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Monday, July 04, 2022

Tagore Sings Again

The end of the copyright on Rabindra sangeet was greeted with poor copies. But recently,competent musicians have realised Tagore’s liberalism and melodic sound.

Written by Arunabha Deb | New Delhi |
March 25, 2012 2:43:26 am

A thoroughbred Delhi boy once asked me,“What is Rabindra sangeet? Is it modern? Is it classical?” Vague analogies saved the moment,but the real answer remains elusive. It is almost impossible to label a body of work that draws from dhrupad,khayal,Carnatic,Western classical and folk,and yet emerges as an organic form and not an amalgam. And then comes the difficulty of explaining what Rabindra sangeet means to Bengalis and why. To an observer,it would seem odd that a race of people falls back on a single man’s songs (or snippets thereof) for all occasions — from a funeral procession at Neemtala ghat to a Sourav Ganguly cover drive at Eden Gardens. Tagore had famously said,“If they remember me for nothing else,they will remember me for my songs.” Generations of Bengalis ensured that their Gurudev did not have to eat his words.

Until 2001,Rabindra sangeet was performed in an absurd set-up. After Tagore’s death in 1941,Vishwa Bharati in Shantiniketan held the copyright in all of Tagore’s work,songs included. Vishwa Bharati instituted a music board. All Rabindra sangeet albums had to be submitted to the board for approval. If the members felt that an artiste’s rendition of a song adhered to Tagore’s notations (contained in volumes called Swarabitan),the album could be released. This ludicrous system suited Vishwa Bharati’s other efforts to deify and fossilise Tagore. All their publications of Tagore’s work — and only they had the rights to publish till 2001 — had yellow covers; cover art was considered an excess; just as any interpretation of a song that deviated from the music board’s idea of the “authentic” was considered offensive and struck down.

When the copyright was lifted,all hell broke loose. There were rock versions,“soulful” guitar versions and even Valentine’s Day programmes around Rabindra sangeet. Just to snub Vishwa Bharati,artistes started performing songs from the second stanza. Anjan Dutta used a dhikchik version of Pagla hawar badol dine in his film The Bong Connection (2006). The film sunk,but the song became a rage despite its prelude being prefaced by an “oo lah lah”. Purists cringed,but this churning was inevitable.

Now that a decade has passed,though,the schoolboy excitement is gradually giving way to more serious reconsiderations of Tagore’s soundscape. In a recent spate of albums,competent musicians have realised Tagore’s music in different musical contexts. Tagore,whose liberalism inspired him to embrace the music of the world,would have liked nothing more. Vishwa Bharati’s pettiness prevented some of the greatest of Bengali composers — Salil Choudhury,RD Burman — from working with Rabindra sangeet,but finally,meaningful works are emerging.

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Leading the way are Srabani Sen and Prattyush Banerjee. Sen is the biggest star of Rabindra sangeet today and Banerjee is the busiest music arranger. Teenagers who otherwise don’t care much for Rabindra sangeet throng Sen’s concerts; a recent solo concert in Kolkata had more than 2,500 listeners. Banerjee’s tracks force listeners to re-imagine songs that they have known forever. Apart from being a composer,he is one of the finest sarod players in the country. His guru,Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta,was the first to perform Hindustani classical alongside Rabindra sangeet,when he composed bandishes derived from Tagore songs.

Banerjee has inherited his guru’s musical curiosity. In the popular 2011 album Yatra 2,his tracks provide a platform for Sen and classical vocalist Kaushiki Desikan. Desikan performs the root ragas and Sen sings the songs based on those. Rakho rakho re,based on Raga Kedar,which they sing together,is particularly enjoyable. Banerjee and Sen have both ventured into non-traditional soundscapes. In Tagore and We (2011),Sen collaborates with guitarist Stefan Stoppok. For Banerjee,drawing from Western classical orchestral patterns or using jazz motifs in Rabindra sangeet tracks would not be exceptional. He is also the first to have created an electric sarod (named Jyotirdhwani) which he plays on many of his tracks.

He feels that more artistes will start placing Tagore’s songs in the backdrop of different musical genres. “A singer is also a listener. And like listeners,singers are also exposed to world music,” says Banerjee. Artistes will find melodic connections between Rabindra sangeet and many other genres,particularly because Tagore’s compositions inherently contain these influences. For instance,Tagore uses an invocation to the goddess Meenakshi of Madurai,written by Mutthuswami Dikshit,as the basis for his Basanti he bhubanomohini,while one of his most popular songs,Purano sheyi diner kautha,originates from the Scottish song Auld lang syne.

Banerjee is cautious to add that his experiments with arrangement can at best enhance the singing. “Musical arrangement can never gain precedence over the actual singing. Ultimately,the song drives a track,” he says. Sen agrees. “The force of his (Tagore’s) compositions are such that a plain rendition is often enough to create an impact. I have been taught to sing (by her mother Sumitra Sen,a Rabindra sangeet veteran) in a way that is free of mannerisms and I try to adhere to that,” she says. Yet,she takes several liberties with the songs,interpreting them through her own pacing,pauses and syncopations. It has worked well,and she is the reigning Midas. All her albums have been sellouts. “I am particularly happy that young people find my singing accessible,” she says.

When it comes to accessing Rabindra sangeet and spreading it beyond the Bengali speaking world,the greatest barrier is language. As Ezra Pound wrote about Tagore’s songs,“The tunes and the words are knit together,are made together…” The sounds and cadences of the Bengali language partially help to carry the essence of a song to a listener who does not know Bengali. Pound describes the language as “fluid” and a language that “sounds more like good Greek than any language I know of”. But,eventually,the meanings of the songs remain ironically faithful to Pound’s description: Greek,to non-Bengali listeners. The few renditions of Rabindra sangeet in Hindi and English,are likely to have turned people away from it for good. Most of them have been transliterations,syllables crammed in or dragged out to match the original word for word.

Romancing Tagore (2012) containing Tagore’s songs translated into Urdu nazms by Indira Varma and sung by Shubha Mudgal and Najam Sheraz has broken new ground,as no effort has been made to accommodate every word from the original. Mudgal has sung Rabindra sangeet in Bengali before,but she is far happier with this effort. “I always felt that there was something fraudulent about my singing Rabindra sangeet in Bengali. Even though I could get the pronunciation,I couldn’t quite get the intonation. Unless you internalise the music,you can’t get the andaaz and the lehjaa,” she says. In Romancing Tagore,the language determines the ethos of the songs; their delivery shares little in common with the original and,perhaps,that is why those unfamiliar with Rabindra sangeet will not be intimidated (or put off) by this album.

Amidst all the exciting new ventures one can still quibble. The esraj-tabla-vocal triumvirate that once gave Rabindra sangeet its distinctive sound has almost vanished from commercial recordings. New sounds and new interpretations are welcome,but sadly,they are replacing the traditional sound. Recording companies seem to be commissioning only those Rabindra sangeet albums that come tagged with a “concept” But Banerjee gives hope. “Commercially,things are very shaky,” he says,“The companies are still not sure if there is a formula.”

Listeners of Rabindra sangeet should hope companies never hit upon this magic formula. While they are unsure,at least,there will be a steady flow of both traditional and experimental albums. Eleven years of creative freedom have certainly refreshed Tagore’s songs,but forgetting the old way of singing Rabindra sangeet would be a needless price to pay.

The writer is a freelance music journalist

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