A post of mine that has been sitting in the drafts for more than a year, and the irony, it was a guest post. I am sure Dr. Madhubanti would have even forgotten she wrote this, but how could I leave a beautiful post such as this from seeing the light of the virtual world! Here, she talks about her roots, poetry, music and specifically Rabindra Sangeet. Read along!
“Watching me rattle through words at a million miles an hour, it may surprise you to learn that I learnt to sing before I could talk. Today, my music collection is eclectic, ranging casually through genres and across the world.
But my deepest and most abiding love remains for the two types of Bengali music that permeated the very walls of my family home in Kolkata. On the one hand, there is Bengali folk music – evoking the rivers and mountains of a lush, green region and the loves and losses of the people living on and off that land. (Yes, I can hear you thinking: how on earth is a city childhood conducive to imbibing folk music? But bear with me: I’ll come back to this shortly.)
On the other hand, there is Rabindra Sangeet – the uncategorisable musical oeuvre of a literary genius in whose writing there is solace for loss, balm for pain, encouragement for overcoming challenges, the celebration of joys and successes, reverence for nature and humanity, as well as a deep, ineffable relationship with the forces of the Divine, however one conceives of it. (This affinity is more easily understandable: my grandfather, an award-warning professor of literature probably had Tagore songs and poems eddying in his bloodstream, and he passed this on to my mother, and to a far lesser degree, to me.)
When you start to unpack Rabindranath Tagore’s musical – as opposed to lyrical – influences, however, something emerges that makes my urban taste for folk seem a lot less strange. On the one hand, there are the incredibly westernised ‘Purano shei diner kotha‘ – bearing more than a passing resemblance to Auld Lang Syne – or ‘Kotobaro bhebechhinu‘ – designed for piano accompaniment. But the other side of the coin contains pure classical notations of a complexity that puts off most but the most intrepid and skilled vocalists – E Ki Labonye Purno Praan would be a good example – but also beautifully sympathetic renderings and reworkings of traditional folk music from all across undivided Bengal.
The Tagore family were zamindars (landholders) in Shilaidaha in modern-day Bangladesh, and especially in his early writing life, the long journeys there and back from Kolkata, as well as the time spent in his Zamindari allowed Tagore plenty of exposure to both the natural elements he wrote about so eloquently his whole life, but also the folk music that was around him everywhere. With the help of Gagan Harkara on his estate, he began the work of collecting the scattered, oral gems left behind by Lalan Fakir, one of the most legendary peripatetic folk poet singers.
Tagore’s efforts also led people to rediscover the Sylheti folk poet Hason Raja – it would be absolutely fair, to the breadth of imagination and thought of both parties, despite their different languages, to compare him to the great Sufi poet Kabir – but also brought the music of the fisher folk and peripatetic tribal communities into the mainstream. It is not uncommon, to this day, to find Tagore’s folk-based songs being performed at folk music festivals and celebrations, and these days, being ‘digitally remastered’ to the accompaniment of electric guitars and zippy chords.
Since, even today, no self-respecting Bengali family would find itself without a complete set of Tagore’s works, my taste for folk music – to which my introduction was through Tagore himself – doesn’t seem so outlandish any more.
The song I want to leave you with is ‘Amar praaner manush achhe praane‘, whose beautiful lines remind us of why we talk about ‘folk wisdom’ – knowledge and realisations that never quite go out of date.”