Tagore at the Traffic Signal

As of late, Rabindra Sangeet has emerged in unexpected places, whether covered as club song or voiced by Amitabh Bachchan. Does Tagore’s music, as he had hoped, stand the test of time?

‘Lukochuri’ (1958) introduced Tagore’s song ‘Mayabono biharini’ to cinema.
01 April, 2012

AMONG THE THINGS prohibited to me as a child, there are three I have yet to undertake: touching paper with my feet, eating kül (Bengal berries) before Saraswati Puja and singing Rabindra Sangeet in the bathroom. I must confess that I was therefore embarrassed to read about young Sandeep’s Chhotomama singing a Tagore prayer song—“Bahe nirantar ananta anandadhara”—in the bathroom in Amit Chaudhuri’s novel A Strange and Sublime Address. Tagore songs, like Wimbledon, demanded a certain dress code. That had been broken. The other moment in the delightful novel when Chhotomama sings Rabindra sangeet mercifully ended with the words, “That is why I sing without cause.” Why else would a bathroom Rabindra Sangeet-singer sing? I have since discovered an anecdote that I now narrate as filial revenge: “I have heard him humming to himself in the bath-room, then suddenly call his Banamali ... and say: ‘Fetch Dinubabu immediately and tell him to stand outside my bath-room window and be ready to take down a new song, words and tune together.’” The words are Leonard Elmhirst’s about Rabindranath Tagore, his longtime friend.

Rabindranath Tagore reads to a gathering in an image from 1925. MANSELL / TIME & LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES

A Bengali drawing room figure, Tagore is often invoked in moments of conversational unease and boredom, sometimes emerging from a Bengali girl’s voice as song in the prologue to her arranged marriage; he would also, when the aesthetic demanded, hang like a lizard on the wall and gaze tirelessly from a Batik wall-hanging produced at Santiniketan’s Amar Kutir. It is interesting, therefore, to see Tagore’s recent emergence in unfamiliar places, both ghare and baire: in the bedroom, and at traffic signals in Kolkata, blaring out from loudspeakers as part of a government programme to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary.

Moinak Bhowmik’s recent film Bedroom (2012) features an all-girl band singing the Rabindra geet, ‘Mayabono biharini horini…’. This isn’t, needless to say, cinema’s first experiment with Tagore’s music. The most recent incorporations of his oeuvre have been in Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona (2011), Noukadubi (2011) and Alo Chaya (2011), and also in Parineeta (2005), the Hindi film based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1914 novella. And before all this was, of course, the 1937 film Mukti: Tagore had given permission to the music director Pankaj Mullick to put his words to tune, but was very particular about not calling it ‘Rabindra sangeet’. Why then the particular unease with this new interpretation of Tagore?

Mukti (1937) was the first movie to have a Rabindra geet.

To trace the career of ‘Mayabono biharini’ since its birth—from a song about an unattainable lover who eventually demands sacrifice, to a romantic evening duet, to its use in a film that deals overtly with sexuality, adultery and restlessness—is to sketch the route that a certain Bengali sensibility has taken in arts and politics since Independence.

Mayabono biharini’ appears in the second scene of Tagore’s dance-drama Shyama, first staged in 1939. Inspired by an old Buddhist legend, Shyama revolves around the eponymous court dancer who falls in love with Bojroshen, a merchant accused of theft. To save him, Shyama takes the help of Uttiyo, the symbol of unrequited love in the dance drama. Uttiyo, who secretly loves Shyama and therefore thinks of her as ‘Mayabono biharini horini… (O doe, wandering in the forest of illusions…)’, sings these lines in Shyama’s court (Tagore’s word is ‘shabha-griho’: court-house), his words interrupted after every stanza by a chorus of Shyama’s female companions. In the end, both the loves come to naught—Uttiyo’s, of course, and Shyama’s, too, when Bojroshen finds out how she had tricked Uttiyo to save him.

Kamal Majumdar’s 1958 film Lukochuri was the first time that ‘Mayabono biharini…’ made its appearance in a film. The Kishore Kumar-Mala Sinha-Anita Guha starrer was about love and mistaken identities; it employed the trope of the twin to comic effect and ended with a happy-to-get-married routine. In the film, Kishore Kumar romances his woman in a park. It is early evening, and in wooing his woman with these words, he makes her a half-Beatrice figure, accessible but never quite; marriage remains the goal.

In Moinak Bhowmik’s Bedroom (2012)a story about three couples and a single woman, of love and lust, marriage and relationships, and how the four cognates don’t join to form a rectangleit’s not the protagonists that sing the song, but the all-girl band. Dressed in exhibitionist gothic, the band sings in a nightclub, but there is no audience. The song runs like a stream of the unconscious, the words encircling the protagonists but without offering any warmth. Emptiness appears like craters on the screen—unpeopled chairs, beds, sofas, park benches, a dining table—as the main characters, never quite sure of their needs, look out of windows, doors, onto television screens, always appearing incomplete in various reflecting surfaces.

Bedroom (2012)—a story of love, lust and relationships— shows an all-girl band singing ‘Mayabono biharini horini’.

Moinak Bhowmik, in an interview, said that the Tagore ‘club’ song “signifies gender reversal. Through this number, we are portraying the strength of women, their power in terms of sensitivity and maturity.” Ushasie Chakraborty, who directed the video for the song scored by Rupam Islam and Allan Ao of the Bangla Rock band Fossils, hopes that the scene will “inspire Kolkata to get its own girl band”. But is there really a recovery of feminist energy in this transfer of voice from Uttiyo’s male to the Kishore Kumar-Ruma Guha Thakurta duet (the personal detail about their being married is inescapably a part of the listening experience) to vocalist Somlata Acharyya Chowdhury’s rendition (in Bedroom)? If there’s ‘gender reversal’, it is certainly not as the carrier of Tagore’s words alone, but the subversion of a masculine optic: the recurrence of something attached to the woman’s mouth—the lead singer’s microphone, the actor Paoli Dam’s straw, a cigarette from a woman’s lips. The song, smoke and sex notwithstanding, the woman remains a subaltern in her emotional career, setting her own limits, circumscribing her own perimeter, drawing the boundaries of her eyes with eyeliner, pushing her hands through gold bangles, framing her face in the rear view mirror of a car. The reference to “baandhon”, tying up, is how the song ends, after all. And so the angst is discordant, and also comes full circle: Tagore, a singer of his own compositions, was often said to have a feminine voice (as Soudamini Debi, Rabindranath’s sister, writes in Pitrismriti: “Robi is our Bengal’s bulbul”); Rabindra Sangeet has been called effeminate; and making an all-girl band lip-sync these lyrics is supposed to work as a feminist strategy: such a short circuit? Something else: just as Uttiyo yearns for Shyama’s love, Tanushree, the prostitute in Bedroom, is shown to hanker for the red shoes in the shop window. From the theft of a necklace in Shyama, one that demands sacrifice from the true lover Uttiyo, to the psycho-materialist culture of consumption in Bedroom, a long journey has been traversed: from love to shoes, Tagore is sales assistant.

The all-girl group’s performance in Bedroom is not the first time that Rabindra Sangeet has been turned into ‘band’ music. The Bengali rock band that sings ‘Jagorane je bibhabori’ in Anjan Dutta’s 2011 film Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona looks and sounds fake, just as the one in Bedroom does. Insomnia—for all purposes the ‘meaning’ of the words in ‘Jagorane je…’—is surely not a great subject for rock. In both, the constant trial and error, in clothes fittings, in relationships and in music, exhaust us; and Somlata’s voice as well as the choice of the Tagore songs in both the films turn out to be misfits. Even Kabir Suman’s avuncular intervention in the sanchari portion of ‘Jagorane…’ fails to bring any kind of emotional conflict into the rendition. Anjan Dutt, singing all his songs in the same ‘but-you-see…’ colonial education voice, joins in towards the end, but neither the brilliant Amyt Dutta’s presence in it, nor Nondon Bagchi’s nor Lew Hilt’s, can redeem the song. In the end, it turns out to be another loud pastiche: Tagore, 1960s nostalgia rock, Somlata’s skinny voice, the character Ranjana’s rockstar trail, stock advert visuals of red dried chillies and Holi colours. In both the songs, kites appear, and in both they refuse to fly. And everywhere there’s headshaking, hair-moving, footstomping guitaring. Tagore, with his beard and long hair, in his gender-bender gown-like jobba, might have anticipated the rockstar ‘look’ before he became appropriated as the Seer, that is. But to stretch that point is to overload the notes to ridiculousness.

Tagore’s repeated insistence that his songs were for a larger Bengali community (“Especially Bengalis … in all times to come, they will have to sing my songs”) gives us a hint of his desire for Rabindra Sangeet to gradually become a kind of lokgeeti, people’s song. Musicians taking up Tagore today benefit from this, from Rabindra Sangeet not having a gharana as it were. Even when the songs operate on the aesthetic of found music, as they most often do in these new films, they live in brackets, a pause in the narrative, a bit like an advert or the act of switching to a music channel in between watching a movie, never quite a part of the whole. In the few rare instances that it does succeed, as in Neel Dutta’s clever adaptation of ‘Pagla Hawa’ in The Bong Connection (2006), it is where the Rabindra Sangeet has, as Tagore never tired of insisting, remained ‘Tagore’s’.

The Bong Connection (2006) features an adaptation of Tagore’s ‘Pagal Hawa’.

Theatre artist Saoli Mitra, in her essay, ‘Saadhok ogo, Premikogo, Pagol ogo’, narrates something interesting about having trained with Debabrata Biswas, the noted Rabindra Sangeet singer: Biswas would not allow his students to sing with the printed swaralipi in front of them—when a student could not sing to his satisfaction, he would declare, “This is Rabindra Sangeet, this is not song.” Here is Tagore: “Times change, and with it everything. But I am certain that my songs will stand the test of time, Shawb cheye sthayi aamar gaan eta jor korey boltey pari ...”. When considered together, the poet and the practitioner’s words call for a renewed perspective. Beyond the institutions and personalities that have defined the genre, from Visvabharati, Rabindra Bharati and Gitabitan, to Dokshini, Robitirtha and Santideb-Subinoy-Suchitra-Kanika-Neelima, there can be a Rabindra Sangeet. By that logic, has the ‘Aekla chalo re ...’ by Amitabh Bachchan succeeded? The song is every Rabindra Sangeet singer’s Hamlet: just as every Shakespearean actor aspires to play the Prince of Denmark at least once in his career, so too every Rabindra Sangeet student dreams of singing this song—from Kishore Kumar to Shreya Ghoshal. Said to be one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourites, used by Vinoba Bhave during the Bhoodan Movement, employed in existential ventriloquism at political rallies and in rejected lover’s soliloquies, as ‘Chal akela ...’ in the film Sambandh (1969), as ‘Tanha raahi ...’ in Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), and now rendered by Amitabh Bachchan in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), it is hard to believe that Tagore was inspired by a kirtan to compose this in 1905, sitting in a small town in what is now Jharkhand. It was long thought of as a Baul song until Tagore shifted it to the “Swadesh” section of the Gitabitan, the anthology of his songs.

In Kahaani (2012), Amitabh Bachchan sings Tagore’s famous song, ‘Aekla chalo re’.

There are several other instances in which listeners have related to Tagore’s songs more instinctively than aesthetically. Writer and educator Pramathanath Bishi wrote about a ‘non-Bengali’ professor at Visva-Bharati University who loved the song ‘Ami chini go chini tomare, ogo bideshini …’ (used by Satyajit Ray in Charulata) because he thought the song was about the import of sugar (‘chini’) from ‘bidesh’. Many clients on Chitpur Road did not know that what they thought of as ‘beshya sangeet’ (a genre of songs sung by prostitutes) had actually been written by Tagore. And ‘Purono shei diner kotha’ has become a part of the trinity of school and college farewell songs along with Kishore Kumar’s ‘Chalte-chalte mere ye geet yaad rakhna…’ and Manna Dey’s ‘Coffee house-er shei adda ta…’.

Tagore now comes in shorthand, Tagore is colloquial. And hence his arrival at the truth: “I do not hesitate to say that my songs have found their place in the heart of my land … and that the folk of the future, in days of joy or sorrow or festival, will have to sing them.”

Tagore’s intercultural transactions are used to justify the touristy guitar-drum experimentations of musicians that reduce his songs to a 4/4 beat. For Tagore is now pub music. On the FM, Tagore songs play like Bangla Adhunik songs once did on All India Radio request programmes. The guitar strings buzz in our heads all day. We sit and shit, walk and talk to the guitar’s rhythm. Our attention span is the measure of a drum backbeat. And Tagore becomes a karaoke in our singalong picnic voice: Folk Rock, the new old man on the block. People’s Song. Today, Tagore sings to us at traffic signals. Tomorrow he’s our afternoon antakshari. The poet-composer of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ has at last become the Janagan.