Atul Prasad Sen, more commonly referred to as Atul Prasad is one of Bengal’s most popular song writer and composer. Atul Prasadi music is reckoned as a leading strand in Bengali culture, one that needs specialized training and practice. Atul Prasad was a contemporary of Tagore and lived between the 20th of October 1871 and the 26th of August 1934. Born as the oldest child of Ramprasad Sen of Dhaka, Atul Prasad had three sisters, he being the only male child of his parents. His father was an ambitious man who though employed as a school teacher in Dhaka wanted to study medicine. He met Maharshi Debendranath who arranged for him to study medicine in the Bengali medium. Ramprasad eventually studied psychiatry and became the superintendent of the Dhaka Mental Asylum. Unfortunately when Atul Prasad was only a mere child, Ramprasad died and his wife, Hemantashashi went with her children to live with her father, Kalinarayan Gupta, a renowned Brahmo Samaj reformer who also was a kirtan singer with a large troupe.
Atul Prasad Sen soon imbibed music from his maternal grandfather and theatre from his maternal uncles. Even as a young boy, Atul Prasad was influenced by Surendranath Banerjee, a prominent Congress politician of his times and with a family of influential men and women among who K.G.Gupta was a civil servant with the revenue board and his mother engaged in the uplift of women, another maternal uncle led a theatre troupe, Atul Prasad became a socially aware young man with a sense of larger social concern. This reflected in the way he eventually composed his music, infusing strands of the Indian classical like the thumri, dadra, kajri and ghazal as well as the popular forms of the kirtan and baul into his songs to create a composite music culture that would represent India’s unity in diversity as well as the fusion of the tradition and the modern. Due to the family’s social status and the influence of the Brahmo Samaj ideology, Atul Prasad became an egalitarian who literally mixed with every strata of persons, a “mixing” that became evident in his music as well. He used many instruments as well like the esraj, khol and even the harmonium, all of which he seemed to have mastered well by the age of nine.
Atul Prasad Sen went to study in Presidency College of Calcutta and then travelled to London to study law. In London he met Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, Sarojini Naidu and C.R Das among others and together they promoted Dadabhai Naoroji in the British Parliament. He passed his examinations in a single chance and returned to Kolkata where he apprenticed under Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, or Lord Sinha. In order to set up his own practice he migrated to Rangpur in East Bengal from where a colleague Momtaz Hussain brought him to Lucknow, a city that represented the politics of a rising British power and a feudal princely rule in its zenith but displaced through colonialism.
Professionally and politically Atul Prasad became an important citizen of Lucknow. He would receive important political dignitaries of the Congress, donated liberally to Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s political party, Servants of India, helped set up girls’ schools and homes for widows and much before Gandhi came into mass politics, and he insisted that he play Holi with the untouchables. Atul Prasad was known for his generosity; he earned very well but donated even more liberally for social causes especially for institutions. He was active in the setting up of the Lucknow University as well. He also set up the Bongiyo Parishad in Lucknow which held literary conferences. In 1926 he invited Saratchandra Chattejee to preside over the literary conference and when the novelist could not attend on account of ill health, and Atul Chandra presided over it, the presidential address turned out to be a musical affair because he had to keep singing all his songs through the night on the request of the audiences – such was the popularity of his songs.
He was especially close to Tagore, being part of the Khamkayali group, in which Tagore, D.L.Ray, the Maharaja of Natore were integral parts. Their friendship grew deeper over time and Atul Prasad, in his capacity as a person of influence and a song writer supported Tagore in each of his endeavours. They met in Lucknow as well as in Ramgarh where Tagore would stay on for months for the convalescence of his daughter. Atul Prasad stayed on long vacations in Puri and Darjeeling where he was particularly close to Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and Chittaranjan Das, the latter being his step cousin and also a friend from England. He had substantial political visibility as well and often headed the reception Committees for the Indian National Congress sessions held in Northern India.
Atul Prasad wrote 206 songs which were unfortunately never dated. Though his music can be classified as Tagorean in the pitch, tonality and style, yet it had a unique quality to it and it was not always the fusion that marked his style. His style was in fact marked by a forlorn melancholia bearing with them the solitude of his soul. It is inferred that his personal life full of woes, his incestuous marriage with his cousin in Gretna Green, in Scotland, which eventually went sour, the poverty and neglect faced by his sisters because they had no father and no paternal home of their own made him compose the doleful numbers. He was particularly hurt by his mother’s remarriage to Durga Mohan Das an eminent Brahmo Samajist. Durgamohan was also a follower of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and got his widowed mother to remarry. Atul Prasad composed some peppy numbers as well and his signature song, Uthaga Bharata Lakhhi was composed on the music of the gondola rowers in Italy where he stopped on his way to England on a ship.
Atul Prasad Sen was almost a song archaeologist for he would collect music from wherever he could find it; he visited the baijis of Lucknow and it is to his credit that so many of the songs sung by them are with us today. He particularly admired Wajed Ali Shah whose tunes he used in some of his compositions. Being in Lucknow brought him to close contact with the classical musicians of khayal and thumri. Lucknow still has a road named as the A.P.Sen Road in the memory of a man who they called as the Nawab without a crown.