Tagore songs: Stirring the soul

Mohammad Amjad Hossain

The twenty-first century began with the rapid advancement of information technology placing the society on a faster pace. On the other hand, banging concert and high pitch music flooded the cities providing more attraction to younger generation, those from the English medium schools in particular. But Tagore songs still continue, and will continue to remain as a message that has soothing effect on mind and soul and also a source of inspiration to lovers of nature in the society. The younger generation perhaps considers Tagore songs as slow-turned which does often fail to attract their fleeting feeling. They generally favour such songs as may inspire them to dance fast with the tune. It was really amazing to listen to BBC interview of 6 May (on the eve of Tagore's birth anniversary) with a few young Bengalis in London, who said they heard Tagore songs from their parents but they themselves were not keen to listen to. Then with the passage of time should Tagore songs will not remain as popular as they are? No. These songs contain message of universal appeal and remain as popular as long as Bengali culture will continue to be nurtured.

Possibly that's why Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Edward Thomson, his biographer that if all his poetry is forgotten, his songs will live with his countrymen and have a permanent place in their heart. This is true in the twenty first century when Bengali songs are presented in western style by the vocalists causing only a temporal sensation. The vocalists think that they present songs in line with modern idea, so to say, to match with the trend of new generation. True, but with no lasting effect. Tagore songs are blending of universal message and music, which is unique of Rabindranath.

Rabindranath Tagore himself compared Indian music with European. He wrote that the day-world calls to mind European music with its various concords and discords, orchestrated into a great, purposeful ensemble. And the night world is like the sphere of Indian music with its unadulterated melody, somber and poignant...

"Our melodies are intended for the solitary individual, European music is for the multitude. Our music removes us from the domain of everyday joys and sorrows to a region devoid of company, as aloof as the universe; the music of Europe reveals in the perpetual oscillations of the human condition."

Tagore house was a house of music as has been reflected in Rathindranath Tagore's (son of Rabindranath) book: On the Edges of Time. He mentioned that invariably there would be music. "Our house was never without it; at all hours one could be heard singing in some part or the other of the house."

Rabindranath Tagore had not only distinguished himself a celebrated composer of songs, which are known as Rabindra Sangit, but also established himself as a great musician. Rabindranath himself composed tunes of the songs written by him and sang on many occasions. It may be worth mentioning that on one occasion Tagore was reluctant to sing but on the insistence of Taraknath Palit, who gave a dinner in honour of the leaders of Indian National Congress, he composed a song to sing: Amay bolona gahite in which his resentment was found. Rabindranath did not like English dinner. More so, he did not appreciate the type of politics pursued by Indian National Congress. In spite of this fact Rabindranath Tagore attended a few conferences organized by Indian National Congress. In those old days meetings and conferences of Indian Congress were conducted in English because most of their leaders had education from England.

At Natore Bengal Provincial conference of Indian National Congress Rabindranath Tagore attended at the invitation of Maharaja of Natore, who was a friend of Tagore. Here Rabindranath Tagore did not sing but he offered to give a running translation in Bengali of all speeches made at the conference. His instant translation received enormous applause. At the Congress session in 1896 Rabindranath Tagore took the responsibility of organizing its cultural part. This session was held in Calcutta, near Jorasanko, residence of Tagore. The opening song was Bankim Chandra's Vande Mataram. Rabindranath tuned to the words of the poem and sang himself. Sarala, daughter of Tagore's sister Swarnakumari played on the harmonium. In Rathindranath's words, "father's voice had such carrying capacity that it could be heard from farthest corner of the huge assembly and held the audience under a spell. Such an achievement must seem strange and impossible in these days of mikes and loud speakers which have brought about a gradual deterioration in the volume of the voice. This undoubtedly was the first occasion when Vande Mataram was sung at a public gathering."

Three ladies Abhi, Tagore's brother Hemendranath's daughter (in order of seniority Hemendranath was the third son of Maharshi Devendranath), Sarala Devi, daughter of Tagore's sister Swarnakumari and Amala, sister of Chittaranjan Das had made great impact on Rabindranath for composing songs as these ladies had melodious voices. Tagore, as narrated by Rathindranath, used to compose tunes that would specially suit Amala's voice.

Many of us do not know of Kham-Kheyali Sabha. It was set up by Rabindranath and his nephew Balendranath. Practically it turned out to be a cultural club of informal nature. It was a meeting place for poets, writers, singers, actors. The meetings took place by rotation at different houses. After dinner songs, recitation of poems and even one act plays constituted the day's enjoyable programme. Every one had his favourite songs, poems and one-act plays. Tagore in fact was requested to sing again and again: the song Esho esho phire esho, which Sir Jagadish Bose, the scientist, loved to listen. He was one of the frequent visitors to Tagore house in Jorasanko and Shelihdah Kutibari. Kham-Kheyali Sabha was attended by, besides members of Tagore family, Maharaja of Natore, Chittarayan Das, Pramatha Chaudhuri (Birbal), Priyanath Sen, DL Roy and Atul Prasad Sen etc. It did not continue for long as Rabindranath Tagore was assigned by his father to look after Tagore estates at Shelihdah and he went to Shelihdah along with his family. Tagore's Chitrangada, which is a dance drama, depicts the bitter-sweet story of immortal love through songs of unparalleled beauty. The result is a class of new presentation which is regarded as a memorable musical venture unique of Tagore who wrote a number of them.

Tagore's song, Jana Gana Mana written in 1911 in connection with the meeting of Indian National Congress, was adopted as national anthem of India in 1950 while his another song, Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomay Bhalobashi provided inspiration during the war of liberation of Bangladesh and ultimately became the national song of Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore is possibly the lone poet in this world who enjoys unique respect as the author of national anthem of two independent states India and Bangladesh.

Tagore songs provide food for thought for both the liberal and progressive minds as truth, beauty and humanism all are embodied there in Rabindra Sangit.

Mohammad Amjad Hossain is a retired diplomat.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, August 4, 2001


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