July 25 2015
A group of talented musicians, a Bengali singer and one of India’s most famous contemporary poets and lyricists all joined forces to bring the work of Rabindranath Tagore to a wider UK audience…
By Suman Bhuchar
RABINDRANATH TAGORE is to Indians (and Bangladeshis), what William Shakespeare is to the English.
The first Nobel Laureate from Asia, awarded one for his literary output in 1913, is as much an institution as an icon and a figure of continuing inspiration.
However, in slight relief to Shakespeare, Tagore was not just a ‘writer’, he was also a more prolific poet, lyricist and composer and his huge legacy continues to inspire and enthral.
As I made my way from South London to the hallowed portals of Hampstead Town Hall to hear a new musical interpretation of Tagore’s work, I saw a sign posted on a white board at my tube station.
It was a little homily (as I believe many underground stations are now wont to give passengers, especially since their service often leaves time for unexpected contemplation), that read: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in a different time,” attributed to the great man himself.
And in ironic way, typical of the great man’s prescience, Tagore knew that his work would have resonance and touch people in a hundred years or more from when he wrote.
It was surely a portent – the words of this great Bengali polymath were about to be unleashed into the world, especially since the reason for my visit to the Town Hall was to hear a ‘live’ rendition of some of his poetry translated into Hindi and performed by a band.
All this is the brainchild of Sangeeta Datta, a filmmaker and writer, who roped in the Indian poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar to translate the work with a measure of his own expertise and poise.
The fruit of their efforts is a CD called, “Anant”, which is a collection of Tagore’s songs and poems, translated into Hindi by Akhtar and sung by Sangeeta Datta, with music (as written by Tagore) but arranged by her son, the musician and sarod player, Soumik Datta. It is produced by Baithak UK, a nonprofit making organisation.
At the Q&A afterwards, Akhtar explained that the task was “overwhelming, because the name of the person overwhelms you”.
He explained that as a professional writer you tend to use ‘craft’ to write, but working on Tagore’s poetry was another kind of experience, as ‘Gurudev’ (a term of much endearment and respect) was “saying heart wrenching things in the most simple language, and the lyrics couldn’t be translated by cleverness – by craft, you have to feel that pain, and you have to feel that joy. You have to be as innocent, and as simple as the lyric is and this process gave me a lot of peace, solace and some kind of hope”.
The concept of the evening was to have the poems read in English, by a glittering array of Asian women in saris, beginning with actor, activist, (and Akhtar’s wife) Shabana Azmi, then academic, Mukulika Banerjee and story-teller, Seema Anand, as well as Sangeeta’s younger son (Souvid – who incidentally recites brilliantly).
These poems were then re-read in Hindi by Akhtar, then the first or second lines were sung in Bengali by Sangeeta, and then finally the Hindi version of the song was sung.
There was a live band performing alongside consisting of six musicians, including the Mercury nominee pianist, Zoe Rahman; vocalist, Chiranjit Chakraborty; Soumik Datta, on sarod; flutist, Shammi Pithia; drummer, Eddie Hick and tabla player, Sandy Man. (Incidentally, the recorded album doesn’t feature all the same personnel).
“All the songs had melodies which were given by Tagore,” said Soumik. “They have very set melodies and anybody who learns Rabindra Sangeet (songs), knows these melodies.
“My job here was to be inspired by what Javed Saheb was doing – which was essentially taking the spirit of the songs and messages within the songs and sharing it with a much wider audience.
“My job was to do the same musically, certain instruments have been attached to Rabindra Sangeet (a term of reference for songs for the Tagore musical cannon); certain kinds of arrangements have been attached and I tried to NOT do that and do something else, which I thought would help share the album with a slightly bigger community.
“With this project I couldn’t take the traditional route of just sitting down and imagining and writing it out, Soumik explained.
“When I read the translations, something moved me within the song and that feeling equated to a certain kind of sound or instrument, so I called a range of wonderful musicians into the studio and tried to unleash an energy and get it on tape.”
Hampstead Town Hall seemed to be an apt venue, as North London is a Bengali enclave and it is also the area where Tagore spent some time living at 3 Heath Villas, wandering around the heath, seeking inspiration through nature and finessing his poetry.
His friend, the artist, William Rothenstein, is reputed to have declared: “Here was poetry of a new order which seemed to me on a level with that of the great mystics” – even before the two men ever met.
However, when they did meet Rothenstein arranged a soiree where Tagore’s poems were read aloud and these deeply spiritual devotional songs moved the audience so much that Rothenstein, had to get some of the poems typed up and passed them around to other key people (including the poet, WB Yeats).
Finally, there was a select print run of 750 copies of what became known as “Gitanjali” (Song Offerings) and these were printed by the India Society in November 1912 and a bigger print run was done a year later by the publishers, Macmillan, leading to Tagore to being nominated for the Nobel Prize, which he subsequently won.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but Tagore or ‘Rabbi’, as he was fondly addressed by his peers (including Yeats, Ezra Pound, GB Shaw) was a global phenomenon, but since his work has not been translated very much and the Bengalis always quibble with each other about how good or effective the translations that exist are, much of his work has not reached a wider audience.
However in the UK, since the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize two years ago, there have been efforts to promote Tagore’s legacy, his vision and his general greatness.
In fact, the title of “Anant” (endless) comes from the first English poem known as “Lyric Number 1” from “Gitanjali!” (and most of the songs are from that volume).
The English goes like this: “Thou has made me endless; such is thy pleasure, this frail vessel thou emptiest, again and again and fillest it ever with fresh life.”
And a bit of Hindi below –‘Tumne Mujse anant keya hai, yeh hai Jadu tumhara – ‘You have made me endless, that is your magic…’ My translation.
The event was a good opportunity to get acquainted with some of the spiritual poetry of Tagore and the evening ended with a recitation of “The Gardner 85” (from another cycle of prose poems written much earlier than “Gitanjali” and translated by the author from Bengali).
“Who are you reader, reading my poems hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of spring; one single streak of gold from yonder clouds
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.”
Main picture top: Sangeet Datta, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, and Soumik Datta
‘Anant’ – available from http://www.baithak.info/
All pictures ©Vipul Sangoi