Ramprasad Sen (c 1720-1781) a singer of devotional songs, especially shyamasangit, mystic poet and singer, was born in a family of Ayurvedic practitioners in the village of Kumarhatta of 24 Pargana in west bengal. His father, Ramram Sen, was a dealer of Ayurvedic medicine. According to Ramprasad's books, his father also had poetic talents.
Ramprasad had little formal education. After his primary schooling, he learnt Sanskrit to pursue his family occupation. But he had no liking for that; his natural bent was for writing and music. Noticing that his son was indifferent to business and interested only in literature and music, Ramram Sen arranged a tutor to teach him Persian. Ramprasad thus learnt Sanskrit, Bangla, Persian, Hindi and a few other languages by the age of 16. This opened the door to literature and music for him.
After his father's death, and at a time when the family was passing through financial hardship, he set out for Calcutta to earn his livelihood at the age of 17 or 18. He obtained a clerkship at the court of a zamindar. A devotee of Kali, Ramprasad, was always engrossed in thoughts of composing devotional music. At times, he sang all by himself; sometimes he composed songs and noted them down on ledger books. Coming to know of genius of Ramprasad, the zamindar sent him back to the village with a stipend of Tk 30 a month and advised him to spend his time on music.
Ramprasad returned home and started composing music and writing lyrics. He set his songs to music and sang those himself. krishnachandra roy was then the king of Navadwip. Coming to know about Ramprasad's talent, he invited him to his court. bharatchandra was the poet laureate of Krishnachandra at the time. But Ramprasad declined to joint the court. Despite the refusal, Krishnachandra gave him one hundred bighas of tax-free land and awarded him the title of 'Kaviravjan'. Legend has it that sirajuddoula, on his way from Murshidabad to Calcutta, once heard Ramprasad singing by a riverbank and called him into his boat and to make him sing some more pieces.
Ramprasad introduced a new way of worshipping through shyamasangit or songs in praise of Kali to add to the kirtans based on the love affair of radha and krishna popular among the Vaishvava orders of the time. He created a unique form by fusing devotional songs, classical notes and baul tunes, which later came to be known as Ramprasadi (Ramprasad's) tunes in Bangla music. These tunes left a lasting impression on the composers of later periods. Even rabindranath tagore composed some patriotic songs based on Ramprasad's tunes. He himself composed some songs for Kali or Shyama which came to be known as Shyamasangit. His lyrics are exceptionally simple, yet stirring. He blended classical notes with the old tunes that were in currency at that time.
Ramprasad's life was marked by professional service as well as devotion to spiritual practice. In spite of his experience of hardship, he never left home. He rather took the problems of life in his stride and composed songs like 'Am I afraid of suffering?'
Many of Ramprasad's songs have been lost. Some famous notes by him are: man re krsi kaj jano na (O mind, do you not know cultivation?), dub dere man kali bale (dive deep, o mind, in the name of Kali), ma amay ghurabi kata (how long will you be make me go in circles?) etc. These songs have been always popular in Bengal.
Agamani songs, like Shyamasabgit, also form an important contribution of Ramprasad Sen to Bangla music. The songs are based on the stories of the descent of Goddess Durga, along with her sons and daughters, from Kailasa into the earth to take offerings from mankind. Like the daughter of a pastoral household, Durga comes to her father's house from her in-laws. The feelings of her mother Menaka on the occasion are expressed beautifully in these songs. Ramprasad also wrote popular pieces for the theatre such as Kalikirtan, Krsnakirtan, Shivakirtan, etc as well as a collection of poems called vidyasundar.
The death of Ramprasad is shrouded in a mystery which later gave birth to a folk story. It is said that at the time of immersion of the goddess, Kali on the last day of kali puja, he jumped into the Ganges along with the goddess singing the song Tilek dandaore shaman (stop by for a moment, O death!). [Khan Md Sayeed]
References Ramprasad Sener Granthabali, (Works of Ramprasad Sen), Basumati Sahitya Mandir, Calcutta; Sukumar Roy, Bangla Sangiter Rup (The forms of the Bangla music), A Mukherjee Co Pvt Ltd, Calcuta, 1969.