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Volume 2 Issue 4 | May 2007



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
The end of corruption?-- Rehman Sobhan
Fixing the power problem -- Mamun Rashid
The third decade of Saarc-- Sridhar Khatri
Ensuring the people's right to know-- Sadrul Hasan Mazumder
Photo Feature
Burma's generals dig their heels in-- Larry Jagan
American Mamlukes-- M. Shahid Alam
Reflections on April-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Feeding the nation -- Mahbubul Islam Khan
It's no joke
Music and poetry (original translation) -- Rabindranath Tagore
Bad girls and middle-class morality -- Rubaiyat Hossain
Washington Irving and Islam -- Syed Ashraf Ali


Forum Home


Music and poetry

For your reflection, one of Rabindranath's most evocative and compelling meditations on the arts

Needless to say, when we read a poem we don't regard it as a mere collection of words. Rather, we judge the relationship between the words and the mood(s) it evokes. The chief objective of poetry is to evoke moods. The words in a poem seek to give shape to certain poetic moods.

We expect music to serve the purpose. Music is not a mere agglutination of musical notes that comprise various <>ragas<> and <>raginis<>. The <>ragas<> and <>raginis<> are conveyers of multiple shades of moods that make up our aesthetic world. We, therefore, subscribe to the view that poetry and music are evocative of the aesthetic sensibilities within us. But the question arises: what is the difference between poetry and music? Let us delve into it.

The language we generally use in our day-to-day lives is the language of reason or logic. The realm of rational thinking is concerned with either "yes" or "no." A statement is either affirmative or negative. For example, "Today I went there," "I went somewhere else," "He/she didn't come yesterday," "This is silver," "That is gold," etc. One can apply logic to this type of statements. Therefore, it is evident that logic, or the lack of it, determines to a large extent what we believe or what we disbelieve in our daily conversations. The branch of language that we use for such ordinary conversations is prose.

But it is one thing to convince someone logically and quite another thing to evoke something in him/her. The language of logic appeals to the intellect, while the evocative language appeals to the heart. That's why these two branches of language are distinct from one another. It is much easier to explain or express logical statements than it is to express statements/ moods that defy logic.

In other words, poetic language can't be at the beck and call of the arrogantly bespectacled "why" of prosaic language. The great truths that don't serve the arrogant "why" of the rational thought process abide peacefully in the realm of poetry. Our heart-felt truths don't care much for the tyrannical "why."

The language of logic follows a certain grammar but the language that is indicative of our aesthetic tastes has no fixed grammar even to this day! The aesthetic world is, therefore, a fearless land where a state of emergency in the form of "why" can't issue unsolicited warrants. If poetic language could be contrasted with prosaic language, its inherent grammar would be unraveled.

Poetic language picks up where prosaic language leaves off in sheer frustration. No wonder then that the two modes of self-expression have branched out in two distinct directions. Often it so happens that we believe something to be true simply because it is backed up with innumerable logical proofs and theories and yet our heart remains aloof and unconvinced.

Conversely, monumental block of logic can't obfuscate a truth that has taken its root in the heart. A poet more often than not succeeds where a grammarian fails. A very fine line distinguishes the two. The poet holds the key that unlocks the secret door to the heart. The grammarian, on the other hand, brings down his logical axe with all his/her might over and over again. But the door stays shut. The poet, with consummate skill, turns a key somewhere mildly and the door flies open! Obviously, then, these two are equipped with two very different types of weapon.

What I believe in, and what I want to make you believe, is different from what I feel and want to make you feel. I can convince you of the rotundity of a rose by carefully measuring it from all sides, but I can't make you feel that it is beautiful. One resorts to poetry in this case. I feel compelled to express my love and adoration for the rose in a language that can evoke the same feeling in you. This is the point where we turn from prose to poetry for a deeper communion. Poetry has its own logic that explains the meeting of the eyes between lovers. Poetry can also expose the extra care and concern that hide lack of authentic love between "lovers." Again, it is poetry that comes closest to the silence between lovers -- silence that is pregnant with the seeds of the Infinite.

Generally speaking, the prosaic language we employ in our daily lives has its apex in philosophy and science. However, the prosaic language of our day-to-day conversations and that of philosophical and scientific discourses vary in terms of degrees of precision and intensity. Our language that conveys such intellectual discourses has to follow strict conventions. It is, one may say, highly tuned prose. But it is not stylized like poetic language.

However precise it may be, our prosaic language can't do full justice to the emotions we harbour deep down inside. The emotive language of poetry can't help but be ambiguous and metaphorical. This language seeks to express itself, but it has neither logic nor arguments. It has no well-defined path. To make up for the limitations of logic, poetry resorts to beauty.

Poetry, like a beautiful woman, dons such a beautiful garment that we can't help but believe her even if she lacks logic. She has a face that radiates so much charm that it doesn't occur to any one of us to badger her with questions like "why," "where," "what," "who," and "how." We open our hearts unconditionally and she enters, equipped with nothing but the sheer force of her beauty.

By contrast, logical language, like a patriarch, has to prove itself every step of the way to dispel innumerable doubts. These doubts stand guard before the secret cave of our hearts. But the poetic language is rhythmic. Like the ocean on a moonlit night, the waves of her heart rise and fall rhythmically. The ebb and flow of her oceanic heart speaks of a natural rhythm. Sometimes she stammers; tears choke her voice. Sometimes she contracts in shame, in fear. At other times she lapses into inscrutable silence. The logical language doesn't have such a rhythm. The sighs that are born of intensely felt emotions don't hinder its linear flow that much. That's why it has no fear, no shame, no reservations. It is perfectly suited for rational analysis, but the ultimate language of the human heart is poetry.

We have two fundamental tools to express our moods: words and melody. Both of them bring our latent emotions to the surface. When it comes to music, words are even at times subordinated to melody. They rest primarily on melody for their support. The very same words or lyrics when set to different tunes express different emotions. We hold the view that both, lyrics and tune, deserve equal importance when it comes to artistic self-expression. The language of the lyrics and the language of melody complement one another to create the language of our heart. The notes inherent in the tones of our voices are not the notes we use in music. Just like in poetry we arrange words in a way that is different from everyday use, so, in music, notes are sorted out in a way that can be soothing to our ears, whether we sing them or play them on a musical instrument. The emotive language that goes beyond logic requires melody as much as it needs poetry.

Music, like poetry, has its own rhythm. Music creates its own lila by carefully regulated beats. Our verbal conversations don't always have well-defined rhythm.

But, our music has not yet been cultivated to the same extent as poetry. And the reason being that melody, even when it is stripped of any particular <>bhavarasa<>, or poetic mood, has a certain charm. It appeals to our aesthetic senses much more readily than words can. And this is the reason why a lot of the time music has been accepted uncritically. Melody, rather insidiously, has usurped the place of <>bhavarasa<>. Melody, which at one time was a mere slave, has gradually come to replace its master, that is, the mood. Because a sweet melody attracts instantly, music hasn't had to work as hard as poetry to find a way into our hearts. Deprived of melody, poetry has had to focus intensely on the art of evocation and, in the process, has outstripped music in many ways.

So we see that there is a fundamental affinity between poetry and music. But circumstances have placed poetry in a higher category. Poetry can express a vast range of human emotions, starting from the most banal to the most sublime, but music is yet to accomplish that.

Let me give you a gist of what the English poet Matthew Arnold had to say about the difference between painting, which he considers to be pictorial music, and poetry in his poem titled "Epilogue to Lessing's Laocoon." According to him, a picture only captures the external aspect of nature at a given point in time. The picture aesthetically arrests the moment when a face has lit up with a smile, but it can't tell what happens to that face the very next minute. Therefore, the job of a great painter is to seize the most auspicious moment for his/her medium.

Similarly, the role of a musician is to zero in on a fixed mood and rest there. Let's imagine I've said "Oh!" The sound of the word ends there, it can't go any further than that. It simply makes audible a particular state of my heart, and ceases there. But music can expand that one word "Oh!" by diving deep into the heart of the word. It can bring to the surface the deep pain, the unfulfilled desire, the shattered dreams that lie hidden in the heart of the word "Oh!" But poetry can go even deeper than that. Like the painter the poet can capture the transient forms of beauty, and like the musician the poet can sing in a spontaneous outburst resulting from a euphoric mood. But the poet has the additional duty of delineating the intricate details, the twists and turns of life that flows like a constant current.

The poet shuttles back and forth between varied moods, often within the scope of a single poem. The poet traces the poetic current of life, from the freezing mountaintop where a stream of bhavarasa originates to the sea where myriad bhavarasas unite. The poet, therefore, not only paints a frozen form in time, nor does s/he present a particular mood, but rather endeavours to encompass the shifting moods, the eternally changing forms of life through poetry. According to Matthew Arnold, music can't reflect all the subtle nuances of the highly dynamic play of emotions within the human heart. Music, he says, only expresses a fixed rasa. But we believe that music has the potential to follow the myriad streams of the life-current. But, as of now, it hasn't attained that maturity.

But for music to breathe as vigorously as poetry, it has to be freed from rigid conventions. We want to see music soar in the limitless sky of freedom. When a composer composes a musical piece celebrating the twilight hour, let's say, s/he should not strictly observe the Purobi raga at all times. The composer has to have the capacity to feel the mood, the ambience that is associated with that particular hour of the day. When the musician is one with the mood, the musical notes of his/her composition will also mellow out until they fold up like the petals of a flower, bidding farewell to the sun. In this way, every musical poet can keep on discovering ever-new territories of music. And we can be blessed with a Balmiki or a Kalidash of music.

Translation: Andaleeb Shahjahan

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