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Tango with Tagore

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Bhoomi (left) and Bickram Ghosh (right, on the tabla) are giving Tagore's songs a modern twist


It would have been considered blasphemous in the Tagore copyright era, which ended in 2001. Before the cult movie, Bong Connection, hit the screen in 2007, no one had ever seen a Tagore song visualised in such a radical fashion. Sung in a fast, rhythmic style, Pagla Hawa - from the soundtrack of the movie - broke free of the traditional, sombre Rabindrasangeet mould.

The song sequence showed the lead artistes frolicking in the woods and jiving to the beats of the number on the road. It transgressed the norms of a Tagore song with a vengeance. Young artistes began giving Tagore's music a contemporary Western flavour, which appealed to the sms generation. But it was not just music that was up for grabs. Tagore's literary legacy too was subjected to experiments. With Visva-Bharati University's monopoly over, more than a dozen publishers came out with new editions of Tagore books. Sales shot up by about 400 per cent in 2001. Unlike the drab covers that had become synonymous with Visva-Bharati's Tagore books, the new ones often had daring pictures on the jacket. Some sported Tagore's paintings as illustrations.

The spurt in the sales of Tagore's books didn't last long, though. But the message was there to stay: Tagore's legacy could be tweaked. Or even twisted- with caution. "Change is welcome and we have experimented with new covers as well. But it should be consistent with the spirit of Tagore's works, " says Shankar Mondol of Deep Prakashan that has published over a dozen Tagore books.

Certainly, the big impact came via the remixed music tracks. Ever since Charulata, which had Kishore Kumar singing Ami chini go chini in a slightly altered manner, there have been numerous attempts at improvisation despite Visva-Bharati's strictures.
True, most experiments have been disastrous. Just after the copyright regime expired in 2001, for example, a little-known composer produced an album that distorted half a dozen of Tagore's most famous songs. He literally had to flee Kolkata to escape the wrath of Tagore loyalists.

Singers like Nachiketa and Indrani Sen, too, have tried variations of Rabindrasangeet that would have been considered improper in the copyright era. But, at a time when Tagore's readership is dwindling, many believe that his music, which is perhaps the strongest surviving segment of his creations, should be tailored to cater to popular tastes.

"I see no harm in experimenting as long as it doesn't take away the spirit of a Tagore song. The younger generation gets drawn to slightly fast-paced music. Since they hardly listen to Rabindrasangeet, none should object if the songs are fused with Western or pop beats to make them palatable to the youth. But I agree that it has to be aesthetic, " says Bickram Ghosh, tabla player and percussionist, who is about to launch an experimental album on Tagore. Titled Tagore Lounge, it fuses Rabindrasangeet with jazz, blues and sufi music.

But mix-and-match is not for Indrani Sen. "I am not in favour of radical experiments. Rather, innovations could be tried in music and accompaniment instead of fusing it with other genres. For instance, I have cut an album in which the songs are interspersed with the ragas on which they are based, " she says.

Swastika Mukhopadhyay, an established singer, says, "If you compare our style with that of the sixties, the change is substantial. But some of us still stick to the basics. The notations are adhered to and the gayaki isn't radically different, either. Meaningful experiments will infuse a fresh life into Rabindrasangeet. "

It would be futile to try and popularise Rabindrasangeet by altering its character completely. That would be self-defeating. Tagore's music and literature are not meant for the mass market in any case.

No matter what the outcome of the attempts to experiment with Rabindrasangeet, one thing's evident - Tagore's songs will continue to be sung and heard just as they have been for the last 130 years. Equally, nothing seems to have affected the Nobel laureate's status as Bengal's strongest cultural force.

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