Inside the World of Tagore's Music

Bhaswati Ghosh


Rabindranath Tagore: The singer and his song, Reba Som; Penguin/Viking, India; Pp xvi+291; ISBN 9780670082483


Even though his musical creations form but a fraction of Tagore’s overall oeuvre, throughout his writing and creative life, music remained a much-evolving constant. “Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song” by Reba Som, a historian and Rabindrasangeet singer by training, claims to be a “biography of Tagore with music as its leitmotif”. To her credit, the book lives up to that promise.

Rabindranath grew up in a musical atmosphere marked by the practice of classical Indian music alongside some measure of interest in Western classical music, the latter “kept alive by sections of Calcutta’s English-educated classes and wealthy patrons of music...” Some members of the Tagore family were proficient in both these traditions of music. The book begins with this musical scenario and shows how young Rabi’s ears were being influenced by such eclectic sounds as Indian and Western classical notes, Nidhubabu’s tappas and kirtans.

At 17, Rabindranath sailed to England; it was his father’s (Maharshi Debendranath Tagore) wish for Rabi to become a barrister there. Although that didn’t happen, the young man used his time in the foreign country to gain insights into its culture and music. Such was the impact of English, Scottish and Irish songs on Tagore, that he composed several songs based on these tunes. His musical plays, “Valmiki Pratibha” and “Kal Mrigaya” feature quite a few of these songs. The book mentions how “he (Tagore) was struck by the ease with which many of them (the English, Scottish, Irish songs) conveyed emotions such as laughter or merriment, which was unknown in the Indian musical repertoire.”

In keeping with the format of a conventional biography, the book features Rabindranath’s personal story--his marriage, life as a householder, and his days in Shelaidah in East Bengal, the last one being a period of particular creative fecundity for him. It was in Shelaidah, where as the manager of his ancestral estates, Tagore found the freedom to randomly compose songs, without the pressure of deadlines to produce for Brahmo festivals. This, along with the abundance of natural beauty in the villages of East Bengal, lent a fresh burst to the fountain of his creativity. In a letter to his niece, Indira Debi, he wrote, “The last two days a storm has been raging, similar to the description in my song--Jhauro jhauro borishe the midst of this imagine a hapless, homeless man drenched from top to toe standing on the roof of his steamer...the last two days I have been singing this song over and a result the pelting sound of the intense rain, the wail of the wind, the sound of the heaving Gorai river, have assumed a fresh life and found a new language and I have felt like a major actor in this new musical drama unfolding before me.”

For the music enthusiast interested more in the organic, creative process of Rabindranath’s song composition, the best sections of the book are those dealing with his thoughts on music and associated concepts. The chapter, “Music and Feeling” explains at length Tagore’s interpretation of and response to the ragas of the Indian classical music system. The emotional and spiritual influence of different ragas as well as their corresponding association with different hours of the day left a strong impression on Tagore. His sensitivity towards ragas is evident when one reads that “the pathos of the purabi raga reminded Tagore of the evening tears of a lonely widow, while kanara was the confused realization of a nocturnal wanderer who had lost his way. In bhupali he seemed to hear a voice in the wind saying ‘stop and come hither’. Paraj conveyed to him the deep slumber that overtook one at night’s end.”

Similarly, Tagore’s idea of jeevan devata is extensively discussed in a chapter of the same name. Close to the baul concept of moner manush or man of the heart, Tagore’s  jeevan devata was “the life force of his deep recesses, which found expression in his poetry or songs.” In a letter to Mohit Chandra Sen, quoted in the book, the poet explains in detail his idea of jeevan devata, which to him was the inner driving force for all his actions, “the mediator between God and me,” as he put it. It’s not surprising then that Tagore was deeply impacted by the philosophy and vision of bauls, and correspondingly, by their music. One learns how, by using folk forms of Bengal--baul, bhatiyali and kirtan as the base for several of his songs, Rabindranath brought these forms within the mainstream musical scene in Bengal. That too at a time when these forms were looked down upon by a classical-endorsing bhadralok Bengali genteel.

Any story of Rabindranath’s life can not be complete without the mention of the women who helped his creativity soar at different stages in his life. Arguably, the most endearing of these was Kadambari Debi, Tagore’s sister-in-law and playmate, who keenly followed young Rabi’s creative blossoming. When sixteen-year-old Rabindranath wrote “Bhanusingher Padavali”, a collection of poems written in the Brajbuli dialect, not only did Kadambari Debi approve it; she even “encouraged the publication of some of them in Bharati.” One can imagine then the blow dealt to him when, within four months of Tagore’s marriage, Kadambari Debi committed suicide. In his essay Bibidha Prashanga (1883), he dedicated the last paragraph of his collection to Kadambari Debi and wrote, “...remember the day of dense monsoon clouds, torrential showers and Vidyapati’s song...they have all gone away...but their history is recorded in my one else but you can see them...”

What Kadamabari Debi had done in the morning of his life to spark off the poet’s muse, a lady from the Western shore, Victoria Ocampo seemed to do in the evening of his life. An aristocratic socialite, Ocampo played host to Tagore and his friend, Leonard Elmhirst. In the chapter dedicated to her relationship with the poet, one learns about the song Taar haathe chhilo, which Rabindranath adapted from “Baudol”, one of his poems inspired by Ocampo. “Set in raga malhar, Tagore’s song was a masterly match of verse and melody...”

“The Singer and His Song” also connects the reader with the other human strings that helped bring out the notes of Tagore’s musical virtuosity. Of these, the music-loving world owes its gratitude to Dinendranath Tagore, the poet’s grandnephew, who is primarily responsible for preserving Tagore’s songs through notations. In almost a replay of his granduncle’s story, Dinendranath went to England to train as a barrister, but instead learned Western music there. A wizard in staff notation, he had “a photographic memory for musical notes, writing notations without the help of any musical instrument.” The book recounts several charming accounts that reflect the extent to which Rabindranath relied on Dinendranath’s ability to convert his randomly-composed songs into precise notations.

There are also references to the correspondence between Tagore and his niece, Indira Debi, to whom he wrote several letters on the subject of music. To her he wrote without any inhibition on how he found the time of bathing to be the most conducive for composing new songs; on his comparison of Western and Indian classical music; and about his intuitive, deeply-felt responses to Indian ragas and the way they took one to both one’s innermost emotions as well as to a place beyond the immediate and the tangible.

Tagore’s songs themselves are similar to his association of ragas to feelings. As Som points out, even in his songs of nature, “not merely did he describe seasons in their grandeur but projected into them the matching emotions latent in the human heart...” In a letter to Indira Debi, Tagore reflects on how, during the monsoon season, the events remained the same--clouds gathering, downpour, thunder and lightning. However, meanings hitherto unknown to the heart could only be revealed through songs.

In this context, it is relevant to mention a fact that is often overlooked—only a small fraction of all Tagore’s songs are “bhanga gaan” or compositions based on other external influences, including Indian classical music. As Subhas Choudhury mentions in his book “Gitabitaner Jagat” (গীতবিতানের জগৎ; Papyrus, 2004) (translation mine):

“The coherence between ingredients and expression gives birth to a creation. In Rabindrasangeet, such coherence is fully on view. About ten percent of the entire body of Rabindrasangeet has been created using various other musical influences such as Hindustani classical music, Bengali folk music, regional music or even Western music. The songs thus created fall in a particular category called “bhanga gaan”. While creating these songs, Tagore was at times attracted by the beauty of the lyrics or the jingle of the words, at other times by the magic of the tune, and at yet other times by simply the play of rhythm. This would result in songs that have an enduring appeal. In these, the creator was not as much interested in the process as in simply the creation itself. This is an amazing story of trans-creation—in many cases, the only link between the original source and Tagore’s composition are just some information. In most cases, Tagore’s songs have gained fresh value by letting go of all the constraints of the original.

Unfortunately though, in many television shows, the discussion on these songs is carried out in a way that appears to convey that there is no element of originality in Tagore’s songs. Even more curiously, at the very start of these programmes, the original compositions are presented so as to establish their resemblance to Rabindrasangeet. What remains unmentioned is the fact that these types of songs constitute only ten percent of Tagore’s musical creation. Such an attempt—to elevate the stature of Rabindrasangeet—is not new. At one time, the Calcutta radio station regularly used to broadcast “classical Rabindrasangeet.” Rabindrasangeet is now part of postgraduate curriculums…Research papers are being published on Rabindrasangeet in universities. Despite that, there is this peculiar effort to cast Rabindrasangeet in the classical mould.”

“The Singer and His Song” covers other aspects of this towering genius’s life. On view are Tagore’s vision for Visva-Bharati, the university he founded; music was a core component of the ethos he envisioned for the institution. The book also showcases Tagore’s paintings, an art form he took up only towards the end of his life, but with frenzied passion. Particular paintings are shown to correspond to certain lines from his songs, indicating the interconnectedness of the two art forms.

Despite being heavy on research, “The Singer and His Song” is high on the readability quotient  because of the anecdotal style Som has chosen to write in. What could have been an academic work is thus accessible to any lay reader and Rabindrasangeet enthusiast. Although a number of books have been written about Rabindrasangeet--ranging from its technical aspects (Rabi Rager Shondhaney by Sudhir Chanda, Rabindrasangeet Jijnasa by Suchitra Mitra) to the stories behind many of Tagore’s songs (Ganer Pichhoney Rabindranath by Samir Sengupta), most of them are in Bengali, which limits their readership.

What make Reba Som’s book’s value go up by a few more notches are the English versions of sixty of Tagore’s songs (with the Bengali originals printed in Roman script), all translated by Som herself. The book’s limited first edition came with a CD containing these songs in the original. For the uninitiated, this is an engaging and entertaining tool for grasping the finer nuances of this inspired-by-many-forms, yet deeply original form of music. 

Published in Parabaas, (22 Shraban) August, 2011.

Bhaswati Ghosh. Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation,.....(more)

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