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Meet Arjun Roy – who found his identity through music

Having trained under top gurus, for the classical singer, music isn’t just a passion, but a spiritual calling

Vedant Karia | Published 26.09.23, 07:21 PM

Photos by Soumyajit Dey; Video by Soumyajit Dey and Somak Sarkar

The sun’s rays haven’t broken through the horizon yet. Strains of a gentle melody waft around a home in Tollygunge, as Arjun Roy begins his riyaz with his tanpura by his side. His voice evokes a spiritual energy. The neighbourhood knows that the clock has struck 5am.

Arjun is a trained, classical singer, who marries talent with inspiring dedication. Having received mentorship from gurus like Pramita Mallick and Omkar Dadarkar, apart from a national scholarship from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, he is also a B High graded artist of All India Radio. But beyond the big names, Arjun is just a boy who fell in love with music and built a life around it.

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It is only natural, given his family’s century-long relationship with music. “My grandfather was a doctor, but very supportive of the arts. He worked in Jamshedpur and was the founder-president of the Bengal Club there, and encouraged all his daughters to learn music. We are a family of music lovers,” said Supriyo, Arjun’s father.

It was fitting that Arjun’s first guru was his grandmother, Joysree Roy, who hailed from Sangit Bhavana of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. “As a kid, I would wander about the house and hear my grandmother, mother and father singing classical tunes, while my uncle sang westerns. Ota dekhe aar shunei amar obhyesh hoye gelo (I formed a habit from that)”, Arjun smiled.

He fondly remembers his most transformative moment, when as a seven-year-old, he stumbled upon his father playing the harmonium, lost in his own world. “He asked me to sing the note, Sa, with him. When he heard me, he remarked that my Sa was perfect and my voice melodic. That day, he asked me to pursue music as a career,” he said.

Arjun’s mother, Manisha, also played a pivotal role as a guru, being a Rabindrasangeet singer herself. She recollects how, one night, Arjun was withering in his sleep at 3am. “He must have been barely 10 and he looked very disturbed. I heard him murmur a few lines from a Rabindrasangeet song and realised how deeply music was embedded in his subconscious. At that moment, I knew that we had to push him to learn music,” she said.

Arjun with his parents, Manisha and Supriyo Roy, at their Tollygunge home

Arjun with his parents, Manisha and Supriyo Roy, at their Tollygunge home

His journey began from that point, and he started receiving a musical education at Gitabitan, in addition to his regular education. He immediately showed an inclination towards Hindustani Classical music. But things weren’t easy at first. “Arjun had some learning disabilities, so his milestones were delayed,” said Supriyo. Arjun also shared that because of his autism, he was often ragged in school by his peers. However, he doesn’t dwell on it, choosing to cherish the love that existed alongside it.

His parents add that academics were never of Arjun’s interest, and he would perpetually ask Manisha, “Porashona ke abishkar korechhe? (Who invented studying?)” And yet, he refused to be contained by the four walls of a classroom. “He would roam about in the school gardens where the animals and birds were kept caged. He has always been a passionate animal lover,” Manisha said.

Arjun’s eyes shine as he proudly shows My Kolkata the sprawling aquarium that he has built in his home. “Caring for animals is my favourite hobby. I feel we humans are very selfish, and never bother to check in on each other. But animals don’t have our tendency for groupism, neither do they make people feel like outcasts,” he said.

Arjun begins his day with ‘riyaz’ at the crack of dawn, and ends it with ‘sadhana’

Arjun begins his day with ‘riyaz’ at the crack of dawn, and ends it with ‘sadhana’

There is an underlying melancholy to the statement, as if he remembers the times he was made to feel different. While Arjun admits to have been less than confident as a child, he is almost unrecognisable today, with a calm confidence backing his words, accentuated by a smile. “I wanted to say so much back then, but I just couldn’t express myself. With age, I realised that I would inevitably have to communicate, so I started speaking from my heart, as I believe that art comes from honesty,” he said.

Supriyo added that Arjun could never speak without fumbling, but the mic became his best friend. “As he progressed musically and improved his skills, people started taking notice. The more he sang, the more his fear of people dissolved away,” he said.

Arjun’s relationship with academics also improved when he started studying the subjects he liked. After completing school, he took admission at Bengal Music College, and dived headfirst into both the practical and theoretical aspects of music. “He was qualified to become a researcher, but he wanted to perform,” Manisha said. She confesses that while she sometimes gets stressed about his future, “His honesty towards his music always reassures me.”

This honesty is what has allowed Arjun to persevere, despite numerous challenges in his path. One of his first major tests as a musician was when he was a general class student at ITC Sangeet Research Academy in 2015. Having sung a single raga all day and night for five days, just to prepare for his scholar accreditation, Arjun went to the stage with steely resolve, ready to perform in front of some of the most revered gurus in the country.

“I had to sing before stalwarts like Ajoy Chakrabarty and Girija Devi. Just before I was about to start, the tanpura fell behind me. I became a ball of nervous energy and couldn’t qualify.” However, he didn’t give up hope, and his guru requested the maestros to give him a chance again next year. “Within three months, there was another gradation ceremony. I sang Raag Bihag, and became a senior scholar!” he beamed.

Arjun’s milestones have typically been peppered with friction. But every time, the love for music has helped him rise above them. He fondly remembers his first classical performance at Uttarpara Sangeet Chakra in 2017. “Somehow, my throat had shut down seven days before the performance and I couldn’t even speak. I don’t know what happened in Uttarpara, but as soon as I went up on stage, gola nijei khule gelo (my throat opened up),” Arjun reminisced.

Arjun attributes a lot of his growth to stepping out of his comfort zone. Earlier in the pandemic, he took up a corporate job, one that is completely in contrast to his music. “This was my first proper foray into the outside world, and meeting so many different people helped me overcome my confidence issues. It not only made me tougher, but also opened me up to new experiences,” he said. Manisha chuckled, “O konodin rastar khabar khaae nei (He would never have street food). Now, his day isn’t complete without bhaanrer cha and ghooghni!”

While most people find themselves unable to give time to creativity after joining a company, it has been the opposite for Arjun. He makes it a point to wake up at 5am and do riyaz for three hours. After listening to music for a bit and having breakfast, he leaves for work. Even at work, he is never away from his earphones. After getting back home, he resumes his sadhana for three more hours, breaking for dinner before listening to music. “Music is with me all day. It is like a full-time job, beyond my existing full-time job.”

Currently, he is taking steps to collate his performances on his YouTube channel, which has 73 videos. These vary from classical to semi-classical, Rabindrasangeets to bhajans and thumris. There is even a soulful RD Burman cover (Aayo kahan se Ghanshyam, Buddha Mil Gaya, Manna Dey) in the mix. “I want to perform around the country, and hopefully do playback singing. I recently recorded a Rabindrasangeet, but I’m not permitted to disclose more at the moment,” he said.

He recently had his first tryst with virality when his music video of Yaad Piya Ki, made in association with Creatigo, notched up over 1,57,000 views. The project started when Supriyo shared Arjun’s rendition with his school friend, Kaushik Roy, an author-communications manager. Not only did Kaushik thoroughly enjoy it, but he also tried to find a way to take it to a wider audience. “We wanted to make the song appealing to today’s generation by presenting it in a contemporary style, while preserving its essence. Once the track was ready, we shot for a day with Arjun in the lanes of north Kolkata, and blended it with stock footage. It has been a very satisfying collaboration, and none of us expected it to reach so many people,” smiled Kaushik, who was the creative producer of the video too.

For Arjun, music isn’t just his passion, but his spiritual calling. “Music amar atmar shanti. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan used to say, “Hum sur ke pujari hai’. Abhi bhi mera sur thoda kam hai, lekin sur hi mere liye sab kuch hai. (I am a devotee of music. I might a little out of tune now, but for me melody and music is everything.)”

Last updated on 26.09.23, 07:55 PM
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