NILINA SEN: 1917-1935

(Selected extracts from “NIlina’s Song” by Asharani Mathur)

Naina Devi was born as Nilina Sen in Kolkatta to Saral Chandra Sen and Nellie on the 27th of September 1917. She was their second youngest child and youngest daughter. Their other four children were two sons – Sunit and Prodeep – and two daughters, Benita and Sadhona.

The Sen family was an aristocratic family of Bengal which had its roots in the “Bengal Renaissance”. This movement in 19th century Bengal, was marked by an intellectual awakening which saw the flowering of remarkable talents in a variety of fields such as social and religious reform, education and literature, in pure sciences and art, in journalism and oratory. The Sen family and its illustrious predecessors helped to shape this movement and were shaped by it in turn. Most prominent of all was Nilina’s grandfather Keshub Chandra Sen a leading light of the Brahmo Samaj, who was known as the Martin Luther of India. He championed the cause of women’s education and other social reform and campaigned vigorously against suttee.

Nilina’s home at Lily cottage was thus enveloped in a liberal atmosphere where the performing arts were given centre stage and all members of the family were encouraged to explore their talents. It was a household where, despite the age differences, there were bonds of closeness and deep affection between the children who unfolded their talents to each other when they were children to collaborate in creative projects, and called themselves the Besani sisters. Benita was the playwright, the poet, the story teller who wrote the scripts to be acted out. Sadhona, would dance and Nilina, with her innate gift for music, would sing. It was like a glimpse into the future, certainly into the lives that Sadhona and Nilina would eventually lead.

During those growing years, Nilina was closest to her elder sister Sadhona. The girls went to school at the Victoria Institute established by their grandfather, and wherever Sadhona went, Nilina would follow. They were like twin souls, who laughed and enjoyed the same things and were gifted by a familial and natural talent for the arts. In this they were encouraged by their parents who viewed the cultivation of music and dance as a part of a liberal education, a private and inward flowering of the personality, never ever meant for showing in public.

Such was the nurturing climate of the home, the ever present music, the songs that Saral and Nellie sang as they played on piano and violin, and the many soirees held in the house by Nilina’s older brother, Sunith, where musicians like Enayat Khan, Mehdi Husain Khan and Girija Shankar Chakravarty would participate in intimate baithaks.

One such baithak sparked the formal initiation into classical music for Nilina when she was a little girl. The singer of the evening was none other than the illustrious Girija Shankar Chakravarty. Girija Babu had learnt the majestic forms of dhrupad and dhamar under the tutelage of Radhika Prasad Goswami and the nuances of Thumri from Bhaiyasahib Ganpat Rao, the harmonium wizard who wrote thumris under the pen name of Sughara Priya. He was also greatly inspired by Moizuddin Khan, whose sweet haunting voice gave him the title of Badshah of Thumri. Girija Babu studied the nuances of khayal gayaki with Ustad Enayat Husain Khan, and his education in khayal continued when he returned to Calcutta and learnt with the ageing maestro, Ustad Badal Khan.

As Girija Babu ended his performance that evening , he asked Nilina to sing the Thumri which she had appreciated and did so with such confidence and clarity that he made her his pupil on the spot. She learned from him for the next nine years before the long silence of the next phase of her life began. Perhaps it was at this stage that thumri so captivated her imagination and her heart that the genre and its range became her life-long musical focus. There was something about the form and its variants that was utterly alluring and irresistible, both for its intrinsic musical challenges as well as its expressions of femininity.

Along with Nilina, Sadhona too had learnt music from Girija Babu, but soon discovered her life long passion of dance. She married Modhu Bose the famous Bengali film director and then began her career as an actress and dancer and performed as a leading lady on stage with the production ‘Ali Baba.’ Success came with the film version of Ali Baba made in 1937 directed by Modhu Bose where Sadhona reprised her stage role of Marjina. The film was a huge hit, followed by another successful film, Abhinoy, after which they moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). Then, in 1941, came the film that Then, in 1941, came the film that has defined Sadhona Bose for generations of film lovers – Raj Nartaki, the Court Dancer which was the first film to be made in 3 languages Bengali, Hindi and English and has the distinction of being as the first Indian film with dialogues in English made by an Indian crew.

At that moment fate intervened and a chance meeting propelled Nilina to the next phase of her life. It so happened that Kanwar Ripjit Singh, the son of Raja Charanjit Singh of the royal house of Kapurthala, had accompanied his sister, Pamela, to Calcutta where she had gone to shop for her trousseau. It was Jyoti Prasad, Pamela’s fiancé, who wrote to Ripjit Singh to suggest that he call on Mrs Sen, the daughter-in-law of Keshub Chandra Sen, and her family, which included a daughter with a beautiful singing voice. In the course Nilina joined was asked her to sing and obliged with one of her favourite songs. Ripjit was instantly bewitched by the sweetness of her voice, and entranced by the grace of that petite form and her gentle innocence. He was instantly and completely certain that this was the girl he wanted to marry. It took him no time at all to place the proposal before Nilina’s parents and declare that he would not leave Calcutta until they were married.

So it came to be that the eighteen year old Nilina left the comfort of her home and family to travel thousands of miles to take her place as Rani Nina Ripjit Singh of Kapurtha. Her life would change dramatically at the family home ‘Chapslee’ in Shimla and the estates in Awadh, where the duties of the royal household and the demands of conservative protocol defined her space. This rigid and formal world could not have been in greater contrast to the liberal atmosphere of the Sen household, the familiarity of Calcutta and the love and laughter of her siblings.

Above all else she left behind her hearts desire, her beautiful world of music……