KOLKATA: ‘Ghunghat Ka Pat Khol’…or ‘Chakar Rakho Ji’ automatically start playing in our minds as we start accepting the fact that Juthika Roy is dead. The iconic devotional singer, whose fans included Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu, breathed her last at a south Kolkata hospital late on Wednesday night.
Suffering from breathing problems and other age related complications, Roy, 94, was hospitalized in January. On Wednesday night she succumbed to a massive cardiac arrest.
As she approached the end, her near ascetic life, meticulously white saris, and warm interactions were admired and honoured with Lifetime Achievement awards. For, there was a time when across India ‘Juthika’ had become a household name as she lifted Bhakti Sangeet out of temples, popularized them and also gave them a Classical concert status.
Mentored by none less than Kazi Nazrul Islam, noted music director Kamal Dasgupta, and vocalist Bhismadev Chattopadhyay, Juthika began singing at age seven and cut her first record at 13, in mid 1930s. By 1950s she’d become a sought after artiste of devotionals in the concert circuits of Kolkata-Mumbai-Baroda-Rajkot. She would return home from Ahmedabad only to find a telegram waiting to take her to Hyderabad. Soon she was foraying on successful tours of Sri Lanka and East Africa.
The ‘new Meera’s rise was parallel to the 78 RPM boom. Her 340 songs in Hindi and Bengali, be they HMV or other labels, secured her a top slot in the disc industry. “Even in Lahore and Sargoda of pre-partition West Punjab, my father and mother — who didn’t care for film songs — would yank up the gramophone to listen to ‘Pag ghungroo bandh Meera nachi’ or ‘Jogi mat ja’,” reminisces Vinod Kapur, the music aficionado who popularized Poorav Ang singing through VSK Baithaks. “Her singing was beyond the boundary of life and regions,” says Padmaja Punde, who trained in Agra gharana treasures under Khadim Husain Khan. “There was no Bangla intonation, no hint of regionalism: spiritualism seemed to be overflowing from her heart, much like M S Subbalaxmi,” Punde adds.
Always attired in meticulously clean white saris, Juthika Roy’s defining moment had come when she learnt from Sarojini Naidu that Mahatma Gandhi listened to her bhajans everyday in Pune jail, and started his prayer meeting with her discs. In 1947 when Gandhi came to quell the riots in Calcutta, she visited him at Beliaghata and personally sang for him. Then she accompanied him as he went out to address people at the Maidan, and that meeting, too, ended with her bhajans for peace.
Juthika became a part of the nation’s history as she broadcast on All India Radio while Jawaharlal Nehru rolled down in a motorcade from Teenmurti Bhavan to the Red Fort on August 15, 1947. Just as she finished singing, a station officer came running with a request from the First Prime Minister: She was to keep singing till he reached Red Fort and hoisted the Tiranga (Indian Tricolour)! She returned to sing ‘Sone ka Hindustan’, among half a dozen other songs.
Nehru’s daughter had honoured the veteran artiste with a Padmashri in 1982. For some years after that, Juthika Roy received Central government grants. But once age caught up, she was relegated to oblivion in her Shyamapukur Street house, where she lived with her nephew and 30-odd cats.