My Encounter with Rabindranath - 2

Continued from Part 1

Midway in my service career I realized that in spite of my best efforts I was a misfit in my service. I therefore decided to keep myself away from the rat race. To do that effectively I needed a place where I could stay undisturbed and draw my salary till my retirement. The government was very kind and wise to keep some positions which could be used as dumping grounds for unwanted and inconvenient people like me. In due course I found myself dumped in one of those places. I had an office where I had the choice not to do anything and it suited the staff well. But to keep up appearances I created some work for myself which I could do with a few hands who would volunteer to help me. It involved some research work and compilation and publication of books. After years of drudgery in which my duty had been to waste government stationery without producing anything tangible I found this change quite refreshing and interesting. But unfortunately after the publication of a few books academicians found them useful and began to talk about them. The minister, himself a college teacher, so long completely oblivious of my existence, now suddenly woke up and accosted me for my misdeeds. 

I knew that my days of peace were over. My friend and colleague Pradip Bhattacharya always prodded me to do some writing. He had partly succeeded when a few years ago I was made to regularly contribute to a monthly newsletter our service association published without interruption for three years. With the change in the executive committee its publication had stopped. He now made me buy a computer and surf the internet to find out e-zines where my writings could be published. The one suggested by him – - where his own writings appeared, fortunately accepted my postings. These were what I had written and published in our association newsletter and the introductory essays for the books I had published from my office. They were not much and soon got exhausted. The editor, Mr. Rajender Krishan, is a non-resident Indian based in the U.S.A. And, it should be mentioned, he is not a Bengali. It needs also to be mentioned that I got a good rebuff from the editor of another web-zine, a Bengali gentleman stationed in Canada, who publishes translations of Bengali literature. He refused to publish a Tagore poem translated by me.

In the meantime certain significant things had happened. One was the publication of the complete works of Tagore by the state government to commemorate 125 years of the poet’s birth. After its release many sold out their centenary sets and I got a chance to fulfill my long cherished dream. From second-hand shops I went on purchasing and reselling quite a number of them till I got one in a good condition. And I was amazed to find that except three or four volumes the rest of almost all the sets which passed through my hands showed no signs of ever having been disturbed since their purchase. The volumes showing the signs of use were one or two volumes of poems and the volumes of short stories and songs. I felt so happy because I found that I was not alone who had bothered very little about Tagore in his life. This neglect and ignorance however never prevented me from feeling proud on account of the poet. Another momentous incident happened – the copyright of his works given by the poet to the Viswabharati lapsed around this time. Soon came out his complete works from a private press. It sold like hot cakes in the Calcutta Book Fair of the year of its publication and it is rumoured that the publisher overnight became a millionaire. The pundits were of the opinion that in the wanton hands of the philistines now Tagore will lose his purity. I am not sure if their misgivings have been justified but there has been a welcome development – now the poet’s writings are being issued by various publishers in different formats and, in some cases, edited by scholars who are quite competent. It seems that Tagore, instead of remaining an exclusive property of the so-called ‘intellectuals’ and ‘cultured’ people, is now becoming familiar to the common people. The memory of the   riot that took place in Calcutta at the time of registration of subscribers for the limited number of the last commemorative set of his works published by the government should still be fresh in our mind. Not less importantly now the long felt need of the largest segment of the Bengali speaking people in the world, the people of Bangladesh, who staked their life and shed their blood for their mother tongue, will at long last be fulfilled. 

Along with this came the end of the rule of obtaining of prior approval of the Music Board of Viswabharati to the release of any recordings of Tagore songs. The purpose of this rule was purportedly to check deviation from the composer’s notations. In practice however this power is very widely thought to have often been abused by authorized persons for professional jealousy and financial reasons. These are very difficult to prove. But the fact remains that many aspiring singers failed to find its approval. In many cases reputed singers became the victims of its arbitrariness. For obtaining its approval to probably the best rendering of one of the most romantic and sweetest love songs – Oi janalar kachhe bose achhe karatale rakhi matha/tar kole phul pore royechhe/ se je bhule gechhe mala gatha (There she is sitting at the window resting her head on her palm / the flowers are lying on her lap /  she has forgotten to make her garland) – a reputed singer had to seek the intervention of no less a person than Indiradevi Choudhurani herself. She is the niece of the poet and supposed to be an authority on the music of Tagore. 

The case of Debabrata Biswas, perhaps the most gifted and popular singer of Tagore songs so far, is well known. During the last years of his life he could not get approval to many of his recordings. Here was a man who began singing Tagore songs from the time when he was  a small child and loved the poet’s music with all his heart - in fact it was his very life and not the sole means of his livelihood – never ran a ‘school’ - anybody could be his pupil paying a nominal fee more for the sake of screening and hardly remunerative – at best five rupees a month - and charging for public performances a ridiculously low amount which was not enough to meet even the cost of travel to and back from the place of performance. From the early seventies, when he was at the height of his power as a singer, he stopped recording Tagore songs out of a sense of indignation at the attitude of the Music Board. It is about three decades ago that he died on 16th August, 1980 but, according to knowledgeable people, at music stores sale of recordings of Tagore songs by Debabrata is still most probably the highest. It has been a great loss to his innumerable admirers. I also felt it to be a personal loss but never bothered about the controversy over his recordings because the ‘technical’ side of music is Greek to me. But now the matter has forced itself upon me. I have consulted some expert publications and people and what I have come to know is indeed very intriguing.

Tagore was born in a family which not only patronized but also practiced music. He started to compose songs along with his elder brothers when he was still in his teens. Some of his early efforts, if not in lyrics at least in music, were often collaborative. His eldest brother developed a system of recording of notations. This was a ‘first’ in Bengali music. It was later refined by another elder brother Jyotirindranath. Although the poet knew how to record notations he usually depended on others for this throughout his life. He also forgot the notations sometimes after a song was set to tune. His wife used to make fun of his inability to recollect the notations of his own songs. Sometimes he gave different notations of the same song to different persons and often on the same day. He also changed not only the wordings of the lyrics but also the tunes of some songs to suit various occasions on which they were used. And finally, like his other works he often revised his songs. Tagore composed more than two thousand songs. Who knows how many of them are involved in this process? One expert has listed, not exhaustively, about one hundred songs with different notations – at times, four or five – according to different persons who claim to have learnt them from the poet himself. Very few of them, if any, recorded the notations in black and white soon after learning them from the poet. They carried them in their memory and recorded them later according to their own convenience. 

Even Tagore himself once expressed his doubts about the correctness of some notations recorded by Dinendranath whom he called the bhandari or store-keeper of his songs. For example, in two letters written to his niece Indira on 10th Agrahayan, 1326 B.S. and 21st Agrahayan, 1326 B.S. respectively, the poet pointed out that Dinendranath was teaching the song ‘Viswabinarabe’ in a manner which deviated from his notations. This happened when Tagore was still alive. It is therefore not unreasonable to suspect that, if not all, at least in some cases the memory of others also might have played tricks with them. Books of notations of Tagore songs began to be published in his life time and they continue to be published today by the Viswabharati. They are supposed to be authoritative. Their different editions edited by different persons, however, often give different notations of some songs. No reasons are given for such variations. Nor has Viswabharati ever felt it to be its duty to give answers to queries raised regarding these variations. Notations of a large number of songs were lost but were later retrieved by his niece Indiradevi Choudhurani and others from their memory, while many have been irretrievably lost. Thus today there are numerous authorities and they themselves are not unanimous about many notations. Some examiners appointed by the Music Board to examine recordings themselves are said to have been no great respecters of authentic notations. About the honesty of some of them popular opinion is also not very flattering. Thus to some extent the position has become chaotic and scandalous. As Debabrata tells in his memoirs, the objections raised by the Music Board against some of his recordings were its own divinations and not supported by anything written by the poet. Debabrata confronted two persons who learnt songs from the poet himself and showed that the objections raised by the Music Board against some of his recordings on grounds of deviations in wordings and tunes were not correct and they had to give in. Later some diploma holders from the Viswabharati acting as examiners, raised objections which were arbitrary and unauthorized. These were regarding tempo and use of accompanying instrumental music.

It seems that in course of time, particularly after the poet’s birth centenary, with their growing popularity Tagore songs became a good source of income. At that time Debabrata also became very, if not the most, popular among the singers of Tagore songs. He became the common target of those who invest money in music industry or run schools and choose singing as a profession. It is popularly believed that some of these people, with the tacit support of some people associated with the Music Board, made determined attempts to stop Debabrata from further recording. Many were involved in this, but the person who is widely suspected to be the greatest culprit was the worthless son of a follower of Tagore. When the son miserably failed in academic life his father was worried and Tagore came to his rescue. The poet personally trained him and after his death this gentleman took full advantage of this association to form a coterie and held sway over the Music Board like a tyrant. At Santiniketan the music of Tagore used to be always in the air. But this man put a stop to it by prohibiting the inmates from singing the poet’s songs, because, according to him, they sang them incorrectly. 

One of his close relations was the editor of a popular literary journal. He had a protégé, a newspaper reporter and a third-rate literary hack, who as a ghost writer carried on a kind of crusade in the vernacular press against Debabrata. It is also an open secret that some professional singers took an active part in this unholy alliance. By sheer chance once I met one such singer in a friend’s office. When I asked about the controversy over Debabrata’s recordings which was then raging he became very agitated and told that he was all wrong and should not be allowed to record Tagore songs. Was Debabrata alone to blame, was no other singer similarly guilty? To this question he couldn’t give any reply. Another lady professional singer suspected to belong to this group had managed a post of teaching of Tagore songs in an educational institution. To qualify for that post she obtained a university degree by fraudulent means. Professional jealousy is nothing new, nor is it unusual for a professional to stoop very low, but in the present case what is most painful is the fact that we have been deprived of the enjoyment of renderings of more songs of Tagore by a wonderful singer like Debabrata.

I am no music expert but I have often wondered if musical compositions admit of interpretations. Beethoven’s masterpieces, for example, have been recorded by many orchestras under the batons of various conductors and the ragas and raginis are rendered by various maestros of different gharanas or schools. In every case the score is the same but are the different renderings identical? It is one thing to sing correctly but to sing well is something altogether different. According to experts notations give the structure or the skeleton of a song or musical composition, it is the function of the singer or the performer to add flesh and blood to it and his success or failure to do so is the measure of his talent. One singer may be correct yet lifeless while others are inspired and able to move the audience by conveying the real spirit of a musical composition. Moreover, as good grammarians are seldom good writers so also are musical pundits rarely good singers. Andrea del Sarto knew it well that at best he could be the most correct draftsman but he could never be a Rafael. Those who had the good fortune to attend performances of Debabrata know how he could transform the venue almost into a prayer hall. He was unconventional and belonged to no school or group and experimented with the use of orchestra. The poet is said to have reservations about the use of accompanying orchestra and initially strongly disapproved the use even of harmonium for, according to him, it drowns the nice modulations of the singer’s voice. According to some people the accompanying orchestra (consisting now-a-days not only of the harmonium but also of many electronic instruments), if harmonious and not too loud, adds to the effect and enjoyment of the songs. But too much use of loud orchestra, which unfortunately has now become the fashion, would certainly turn a song into a cacophony. Only a truly sensitive singer can sing a song in its correct tempo. And it needs no expertise to discern a gradual change over the years in the style of singing of the Tagore songs. To me at least the earlier renderings in many instances appear to be somewhat stiff and formal while those of later dates appear to be more lively, spontaneous and natural. 

To the Bengalis the music of Tagore is like the air they breathe and nobody on earth can treat it as his exclusive property and try to stop its wide practice. But before recording everyone has to be careful to see that none of them dilutes the quality and character of one of the greatest heritages of the race. Before taking any liberty new singers should keep it in mind that great singers have set a standard and the authentic notations of most of the songs are on record. And finally, those who will take too much liberty will do so at their own cost, for by this time the Bengalis have developed a special taste and sensitiveness about Tagore songs and are more or less able to sift the grain from the chaff. The most heartening fact today is the unprecedented popularity of Tagore songs and the emergence of many good singers from among the young generation. In this age of globalization they are a kind of bulwark against the trash culture that is engulfing the traditional native cultures throughout the world.  

Previous Page  | Continued to Part 3  

More By  :  Kumud Biswas

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Really interested to know the names of the persons who were behind Debabrata's perils. Want to know the positive or negetive roles of Shantidev Ghosh, Shubhas Chowdhury, Subinoy Roy and Suchitra Mitra , if any. If you feel uncomfortable to such discussions in public forums ,may I request you to PM me to my email address. I wanted to know the actual incidence for many years . Please help.

18-Aug-2015 12:59 PM

Comment Dear Dipankar, On another occasion I told you - age has caught up with us, we are most likely to commit such mistakes. I often fail to remember names of many who were once very familiar to me.

20-Nov-2011 03:39 AM

Comment  Kumud-babu:

I came back and checked for your response to my feedback. I re-read what I had written. I am usually careful about the typos as well as choice of language. I was amazed to discover a profusion of errors in my feedback. I don't know how this happened. Perhaps I had a tiring day and was not adequately mindful when I was writing. I admire your contributions. Do please forgive the lapses in what I wrote. 

20-Nov-2011 00:05 AM

Comment Dear Dipankar, Thank you very much indeed. The greatest punishment I suffer today is my difficulty to find friends with whom you can talk on things you really love. Tagore was great but how many know the extent of his greatness? It was sheer accident that prompted me to study his works and his life. Both are very vast, but they are rewarding. But it is painful to see how criminally he is neglected by the Bengalis themselves. I have found only one gentleman in my neighbourhood with whom I can talk about Tagore. Otherwise most are blissfully ignorant and they are not ashamed for that. They are respectable members of the society - most of my colleagues who were good students and held very high posts in the administration have disappointed me most. Just like you, Rajender told me to continue my blogs on Tagore when I was thinking of stopping it. Tagore is now beyond our praise or abuse. It is we who stand to gain by the study of his works and his life. You are blessed indeed - you took troubles to learn and practice his music. That is something really heavenly.
I would tell you one thing as Rajender told me - don't care who reads or doesn't read your blogs - please continue to write.

19-Nov-2011 18:49 PM

Comment  Dear Kumud-babu:

I thought I had arrived late. But the absence of any feed backs on your post tells me, even if I am late, I have at least read your 2 part article. The number of views that shows at the bottom of a post need not be a reliable index of the number of readers. Anyway, it hardly matters. Both you and I write because we enjoy writing. If our pieces are read, good enough. If not, neither you nor I are upset. 

I enjoyed reading this post, partly because it was partly autobiographical and it also gave me an idea about how you to be so closely associated with the great intellect of Tagore. To some extent, it looks as though things happened fortuitously. Yet, you ended up a winner. In terms of your vast knowledge of Tagore's work, you are one of the richest persons I have communicated with. I feel dwarfed at times before you when it comes to Tagore. 

It was interesting to note that a good part of this post was devoted to Debabrata Biswas. I too have always been a die hard fan of this great singer and heard him sing countlessly many times during my college days. I enjoy singing myself and some of the first songs I picked were Biswas' versions of Tagore songs. Even today, my music teacher tells me that there is a similarity between Debabrata Biswas' singing style and my weak attempts. Ultimately, Debabrata was to me as Dronacharya was to Ekalavya. I never found either the courage or the money (even the five rupees) to approach him. So, I would usulally visit friends' homes and hope they would play a record or two for me to listen to. That's how I learnt my Rabindrasangeet. Naturally it is full of flaws. 

Much later in life, when I was nearing 60, was I fortunate enough to find a teacher. She still teaches me and it is through her teaching that I have learnt to read the notes you mention. I am not too learned on the topic, but when it comes to Rabindrasangeet, I try to stick to the notations in Swarabitan or the latest internet version versions of Tagore's works. I realized how careful one has to be to sing Tagore. I think he was very particular about the notes. Very recently, when I was trying to pick up "amar bichar tumi koro ...", I found out that I was using an unnecessary gandhar where it was not necessary. On the other hand, I was missing out a fascinating kori madyam where it made a difference. I don't know much about the conflicts and the dark side of the world of music, but I have indeed heard of Debabrata's struggles against Visvabharati to get himself recorded. 

Of course, I like other singers as well, perhaps I am ignorant about their machinations. But Debabrata will always remain great, very great indeed. 

Incidentally, I arrived at boloji following your advice and have had no reason to regret my decision. Regarding the Canada based  web-zine, I have a feeling that I too have had interactions with that organization. Of course, I can't be sure, since you haven't mentioened the name for obvious reasons. My experience was quite interesting. When I sent my translations to them, they were full of praise and told me not to put them up in any website because they would surely be publishing them. They even sent me pieces submitted by others and requested me to review them. I did this work for them. Later on, when I didn't see my pieces in their site, I wrote to them asking them when they were plannng to upload them. They never replied. I have no idea what went wrong!!

This was a very nice article that I read.  

Dipankar Dasgupta
19-Nov-2011 12:58 PM

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