2. Pandit Ashok Roy


By Sumi Krishnan,

It is exactly about three years since a great musician and sarodiya, student of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ashok Roy passed away. In his memory I post here an old article written through tears very soon after his passing away a few years back in the hope that his memory and his achievements will always be remembered by those who loved his music. You can listen to him on this website, created in his memory with the contribution from many of his students and family and friends.

The sounds from a didgeridoo slowly builds seeming like a call of a Kookaburra and then is followed by the strings of the sitar… A rather unassuming man sitting centre stage cradling his Sarod starts playing and it seems like the sun just rose. The melody played by the Sarodiya sounds familiar is traditional and authentic Hindustani Classical Alap and is set to Raga Thodi. So apt and so right, it saluted the People of the Land, the Aborigines of Australia and was called the Morning Sunrise At Uluru.

Candlelight Concerts, Midday lunch concerts, Lecture Demonstrations in Universities, Intimate Soirees. Three hour mehfils that spilled over the night becoming early morning ones as Raga after Raga poured out of him. A Jhinjoti followed by a  Darbari Kannada, followed by a Mishra Khamaj, then a Sindhu Bhairavi. Were he and his accompanist exhausted? and was the audience exhausted ? Surprisingly, they were all on a high. This is a true measure of success in a musician’s life. A musician whose music lives even as he passes away, Pandit Ashok Kumar Roy.

Pandit Ashok Roy was born on 16 June 1936 beginning his life in the humble surroundings of a middle class home in Dehraddun surrounded by the sounds of Classical Hindustani music. He was the youngest of two sons. His father, Mr Anant Kumar Roy was a disciple of two great musical geniuses Ustad Alauddin Khan Sahib and Ustad Keramatullah Khansahib. Ashok Roy was initiated into the sarod from the age of 4 years, as expected having been born in such an accomplished musical family. During his developing years he spent most of his early life in Dehraddun, India. His passion for the Sarod and mastery over it awarded him with many accolades one of which was a First Prize for Instrumental music at the All India Radio Competition in 1960. Mr Ashok Roy was merely 24 years old and his career was on its way. He trained further in the Maihar Gharana under the tutelage of the legendary Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Going Overseas

His desire to take his music across oceans bore fruit when he was placed with the Indian Centre for Cultural Relations in Suva, through the Indian Embassy between 1973 to1976. Visiting India as often as he could wanting to maintain his ties with his already established music circles and Sabha’s  in Delhi; he returned to India to continue to teach with The Doon School in Dehraddun on the condition that he would be allowed to take leave of absence to continue his concerts and play his instrument.

Pandit Ashok Roy arrived in Australia to teach music as a visiting lecturer at Melbourne University, Victoria College of Arts, and Monash University in 1987. He later moved to Sydney around 1988 to become the Artistic Director of the Australian Institute of Eastern Music (AIEM).

AIEM was a venture which struggled to get off the ground initially. Ms Nancy Grover and Prof Peter Platt the then Head of the Music Department of Sydney University were one of the few among many volunteers who helped AIEM establish itself in Sydney. Prof Peter Platt was a great admirer of Ashokji and supported AIEM’s ventures whole heartedly.

A passionate lover of Indian classical music, Ms Nancy Grover states

“To listen to classical Indian Music is to listen to music from the heavens, And I was always moved profoundly by Pandit Ashok Roy’s Sarod Playing. I wanted to make sure that all Australians would realise the power that this music creates in the hearts of people.. and worked for Ashok Roy for over 13 years. Those were hard times and we worked many hours, successfully obtaining generous funding and performing opportunities from institutions like the Arts Council, Womad and Sydney Festival, ABC Radio, SBS Radio and Television, Nataraj Arts, Larrikin Records and many others. Pandit Ashok Roy – Master of the Sarod, CD launched at the ABC studios was nominated for the 1995 ARIA Awards. The list goes on.”

He would tap into the potential of people whom he felt were capable, with organisational skills and could keep up with the demanding chores of maintaining an institution alive. Many joined with enthusiasm and slowly slipped by the way side as could be expected. He was therefore always on the look out for Committee Members with imagination, influence and ability to join as volunteers, and most of all a love for his kind of music. He was a Master with and without the Sarod.

Music Steals their hearts

Pandit Ashok Roy’s senior most student who plays the Sarod and has acquired the undoubtedly winning texture of the master himself, Mr Adrian McNiel an Ethno-Musicologist at Macquarie University, is establishing himself as a fast, upcoming sarod player in his own right. More an Indian than an Australian he follows the footsteps of his guru and has learnt his art form in the true guru-shishya parampara from the early years of Ashokji’s arrival in Melbourne. Ashokji’s creativity and excellence was not limited to playing the sarod. His capability to assimilate into a foreign culture, communicate with people from differing backgrounds, languages, religion, customs was extraordinary. And he successfully brought them together by simply playing his Sarod for his music mesmerised them.

Among many ventures he successfully launched “Slivanye” a combination of Indian, Macedonian, African, and Japanese Music.  Another group he formed was made up of mixed instruments, sitar, sarod, didgeridoo, voices, flutes to form a complete ensemble of many artists. He universalised his music and formed what is marketed as “world music” today yet remaining true to his own classical repertoire. Another group that Ashokji directed and formed was “Sangam” a quintet comprising the Western Cello played by Dr John Napier, Musicologist and Professor of Music from Sydney University, Indonesian drums by Mr Tony Lewis, the Japanese Koto by Ms Satsuki Odamura and the Sarod by Ashokji. This group successfully performed at various festivals in Sydney and launched a CD called “Anamika”.

Following on from which came an innovative cross cultural project in 1995, called “Flamenco Dreaming”. This was one of the projects that the writer had been fortunate enough to be involved with. An exciting confluence of two cultures and styles, the Spanish guitar and Indian Sarod sounds with that of the Tabla, came together in “To India with Love”. With Mr Robert Varga, the Spanish Guitarist and Pandit Ashok Roy on the Sarod, ably accompanied by Mr Bobby Singh on Tabla. Under the direction of Mr Ashok Roy we saw flamengo dancers stepping to the sounds of Raag Kedar weaved into a Classical Hindustani Ek Taal bandish sung by the writer to the beats of the Tabla. This energy packed performance was sold out to a packed audience who left wanting more even though the show ran for a continuous three days.

His collaborations with Spanish Guitarist, Mr Guy Strazzullo at the Government House concerts and other festivals are also well known. Pandit Ashok Roy has a following of loyal Australians who have spent hours listening to him in the cool summer evenings and devouring vegetarian food that was cooked by the volunteers of AIEM; whether it was in the backyard of his home in Burwood or the prestigious Tom Mann Theatre. Melody and Moment, was also a venture that he launched, combining voice and the sounds of the cello to be rendered in a traditional classical style. Dr John Napier on the Cello and I accompanied by Mr Niranjan Deodhar on the Tabla have since performed at many venues around Sydney such as the Pavilion, the Museum, and the Art Gallery.

A man of great musicality, but limited means since migrating to Australia, financial pressures were the norm. Forcing many of these ventures to be way laid due to lack of funding and a myriad of managerial difficulties that went with the scheme. Despite which Ashokji never considered a career change as our generation is so quick to do.

Life exists only when music does.

Ashokji’s last performance was at the feet of Sharada Ma in Nov 2006 at the Ramakrishna Mission, Ashfield Sydney, supported by Mr Colin Berryman on the Sitar and Ms Shalakha Malgaonkar on the Tabla. A concert organised by a group of volunteers who wish to remain unnamed, he played his Sarod, striking it as though he he knew it may be his last. For him a life without the Sarod and his music was no life at all.  Ashokji’s final years were fraught with many medical issues. Suffering from competing illnesses, he fought his final battle of life, passing away quietly in the morning hours of the 15th of February 2007 at Concord Hospital, in Sydney Australia. His family does not however grieve his departure. They celebrate. Pandit Ashok Roy is survived by his wife Mrs Shanta Roy, who dedicated her life to his care. Mrs Shanta Roy was his hidden strength. He leaves behind his son and daughter in law, Mr and Mrs Sumit and Sejal Roy and his two grandsons, Angad and Sumer.

“As he rests in peace to day, I shall always remember ‘Dha’ playing the sarod through the early hours of the morning. On entering his room, all we found was the sarod sitting silently in the box. That was his only possession” says Sumit Roy, his beloved son. His tears shimmering his eyes.

To Ashokji, with Love and Respect.

On the 25th of Feb 2007, family and friends gathered at the Muktagupteswar Temple situated in Minto to pay their homage to this great soul. Many of his students played his favourite ragas. Commencing with the writer’s own performance accompanied by Ms Shalakha Malgaonkar on Tabla; followed by Mr Asheesh Kalmath on the Sarod accompanied by Mr Bobby Singh on the Tabla; Trained and fostered by Pandit Ashok Roy, Bobby Singh, a student of Mr Aneesh Pradhan, is now a leading tablist and performing artist featuring in many groups of his own in Sydney Australia.

Mr Colin Berryman on sitar, a dedicated and devoted student of Pandit Ashok Roy who played with Ashokji in his performances in the later years on the sitar accompanied by a long last companion of Pandit Ashok Roy, Pandit Suman on tabla. This was followed and concluded by a touching performance of Mr Adrian McNeil on the Sarod, his senior most disciple.

This marks the passing of an era in a musical history whose links go between two continents and more. He was not only a great artist, musician, and teacher he was most of all a pioneer. A pioneer who brought Classical Indian Hindustani Music out of its realms into another country, its race and its people.