In Retrospect

From a glorious past to a perfect future

Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most brilliant minds of the 19th Century, was a prolific composer with over 2000 songs in his repertoire. The bard, often compared to the world's most celebrated playwright and poet William Shakespeare, wrote novels, stories, plays — all of which had a strong lyrical or musical element.

But it is perhaps in his songs, or Rabindrasangeet, that the poet's perception of life and death, nature, God and the eternal pathos of humanity are embodied the most. Its appeal to Bengalis is perhaps timeless and though the rest of the Universe has responded well, the songs could have been more popular over 150 years after the poet's birth in Jorasanko, Kolkata.

Sung to the accompaniment of instruments like the tanpura, esraj and harmonium and Western instruments like the piano and the organ, Rabindrasangeet today is even mixed with club music ('Sujan majhi re' from Bong Connection) as well as with classical ragas ('Momo chitte nrite nritye' from Says eminent Rabindrasangeet exponent, Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta, "Some amount of discipline is required.

Some of us use fusion just because it is trendy. But you have to keep the composer's choice in mind during a rendition. Can anyone tamper with 'Jana Gana Mana' – our national anthem composed by Tagore? Can anyone change our ragas at random and will it be accepted by classical music maestros?"

Flash back to 2010 when Rituparno Ghosh's experimental Bengali TV musical, 'Gaaner Opaare', marked the beginning of a year-long celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore. The music was the brainchild of the famous music director of Chokher Bali and Raincoat fame, Debojyoti Mishra. The songs were popular Rabindrasangeets and saw a lot of experiments like blending in of ragas to fit into situations of this 251 episode Bengali soap. Mishra is now putting together staff notations for about 500 Rabindrasangeet songs so that composers from the western world can play them. This is expected to release in May.

Says Mishra, "Unlike Bethoven and Mozart, Tagore did not write his own score. Even then, the basic metrics, phrasing and cadence of the original song must be maintained. Liberty may be allowed in musical arrangement or orchestration to any extent". Experimentation was now well on its way. Interestingly, Rabindrasangeet moved out from the domain of the Bengali elite class only during Tagore's centenary celebrations in 1961. During that whole year, artistes of the ilk of Debabrata Biswas, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and Lata Mangeshkar performed in innumerable public programmes, cut CDs and even the behemoth HMV couldn't get enough of Tagore's songs. Before that, it was sung mostly in the highest echelons of Bengali society, within the Brahmo Samaj — a reformist Hindu group that flourished in the 19th Century.

Tagore himself lent it a degree of popularity during the Partition of Bengal in 1905, during which, songs like 'O amar desher maati' and 'Amar shonar Bangla' as well as 'Jana gana mana' (which became India's national anthem in due course) – were composed. In 1971, 'Amar Shonar Bangla' became the national anthem of Bangladesh.

'Jana Gana Mana' was first sung in 1911 at a Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress and was adopted in 1950 by the Constituent Assembly of the Republic of India as its national anthem.

Slowly, Tagore's songs made it to films, which were soulfully rendered by Pankaj Mullick, K L Saigal and Kanan Devi. Films directed by Satyajit Ray, Tarun Majumdar also used Rabindrasangeet to create unforgettable cinematic moments.

Today, almost every Bengali film and television soap is adopting Rabindrasangeet to create a special ambience. Says Sraboni Sen, an accomplished singer who has performed all over the country as well as in the US and other Western countries, "The popularity of Rabindrasangeet has increased by leaps and bounds almost because of its frequent occurrence in TV soaps and films.

But one has to remember that you can play with acoustics but not original lyrics. Tagore doesn't need it and this cannot be enduring".
Sen has over 400 students learning Rabindrasangeet from her and in Kolkata and other districts of Bengal. "The prospect is very bright though instant name and fame does not happen in Rabindrasangeet. Also, outside India, lovers of Rabindrasangeet are extremely serious about listening and propagating the original form," said Sen.

Rahul Mitra, another exponent of Rabindrasangeet from the Dakshini school, believes in traditional rendition of Rabindrasangeet, "Composers and singers who are experimenting with the form, have to attain a benchmark before they can chop and change Tagore". Mitra is known for incorporating dhupadi elements in his style of singing. Interestingly, stringed instruments like the tanpura and the esraj, which used to be the main instruments accompanied to Rabindrasangeet when Tagore was alive and even after his death are now almost extinct.

"These instruments have been completely replaced by the harmonium. Also, earlier, training in shastriya sangeet was a must if you wanted to train in Rabindrasangeet. Now-a-days, it's just a lip service and this affects the sur gyan of a student," informed Mohan Singh, Professor of Sangit Bhaban of Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan.

Needless to say stalwarts like Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Nilima Sen and Shantideb Ghose used the tanpura and the esraj while singing, recounts Singh.

Many experts also rue the fact that the influx of TV shows with the lure of money and playback opportunity, woo good students of music today, snatching them early from the world of Rabindrasangeet.

But they all agree that Tagore's songs appeal strongly to the young and the old alike because of the universal themes and poetry in them. And while the traditional versus experimental debate continues, Rabindrasangeet continues to be embraced by Bengali and the non-Bengali audiences alike all over the world.
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