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Mainstream, VOL LII No 34 August 16, 2014 - Independence Day Special

Assam’s Cultural Guru Jyoti Prasad Agarwala: A Symbol of Patriotism and National Integration

Friday 15 August 2014

by Pranjit Agarwala

Jyoti Prasad Agarwala (1903-1951) is revered as the cultural guru of Assam. He brought about a renaissance in Assamese literature and culture which helped establish its own identity as a separate language and not as an off-shoot of the Bengali language and culture. In 1935 he pioneered the Assamese film industry by making the first Assamese film Joymoti. His dramas, poems, short stories, journalistic writings, songs and music have inspired generations not only in Assam but also in the North-East region. His songs and music are popularly known as “Jyoti Sangeet”. However, his contributions went beyond the field of art and culture.

He was a firebrand freedom fighter and revolutionary. A scion of one of the wealthiest and most illustrious families of Assam, he joined the freedom movement while still a student in his teens. However, from 1930 after returning from the Edinburgh University and Germany where he studied Economics and Film-making respectively, he plunged into the freedom movement with the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi when Gandhiji came to Tezpur and stayed at their ancestral home “Poki”. He formed the “Mrityu Bahini” (Death Squad) on the principles of non-violence but with the motto “Karengay ya Marengay”. His patriotic songs were the inspiration behind the struggle for Indian independence in the region. During the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942, under his fearless leadership people, particularly in north Assam, came out and courageously faced British bullets and many, like schoolgirl Kanaklata, Mukunda Kakoty etc., embraced martyrdom while trying to hoist the tricolour in places like Gohpur, Sootea, Tezpur and Dhekiajuli. He was also jailed and to escape imprisonment (so that he could continue guiding the independence movement) he had to frequently remain underground.

His death anniversary on the January 17 is observed every year as “Silpi Divas” (Artists’ Day) in Assam. On the occasion people pay homage by offering floral tributes and lighting earthen lamps (diyas) in front of his portrait at public meetings and functions organised voluntarily where the immense contributions and sacrifices of this true son of the soil are remembered and recalled. The people of Assam have reverently given him the title “Rupkonwar” (Prince of Enlightenment). He was a true patriot and a man of the people who dedicated his life to the cause of the public and to the service of the nation.

Rupkonwar’s forefathers hailed from the village of Tai in the erstwhile princely state of Jaipur. They belonged to a wealthy merchant family whose substantial wealth invited the envy and wrath of the local zamindar who persecuted the family and forced them to flee to Churu in destitution. In 1828 Rupkonwar’s great grandfather Naba-rangaram Agarwala, then a teenager, was the first from the family to come to Assam. When Nabarangaram arrived in Assam he had nothing but a burning determination to recoup the lost fortunes of his forefathers.

In 1830 Nabarangaram Agarwala (1811-1865) started a small shop in Gomiri, a remote village located on the north bank of the river Brahmaputra in the eastern part of Assam. With his business acumen, enterprise and labour he prospered rapidly. But more significantly he chose to assimilate and integrate completely into the local Assamese community through marriage and adopted their language and culture, followed their customs and merged with the local way of life. However, unlike many who at that time had migrated to Assam for work or business, married local girls and adopted local titles, Nabarangaram decided to retain his original title “Agarwala”. By the time he died in 1865 he had not only laid the foundation of a business empire, become a prominent personality of the then Assamese community but also spawned a lineage that would henceforth enrich the socio-cultural fabric of the State and contribute significantly to the building of modern Assam.

Nabarangaram’s eldest son Haribilash Agarwala (1842-1916) continued his father’s legacy of assimi-lation, enterprise, patriotism and social service. He was the doyen of the family and took the family fortunes to new heights. But he also made significant contributions to the development of trade and industry in Assam despite being discriminated against by the British admini-stration, propagated Assamese literature and culture and actively involved himself in community development. He made an invaluable contribution to the Assamese language and literature when in 1899 he published for the first time ever the ancient hand-written manuscripts of Sri Sankardev and Sri Madhabdev. This exposed the rich literary and cultural heritage of Assam to the outside world and to the new generation of Assamese scholars and litterateurs. This singular effort gave a big boost to the movement for the revival and recognition of the Assamese language which till then was considered as an off-shoot of the Bengali language. By the turn of the century, because of British discrimination against native entrepreneurs, he was drawn to the Indian National Congress.

Later Haribilash’s second eldest son Chandra Kumar Agarwala (1867-1938) and nephew Ananda Chandra Agarwala (1874-1939) influenced the growth of Assamese language and literature. Particularly Chandra Kumar Agarwala who, as an undergraduate student of Presidency College, Calcutta, spearheaded the movement for the revival and recognition of the Assamese language. A pioneer of Assamese journalism, he published in 1889 the first Assamese literary journal Jonaki and in 1918 launched the Assamese newspaper Asomiya. Asomiya successfully spread the awareness about the struggle for Indian independence in Assam.

Even though like other Marwaris Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s forefather came to Assam seeking a fortune, unlike them Nabarangaram Agarwala set a unique example of socio-cultural integration of two communities from two opposite corners of the country, the northwest and the northeast. This is an extraordinary case of patriotism, contributing towards a community’s uplift and national integration which has few parallels in India.

The author is an entrepreneur and free-lance writer based in Guwahati.