Rabindrasangeet: the songs of Tagore, a broad-minded Bengali icon

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for she was born in another time” Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) 

The songs of Bengali icon Rabindranath Tagore are collectively known as Rabindrasangeet. Western writers, ever-prone to compress Indian phenomena into their own pre-shaped boxes, often describe Tagore as the ‘Indian Shakespeare’ – although the Bard’s interests were positively narrow compared to that of the Subcontinental polymath, who moved between poetry, painting, playwriting, public speaking, and countless other creative forms. In 1913 he became the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and remains one of India’s most globally famous sons.

Tagore’s songs, which number over two thousand, unite disparate themes, with doses of devotion, mysticism, nationalism, and some thinly-veined eroticism too. He mainly wrote in popular dialects, and turned to traditional Scottish and Irish melodies for inspiration as well as to thumri and local music (much like his Carnatic forebear Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Nottuswara a century earlier). Rabindrasangeet are notated sparsely but sung with heavy ornamentation, drawn from Bengal’s varied classical and semi-classical styles.

Lyrics are imbued with courage (“let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it”) and passion (“shared in the same shy sweetness of meeting…old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever…”). Similarly replete with wit and instructive aphorisms (“it is very simple to be happy, but very difficult to be simple”), they often describe scenes of nature (“wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth, butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light…”). The act of music-making itself is also regularly self-referenced (“listen to me sing songs of bliss, and let them soothe your heart…”).

In the video below, Bengali khayal star Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty sings Moharaj Eki Shaje, with lyrics covering the humility of spiritual experience:

“O lord, you step into my heart with such splendor! A million moons adorn your holy feet, sun falls pale, such is your glory.

As my ego and pride crumbles to the ground to make way for you, my mind, body and soul pulsates like the veena string.

The spring breeze brings with it such ecstasy, my newly enlightened mind blossoms at your feet. As I observe your grace within me, I turn blind to worldly pleasures.”

Rabindrasangeet are crucial to the culture of the Bengal region, and also to that of the whole nation – for one thing, Tagore composed Jana Gana Mana and Amar Sonar Bangla, the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. His words and melodies also helped to give shape to India’s nascent Independence struggles, and later to the communitarian ideals of social reformers such as Swami Vivekananda, whose expansive interpretation of Hindu doctrine profoundly influenced figures ranging from Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to Nikola Tesla and Aldous Huxley.

Tagore’s work is, despite perpetual complaints about ongoing cultural decline, still wildly popular in the region. It has also given rise to a plethora of ‘post-Tagore’ styles, such as Prabhat Samgiita (‘Songs of a New Dawn’), another vast collection written by another Bengali polymath – Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. An author, mystic, and activist, Sarkar composed an average of nearly two songs a day in the eight year period to his death (1982-1990), expounding themes of love, transhumanism, and anti-capitalism in Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Magahi, Maithili, Angika, and English.

Tagore, though always a lover of music, was rarely overawed with real-life performances of his works (although tended to keep his opinions discreet). In his words, “Had I had good voice perhaps I could have shown what gem I have in my mind. A lot of people sing my songs, but they always disappoint me. I knew only one girl who could catch the spirit of my music – Sahana Devi”. Below is a recording of Devi singing Ke Janito Tumi Dakibe, a Rabindrasangeet with lyrics translating as follows:

“When you called me I was asleep under the shadows of my walls and I did not hear you. Then you struck me with your own hands and wakened me in tears.

I started up to see that the sun had risen, that the flood-tide had brought the call of the deep, and my boat was ready rocking on the dancing water.”

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