Sing The Bard Electric

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In the 150th year of his birth, Tagore’s music is finally getting a fresh groove, says Partha Dasgupta

Living legacy (top to bottom) Tagore’s residence at Jorasanko in Kolkata; Rabindra sangeet CDs at a city store; Tagore photographs on display at a market stall

EVEN SOMEONE like Kishore Kumar, who insisted on intoning Rabindra sangeet in his own inimitable style, needed Satyajit Ray’s personal benediction to escape public chastisement for his singing in the latter’s film Charulata (1964). Rabindranath Tagore’s music has come a long way since then. Many, though, will celebrate the poet’s 150th birthday this month with the ritualistic ceremonies that symbolise his demi-god stature — garlanding a framed photo of the venerable bard accompanied by the sounds of his songs and poetry. Tagore’s songs, popularly known as ‘Rabindra sangeet’, have always been a phenomenon in themselves. The songs easily outscore his other works in popularity, with their easier accessibility than written works. Every generation since his death has tuned itself to him. Despite all this conditioning, the sangeet is finally relaxing into becoming part of pop culture. In today’s turbulent culturescape, artists are more willing to play with the Thakur’s tunes, often with gleeful, cacophonous effects.

First some context: the long adoration of Rabindra sangeet produced hardened conventions — lorded over by the powerful Viswa-Bharati (VB). For decades, VB castigated anyone who dared to deviate from Tagore’s brahmo kirtan style of singing. VB’S success in laying down strict conventions led to the common joke that all of Tagore’s sangeet sounds like it has the same melody. It was lost on these cultural guardians that Tagore himself didn’t hold his music as sacrosanct, often borrowing rhythms from European ballads (Robert Burns was a favourite).

At Symphony, the famous Kolkata music shop, Biswanath Maity has been working the Bengali music counter since 1983. Maity confirms that Tagore albums comprise about 40 percent of all Bengali albums the shop sells. Not bad for a long-dead poet, but how healthy is this for a people who pride themselves on ‘cultural excellence’? Is it not a screaming sign of their cultural stagnation?

SAHITYA AKADEMI President Sunil Gangopadhyay claims that the sangeet “can do wonders for you when you’re facing yourself, away from the bustle of perfunctory life. The songs reach the depths of your soul and cleanse it. People will continue to be moved by them for a long time.” But award-winning poet Rupak Chakraborty is less effusive, saying, “Tagore pioneered almost everything in the arts that we Bengalis are proud of today. It’s a shame that we’re so impoverished now that we always have to go back to him for everything — even celebration. We’ve clung on to him to save our identity as a race and will continue to do so for a very long time to come.”

When copyrights to Tagore’s works were due to end in 1991, VB litigated to wrest 10 more years of custodianship. VB orchestrated a public outcry against impending ‘deviations’ in the set scores of Rabindra sangeet. Any aberration in performing was deemed blasphemous — the singers needed to create a very 19th century Bengali brahmo atmosphere, perform in meticulous ethnic dress and use only Bangla instruments like the esraj and khol as accompaniments.

The copyright wall was finally breached in 2001 and the hordes have since skipped happily in. After an initial lull, there’s been an avalanche of Tagore CDs cut by everyone in sight. It’s become customary for modern bands to sing Tagore numbers with western instruments. Newfangled music directors (like Shantanu Moitra in the film Parineeta) have been inspired into peppy Tagore tunes. Classical singer Ajoy Charaborty’s album Ojana Khonir Notun Monir Har included sargams and other classical embellishments. Last year, he teamed with Ustad Rashid Khan and the modernist Nachiketa to sing Rabindra sangeet.

Newer practitioners have also taken a shine. The band Bhoomi usually sings folk music but their Tagore album was a big hit last year. Lead singer Surojit Chatterjee says, “We wanted to play Tagore’s music with new instruments and reach a younger audience — though I don’t think the youth, in Kolkata at least, is that far removed from Rabindra sangeet. The album was modern [but] sold very well. Last year, almost every Kolkata band released Rabindra sangeet, such as Babul Supriyo, Sraboni Sen and Lopamudra Mitra.” As an afterthought, he mulls that he’d love to hear a metal version of Rabindra babu.

Purists might complain about diluting a grand legacy, but a member of the establishment like Gangopadhyay feels, “We’ve been inhibited and lazy in experimenting with Tagore songs. We should’ve explored [them] much more. I’ve no problem with young wannabes strumming guitars, shaking their heads like mad [people] and dancing onstage while performing Rabindra sangeet. I’ve liked Tagore songs in fusion like Bickram Ghosh’s percussion experiments. I suspect Tagore wouldn’t mind, either. We should leave it to the audience to have the final say. If they like it, why intervene? And if they don’t, then it must be bad. Why try and determine quality with a dipstick?” Singer and actor Shilajeet concurs, making the point that Tagore is much too rich to resist for any artist: “Who else do we celebrate if not Tagore? His songs are like daily chores, like the elements that surround us. The average Bengali has nothing to do with him but is yet possessive about him — you could call it parochialism to the extent that he’s now a political tug of war. I sing very different songs for my audience, but if I were to sing for myself it would be Tagore.”

Gangopadhyay adds, “Tagore is so alive even today because he continues to interest, mystify and overwhelm so many. Some revellers might be dilettantes, but a larger section is genuinely interested in his works.” Bhoomi’s Chatterjee locates Tagore’s ageless appeal in his “extremely contemporary” lyrics which remain universal. As evidence, he cites the song Purano Sei Diner Kotha “about the beauty of days gone by — it’s still a staple favourite at every single college farewell in Kolkata even today!” The world might have changed, but the poet’s people haven’t.

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