Rabindranath Tagore’s cornucopia of songs

Rabindranath Tagore’s cornucopia of songs

Anyone who has watched Satyajit Ray’s excellent documentary film on Rabindranath will remember the scenes in which we see him as a boy flitting from room to room, listening to the musical recitals going on in his palatial ancestral home in Jorasanko, Kolkata and recall that he grew up in an exceptionally musically inclined family. Anyone who has read any biography on him will also be aware that he grew up at a time when educated Bengalis based in Kolkata were exposed to western as well as Indian classical music.

Rabindranath Tagore (1867-1941) was not only a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction, plays and prose essays and a painter, but also a prolific lyricist who set well over 2000 of his lyrics to music. Most often these songs were composed as the words came to the poet with the tune. But few of them were not written and tuned for special occasions, at the request of close ones, and for dance-dramas and musical plays that he had penned and was bent on producing. On occasions he would also convert a poem into a song. Together, these songs are known as Rabindra Sangeet in Bengali, that is to say Tagore songs. They are widely sung all over the Indian subcontinent and wherever Bengalis, either from West Bengal or Bangladesh, have migrated or settled down in large numbers. A number of them have also been set to music by a few Western composers, ranging from the Czech composer Leos Janeck to the French musicologist Alain Danielou. Moreover, a substantial number of his song-lyrics have been translated into other Indian languages and are regularly performed in concerts and even in films across the subcontinent.
Anyone who has watched Satyajit Ray’s excellent documentary film on Rabindranath will remember the scenes in which we see him as a boy flitting from room to room listening to the musical recitals going on in his palatial ancestral home in Jorasanko, Kolkata and recall that he grew up in an exceptionally musically inclined family. Anyone who has read any biography on him will also be aware that he grew up at a time when educated Bengalis based in Kolkata were exposed to western as well as Indian classical music. But Rabindranath would also pick up tunes wherever he went in a life of ceaseless voyaging, for he travelled a lot within Bengal and journeyed on many an occasion to the rest of the Indian subcontinent, Europe and America. Consequently, quite a few of his songs reflect the influence of Carnatic classical music, Christian hymns, western ballads, or operas. Given to musical experimentation and continual exploration of new genres, he would regularly compose songs that reflected his restless search for new outlets for his creative impulses. He saw the songs that came to him as nature’s gift, but cultivated them artistically for well over six decades or so. Because he had a good singing voice for a long time, he would often sing these songs publically as well as at home. He would also evolve musically in his lifetime until he eventually developed the confidence to set tunes to his lyrics in a manner distinctly his own. The only thing he could not do musically, it would seem, is to preserve his songs permanently through staff notation—something he would call upon one of his companions or family members adept in the process to do for him.
In the Jorasanko house, Rabindranath became exposed to Indian classical music in its purest form exemplified by ragas, for the Tagores, like other prominent land-owning or rich, trading Bengali families patronised professional musicians who were, so to speak, to the manner born, and who displayed their musical skills in the genre for prosperous patrons with cultivated tastes. In addition, he was able to absorb the tappa variant of the classical form that had become popular in Kolkata among musical aficionados by the middle of the nineteenth century. As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, in which music played a crucial part in devotional service, he was exposed early to the use of classical ragas welded to words praising the Supreme Deity. And occasionally, the growing Tagore would also hear songs of the popular kirtan tradition in his neighbourhood or localities in Bengal, where passionate love of God would be the theme. These songs were played to the accompaniment of popular musical instruments and composed in language that often obscured the boundary between divine and secular love.
Not surprisingly, Rabindranath’s earliest attempts at musical composition drew on these classical traditions and their variants and the more popular forms of music that sung of spiritual love melodiously. Like his brothers, he began composing songs set to words he had penned that could be used in Brahmo liturgical services. Like them, too, he became adept at what was called bhanga gaan, or songs that broke away from the original classical mould in which they were set. Such songs were especially suited to the tastes of Rabindranath, who did not study music formally and who hated bondage in any form. As was the case with his education, he refused to be constrained by orthodoxy in his music, no doubt because he seemed temperamentally averse to adherence to formal ways of learning.
Senior members of Rabindranath’s family soon recognised that there was no way of countering his independent frame of mind when it came to education or the arts. However, they also acknowledged and eventually encouraged him in his creative endeavours, appreciating his imaginative brilliance and boundless enthusiasm in coming up with new songs as well as verses, plays and fiction. It was thus that they helped him along the way that led him to become not only an outstanding writer but also a leading composer. Rabindranath’s first song was, in fact, created for a play his older brother Jyotirindranath was writing in 1874, that is to say, when the poet-composer was only fourteen years old, and the family would be with him in the future as well, as he burst into song after song subsequently.
In addition to writing devotional songs for Brahmo services, Rabindranath started to compose music set to love lyrics that he penned for women he was intimate with, either in the Tagore household, or in places that he visited, in India or overseas. Still in his teens, he created kirtan-like songs in imitation of Vaisnav poetry that sung of the passionate love of the deities Radha and Krishna in a dialect he had created, poetry that he passed off as creations of the supposedly medieval poet Bhanusingh. But, as in his spiritual songs, he would also resort in his love songs from time to time to classical ragas to compose songs of love for the women he loved or came close to loving.
A new outlet for Rabindranath’s creativity came to him through his exposure to western music when his father sent him to England so that he could have his till then truant son trained in the profession of law, despite the mounting evidence of the son’s temperamental disinclination to persist in any course of formal education that would lead to a profession. The young Rabindranath seemed to have been particularly impressed in his English sojourn by operatic plays that he had witnessed, and by English, Irish and Celtic melodies that he had heard being sung. Back in India, but without a law degree, he would draw on these sources to compose some lovely songs for musical plays that he wrote such as Valmiki Pratibha (1881) and Kalmrigaya (1882). In the process, Rabindranath pioneered the fusion of western musical traditions with Indian ones in Bengal, and quite characteristically displayed amazing originality in such music composition, as in other forms of artistic expression.
Rabindranath’s songs were particularly distinctive in the way the words blended with the tunes and the manner in which the mood created through the words and the melody chosen complemented each other perfectly. Gradually and inevitably, Rabindranath also began to produce distinctive songs by introducing all sorts of variations to the tunes that he had borrowed from diverse musical traditions until they became distinctly his own form of music—Rabindra Sangeet. On a few occasions, he invented his own ragas and on others, he came up with his own improvisations on traditional melodies. As he developed musically, he showed his originality in the rhythmic side of song composition as well by setting them to taal or beat formations he had invented in addition to the ones he had utilised from the existing stock of taals of the Indian tradition. And on occasions, he dispensed with any kind of taal, feeling then that he would like to free his compositions fully from any kind of rhythmic constraints set by orthodox dictates of song writing.
In addition to the devotional and love songs that he was writing in early adulthood, Rabindranath would write lyric poems from time to time about the seasons of Bengal. He seemed to be drawn particularly to composing songs about the spring, rainy and autumnal seasons of Bengal, where the year is divided into six seasons because of distinct variations in the weather at these times of the year. But when his father decided to put his seemingly unworldly son to work and sent him to East Bengal to take over the management of several large estates, Rabindranath came up with a deluge of songs that reflected the bounty of nature there. In particular, he composed song after song of the rainy season in a part of the world where the monsoons dominate the lives of its inhabitants and the imagination of its artists. Often, these and other songs composed at this time would reflect the influence of the baul tradition of the region, created by itinerant folk singers whose lyrics were tinged with esoteric lore that appealed to the at times mystically inclined Rabindranath. Later, when Rabindranath would establish his school and university in Santiniketan in a drier part of Bengal, he would have another phase of musical creativity where songs of a quite different spring and autumnal as well as monsoonal landscape would come to him in profusion once again. There, too, he would invite the bauls of the region and embrace their music and let his own compositions be influenced by it.
At the turn of the century, Rabindranath was for a time led into intense political activity as Bengalis spearheaded the Indian movement towards self-rule in the Swadeshi movement. When Bengal was split into two in 1905, he was drawn into the anti-partition movement as well. One result of his involvement in such nationalistic activities was an outpouring of patriotic songs celebrating undivided Bengal’s beauty and distinctive qualities. Rabindranath would eventually detach himself from such activity as he became increasingly wary of movements that divided people or made them violent in the name of nationalism, but an indirect result of his interaction

Indira Devi and Rabindranath Tagore in Valmiki Pratibha / [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

with these movements was the creation of some of his best known patriotic songs, including the ones that became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.
The first decade of the twentieth century was also one of continual bereavement for Rabindranath, for he lost his father, wife and a number of children in quick succession then. The intense feeling of loss and his overwhelming sorrow on these occasions as well as his attempts to cope with these deaths and overcome grief led to some outstanding song-lyrics that would eventually find a place in a volume of Bengali verse called Gitanjali (1910). When he travelled to England in 1912, he used many of these song-lyrics and some others from other volumes of his verse and translated then into English in a collection titled Gitanjali: Song Offerings. In England, through the help of the distinguished artist William Rothenstein, a family friend whom he had first met in Kolkata, he was able to read his translations as well as sing them in their Bengali versions to a select group of poets and artists that included W B Yeats and Ezra Pound. Both were moved by the performance and Yeats took a leading role, along with Rothenstein, to have the poems published. The rest, as we know, is history, for the lyric poems would take the western world by storm and would lead to Rabindranath’s Nobel Prize in a year’s time.
Rabindranath used part of the Nobel Prize money to set up his university, Visva-Bharati, in Santiniketan. The fame that the prize brought meant that he would travel all over the world for years by invitation afterwards. But he also used these tours to raise money for his institution through lectures that he gave to raise awareness about it in western circles, and to invite the West’s and Japan and China’s intellectuals, so that they could become part of his experiment in university education, whose aim was to encompass the world of learning in a single nest. The university itself had a music department that would eventually become a leading centre for learning Rabindra Sangeet and doing research on his songs, musical plays and dance-dramas.
In these final decades of Rabindranath’s life, he continued to make use of his exposure to different cultures and people to enrich his art. A dance performance that he saw in Bali, or a passion play he attended in Germany, or musical performances he went to in southern or western or northern India, would be grist to the mill of Rabindranath the lyricist and would influence his songs directly or indirectly. They would also help him in composing dance-dramas and musical plays that he wrote at this time for performance in his university or to raise funds for it in other parts of India.
Increasingly, he was drawn to composing songs for special occasions such as festivals celebrating spring or the rainy season or winter that were organised annually on his university campus. Increasingly, too, he would respond to requests made to him to create songs for occasions such as marriages for movements or people that he felt close to. The consequence of such composition was that in addition to songs of devotion, love and the seasons, and songs devised for his plays and dance-dramas, he would be filling the pages of his song books with what he called ‘anushtanik sangeet,’ or music for special occasions.
Even before Rabindranath was awarded with the Nobel Prize, his fame as a singer and composer accompanied his growing reputation as Bengal’s leading writer. Not surprisingly, his songs begun to be performed everywhere, on all occasions and even more after his recognition in the West because of the publication of Gitanjali: Song Offerings. Soon leading singers of Bengal began to perform the songs on public occasions. Initially, Rabindranath appeared to have encouraged them in their performances, and tolerated improvisations, as is the practice in Indian classical and semi-classical music, not to mention popular music. But he soon felt that his words and tunes needed to be adhered to more closely than was the practice then. He felt that improvisation beyond a limit, or the use of instruments that deflected attention away from his harmonic blend of verse and melody were not good practices too.
To store his lyrics and melodies for posterity in a permanent form Rabindranath turned his attention to the creation of Gitabitan, where almost all the songs he had written till his old age were anthologised in a manner that would be accessible easily and in an order that he felt would best articulate his thematic intentions permanently. In the final version of the anthology that he completed in 1938, but was eventually published in 1941, the year of his death, he divided his lyrics on the basis of their contents into six sections: Puja (worship), Prem (love), Prakriti (nature and the seasons), Bichitra (variety/miscellany), Swadeshi (patriotic) and Aanushtanik (for special occasions). Appended to these sections were the songs he performed for his musical plays and dance dramas. Within each of the six sections, he took care to organise the songs in sequences. The devotional songs begins, for instance, with lyrics that reflect on the divine source from which he felt they had sprang in him, and then encompasses prayer-like songs or ones that record paths to enlightenment. The songs of nature, to take another instance, were organised according to the order of seasons in the Bengali calendar. As for the tunes, by the time of his death, he had many of them recorded through staff notations. These were published at first quite randomly but eventually came out in collected volumes.
Another way in which Rabindranath attempted to ensure that his songs would be sung in the spirit in which he wrote the lyrics and composed tunes for them was to offer his blessings to singers he felt had interpreted them properly. In his lifetime he displayed especially his appreciation of singers such as Shahana Devi and Pankaj Kumar Mullick. Rabindranath also took an active interest in the instructions being given to singers in the music department of Visva-Bharati. He himself was able to record some of his songs for posterity, although by the time he made the recordings, his voice was well past its prime and had lost its fabled tenor excellence.

An illustration of Tagore from the book Mahatma Gandhi, His Life, Writings and Speeches (1917) /[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After Rabindranth passed away, the Visva-Bharati Board became the copyright holder of all his works. It pursued its intention to maintain control over all recordings of Rabindra Sangeet so that recordings did not deviate from the intentions of the poet-composer as recorded in the comments he had made about interpretations and performances of his music. For a long time the Board performed its duties with enthusiasm and recordings made by Pankaj, popular singers such as Hemonta Mukhopadhyay and Chinmoy Chatterjee, and Visva-Bharati trained singers like Kanika Mukherjee and Suchitra Mitra made Rabindranath’s songs immensely popular all over Bengal in the decades subsequent to his death. But as is often the case, zealotry and fundamentalist tendencies can overtake people who have overly ‘purist’ intentions. In the late sixties, for example, the Visva-Bharati Musical Board showed such tendencies by preventing recordings being made by the most popular Rabindra Sangeet singer of the period, Debabrata Biswas, by accusing him of taking too much liberty with the songs. Fortunately for Rabindra Sangeet, the copyright law that prevented Debabrata from recording his versions of Rabinranath’s songs eventually lapsed. Debabrata’s admirers were able then to release private recordings of his versions and to date he remains the most popular singer of Rabindra Sangeet.

Rabindranath Tagore reading in his study sometime before 1941 /
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The slackening of the Visva-Bharati Board’s hold on Rabindra Sangeet recordings has meant that others too have being treading the path laid out by Debabrata in performing Rabindranath’s songs innovatively. They are now sung not only in the orthodox manner sanctioned by tradition, and in the spirit that they were supposedly meant to be performed as laid out in the staff notations, but also experimentally and enthusiastically all over Bengal and Bangladesh. Of course, at times attempts at ‘fusion’, and presenting the songs with western musical instruments, or in a tempo or a manner that seems to go against the spirit of the songs, can be very off-putting for the Rabindra Sangeet devotee schooled in its traditions, but more often than not the results appear to confirm the potential the songs have of being reinterpreted time and again according to the interpretive flair as well as the technical excellence of the singer.
In any case, Rabindranath’s songs have shown their adaptability to changing tastes and acceptability to generations of Bengali music lovers but also outside West Bengal and Bangladesh. They are sung everywhere and on all occasions and recorded again and again by artists of all ages. Prescient in so many ways, Rabindranath had predicted two years before his death in 1939 that he would be most remembered by his songs. As he put it to an admirer on that occasion with wry irony, ‘You see, Rabi Thakur writes songs not at all badly, you have to admit they work pretty well….Is it a few songs I wrote? Thousands of songs, a sea of songs…I have flooded the land of Bengal with songs. You can forget me, but how can you forget my songs?’ (quoted by Kalpana Bardhan in Of Love, Nature and Devotion: Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore; New Delhi: OUP, 2008).
Most Bengalis haven’t, and the people of Bangladesh and India haven’t, as witnessed in the contemporary popularity of Rabindra Sangeet, not only amongst Bengalis, but also in other parts of India. And, of course, Rabindranath’s Aamar Sonar Bangla is Bangladesh’s national anthem, and Jana Gana Mana, India’s. Sri Lanka’s national anthem, Namo Namo Matha composed by Ananda Samarakoon, a student of the Bengali writer at Visva-Bharati, reflects his influence in its lyrics and composition. The cornucopia that is Rabindra Sangeet has thus been the source of musical satisfaction and pleasurable listening in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere for generations by this time.

Dr Fakrul Alam is a Bangladeshi academic, writer, researcher and translator. Currently, he serves as the Pro-Vice Chancellor of East West University. Previously, he served as the Professor of the Department of English, University of Dhaka (DU). He is the author of Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English, South Asian Writers in English, Jibananada Das: Selected Poems, Bharati Mukherjee and Daniel Defoe: Colonial Propagandist. He has been the editor of Dhaka University Studies, Part A (Humanities) and the Asiatic Society Journal. He has also been in the jury of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for 2003 (Eurasia region). He received the SAARC Literature Award in 2012 and the Bangla Academy Award in 2013. He also translated Unfinished Memories by Bangabandhu and Bishad Sindhu by Mir Mosharraf Hussain.

December 2017

Anyone who has watched Satyajit Ray’s excellent documentary film on Rabindranath will remember the scenes in which we see him as a boy flitting from room to room, listening to the musical recitals going on in his palatial ancestral home in Jorasanko, Kolkata and recall that he grew up in an exceptionally musically inclined family.…

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