Utpal Borpujari

August 17, 2009

There is a musicality to all of Tagore’s creations: Som

By Utpal Borpujari

Rabindranath Tagore had once said, “If they remember me for nothing else they will remember me for my songs.” Tagore’s Nobel-winning Gitanjali is a collection of his songs and Rabindra Sangeet is an established school of music. But his songs have more or less remained unknown outside the Bengali-speaking world. Noted historian and musicologist Reba Som, an exponent of Rabindra Sangeet, seeks to correct this lacuna through her book Rabindranath Tagore : The Singer and His Song (Penguin Viking). What makes this book special is that it comes with a limited edition MP3 CD of 45 of Tagore’s most-famous songs, sung by greats like Pankaj Mullick, Hemant Kumar and Som herself. The writer, who is currently Director of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Kolkata’s cultural flagship, the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, speaks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on the man and his music:

This is the first book to see Tagore’s life through his music. What made you choose this aspect of his life?

Though there are many biographies of Tagore, not many have covered his music, which is the running thread going through all his creativity. There is a musicality about his prose, poetry, even his paintings. He wrote and composed 2,232 songs to which he gave music. That is a large chunk of his literary ouvre. There is a universal quality to his music, which is why, as a singer and a historian, I felt the need to tell the story of Tagore’s life with music as the leitmotif. Each of the songs I have mentioned in the book is used to reflect the time and period of its composition, and what he was passing through when he wrote it. I have also translated 60 of his songs, with the transliteration so that people can read it in the original format. With the MP3, the book becomes a reader of Rabindra Sangeet to those who don’t know Bangla.

What do you think needs to be done to take Rabindra Sangeet beyond the Bengali-speaking world?

It needs to be explained that Tagore had drawn on all kinds of influences – Western, folk, classical – and internalised all of them. Each of his songs in itself is complete, has its own pulse and rhythm. There is an incredible richness of variety – from Kirtan-based to Carnatic music based. It’s important to point this out and also the  various categories of his songs, such as love songs, nature songs, occasion-specific songs. These have to be delineated, which is what I have tried to do. My CD that came out in Rome and that Saregama released here later, comes with the transliteration of the songs, because I feel transliteration is really very important for those who are hearing the songs without knowing the language, can also sing along with them, picking up the sound.

How did you select the songs for the book?

Something I really found out is that Tagore songs have a huge variety. It was important that I took from various kinds, as otherwise they would sound quite monotonous, as is often the complaint. It was a conscious decision not to fall into that trap, because if you write over 2,000 songs, you tend to be repetitive. My selection is a mix, not only from the point of view of melody but also from the point of view of content and the context. I have described his song compositions in three phases of his life – from his first composition when he was 14 years old to 1900, during 1901-1920, and during 1921-1940 which interestingly was his most prolific phase. My purpose was to make this book readable for the general public, not just the musicologists.

You must have gone through enormous amount of research work to come up with this book.

I took me four years to do the research, which I did in places like the British Library in London, Santiniketan, Ramakrishna Mission in Kolkata, Sahitya Akademi, Nehru Memorial Library, etc. More importantly, my own training in Rabindra Sangeet since I was five years old, has made me very alive to this very great music. Rabindranath himself had said that when you see the world through the prism of music, only then you understand it.

Talking of the various subjects of the songs, personally which are your favourite songs?

That’s very difficult to say, because there was an overlap of themes. For Tagore, the beloved and the god were the same, so his ‘prem’ songs and ‘puja’ songs tend to overlap. He found romance in nature too. Each of those songs is a journey of all the moods that he would go through – sadness, joy, frustration, depression. And because his language is very simple, it is easily understood, and thus through the ages it has not become old-fashioned. For many Bengalis, Rabindra Sangeet has become a kind of personal religion, in which you find strength and solace.

What kind of training facilities exist in Bengal for Tagore songs?

Tagore songs are still very much sung. Younger people are trying to base their compositions on aspects of Tagore music, and they want to go into something called world music, which is very encouraging. What is coming up is very innovative.

Any specific plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary at the Rabindra Nath Tagore Centre?

We are organising a Tagore festival in December, and we will call it ‘Tagore Beyond Frontiers’. It will look at the universal aspect of Tagore, because Tagore’s vision was international. It’ll be a kind of run up to the 2011 celebrations. Maybe we will also want to do a fashion show, because Tagore himself and his whole family was at the forefront of fashion. We will also have a dinner, because the Tagore family was very famous for its cuisine. He was a Renaissance man. There are many plans for 2011.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 16-08-2009)



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