Written by Romi Ghosh Ganguly on 07 May 2020
“Music fills the infinite between two souls.”
A mystic and artist, Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath – a great poet, philosopher, music composer and a leader of Brahma Samaj, who took Indian culture and tradition to the whole world and became a voice of Indian heritage. He was the first Non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 with his book Gitanjali: Song Offerings. Today, the nation celebrates the birth anniversary of “Gurudev” Rabindranath Tagore; this day is popularly known as ‘Rabindra Jayanti’.
Rabindranath Tagore, born on 7th May 1861, was the youngest son of Sarala Devi and Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj.
Tagore belonged to a family of scholars and musicians – so as a child he was always surrounded by an artistic atmosphere at home. Rabindranath’s early training in music was deeply influenced by the Bishnupur Gharana. He grew up listening, learning and absorbing the Dhrupads and Khayal (both forms of Hindustani classical music) traditions. His beloved brother Jyoti Dada (Jyotindranath Tagore) would create tunes on Piano and encourage young Rabindranath to compose verses to match the Raga-based melodies. What started as a kind of playful exercise for the young Rabindranath eventually bloomed into a genre in itself, known as Rabindrasangeet.
Tagore’s songs have dual importance as poetry and music; one cannot be seen without the other. In his life, Tagore liberally borrowed from all musical forms that he liked. Today, we celebrate the musical journey of Rabindranath Tagore by presenting samples of various genres of music that are reflected in Tagore songs.
During his first trip to England in 1878, he became familiar with English, Irish and Scottish music. In his memoir, Jivan Smriti, he writes “I cannot claim that I have experienced the soul of European music. However, the music I experienced as an intense listener was heartfelt and attracted me immensely. I felt the music to be romantic and a melodic expression of the diversity in life”. Many of Tagore’s songs were influenced and sometimes inspired by western tunes. Take, for instance, Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne from which Tagore adapted Purano Shei Diner Kotha. It’s not just the tune that Tagore adapted; he also kept the essence of the song. Purano… like Auld Lang Syne talks of remembrance of old days and old friends.
He also adapted other Scottish tunes such as Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes to Koto Baar Bhebh Chinu (I frequently thought of losing myself) or the popular Phoole Phoole Dhole Dhole (The flowers that nod) from the Scottish Ye Banks and Braes.
In 1891, Tagore moved to Bangladesh (erstwhile East Bengal) to manage the family estate at Shilaidaha and Shahzadpur for 10 years. While living mostly in his houseboat on the river Padma, he came in close contact with poor peasants of his estate. His sympathy for them opened a whole new world of sights and sounds and feelings before him. These experiences brought a heretofore unexplored dimension to his poetry, short stories and songs. During these years he published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tori (1894) and plays, notably Chitrangada (1892). At the same time, Tagore also got influenced by the genre of Bengali folk music and composed many songs like Ebar tor mora gange baan eseche (Now the tide returns to these dry banks), Bhenge mor ghorer chabi (Who will set me free) and many more.
Traditional Hindustani Khayal music gives supreme importance to melody; lyrics play a secondary role. Pure classical music without any meaningful words did not attract Tagore. He preferred to set words to the classical tune. One cannot listen to a Tagore song as a pure classical Raga. The poetry is an integral part and the appropriate Raga is often chosen to bring out the mood of the poetry. For example, the songs in the category of Prakriti or Nature are divided into six seasons and the songs of certain seasons would be based on one of the Ragas associated with that season. Similarly, if the lyrics describe the morning, the tune will typically be based on one of the morning Ragas. The beauty of Tagore’s song was a perfect fusion of the lyric and the Raga. They complimented each other to create a different genre of music. He also modified and sometimes created Talas (rhythmic beats) to suit his requirements.
In all his compositions, Tagore’s intent was not to create new Ragas but to create melodies that did justice to the expressiveness of his poetry.
Legend has it that after listening to a Tagore song, Ustad Allauddin Khan was inspired to compose his favourite raag Hemant. The entire collection of Rabindra Sangeet was combined in the Gitabitan – a music book consisting of all 2232 songs.
Rabindranath also had a big part to play in the Indian struggle for freedom. During the proclamation for the partition of Bengal, he wrote and composed many patriotic songs which were sung in the streets in processions, often led by himself. Through his music, he helped knit the country together to fight against the British colonialists. One of his songs, Ekla Chalo Re (Walk on, alone!) came to be the favorite of many Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi.
Two songs composed by him, Jana Gana Mana and Amar Shonar Bangla, have now been immortalised as the national anthem of India and Bangladesh (post Independence).
In 1901, Tagore founded an experimental school in rural West Bengal at Shantiniketan (“abode of peace”), where he sought to blend the best in Indian and Western traditions. With the aim of helping education go beyond the confines of the classroom, Shantiniketan grew into the Vishwa Bharati University in 1921, attracting some of the most creative minds in the country.
Rabindranath spent the last 4 years of his life in constant pain and was bogged down by two long bouts of illness. After an extended period of suffering, Tagore died on 7th August 1945 in the same Jorasanko mansion in which he was brought up. Though that day is mourned across India even today, he still remains alive in his poems and songs.