Atul Prasad Sen is remembered today for his songs, known as “Atul Prasader Gaan”, a body of devotional, patriotic or intensely romantic songs written and set to music by him. They occupy a special place in Bengali culture and in the hearts of Bengalis. But Sen was also a dedicated social worker, a very successful barrister, an endearing man, and, in his quiet way, a rebel.
He was born in Faridpur district, currently in Bangladesh. After the early death of his father, he was brought up by his maternal grandfather Kalinarayan Gupta, a noted Brahmo Samaj reformer who was also a kirtan singer. His mother later married another Brahmo Samaj reformer, Durga Mohan Das. Sen, who followed the Brahmo faith, imbibed his love for music and also his spirituality from his grandfather, and his songs belong as much to Brahmo tradition as to the Hindu devotional style.
Sen studied briefly at Presidency College in Calcutta and then left for England to study law. After becoming a barrister, he returned to Calcutta and set up his practice here. He was in love with his cousin Hemkusum, his maternal uncle’s daughter. The couple married in Scotland under Scottish law in 1900. Sen returned to India soon after and set up his practice in Lucknow.
In Lucknow, he found great success at the Bar. He became involved in the nationalist movement and the Indian National Congress. He was a close associate of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Sen’s contribution to education was considerable: he was part of the effort to set up Lucknow University and a girl’s school.
He was close to Rabindranath Tagore. Sen was the youngest and much-loved member of Khamkheyali Sabha (the eccentric group) set up by Tagore. Sen was one of the organisers of the first Prabasi Banga-Sahitya Sammelan, the Bengali literature meet held by Bengalis living outside Bengal, held in then Benares in 1922.
He was a lawyer by day, but would be immersed in music by evening. Bits of lyrics would be found among his legal papers. He brought to Bengali music a tantalising new element: the use of thumri. He wrote 200-odd songs, many of which are sung till today. His songs were very popular in the Brahmo community and its worship and outside these as well. Kazi Nazrul Islam was influenced by Sen’s music.
Sen’s wife separated from him, living in a different house in Lucknow. His own experience of longing and loss is said to have been behind the deep anguish of his love songs.
One of Sen’s celebrated patriotic songs invoking the spirit of India, “Otho go Bharatlakshmi”, was composed by him on being inspired by the Gondola rowers’ song in Venice when he was visiting Italy.