In the charming, leafy town of Pleasanton in Northern California, Bengali-speaking Bay Area residents and their guests recently celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). There were discussions and documentaries on his life and writings by scholars and professors as well plays and dance dramas (snippets from Shyama, Chitrangada, Chandalika), but for me the draw were the songs. We listen to 'Rabindra Sangeet' all the time but the pleasure of listening to live performances in America is rare. You don't miss the chance when the opportunity arrives.
I came to listen to two of today's leading exponents of Tagore songs. One is from Bangladesh (population 190 million) and the other from West Bengal (population 90 million). As long as there is a single person left in the world whose mother tongue is Bengali, Tagore songs will continue to be sung and listened to. With 250 million and growing, there is no danger of Rabindra Sangeet disappearing anytime soon.
In the program over a recent weekend, the prelude to the main events contained many Tagore songs by local artists as well. I was stunned by their quality. One in particular (Mitali Bhawmik) sang some of the more intricate Tagore songs ('Ananda Dhara Bohiche Bhubane', to name one) with such panache that we rose as one to applaud her. We listened to two songs sung in a modern 'fusion' style by young women to appeal to today's youngsters. The first was a duet: "Ay Tobe Shohochori Hate Hate Dhori Dhori." The other was "Pran Chay Chokkhu Na Chai." The rousing renditions, accompanied by some nifty dance moves, showed how Tagore's music could translate to a contemporary context without losing its magical appeal.
Finally, on Saturday night, Rizwana Choudhury Bonya of Bangladesh took the stage. "Those of you who are from West Bengal where Rabindranath was born (capital - Kolkata) inherited the poet and his creations," she began before presenting us with a bouquet of Tagore songs. "Those of us who are from Bangladesh had to earn Rabindranath." As someone born in Bangladesh, I thought that was as succinct a statement as one could make about the two Banglas.
The songbird then began to sing, opening with "Ogo Tomar Chokkhu Diye." In no time we were transported to a magical world of love and devotion. The inimitable words and lyrics of Rabindranath came alive in her mesmerizing voice. She began with "Ogo Tomar Chokkhu Diye" and chose a combination of familiar and not-so-familiar songs, although the audience began clamoring for the familiar ones midway through the program. "Chinno Patar Bhasahai Toroni Eka Eka Kori Khela" was one of them. She had the audience singing two songs with her: "Jodi Tor Dak Shune Kao Na Ashe" and "Shokhi, Bhabona Kahare Bole." Audience participation is a way to keep the legacy of Tagore alive at the grassroots. She ended with "Kichui To Holona." If you want a glimpse into Tagore's genius, consider that Rabindranath composed this haunting song when he was only 20. The pathos is heartbreaking.
The thing with Rabindra-Sangeet is that anyone can sing them, or at least several of them, but it takes an artist of rare talent to sing them well and elevate them to works of art. Trained in Shanti Niketan under the late great Kanika Bannerjee, she has become the epitome of Tagore songs, the touchstone by which other Tagore singers are measured. When her program ended two hours later, we knew we had just been rewarded with an unforgettable experience.
The following night, it was Srikanata Acharya's turn. This Kolkata artist is known for his versatility. He is as much at home with Tagore songs as with modern Bengali songs. In this, he seems to be following in the footsteps of the late Hemanta Mukherjee who dominated the Bengali music scene for almost half-a-century. Srikanta paid homage to all the artists of the past who brought Tagore's music to the masses, artists such Pankaj Mallick, Shanti Dev Ghosh, Hemanta Mukherjee, Kanika Bannerjee, Suchitra Mitra, Dwijen Mukherjee and Debabrata Biswas. He forgot to mention Chinmoy Chatterjee, an unintentional oversight surely, considering that he frequently sings many Tagore songs ("Prem Eshechillo Nisshobdo Charane," "Tumi Shondhar Meghmala," "Mon Je Bole Chini Chini") often associated with Chinmoy.
Srikanta has a full and expressive voice that helps him interpret Tagore songs with the fluidity they deserve. He introduced many of the songs with recollections by those who were with Rabindranath at the moment of their creation. These included "Jete Jete Ekla Pothe Niveche Mor Bati," and "Gram Chara Oi Rangamatir Poth," among others. He sang until almost midnight and we savored every moment. I have heard him on CDs and YouTube but a live performance where you see and listen to the artist is an unforgettable experience.
Rabindranath had himself observed that even if all his poems, essays, novels, short stories and dance dramas were forgotten, he would still probably be remembered for his songs. How true! And of his songs, he made this supremely democratic statement: "Don't ask who I am presenting my songs to. They lie in the dust by the roadside for anyone to pick up and honor."
And so we do, so we do.