The interest in Tagore’s oeuvre has increased abroad, thanks to the efforts of organisations and performers.
The interest abroad, especially in the West, in Rabindranath Tagore’s songs (Rabindrasangeet), poems, to a certain extent dance and the dance-dramas, has taken an upsurge during the past 50 years, reaching the climax in the 150th year of the bard’s birth anniversary.
Fascination for the music grew through people who showcased it through small presentations, which were essentially for social entertainment. But the surge of interest started with the influx of Rabindrasangeet singers, some dancers and the exchange of artists from the bard’s own homeland, West Bengal, to foreign soil. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations played a major role in establishing cultural centres throughout the world, together with other local organisations, mainly by Bengalis.
The reasons and spheres of influence are manifold. In recent times, more artists are travelling to places such as the U.K., U.S., Canada and Europe, where explorative trends have given emphasis to the spread of Tagore’s works. The primary focus of immigrant performing artists is not Tagore or his literary works, which are already popular. The Bengali community puts up presentations during festivals, get-togethers or celebrations more as an attempt to keep its culture alive and to savour the familiar world that it has left behind in India.
The other important dimension of such performances is to inculcate the richness of Tagore’s works and ideas in the younger generation living in a foreign land. The organisations propagate Rabindra culture as an act of service to strengthen the community network.
Another aspect is that serious performers or organisations with well trained people, who pursue other professions, interpret Tagore’s works with a perspective of their own. Performing arts is a comfortable communicative mode and most Bengalis are proficient in Rabindrasangeet. But this does not always make them qualified enough to propagate the art form. The same is true for drama, dance or recitation of the Bard’s poems, the plays remaining the most neglected area. This results in performances not quite authentic or below par.
Tagore’s works are sometimes repackaged not always due to the lack of knowledge or training, but due to the scarcity of skilled or trained performers. Most of these presenters act as initiators and catalysts and often deploy digital technology. The practice is common in the U.K., parts of North America and Germany.
Practitioners of Rabindrasangeet and dance are no longer ‘side show’ performers for curious onlookers but are persons of knowledge and tradition to be reckoned with. The audiences are also educated to a reasonable extent. Hence the artists invited from Bengal have a stronger impact on those performers abroad and also for those not adequately trained. Trained people, who have settled abroad, have a major role to play in raising the the standard of the presenters. A lot needs to be done on this front.
Tagore spent a number of years in England (Hamstead Heath) during his Gitanjali days. His work, especially Gitanjali, had a lot of influence in the literary circles, although the verses were tuned later. The U.K. still remains one of the most active countries where individuals and organisations have worked in tandem with English scholars in highlighting and popularising Tagore. Serious research in studies of Tagore’s music emerged fairly recently with the Tagore Centre in London contributing a lion’s share. Scholars and reciters such as Ketaki Kushari Dyson and William Radice, play a significant part in reaching out to the lay audience as does Piyali Roy of Sampad, who organised programmes around Tagore’s bust at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Pianist Zoe Rahman and Idris, his reeds-player brother, make Rabindrasangeet sparkle. But the most successful influence was the prestigious Tagore Festival in Dartington, Devon, in May 2011, with groups such as Ishirini, Cambridge, performing.
To performers abroad, there remain challenges and uncertainties as familiar ground is constantly shifting with each visit of artists from India and Bangladesh. And at some point, there is a commercial element that decides how far the spheres of influence and practice can be expanded. With the Visva Bharati restrictions on Tagore’s songs withdrawn, opportunities to experiment with the poet’s works grow and reach out to a larger, younger group of listeners. The ripples are sure to cross Indian shores.