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The other day it was 25th day of the month of Baisakh of the Bengali year 1425 and it happened to be the 157th birth anniversary of Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore. Although I am far from the festivities on this joyous occasion but can one really control the mind? No, it is pretty self-willed, more so when one is old. It just needs a trigger to act and move – covering long distances and time-spans in next to no time. Normally, one does not remember the dates of birth of people, including one’s own, but this time somebody mentioned the 25th day of Baisakh and the birth anniversary of the poet. That set my mind rolling and it crossed distances and decades in matter of seconds.
It travelled back in time more than seventy five years nudging the memories of my childhood that was lucky to have witnessed Prabhat Pheries. Bengalis, wherever, they might be, celebrate such occasions with cultural programmes of lectures, recitations and singing of songs of Tagore. But for us children what was most interesting was the Prabhat Pheri, meaning basically a morning stroll around the town accompanied by music and singing. We in Gwalior were a very small community of migrant Bengalis who had made their home in the domain of Scindias who had, ironically, plundered Bengal in raids a century or so ago. And, yet there were enough boys in the community who would come out to join Prabhat Pheries in the mornings on days like this – 25th Baisakh, - that are reckoned as significant and auspicious.
A band of young men which included singers, a harmonium player, the heavy musical instrument being slung from the shoulders, a percussionist who would either have a set of tablas hanging from the waist or just a khol, a dholak-like percussion instrument of Bengali provenance and, what I presume were, manjiras would come out early in the morning singing while leisurely walking around the town in Prabhat Pheris. It used to be a remarkable effort for them to collect at an early hour at the appointed place and then walk along predetermined routes where accretions to the numbers would take place with more people joining the walkers. Apparently, they were oblivious of whether their songs were appreciated by those along their way who would look at them curiously unfamiliar as they were with the music and the language.
On this particular day, 25th day of Baisakh, it would be mostly the songs of Tagore, popularly known as Rabindra Sangit, with, perhaps, a sprinkle of other genres. In the music of Bengal Rabindra Sangit is a genre by itself along with others like Kirtan, Baul, Folk, Nazrul Geeti, Adhunik (modern), etc. It is difficult to say which is more popular but one finds that Rabindra Sangit, generally being more affective, eloquent, emotive and soulful, is what is sung and enjoyed more on any occasion. Tunes given to his songs by Tagore touch the heart, evocative of emotions as they are. In Tagore’s music also there are categorizations that were introduced after his demise so as to be able to organise and publish them for the lovers of his poems. So, we have generally three main categories Prem (romantic), Puja (devotional sometimes verging on mystical) and Nature (generally seasons). I am no Tagore expert. Far, far from it, hence I could be wrong. I am only a listener of his remarkable music which could have strains of folk, Baul, Kirtan and even European music. He was an extraordinary man who not only was a genius but he would also imbibe from whatever appealed to his heart.
Tagore was a polymath, a phenomenal achiever. He wrote hundreds of texts, dance dramas, short stories, novels and more than couple of thousand songs that he set himself to music. This is an incredible feat. He redefined the Bengali modern art and his doodles are incredibly beautiful and suggestive of the quality of his mind. Small people like us can hardly ever comprehend what he gave the world out of that genius of a mind that he had. Besides, he was humanist, an universalist, an internationalist and was, curiously, anti-nationalist, probably because of the havoc wrought in the world by highly nationalistic nations of Europe during his lifetime. That is how, perhaps, he conceptualized Shantiniketan, an abode of peace, in peaceful pastoral surroundings
The Prabhat Pheri would wind its way through various streets of the small town Gwalior and enter our lane as there were a few Bengali families living there in the newly built houses. We would all go out to the verandah to hear the melodious music from the mellifluous voice of Khokon-da (Khokon Majumdar, perhaps the best exponent of Rabindra Sangit in Gwalior). It was great to see Bhagwat Dutta (I still 0remember the name) sogging wet in his sweat beating away on his khol and dancing virtually Manipuri-style to his own rhythm. On many occasions the entire musical party would come up and have tea and refreshments at our place before another round of singing of Rabindra Sangit. It used to be magical. I have always felt that Rabindra Sangit sounds best when it is sung in chorus. A single man or woman singing Jana Gana Mana doesn’t give the same effect as when it is sung by a stage-full of accomplished singers. Incidentally, Tagore happens to be the creator of national anthems of three countries of the sub-continent including India. Anthems of both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were written as well as set to music by him.
Slowly as the world became more materialistic and people became engrossed in their workaday existence uplifting activities like Prabhat Pheries were gradually given up. In a few short years the Prabhat Pheries of Bengalis in Gwalior just faded out but their music - whether patriotic or romantic or even the soulful music of Rabindranath - continued to reverberate within. As I moved on with my life I continued to harbor a faint recollection of those days. Then suddenly one evening during the Pujas in early 1970s as I reached Connaught Place walking all the way from Curzon Road Apartments I heard the soft strains of Rabindra Sangit being played on the public address system. As I stood in front of the Regal Building with all its crowds and confusion I heard out the entire LP of Rabindra Sangit in the sonorous voice of Late Hemant Kumar. It made my day.