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Special Feature

Rabindra Jayanti

The Legacy Lives On

As the 147th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore goes by, Tagore singers, purists and admirers wonder for the umpteenth time - with digital production of music slowly taking over the scene, will Tagore compositions also be the target of distortion? Will youngsters still take a liking to Tagore's music and lyrics, which even a couple of decades ago, was a part of a child's regular education? Is the ever-moving Rabindra Sangeet taking a back seat in today's music scene?

Elita Karim
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

For years now, it has been a trend in Bangladesh to provide children an education in music, alongside their regular schooling. Academies like the Chayyanaut, Nazrul Academy, Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA), Shurer Dhara and many more, have been witnessing the growth of talents for decades. Many, after graduating, go on to pursue their dreams in the fields of performing arts, while others nurture their knowledge and talents for personal fulfilment.

A large number of children and young people spend a good part of their childhood learning Rabindra Sangeet. Families involve themselves with the learning of Tagore compositions to develop their children's personality. There was a time, however, when studying Rabindranath's compositions would define sophistication and would be exclusively confined to a certain section of the society. For many families, possessing the natural gift of singing was not required of their children. It was enough as long as their children attended Chayyanaut.

It is the unique texture of Tagore compositions that appeals to both the young and the old even today.

“I simply cannot carry a tune!” laughs 29-year-old Durdana Khan, a Marketing Executive of a private company in Dhaka. Durdana, who currently lives with her husband in a two-room flat in Badda, is an admirer of Rabindrnath Tagore's works. She tries not to miss any of the Tagore musicals that go on in the city. Along with the stacks of Tagore poetry and plays that she has in her home, her collection of music also boasts CDs and old tapes of Tagore's compositions sung by singers from both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Growing up in Maghbazaar and going to Viqarunnisa Noon School, as a child it was taken for granted by her parents that a music education in Chayyanaut would be appropriate for their daughter, “The fact that I could not sing in tune did not seem to bother my parents at all,” she says. “It was a trend to send children to Chayyanaut or other musical academies every weekend or after school. Frankly speaking, I did not like my Chayyanaut classes and would make up excuses every week to miss them. However, even as a child, I did appreciate Tagore's ideas and poetry. I would like to read his short stories, plays and poetry, rather than sing them any day!”

It is the unique texture of Tagore compositions, a mixture of the western with the traditional, that appeals to both the young and the old even today. Shanthi Sarkar is a busy housewife and strongly believes that it is never too late to pursue one's dreams. At the age of 41, she takes care of her home, two children and still hopes to sing Rabindra Sangeet with “beautiful” accompaniments on special occasions. “I love the soft strokes of the harmonium, tabla, violin and the flute that accompany a Tagore singer,” she explains. “They make the Tagore compositions all the more mesmerising.” Now that her children are in their pre-teen years and are able to look after themselves, Shanthi has decided to start pursuing her dreams of becoming a Tagore singer by attending Rabindra Sangeet appreciation courses in Chayyanaut and other institutes, where many her age have signed up to learn Tagore compositions. “I never got a chance to actually learn Tagore songs as a child,” she says. “But I would never miss the musical shows on television. I got married early and had to take care of my household from a young age. But my family has been very supportive in letting me follow my dreams. That is how I gathered enough courage and confidence to attend classes after all these years.”

Thanks to Sanjida Khatun and Wahidul Haque, the creation of Chayyanaut in 1961 led to a revolution in the field of music and philosophy with Tagore's poetry and compositions.

One of the biggest fears that Tagore singers have today is of a possibility of a slow disintegration of Rabindra Sangeet mainly because not many youngsters nowadays take a liking to the genre as they used to a few decades ago. Because of the new genres of music, which have hit the scene today, youngsters seem to be more inclined towards learning and performing them. Some of the popular auditoriums of Dhaka, including the Russian Cultural Centre, All Community Centre and even Shishu Academy host plenty of concerts for rock and alternative listeners. However, in places like Shurer Dhara, run by famous Tagore singer Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, quite a lot of youngsters attend the 5-year diploma classes. Not only in places like Chayyanaut and Shurer Dhara do young people learn Tagore compositions, but many of them make an effort to learn at home after hectic schedules filled with classes and private tuition.

Fifteen-year-old Imtiaz Mahboob Russel is taking a break from his musical endeavours because he is soon to sit for his O' level examinations this month. An aspiring guitarist, Russel has been saving up money for many months to buy an electric guitar. Amongst his friends, he is known to be someone with “a very rich sense of music”; someone who regularly attends the happening alternative and heavy metal concerts in Dhaka. Little do they know that every weekend he has also been taking Rabindra Sangeet lessons for the last couple of months. “My older sister recently began learning Tagore songs from a teacher, who comes to our house every Saturday,” he explains. “I would listen to Tagore songs all the time, since both my parents are very big fans. But once I started to listen to the teacher teaching and describing certain aspects of Tagore poetry and compositions to my sister, it caught my attention. I learn Tagore songs along with my sister now and I find it very refreshing. Along with the rich words and poetry, I also enjoy the use of melody and the particular sense of feeling that each one encapsulates in a particular Tagore composition.”

Yet another fear that Tagore puritans have is the distortion of the Swaralipi (staff notation) that is to be strictly followed by musicians and singers rendering Rabindra Sangeet. On the occasion of Tagore's birth anniversary, many students are seen gathered in the CD outlets of New Market, Rifles Square in Dhanmondi, Bashundhara City Complex in Panthopoth and also Fahim Music in Banani. Most of them are looking for Tagore compositions for performances in their respective schools, universities and musical academies. Some of them ask for the contemporary renditions of Tagore songs, rather than the conventional ones. It is true that many a musician today is introducing new concepts in Rabindra Sangeet compositions and also renditions. However, they say that as long the Swaralipi is maintained, Rabindra Sangeet can never be distorted. Recently, in a telecom ad-film, well-known contemporary musician Ornob's composition of the song 'Purano shei diner kotha' took listeners by storm. In fact, Sahana Bajpai's album 'Notun Kore Pabo Bole' which came out from Bengal Music in early 2007 also introduced several new elements in the field of Rabindra Sangeet. With Sahana's vocals, Ornab's music and plenty of harmonising, a concept which was quite new in the Tagore music arena, these young musicians tried to make Rabindra Sangeet more accessible to the present generation. It did take the cultural elite quite a long time to come to terms with this, since many strongly believe Rabindra Sangeet to be almost sacred, and beyond changing and modernising.

In Shurer Dhara, run by famous Tagore singer Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, many youngsters attend the 5-year diploma classes.

At the end of 2007, popular Adhunik (Modern) singer Fahmida Nabi, recorded a Rabindra Sangeet album titled 'Amar Bela Je Jaye' under the banner of Impress Audio Vision Limited, on the occasion of Tagore's death anniversary. Even though her album gained a lot of popularity, many purists indirectly expressed their disapproval over such an experiment. According to Fahmida, this album was filled with her own interpretation of the Tagore songs. “Many purists have actually laid down certain laws,” she exclaims. “That Tagore songs are to be rendered in a certain way. This actually puts a lot of strain in the art form and creates blocks within artistes.” She does admit that there is a line between experimenting with Tagore compositions and distortion of these songs, which should be understood by artistes before trying to experiment and breaking free from tradition.

Thanks to Sanjida Khatun and Wahidul Haque, the creation of Chayyanaut in 1961 led to a revolution in the field of music and philosophy with Rabindranath's poetry and compositions. Despite the fears of alteration and misrepresentations in Tagore songs by purists and the patrons of Tagore, this revolution is recognised even today by the youngsters and contemporary musicians and is going to be spread to the generations next. Tagore's legacy lives on.

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