by a historian and ethnomusicologist that will be appreciated by researchers and faculty members of colonial studies and cultural studies as it showcases the contributions of Dwijendralal Roy as a colonial subject as well as a man of letters, a songwriter, a poet and a music composer par excellence.