It is hard to overstate the place Rabindranath Tagore holds in the culture of India and especially, Bengal. It is akin to the place Goethe or Shakespeare hold in German and English culture. A reference point and fountainhead. The standard against which almost every cultural, artistic or philosophical effort is judged. In the case of Tagore and unlike the Bard, his influence extends to the sphere of morals and public etiquette with many Bengalis speaking of Tagore in the same terms others refer to their spiritual guru.
Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta, India into a wealthy Brahmin family. After a brief stay in England (1878) to attempt to study law, he returned to India, and instead pursued a career as a writer, playwright, songwriter, poet, philosopher and educator. During the first 51 years of his life he achieved some success in the Calcutta area of India where he was born and raised with his many stories, songs and plays. His short stories were published monthly in a friend's magazine and he even played the lead role in a few of the public performances of his plays. Otherwise, he was little known outside of the Calcutta area, and not known at all outside of India.
This all suddenly changed in 1912. He then returned to England for the first time since his failed attempt at law school as a teenager. Now a man of 51, his was accompanied by his son. On the way over to England he began translating, for the first time, his latest selections of poems, Gitanjali, into English. Almost all of his work prior to that time had been written in his native tongue of Bengali. He decided to do this just to have something to do, with no expectation at all that his first time translation efforts would be any good. He made the handwritten translations in a little notebook he carried around with him and worked on during the long sea voyage from India. Upon arrival, his son left his father's brief case with this notebook in the London subway.
Fortunately, an honest person turned in the briefcase and it was recovered the next day. Tagore's one friend in England, a famous artist he had met in India, Rothenstein, learned of the translation, and asked to see it. Reluctantly, with much persuasion, Tagore let him have the notebook. The painter could not believe his eyes. The poems were incredible. He called his friend, W.B. Yeats, and finally talked Yeats into looking at the hand scrawled notebook.
The rest, as they say, is history. Yeats was enthralled. He later wrote the introduction to Gitanjali when it was published in September 1912 in a limited edition by the India Society in London. Thereafter, both the poetry and the man were an instant sensation, first in London literary circles, and soon thereafter in the entire world. His spiritual presence was awesome. His words evoked great beauty. Nobody had ever read anything like it. A glimpse of the mysticism and sentimental beauty of Indian culture were revealed to the West for the first time. Less than a year later, in 1913, Rabindranath received the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the first non-westerner to be so honored. Overnight he was famous and began world lecture tours promoting inter-cultural harmony and understanding. In 1915 he was knighted by the British King George V. When not traveling he remained at his family home outside of Calcutta, where he remained very active as a literary, spiritual and social-political force.
Although a good friend of Gandhi, most of the time Tagore stayed out of politics. He was opposed to nationalism and miltiarism as a matter of principle, and instead promoted spiritual values and the creation of a new world culture founded in multi-culturalism, diversity and tolerance. He served as a spiritual and creative beacon to his countrymen, and indeed, the whole world. He used the funds from his writing and lecturing to expand upon the school he had founded in 1901 now known as Visva Bharati.
As a writer, Tagore primarily worked in Bengali, but after his success with Gitanjali, he translated many of his other works into English. He wrote over one thousand poems; eight volumes of short stories; almost two dozen plays and play-lets; eight novels; and many books and essays on philosophy, religion, education and social topics. Aside from words and drama, his other great love was music, Bengali style. He composed more than two thousand songs, both the music and lyrics. Two of them became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. In 1929 he even began painting. Many of his paintings can be found in museums today, especially in India, where he is considered the greatest literary figure of India of all times.
The collected song book of Tagore is known as the Gitabitan (Garden of Song) and is considered a cultural treasure of the highest order by Bengalis all over the world. An entire genre of music known as Rabindrasangeet has grown up around Tagore’s poems and songs and is treated with great affection and respect. Musical interpretations of Rabindrasangeet are generally traditional with few if any concessions to contemporary musical or instrumental innovation. Indeed, singers who have veered too far from the path have been severely criticized and careers have stalled.
Whatever one thinks of such puritan-esque attitudes Rabindrasangeet is a significant part of South Asia’s musical legacy. Indeed, for Bangladesh it is the epitome of cultivated culture and national aspiration. And as such it deserves a much broader appreciation than it seems to have.
Tonight’s post is a tiny contribution to that evangelism. Mita Haq is a Bangladeshi singer trained by the great Wahidul Haq in classical and folk music as well as Rabindrasangeet. This album is part of an excellent series of discs highlighting some of Bangladesh’s best contemporary singers by the Bengal Foundation.
1) Ganer Bhitar Diye
2) Mala Hate Khase Para
3) Jibane Amar Jata Ananda
4) Ebar Duhkha Amar
5) Tomar Amar Ei Biraher
6) Akashe Dui Hate Prem
7) Jadi E Amar Hridayduar
8) Na Chahile Jare Paoa Jay
9) Tumi Kon Bhangoner Pathe
10)Jagorane Jay Bibhabari
11)Amake Je Bandhbe
12)Badal Diner Pratham
13)Amare Jadi Jagale Aji
14)Ami Takhan Chhilem Magan
15)Srabanabarishana Par Hoye
16)Pagla Haoar Badal Dine