Today I remember Banikantha Nimai Harichandan and the benign glory of pious Odisha. Banikantha, his moniker, was so apt that every morning in hamlets, villages, households there wasn’t a soul which didn’t hear him waking up life to a positive day. Nimai Harichandan has been the voice of Odia piety.
The dusty villages waking up from a deep slumber, the farmers preparing their partner bullocks, the child being readied by the mother for school, the father cleaning his cycle to go to his office at the local post office or the tehsildar office or kacheri, the siblings fighting over pocket money (change) to buy the orange candy near school gate and above all the village Jagannath mandir playing Nima babu’s rendition was the blissful beginning of an Odia life. Through the smoke of firewood, the cycle bells in the slim by lanes and the constant chiming of granny’s bells before her Lord, began the glorious, pristine life of the simple Odia. Someone has said that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
Today I lament the Odia ‘equanimity’ which is vanquishing amidst throttling development, cosmetic social media and asphyxiating supercilious life. Our contentment and calmness is the genesis of our ‘soft power”. It reflects the courage of our ‘abandonment of arrogance’ and the gumption of ‘total submission to the divine’. Nimai babu added to the quality of Odia life. A simple voice but well trained, his singing was straight from the heart. No complicated compositions, he dedicated his life to Lord Jagannath, the patriarch of every Odia family. Banikantha was among the first batch of professional Odia singers but more important is his versatility – he could sing chanda, champu, Odissi and in their typical fervour, bhajans too.
In 1933 he cut his first number, “bitalaku alingana” which was a smash hit and overnight he became a singing sensation. He was subsequently invited to sing for AIR, Kolkata, which was great honour then and after about a decade he won the gold medal for Odissi music from Utkal Sangeet Samaj, almost a regional film fare equivalent. There were few but serious awards then, unlike today’s awards which are in over supply and can be custom made for aspirants. Nimai babu’s range and pitch of voice was naturally gifted and rare. This was widely appreciated by listeners and for a long time he remains one of the highest selling regional artistes of India.
Despite the times when there were hardly many private record players, gramophones or any other forms of music players in Odisha, he was a singing star and was successful commercially too. A rarity for Odia artistes, even to this day. Decorated with Padma Shri in 1976, Nimai babu belonged to the rare breed of authentic Odia singers, watchful of his diction, moods of singing and complete submission to the devotion to Lord Jagannath. His voice was the “voice of Odia.” Many firsts to his credit, he was the first Odia singer to be honoured with Padma Shri, the first to sell over 1 Lakh records and could also be the first to institute his own statue. Harichandan passed away in 1983 but about 3 years ago, in 1980 he unveiled his own statue at Ramchandra Bhavan, Cuttack.
Nimai Harichandan’s voice started the day in Odisha and bade farewell to the day in the evening at Badadanda (in front of Jagannath temple) where even today, many can be heard singing to Nimai babu’s tunes along with the mesmerizing pakhwaj. For Odisha life, music and devoutness go together and hence many attribute Odissi form of dance and music to the moods and shades of divinity. He had submitted himself to the Lord and every day invoked piety in content Odia life. He spoke to the Lord of the Universe and brought us blessings – He was our voice of piety. Blessed are we to be born in Odisha.