How do you unite the divided camps of Rabindra sangeet for a thousand-voice chorus? What if the crazed organiser of this enterprise is your mother? Arunabha Deb tells how it happened
FIVE YEARS AGO, over dinner, my mother told my father and me that she was planning to present a Rabindra sangeet chorus of a thousand voices. My father chose the safe option: eyebrows raised, eyes bulged, he carried on eating. I couldn’t control myself — I told her she’d lost her mind. She couldn’t possibly find a thousand people who could sing in tune, let alone sing well. Coordination would be impossible. And even if she managed to assemble a passable show, the whole exercise would be seen as nothing more than a gimmick.
She didn’t deign to respond to my first two apprehensions, but the gim mick remark obviously stung. With the same tone of patience with which she’d reprimanded me, years ago, for not finishing Robinson Crusoe, she replied that it was I who was being facile by assuming that the merit of the programme would be defined only by the number of participants. The programme did finally happen, on the 18 March 2007, and I had to eat humble pie.
This year marks Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Bengalis across the globe have gone berserk and my mother decided to play the shepherd again. Another thousand voices took the stage at Netaji Indoor Stadium on 31 July. This time, the theme was around Gitanjali, the poet’s Nobel-winning collection. Twenty seven songs punctuated with recitations of Tagore’s poetry by Srikanto Acharya, scripted around the book’s motif of “show yourself to my soul”.
The preparations began a year ago. Most established Rabindra sangeet singers have students accustomed to chorus singing, so the first step was to get them to select their best students. Like all musical communities, the world of Rabindra sangeet is riven with politics. The performance of this music is often an elitist affair, with a clique of a few schools and singers dominating the performance circuit. (Though it should be anything but elitist — hummed, sung or heard, this music permeates the everyday lives of most Bengalis). Getting together singers from almost every district of the state and Bangladesh, with scant regard for ‘pedigree’ was a great way of putting Rabindra sangeet back where it belongs — with the multitudes.
But egalitarian intentions can’t solve the problem of bad singers. Though the group leaders had been asked to do some initial screening before bringing their best students to the first rehearsal, many singers had to be asked not to return. Only 50 of the final 1,000 were professional singers; most were middle-aged people with jobs or homemakers.
It was impossible for all 1,000 to come to the same place at the same time. Rehearsals were held with different groups so that each group rehearsed at least once with every other. Everyone was given a recorded track (composed by Prattyush Banerjee) and song booklets printed specially for the event with scansions — to ensure everyone paused, breathed and emphasised together. Yet, the rehearsals were battles.
The year-long marathon did pay off — 1,000 people singing in perfect unison before an audience of more than 6,000. Twenty seven songs transformed by the grandeur that only a multitude of voices can achieve. My mother had got the idea for a 1,000 voices while reading an essay by Sudhir Kar, an aide to Tagore. Kar reported that Tagore would often say that on his travels abroad, he’d seen thousands of people singing together as tributes to maestros. Though he never wished outright for his songs to be sung this way, there was perhaps enough to read between the lines.