Despite translation of his works into other languages, Rabindranath Tagore has remained the dominant voice of Bengalis
It did not happen to the great Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhaya. Thanks to translations and countless films in Hindi and regional languages based on his stories, people of India don't think of him as just a Bengali writer. Ironically, a strange phenomenon has taken place with Tagore songs. Whenever their melodies have been used in Hindi films, say songs like “Rahi matwali”, “Sundar sapna bit gaya”, “Tere mere Milan ki”, “Jayen to jayen kahan”, they have been runaway hits.
The films are forgotten but the songs are remembered. Yet Tagore songs have remained the exclusive voice of the Bengali. Some of the blame, in fact a lot of it, must be due to the strict censorship of the Vishwa Bharati Music Board (now defunct because there is no copyright on those songs any more). Yet European composers like the Pole Karol Szymanowski have used Tagore songs with orchestral accompaniment as a cycle and Vishwa Bharati could do nothing about it.
This year happens to be the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore. In 1961 was the birth centenary. I remember there were songs in Hindi translation and poets like Daulal Kothari emerged who translated Tagore in Hindi and rendered the songs. This year, Doordarshan is doing a programme with Tagore songs sung in Hindi. But once the centenary celebrations have been over their efforts have gone into oblivion and Tagore has remained an exclusive Bengali phenomenon yet again.
I am sure if a national vote is taken as to who was the composer of our national anthem “Jana Gana Mana”, there will be a surprisingly large number who will not be able to mention Rabindranath Tagore. Indeed it is strange. In fact Tagore is the only poet who has given birth to two national anthems. I am referring to Bangladesh's “Amar sonar Bangla aami tomaye bhalobashi”.
Rabindranath was a versatile creative spirit, writing novels, plays, dance dramas, songs, articles and dissertations and finally in his old age taking up the brush producing an astonishing series of paintings.
Tagore himself was very fond of saying that if all his other creations are forgotten his songs will remain, deathless. They have. Yet Tagore wrote some of the most beautiful songs on death. Here, he is very close to Gustav Mahler who was born a year before Tagore and died in I911. Death was a constant companion of Tagore and Mahler and both created moving music with the puzzle of not being.
Indeed there was a survey done recently in the U.S. amongst terminally ill persons as to what creative expressions appeal to them most and the answer universally was Tagore songs. Tagore approached death as a friend, “bandhu”, and here he is close to the text of a Bach Cantata whose words talk about death coming down the skies as a friend. Yet in another place Tagore refers to death as a bride coming down to take away the husband. Here too the similarity is there with Bach's Cantata texts.
The question is often asked, how much did Tagore know of western classical music? Of the core that is Vienna classics — Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms — he was practically ignorant. In fact, Albert Einstein who was a friend, introduced to Tagore the music of Beethoven on the piano. The music Tagore knew where the folk song classic of the British Isles whose tunes he often used, and the Gilbert Sullivan Operetta which he used in his early dance dramas “Kal Mrigaya” and “Valmiki Pratibha”.
In a way Tagore songs are a unique phenomenon. In the West the great song composers — Schubert, Hugo Wolf and Mahler, all used texts and poems written by poets like Heine, Muller and others. Tagore was his own lyricist and composer. Though some of his tunes were composed by others Tagore always supervised.
Tagore songs have been popularised by singers like Pankaj Mullick, Hemanta Mukherjee, Devabrata Biswas, Kanika Bannerjee and Suchitra Mitra, who passed away recently. They are divided into segments and are broadly categorised under songs of Puja, Prem and Prakiti or Nature. Tagore was a wonderful nature lover and very much like the English poet William Wordsworth. Tagore was always talking to flowers, stars of the night (like Mahler and Beethoven) and birds.
One of Tagore's mesmerising ballads is about a dialogue between a caged bird and a free bird. Tagore in his songs was an essential romantic in tune with the elements, rain, sun and the moon. In fact there is one song of Tagore “Maharajo eki saaje” where he sees a thousand suns burst at the feet of the Saviour (maharaja) making the visuals of the song like the master paintings of Ascension by Rubens, Raphael and Tintoretto.
But in his paintings he is a different man. His paintings are disturbing and emerge from the death of the rational mind into the depths of the sub-conscious. In his songs he advocates an amicable arrangement and understanding of death just a door beyond life. In his paintings he stands naked, fear-filled and angst-ridden. The great Indologist Stella Kramrisch pointed this out in an article written in the 1920s. There is no doubt that his art will live along with the songs teasing the mind and warming the soul of those who care to enter his world. In the year of celebrations one hopes he will win new friends.