Asian Music and Dance

Rabindra Sangeet – Gift to Bengal and the world

Ken Hunt pays tribute to Tagore, the Bard of Bengal whose legacy is a vast body of songs for every state and stage of the human existence. Scores of artists from theatre directors to Western classical musicians have gone on to create work which in some form bears the mark of the song-poet. 

Scene: somewhere in British India, circa 1925. A distinguished Bengali musician takes along his young son when he makes a call to a pillar of the Bengali Renaissance. The host, an eminent man of letters, bids the lad sit on his lap and calls for mithai. The gulab jamun duly arrive and said son tucks in, eventually creating a small boy’s predicament. All by himself, he comes up with a solution. He wipes his sticky little fingers through the beard dangling beside him.

Marin County, California, 1993. As we chat in his shrine room in California, the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan’s eyes manage the feat of simultaneously wincing and twinkling, as he recalls that faraway day, when, much to the acute embarrassment of his multi-instrumentalist guru-father, Allauddin Khan, a small boy resourcefully disposed of most of the leftover syrup on the beard of India’s most famous son of the day, Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore, as Robindronath Thakur has been rendered in English for more than a century, is, was and ever shall be the Bard of Bengal. That has nothing to do with him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his book of poetry, Gītājali (‘Song offerings’) – or, important though it is, him being the first non-white Nobel laureate.

Nor has his Bard of Bengal status anything to do with him being the only writer whose words led to two countries’ national anthems. India’s Jana Gana Mana (Adhinayaka Jaya He – ‘Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people’) is stirring. Bangladesh’s Amar Shonar Bangla (‘My Golden Bengal’) cherry-picks from a bigger canvas evoking the Bangla countryside with mango blossom fragrance, paddy field and banyan tree well to the fore. It is less lofty, more desi and more appropriate to Tagore’s core influences, for he delighted in the inspirations of the natural world, of natural history and the world of the senses and the human emotions – so to speak, the kari o komal or ‘sharps and flats’ – the whole palette of emotionality. 

“…a body of song… so culturally defining that it merits its own name.”

Only one song-poet and one language ever created a body of song so grounded in the everyday, so rarefied in aspiration and so culturally defining that it merits its own name. With Rabindra sangeet – also rendered Rabindrasangeet – or ‘Rabindra song’, Tagore took the art, craft and trade of song-poet or poet-singer to new literary and musical heights. Long before the Bombay film industry put filmi sangeet on film-goers’ lips on the first pass, the subcontinent was primarily a place of oral traditions. Generations invested in what was theirs: it was an oral culture in which everything was absorbed without having recourse to written or printed matter. For generations, in West Bengal and Bangladesh the unlettered have cherished and committed Rabindra sangeet to memory. To talk of the ‘unlettered’ is to summon not an image of illiteracy but of oral literacy, a faculty of an altogether different order. 

At its most basic, Rabindra sangeet is a body of around 25,000 songs. Rabindra sangeet bridges cultures and continents. Down the generations, it has been associated with a whole host of professional interpreters, including Supriti Ghosh, Pankaj Mullick, Debabrata ‘George’ Biswas, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay (better known as Hemanta Mukherjee or the Bombay film industry’s Hemant Kumar), Purabi Mukherjee, Suchitra Mitra and, more recently, Isheeta Ganguly, Lopamudra Mitra and the Star Voice of India, Chhote Ustaad and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Juniors teenage power-pack Anwesha – incidentally also a recipient of a Tagore Foundation scholarship. 

“…he has touched people of an artistic bent abroad as well as at home.”

As an inspirational model, he has touched people of an artistic bent abroad as well as at home. In 1916 the soprano Alma Gluck recorded ‘The Bird of the Wilderness’ from The Gardener (1913) in a setting by Edward Horsman. It is an early example of a parallel development in Tagore’s literature: that of composers setting his poetry to music. The Moravian-born composer Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) channelled hearing Tagore in 1922 into his vocal composition Potulný šílenec (‘The Wandering Madman’). In 1989 the Australian film-maker Paul Cox included Ritu Guha Thakurta singing ‘Majhe Majhe Tabo Dekha Dai’ in his Island. That same year Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata opened with Sarmila (or Sharmila) Roy singing his song ‘Nibiro Ghono Andare’. Parenthetically, Roy came with impeccable credentials as daughter of Kshitis Roy, a writer who had worked personally with Tagore, and also recorded Songs of Rabindranath Tagore with that film’s music director, Toshi Tsuchitori. The South Indian playback singer, K.J. Yesudas notably tackled Tagore’s legacy on his Ahimsa (2001), too.

Musically, his own sticky fingers alighted on melodies from many places. Listen to the rhythmicality in melody of ‘Poush Toder Dak Diyechhe’, as Isheeta Ganguly sings it on her Nutan Joubaner Dut (2007). Or ‘O Amar Desher Mati’, as played by the British-based Indo-jazz clarinettist Arun Ghosh on his Northern Namaste (2008). Try not to wallow in the gorgeousness of Tagore’s melodicism. Listen to ‘Purano Sei’ (‘Do You Wish To Forget?’) in its extraordinary piano and clarinet rendition on Zoe and Idris Rahman’s Where Rivers Meet (2008) and try to block Burns’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’ out of your mind. 

The story of Rabindra sangeet proper begins around 1881. What Tagore scholars have dubbed Rabindra sangeet’s first period (1881–1900) started out dominated by classical forms and setting song to Hindustani ragas. Lyrics in the song genre known as caryā gīti, a pan-Hindustan classical sonnet-like form set in raga, have been dated to the ninth to twelfth centuries. Brought up in a privileged, arts-orientated household, Tagore had studied classical music and literature of several sorts. Classicism was, so to speak, his default position.

“…he felt free to take from classical, folk and Baul sources.”

A new wave of influences occurred in Rabindra sangeet’s second phase from 1901 to 1920. Straying further from raga and strict classical song forms, he harnessed his words to folk airs and Baul melodies. In fact, this egalitarianism had undertones of the Baul faith’s Maner Manush – the concept of divinity being located within us, not with some deity or in a fairy godmother-like domain. That unorthodoxy, an explicit rejection of religiosity reliant on deities and perpetuating societal mind control through caste, coincided with him adding a body of patriotic songs to his canon. The third and final tranche is fixed as being between 1921 and 1941 and ushered in his prime years as a song-maker. During this stage he felt free to take from classical, folk and Baul sources and inspirations. Whereas before he was often wordy especially in English – seldom using one word where two would do – now a greater economy and greater depth emerged.

“…Tagore believed that the song’s the thing.” 

Whether writing songs of worship (pūja), the homeland (swadeś), love (prem) or nature (prakrti) – in the last case, especially the tug and pull of the seasons on humanity, aka the cycles of life – Tagore believed that the song’s the thing. Rather as happens with a heavier person spoiling – monopolising – a see-saw ride or a loud person dominating a conversation, he felt that instrumental improvisation of the sort so fondly received in salon recitals stole from his song’s words, distracting and creating an imbalance between music and words. In other words, accompanists were accompanists who had to know their place and their supporting role.

That is why you really have to listen to Suchitra Mitra (1924–2011). With her, you get the gold standard. Even though she missed meeting him personally by twenty days when she began studying at Sangeet Bhavan in Shantiniketan in 1941, the concision of her interpretations is spellbinding. The direction Rabindra sangeet is going with, say, Isheeta Ganguly’s Damaru (2010), fusing Rabindra sangeet and forms like Indian folk-pop, lounge and elektronika, is anybody’s guess. But the most vital function of Rabindra sangeet has always been its prolonged and continuing relevance. In 1966 the Bengali writer Arun Kumar Basu hailed Tagore as arguably the highest model of composer-poet for future generations. Feel free to speak Tagore’s name in the same breath as Burns, Goethe, Pushkin and Shakespeare.

Carrying the torch into the 21st century

Rishi Banerjee, born and raised in Manchester UK, has made his passion for Rabindra Sangeet the focus of his life outside of the day job. He performs regularly in the UK, and further afield including the home of this genre, Kolkata, Bengal.

Rishi has been singing since the age of 3, enthused by his mother Ballari Banerjee, who gave him a firm foundation in Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali music. At the age of 14, Rishi sought the guidance of Shantiniketan exponent Pratima Mallick. 

Rishi recently moved to London and has had the opportunity to learn Hindustani classical and take voice training from a former Srutinandan teacher- Chiranjib Chakraborty and Kolkata-based dhrupad vocalist Pt Falguni Mitra. 

Rishi records for Kolkata’s Tara Muzik on a regular basis and has featured as their special guest on their popular breakfast show Aaj Sakaler Amontrone twice. He is proud to present his first album – Phire Chol Maatir Taane, released by P&M Records.

In the 150th year of Tagore’s birth, coinciding with the death of the most loved of Rabindra Sangeet interpreters, Suchitra Mitra, Rishi has created a tribute performance in her memory. Bringing together UK-based Rabindra Sangeet artists in the first half followed by a three-way interaction between classical vocalist Chiranjib Chakraborty, saxophonist Jesse Bannister and himself representing the Rabindra Sangeet tradition, ragas and songs are explored and improvised upon. Tobe Mone Rekho, (‘Do Remember Me’) will be touring the UK.



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