Tagore & the test of time

On 13 March Rabindranath wrote: “Aji hote satabarsha pore ke tumi poricho boshi mor kabitakhani koutuhal bhore (A hundred years hence, who are you reading my poem with such inquisitiveness?)” The poet was only 35 years of age yet confident that the intrinsic timelessness of his works would survive the ruthlessness of time. He had said more than once that even if his poetry is not remembered his songs would be treasured even by posterity. Tarun Goswami muses on the enthusiasm of the new generation in Tagore’s works in the post copyright era.

Till 1991, Visva Bharati went all out to observe the so called ‘purity’ of Tagore works despite controversies, before copyright was withdrawn. The complete works that the university published in 1961 had scholars like Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and Ramesh Chandra Mazumdar who ensured high production quality. But after 1991, all publishers, big and small from College street para were busy churning out Tagore works in smaller volumes. Poems, short stories and songs were published as Sanchayita, Galpoguchho and Gitabitan. The production was cheap, aimed at providing Tagore works at a low cost to the masses.

Unfortunately, the books are replete with spelling mistakes and other errors in the text. Often the text in the essays has been abridged and an otherwise laudable effort was marred. But the songs of Tagore, after being liberated from the shackles of Visva Bharati, of late, are being experimented with by the current crop of musicians including musical band members. Rabindranath had profound knowledge of Indian classical music with training from great exponents including Jadubhatta. He also had a good knowledge of Western music evident from the use of Western melodies in songs like Kotobar o bhebechinu or Purano sei diner katha. Those who prepared scores of his songs like Kangalicharan Sen, Dinendranath Tagore, Indira Debi, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani and Anadi Dastidar were also great scholars of Indian classical music.

Tagore was the first composer in India to regard his songs as inviolable entities in which other singers should not introduce their own variations as they habitually do when singing anybody’s songs. He was the first Indian composer who felt his compositions were finished pieces of work, where ornaments were admissible only when he himself had intended them to be. A change in the melody, a change in the rhythm and an extra trill or run here or there only could detract from the original meaning for his music had the same profundity as his poetry. His use of orchestration was also minimal on the same grounds and preferred the esraj over harmonium.

During Tagore’s lifetime famous actress Kanan Devi sang Pran chae chokkhu na chae in a Bengali movie, Parichay in 1940. Pankaj Kumar Mullick had sung Diner seshe ghumer deshe in Pramathes Barua’s film, Mukti. Later Ritwik Ghatak got Debabrata Biswas to sing Akash bhara surya tara in Komal Gandhar. Ray found three different musical scores for Ami Chini go chini tomare in Charulata but after considerable research chose the one by Jyotindranath Tagore. Both Ray and Ghatak had used fewer instruments and did not compromise on the musical score. Although Debabrata Biswas initiated the rebellion against Visva Bharati’s musical board he did not ever tinker with the original musical score. His experiments with use of various instruments were highly successful because of another genius, V Balsara who arranged the music. In Purano sei diner kotha, the prelude had a touch of Western music where piano, flute and univox were used. Similarly, in Mone ki dwidha rekhe gele chole sitar was used in the prelude and interlude. Biswas had always preferred to sing Pran bhoriye, trisha horiye in the accompaniment of key board. Balsaraji used piano-accordion in Tumi kemon kore gan koro he guni. It may be recalled that Visva Bharati music board did not accept the use of Western instruments and stopped Biswas from recording Rabindrasangeet. With the passage of time other singers including Sagar Sen, Purba Dam, Arghya Sen started using Western instruments. Sen had used piano and violin in Katabaro bhebechinu.

Modern music composers have gone two steps forward and are using trumpet and sax believing young people would not listen to Rabindrasangeet unless contemporary musical instruments are used. But these experiments are short lived as they deviate from Tagore’s principles. The loud prelude and interlude are overshadowing the song, itself. Also, the pronunciation of the singers is not perfect. Tagore’s songs convey a philosophy and so every word, every pause is important. One is amazed to find that how beautifully komal ni or komal sa have been used. The pause makes the songs livelier. Despite the best efforts made by the modern composers to popularise their version of Rabindrasangeet, CDs by Debabrata Biswas, Suchitra Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee are commercially more successful.

I remember once I had accompanied V Balsara to a solo Rabindrasangeet programme in Rabindra Sadan in mid 1990s. The singer who had training in Indian classical music deviated from the score while singing Je rate mor duar guli, giving classical touches in antara and again in sanchari. Balsaraji was disappointed. After the show ended he went and told the singer: “Remember you are presenting Tagore’s songs where the feeling is most important. Had it been necessary to give classical touches in antara and sanchari then those who had done the musical score would have seen to it.” The experiments on Rabindrasangeet are welcome but it should not drown the words and its meaning in cacophony.

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