A New Approach to Tagore’s Music

by Matthew Pritchard

A version of this article was first given as a talk at The Tagore Centre UK on 8th July, 2012

 

What can Tagore’s music mean to the West?

 

 

 

'Ardhanariswara', the union of opposites as visualised by Nandalal Bose (1935)

‘Ardhanariswara’, the union of opposites as visualised by Nandalal Bose (1935)

 

 

I’ll begin by explaining briefly my own involvement with Tagore’s music. More than a decade ago I first explored Calcutta, visited Tagore’s family home, and read some of his writings in translation. I was interested by him primarily as a poet, a writer of fiction, and cultural figure, but my curiosity was also piqued by the discovery that he had composed songs. No less a figure than Satyajit Ray, I read with surprise, considered them to be masterpieces: “As a Bengali I know that as a composer of songs Tagore has no equal, not even in the West – and I know Schubert and Hugo Wolf.” Perhaps here was one of the undiscovered treasures of Indian music, indeed of Indian culture in general? It took me some years to return to Bengal, having begun the study of the language and music of that region during the last year of my (unrelated) doctoral thesis, taking classes at weekends with Namita Acharya and Sajali Roy of the Bhavan centre in West Kensington. But spending a year studying at the music department of the university Tagore founded, Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, gave me an appreciation of this music that I anticipate will last the rest of my life. Though Bengalis’ reverence for Tagore’s work may seem exaggerated to outsiders, they have good reason to be grateful to him for enriching what is I think unquestionably one of the world’s great song traditions.

Those who are unfamiliar with Tagore will perhaps be wondering where all this is coming from. If this is really true, why are they not already acquainted with Tagore’s music in the way that they are with Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain or other popular masters of the North Indian classical tradition?  Bengalis reading these words, on the other hand, might wonder whether I have anything new to tell them at all. And certainly many of those who attended my first version of this talk at the Tagore Centre in 2012 could be expected to know more Rabindrasangit, or Tagore songs, than I do. They have grown up with Tagore, his poems, his music, and the stories of his genius. What I want to bring to the Centre’s project for 2014 is a concern and a set of considerations that may be unfamiliar to some Bengali Tagore aficionados. These are centred on the question of how to mediate Tagore’s music to a Western audience. How can the experience of Rabindrasangit be conveyed to those outside the circle of Bengali culture? It seems to me there are two central aspects, both of which I will try to talk a little about, and illustrate as far as I can: translation, and performance.

Tagore was – I think I can say without much fear of contradiction – a poet first and a musician second, and so the task of translating his song texts must take on considerable importance in the overall project of introducing non-Bengalis to his songs. The aesthetic essence of a dhrupad recital can be grasped without understanding the words: this music is raagprodhaan, which means that its joy lies in the purely musical elaboration of the raga framework. Tagore’s music is by contrast centred predominantly on text, or on a rasa or emotion that embodies itself equally in text and melody, but for which the fusion of the two – the ardhanariswara or “hermaphrodite” aesthetic form, as Tagore called it – is key. And yet these texts are themselves poems, which can often be read and enjoyed as poems without even knowing that they were ever given a musical setting – as was of course the case with the international reception of Tagore’s Gitanjali in English. As many commentators have pointed out, that reception, though it secured Tagore’s international fame for some decades, left much to be desired in literary and cultural terms. Tagore was orientalised, seen as a static, stereotyped figure of Eastern Wisdom, and the appreciation of his English Gitanjali centred more on its “spiritual” message, and a certain – to English ears, quasi-Biblical – tone, in keeping with the sage-like figure behind it. The poems had become prose paraphrases, and although the frequency with which they were set by Western composers must bear tribute to a certain abstract musicality that shines through them, few had any idea of what kind of music they originally formed part of.

Tagore’s own translations of Gitanjali thus form not so much a benchmark of authenticity for subsequent translators as a problem. This problem had a number of facets. One was the “high” literary diction of the English Gitanjali, its “thees” and “thous”, which the nineteenth century was comfortable with, but which the twentieth century has (certainly since the Second World War) categorically rejected. Another was its compression and prosiness: one gets little hint from Tagore’s English translations of the richness of poetic form, rhyme, metre and alliteration that lurks in the Bengali original. Tagore knew his limitations, and though, as William Radice has pointed out, he worked well within them (better in many cases than those who sought to “correct” his style, such as W. B. Yeats), he simply was not in a position to represent the full texture of his verse in a foreign language.

In my view, both these aspects of the translation problem have a strong historical colouring. Of course, the problem of translating poetry from a language such as Bengali is in the first instance linguistic and cultural: one has to learn the language, familiarize oneself with the culture, either by living in Bengal or conversing regularly with Bengalis, and only then can one have a hope of representing Bengali poetry adequately in another language. Or if one is Bengali, then one has to master a convincing poetic idiom in English – which is just as hard a task, if not harder. (Without wanting to be harsh, it is here that one has to mention some of the many failed attempts to beat the odds against translation out of one’s mother tongue: Kalpana Bardhan’s 2008 volume of song translations for OUP, Of Love, Nature, and Devotion, for instance, which was mercilessly – but one must admit, accurately – characterized by a Telegraph reviewer as “some of Tagore’s most beautiful lyrics, rendered in a language that one would call English only at gun-point”; or the contributors to the online site “Gitabitan in English”, an amateur attempt to translate the whole Gitabitan which will doubtless have some crib-value as a guide for those trying to do better). But there are a number of translators who have already overcome these cultural obstacles and produced what is obviously highly creditable work: Ketaki Kushari DysonWilliam RadiceJoe WinterPratima BowesMartin Kämpchen. The fact is, though, that they have allowed readers to bridge the cultural and linguistic divide and yet there is still not quite the resonance, among poets, critics and other literati that Bengalis would perhaps have the right to expect. For after all, whatever Kipling said, East and West have met before and recognized each other through the veil of translation: Goethe and Herder read William Jones’s translation of Kalidasa with readily-confessed delight; Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that the Bhagavad Gita contained a more profound fusion of poetry and philosophy than had ever been produced by the Greeks; Schopenhauer declared the Upanishads the greatest work of world literature in 1810; and in the early twentieth century, Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese and Japanese lyrics are some of the most exquisite things he produced. If Dyson’s or Radice’s work is more accurate as translation than Tagore’s, then why has it not had the same effect?

The reason is, as I’ve hinted, historical. Tagore’s old-fashioned diction in English wasn’t an arbitrary disguise: to some extent it really did represent his taste, a taste which existed at the level of literary sensibility and was thus not determined by the use of either Bengali or English. We know from his essays, for instance the 1932 essay “Modern Poetry” (Adhnunik Kabya), what he thought of the modernist sensibility in poetry as manifested in the work of T. S. Eliot: unlike most readers of poetry today, he didn’t much like it. He preferred Wordsworth and Tennyson. His taste was formed during the nineteenth century, and it was recognizably of the nineteenth century, even if that did not rule out experimentation with prose poetry and a harsher palette of emotions later in life. And I think this historical difference in taste is what makes Tagore hard to translate at present. In this sense, the problem is just the same with translating French or German poets of the Romantic era: the translator’s modern sensibility tends automatically to undermine the “high” tone of the original, and the result can often be downright banal and undignified. Let me first give you an example taken from German, since it is a language I know better than Bengali. Here is a translation by Peter Viereck, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet and translator, of Goethe’s most famous short poem, Wanderers Night Song:

 

To every hill crest
Comes rest.
In every tree crest
the forest
scarcely draws breath.
Each bird-nest is hushed on the heath.
Wait a bit; soon you
will find rest too.

 

The fact that, unlike many modern translations, it uses rhyme does not help: to an ear genuinely attuned to the tone and style of the original, a phrase such as “Wait a bit” jars horribly, not to mention the “you/too” rhyme in the final couplet. We may feel that archaisms such as “thou hast” do not belong in a modern translation; but I think we should be equally, if not far more, concerned to avoid bathos and banality. Here is a nineteenth-century translation of the same poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which does that more successfully:

 

Over all the hilltops
Is quiet now
In all the treetops
Hearest thou
Hardly a breath.
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait; soon like these
Thou too shall rest.

 

With a sufficient number of translations on this level of quality or higher, English audiences from the nineteenth century on could appreciate why Goethe was a great poet. If we only had Peter Viereck’s, Goethe’s German reputation would be hard to understand. Since we have both, and Goethe’s reputation is perfectly secure anyway, we do not have to worry. But in Tagore’s case, where contemporary translations other than Tagore’s own are scarce, the discrepancy in period taste presents a genuine challenge.

This discrepancy affects attitudes towards metre, rhyme and form too. Modern translators are predisposed toward offering versions without a pronounced poetic form not because, like Tagore, they cannot cope with the linguistic demands of creating one, but because that is an aspect of contemporary taste. Joe Winter puts it challengingly – “Since Tagore’s time it has become fashionable to put down words with feeling and break them up somehow on the page and to call the result poetry” (Song Offerings (London: Anvil, 2000), pp. 20-21). Whether one is in sympathy with Winter’s dismissal of this tendency or not, the greater informality possible within contemporary poetry is at the very opposite extreme from the heightened exploitation of verse effects in many of Tagore’s songs. It is thus not surprising that many contemporary translators do not attempt the task of representing the poetic structure of the song texts (Winter is an exception here). Even William Radice, who in his recent translation of Gitanjali succeeds marvellously in producing English sonnets from the Bengali sonnet forms of the Naibedya poems (perhaps because one of his own original poetry collections, Green, Red, Gold, is a sequence of 101 sonnets – a sufficient training in handling the form!), refuses to try anything similar with the songs.

For him, showing the structure of the text as sung – through line repetitions and highlighting of refrains – is more important than reproducing metre and rhyme, because “when the songs are sung we are not particularly aware of the metre or rhyme” (Gitanjali, trans. William Radice (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011), lxviii). But is that really the case? It is surely not if one is singing the song oneself in the most common fashion, i.e. from the text of the Gitabitan, Tagore’s collected songs, where the songs are printed as poems, without any line repetitions or indications of the refrain structure. And where the divergence of musical from poetic structure is considerable it is perhaps nevertheless interesting to know what the structure on the page is. Radice’s suggestion is not, to my knowledge, one followed by any translator of European song texts, for instance German lieder, even though Schubert, Schumann and Brahms frequently altered the texts they set through repetition and refrain. William is a personal friend, so I will be moderate in my criticism; but I want to express my feeling that his approach does not do the songs justice. As a comparison, here is what he has managed to do with the most famous sonnet from Naibedya, which Bengali readers will immediately recognize:

 

A fearless place where everyone walks tall,
Free to share knowledge; a land uncrippled,
Whole, uncramped by any confining wall;
Where speech wells from the heart; where rippled
By millions of varied aspirations a great
River of action surges through an infinity
Of channels, rushes and gushes in fullest spate
In all directions to every home and locality;
A place where reason’s flow is not soaked up
By barren desert-sands of bigotry,
Where niggling rules and dogmas do not sap
Its vigour, but joy in work and thought has mastery –
With pitiless blows, Father, from your hand,
Bring India to that heaven; wake this land.

 

It is easy to appreciate what level of poetic craftsmanship went into that, and one really does need to be a poet of some skill and experience to match William’s achievement – I certainly don’t think I could do it! But with many of the songs I’m less sure. Take this, William’s translation of Gitanjali 26, “Aar nai re bela, naamlo chaya/Dhoronite”:

 

There’s no more time
Shadows fall on the world
Come, come to the ghat
to fill your water-pot
There’s no more time
There’s no more time

The evening sky is uneasy
when waters murmur
The evening sky is uneasy
when waters murmur
They call me, call me to the path
with their delicate sound
There’s no more time
There’s no more time

Now there’s no one on the deserted path
coming and going
Waves rise, rise on the river of love
The breeze is anxious
Now there’s no one on the deserted path
coming and going
Waves rise, rise on the river of love
The breeze is anxious

I do not know whether I shall return
or whom I shall meet today
I do not know whether I shall return
or whom I shall meet today
On a boat at the ghat that unknown person
is playing a veena

There’s no more time
Shadows fall on the world
Come, come to the ghat
to fill your water-pot
There’s no more time
There’s no more time

 

This captures the mood and imagery of the poem well – although if I could comment on just one feature that interests me when one compares it with Tagore’s prose translation: Tagore’s own translations are always to some degree cultural translations, and any specifically Indian imagery is substituted for by European equivalents wherever possible, whereas William (a true Bengali scholar!) gives the Bengali word and a footnote of explanation, or a glossary. In the case of this poem, though, I wonder if Tagore’s cultural translation does not, at one point in particular, make more sense than the Bengali original! – namely the mysterious figure in the boat, who in the original (and William’s version) is playing a veena, but in the English Gitanjali plays a lute. Now I don’t know if the signification of the word veena (bin) was broader or different at the start of the twentieth century in Bengal, but to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t changed. A veena is thus, as you know, a pretty big and cumbersome instrument, with two large resonating gourds: it is not a folk instrument but a high classical one (associated with dhrupad), and it is not especially easy to transport. The picture of someone playing a veena in the context Tagore’s poem describes – impromptu, to themselves, on a moored boat at dusk – is about as probable as finding a harpsichordist practising at the bottom of a country field. A lute simply makes much more sense! (and one wonders why Tagore could not have used the name of a folk instrument, such as the lute-like dotara, in the original poem).

William’s version doesn’t use rhyme, however, or reflect the interesting metrical structure of the original. Whatever its other poetic demerits may be, here at any rate is my own attempt to do that:

 

Evening falls; across the earth its shade
Is cast –
And pitcher in hand to the stream I hurry
At the last.

To watery music the clouds move
In uneasy courses up above
And onto strange paths I must rove
Following echoes past.

Along the lonely road at this late hour
No travellers go;
Restless is the river of desire
When new winds blow.

I cannot say, shall I return or not?
Whom to meet it may still be my lot –
From the farther bank I know not what
Melody drifts low.

 

As you can see, I’ve evaded the lute/veena problem altogether – for me the instrument is not exactly the most important thing, it’s the sense of a music that “crept by me on the waters”, as Ariel’s song does Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s Tempest. My own feeling is that details like this can be sacrificed if one keeps the mood and mystery of the original in view. A resonant poetic form and diction help that sense of mood – and so what if one uses “thee” and “thou”? I have in this translation of “Amar matha noto kore dao”:

 

Bring me, Lord, in the dust to kneel
At thy feet,
Sink all my pride, and make me feel
With tears’ relief replete.

For me to pay my pride’s expense
Is to myself mere insolence;
If round my soul I’ll set a fence,
Then thee I’ll never meet.

Let me not seek my name to publish
Through works of my own;
Rather fulfil, oh Lord, thy wish
In my life alone –

I yearn only for thy peace
In my heart; thy greatest grace
Shall stay with me, shadowing my face
And lead me before thy seat.

 

The best translations of Tagore’s poetry in English (there are some very fine ones by Helene Meyer-Franck in German, but I leave those aside) are, in my opinion, the fragments provided by Edward Thompson in his 1926 book Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist – because Thompson really reflects the Romantic approach of the original. Here are the middle stanzas of Naibedya sonnet 26 in his translation:

 

Suddenly on the river of my mind
The lotus-forests die in the chill wind,
In files and companies the wild geese [take] flight
To the far south, where feather-grass flowers white
And towering-tall, upon the sandbanks lone.
Again, in Spring, they come; aloft, high-flown,
They float, chanting with joy –
(Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (Oxford, 1926), 184)

 

Perhaps indeed the approach is not just Romantic – it is simply a traditional conception of what poetry is. As Thompson comments, Tagore’s geese make “a picture that might have come out of Virgil” – or out of traditional Sanskrit poetry. Could, or would, anyone present that picture today as Thompson did, in such literally “high-flown” language? I am not sure.

 

*

 

I will move on, now, to the second part of my talk, and the question of performance – or rather, I will look first at an issue that overlaps those of translation and performance, namely whether Tagore’s songs could be presented in English. To take up once again the comparison with European song traditions, one sees again that this is a historical matter: singing Schubert in English is now a very unusual choice, whereas in the nineteenth century it was common. Victorian editions of German lieder usually printed singing translations – tightly metred and rhymed but sometimes loose in their representation of the original meaning – underneath the German text. They are usually anonymous, but on occasion these can be very beautiful, and one of my favourite recordings of all time of the final song of Schubert’s greatest song cycle Winterreise is in fact in English, sung by the Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene in 1934. The approach has been tried with Tagore, indeed at Tagore’s own prompting, both by the French musicologist Alain Daniélou and by Arthur Geddes, who worked at Sriniketan from 1921 to 1924. (There is also Debabrata Biswas’s famous recording of “Klanti amar, khama karo prabhu”, “This Weariness Forgive”.) The Daniélou settings have been recorded by the Italian singer Francesca Cassio, and here is one of those recordings. As a taste of Geddes’ approach, here is his ambitious (but rather eccentric) attempt to capture all the internal rhymes of “Kotha baire dure jay re ure”:

 

Whither wayward flying, vagrant hieing
Wayward flying, ‘way away?
Eyes that flutter alighting,
Seeking, ne’er sighting,
Faint to see Him, vainly seeking
Vagrant hieing, wayward flying…

 

I don’t think this approach is absolutely necessary – although I think that if done well (a big “if”), its directness is something that might appeal to a wide audience. Within the narrower audience of those accustomed to Western art song traditions, the accepted convention is that songs are sung in their original language but accompanied by a translation printed in the programme notes, and this is perhaps what we should aim at first of all with Rabindrasangit. However, questions of performance go beyond that of what language one should sing in, and here we get to issues that are not simply about mediating Tagore to a Western audience, but about how the tradition has developed, under partly Western influence, in Bengal itself. There is I think no question that the mainstream style of performing Rabindrasangit will not appeal to a Western audience – indeed, it even alienates many Indian aficionados of classical music. It seems just about at the furthest remove from the purity of classical dhrupad as sung by, say, Uday Bhawalkar or the Dagar brothers. Yet Rabindrasangit has its roots in the dhrupad tradition, and Tagore was brought up listening to the Bhawalkars and Dagars of his day. What has happened to Rabindrasangit performance since then?

To address that, we can go back to the source: the recordings that exist of Tagore’s songs in Tagore’s own voice. There are a few precious EMI recordings which survive from the 1930s of him singing, and these are entirely khali golay, that is, with voice alone. Even the tanpura is omitted. Tagore often apologized for the quality of his voice in later years, and it is often rather weak and reedy. But the evidence of these few tracks presents us with a musical approach which differs as radically from that of present-day Rabindrasangit singers as the Western opera divas of a century ago differ from those of the present day. Here are “Tabu mone rekho” and “Amar paraan laye” in Tagore’s own renderings.The rhythmic flexibility, the sudden swells and drops in volume, the dramatic use of tones of voice are all features no modern singer would think of employing. Satyajit Ray cited Rabindranath’s recording of Tabu mone rekho when making a case for the value of presenting Rabindrasangit unaccompanied, as it appears in so many films of his (Ghore BaireCharulataKanchenjunghaTeen KanyaAgantuk, among others):

On the matter of accompaniment Rabindranath has not said anything anywhere. He has here left unfulfilled a great responsibility of the composer. Rabindranath sang his songs simply with voice alone, and I have come to hear Rabindrasangit in this way from many people, from my childhood on. Those who can keep their voice in tune without an instrument, if they have compassion in their voice, if they can feel deeply the sentiment of a song, if they have a suitable purity in their pronunciation – then they will be able to manifest the full beauty of Rabindrasangit even if they sing without an instrument. An example of what can be done by singing this way is Rabindranath’s singing on the gramophone record of the song ‘Tabu mone rekho’. Even were all that not so, many songs can and should be sung this way – that is my belief.

(“Rabindrasangite bhabbar katha” (Some Reflections on Rabindrasangit) (1967), pp. 187-8)

Rabindranath’s early pupils tended to sing with very little accompaniment, usually a tanpura drone or by duplicating the vocal melody on an esraj (the Bengali cousin of the sarangi) or a harmonium. Here is another particularly beautiful example, with discreet esraj accompaniment: this is Amiya Tagore, Rabindranath’s grand-niece, singing “He Nutan”, the song Rabindranath composed on his final 80th birthday.

Satyajit Ray did however admit, while recommending the khali golay approach, that “this style is not for the general public”.  Perhaps that comment is explicable when one turns to recordings in the mainstream commercial Rabindrasangit performance tradition, exemplified by singers such as Suchitra Mitra, Punkaj Kumar Mullick, Debabrata Biswas and Hemanta Mukherjee. Not only is the instrumentation much thicker, typically with tabla, harmonium and mandira (hand-cymbals) as a minimum, but crucially, the majority of the songs are harmonized. Here are two versions of one of the songs from Gitanjali, “Megher pore megh jomecche” (The clouds gather), the first by Rabindranath’s nephew Dinendranath Tagore who notated many of his songs, the second by Suchitra Mitra.

The question of harmonization, and of Indian music’s compatibility with the keyboard instruments that furnish it, is a tricky one. One may want to condemn it altogether – but the grounds for condemnation should be chosen carefully. Too often it has been the instrument used to provide harmonic backing which has been the object of attack – this being, usually, the harmonium – and the criticism has focussed (in often highly technical terms) on the incompatibility of the instrument’s Western equal-tempered tuning with the tuning systems described in ancient Indian music treatises. This may be of some importance in particularly ancient genres such as dhrupad; but in the main, Hindustani classical performers are more flexible and inconsistent in their tuning than is assumed by musicologists. Few of them are especially averse to a little discreet melodic accompaniment on the harmonium.

One could in the specific case of Rabindrasangit attempt a second line of argument against the harmonium, given that Rabindranath himself famously dismissed the instrument as the “bane of Indian music”. This is unlikely to have been because of its tuning. It is equally unlikely to have been connected with its ability to play chords, which was not always exploited in any case. It was probably an aversion simply to the sound of the instrument, and possibly also to its low-class associations compared with other keyboard instruments. Rabindranath himself owned a piano, which can still be glimpsed in the Santiniketan museum and was in fact restrung and played for the recent anniversary celebrations; and in childhood he used to cooperate with Jyotirindranath his elder brother in harmonizing raga melodies at the keyboard. His position on harmony in Indian music was not altogether one of opposition. To quote from his essays on music, Sangit Chinta:

[Our sort of] melody will be overwhelmed if harmony becomes excessively powerful, and wherever melody wishes to become absolutely independent it will not allow harmony to come near it. It is good if this separation between the two continues for some time. To achieve a fully mature form each should be given time and scope for independent development. But, having said that, I cannot think it preferable that they should remain single and unmarried for ever. As long as young men and women have not achieved maturity then it is good for them to remain at home and apart, but if even after that point they cannot meet, then their lives remain unfulfilled. There is no doubt that the time has come to bring together song and harmony. The preparations for that meeting, too, have begun.

(from my translation of “Music” from Sangit Chinta (Kolkata, 2004), 31-8, in “Two Tagore Essays”, Sangeet Natak 46 (2012), p. 215)

The question is – were those preparations ever properly completed? And was Tagore referring to the treatment of his own songs? Because one has to be honest here: the ad hoc harmonizations one generally hears on Rabindrasangit recordings today, and ever since the days of Pankaj Kumar Mallick, are pretty disastrous by Western standards. The German ethnomusicologist Lars Koch’s investigation of Rabindrasangit arrangement practices in Calcutta studios has shown the general working method, and it is amateurish in the extreme. The arranger takes as many notes of the melody as will fit with a given chord and harmonizes them before going on to the next segment of melody, without regard for rhythm, without regard for what in the West we would call harmonic “grammar” or syntax, and certainly without thinking about any issues as subtle as the raga or the feeling of the text. I have heard songs in raag Bhairavi, one of Rabindranath’s favourites, harmonized by treating the scale as if it were a major scale beginning on the second degree (Re), simply because that is easier to harmonize than the actual raga. It is a travesty of everything that is aesthetically significant and valuable in the original song. Why it is not more often recognized as such must appear a mystery to non-Bengali lovers of the tradition, such as myself or William Radice (who shares my views on this). It remains somewhat baffling why this is permitted to go on – even, these days, at Visva-Bharati. Perhaps Bengali listeners accustomed to this style pay much more attention to the words, delivery and voice-quality and do not care so much what form the accompaniment takes (though for a Western listener it is hard even to appreciate the coherence of the melody when it is dominated to such an extent by its accompaniment).

Given the use of synthesizers, drum-pads, Hawaiian guitars and so on, perhaps that is the case. In fact, I wonder if this is just an isolated question of accompaniment, even: is this style of presentation affecting vocal quality too? What we seem to have in the majority of Rabindrasangit recordings is what a Western record-shop owner would classify as “easy listening” style, using popular Western rhythms such as waltz and polka, instruments such as the violin, saxophone, piano, electric keyboard and drumkit, extended instrumental introductions and interludes, and a smoother and less nasal (but also less precise) singing style delivered into a microphone. Here is a juxtaposition Bengali Rabindrasangit fans might not expect, but I want to make it in order to clarify where a listener familiar with Western genres, but not with Indian music, would most likely categorize a typical “classic” Rabindrasangit recording: Debabrata Biswas and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Another comparison I could make that puts this in a more local context is with another venerable Indian regional and semi-classical genre, the Urdu ghazal. Here is how musicologist Peter Manuel traces the evolution of the ghazal into recent decades:

The Urdu ghazal has played an important part in North Indian culture since the early eighteenth century… As a musical genre, it emerged as a rich semi-classical style, popularised by courtesans and, in the twentieth century, by light-classical singers of ‘respectable’ backgrounds… In the late 1970s a new style of ghazal-song flowered… The new crossover ghazal, as popularised first by Pakistanis Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali, was the first widely successful popular music in South Asia which was independent of cinema or, for that matter, radio. With its leisurely, languorous tempo, its vaguely aristocratic ethos, its sentimental lyrics and soothing, unhurried melodies, the new ghazal, though disparaged by purists as yuppie relaxation music, came to acquire an audience far wider than ghazal had ever had before… In the hands of the subsequent ghazal stars – Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota, Jagjit and Chitra Singh, and others – the crossover ghazal style has become even more distinct, with its diluted Urdu, often shallow and trite poetry, general absence or mediocrity of improvisation, and a silky, non-percussive accompaniment and vocal style which render it immediately recognisable. As the genre became ever more remote from its semi-classical antedecent, ‘pop goes the ghazal’ soon became a journalistic cliché.

(Peter Manuel, “The Cassette Industry and Popular Music in North India”, Popular Music 10:2 (1991), pp. 193-4)

As illustration, here is a ghazal comparison between the greatest singer of the light-classical era, Akhtaribai Faizabadi or Begum Akhtar singing her signature tune Aye mohabbat tere anjam pe rona, and the same number rendered by Khushbo Khanum from the most recent generation of young ghazal singers. I think this makes Manuel’s point fairly well.

Though Rabindrasangit performance has undoubtedly diversified since the lifting of the copyright on Tagore’s works over a decade ago, much of it is still “stuck” with this stylistic approach inherited from previous decades. A way out needs to be found if new audiences are to be engaged – including listeners among the younger generations of Bengalis in the diaspora, for many of whom Rabindrasangit is a part of their parents’ culture they feel little desire to explore. Taking the genre closer to the kind of “world music” Western listeners are familiar with is one route; discovering Rabindrasangit’s inner affinities with its classical and folk roots is another. The simplest and most convincing path forward, for me, has been pointed by my teacher Mohan Singh and his now tragically deceased son Vikram Singh. Here is Vikram singing a Rabindrasangit, “Noyono tomare”, in a style that I would regard both as authentic and as most likely to cross the East-West cultural divide. Listening to this has brought tears to my eyes and has had a similar effect on others to whom I’ve played it – without even knowing what the words mean.

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Matt practising Tagore songs in Santiniketan

Matthew Pritchard is Affiliate Lecturer in the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge. His work as a musicologist ranges over both European (particularly German) and Indian musical traditions, the former since his PhD at Royal Holloway on Beethoven’s late work and its reception, the latter dating from a year spent at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, studying Rabindrasangit with Malay Shankar Chattopadhyay and Mohan Singh Khangura.

His most recent publications on Tagore’s music and musical aesthetics are “A poem in a medium not of words: music, dance and arts education in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan”, in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 13:1-2 (2014), pp. 103-16, and a translation (with introduction) of two essays from Tagore’s Sangit Chinta, “Two Tagore Essays: ‘Inner and Outer’ and ‘Music’”, in Sangeet Natak 46:1-4 (2012), 207-19 . He is currently working on a book for Cambridge University Press tracing the history of music aesthetics, whose projected title is taken from a poem of Tagore’s: The Song Is Not the Singer’s Alone: Music Aesthetics Through Music History.

5 Comments

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  2. Ein didaktisches Meisterstück! Ich hoffe, Dass dieser Text ins Deutsche übersetzt werden kann. Nicht nur wegen Goethe. Vieles spricht mir aus dem Herzen Und ich frage mich natürlich auch, warum ich ein Widerstreben empfinde, Gitanjali 26 in der neuen Version zu singen. Auch darüber würde ich gern mit MP sprechen… Lass es uns auf dem Schnackenhof tun im August bei den Philosophietagen. Reinhard

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  4. This concept or point of view of interpreting Tagore is marvellous. Workshops can be conducted on how different folk songs have inspired Tagore 2 compose different songs of his. I am a Tagore singer. Am willing to conduct such a workshop in your country. Please contact if you are interested.

  5. Ardhanarishwara by: Nandalal Bose

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