Taking Tagore's music beyond Bangla borders

Over a cuppa

Taking Tagore's music beyond Bangla borders

Noted historian and  musicologist Reba Som

There is a universal quality to Tagore’s music, which is why I felt the need to tell the story of his life with music as the leitmotif, believes Reba Som.

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. She 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.  She speaks to Deccan Herald 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  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.here 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’s 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 done  enormous  research work to write this book.

I took me four years to do the research, which I did in 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 themes 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’s songs?

Tagore songs are still  popular. Younger people are trying to base their compositions on aspects of Tagore’s 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 name  it ‘Tagore Beyond Frontiers’. It will look at the universal aspect of Tagore, because his vision was international. It’ll be a kind of run up to the 2011 celebrations. Maybe 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.

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