Tagore is originator of music language of free India

Salil Chowdhury

This article proposes not to present an authoritative critical analysis and estimation of Rabindra Sangeet. The present author is not competent to do it. There are very many books written by abler authors on the different aspects of Rabindra Sangeet. Although the need for evaluating his music from the historical perspective of the evaluation of modern Indian music cannot be exaggerated, the present article is a gesture to look at Rabindra Sangeet from the point of view of a trained listener and a modern composer who seeks inspiration from what was past and what is present. This article is on what a Bengali thinks of Rabindra Sangeet.

The Centenary celebrations throughout the country - thanks to the Government of India - has enabled people to hear his music in the original and in translation in Hindi. Although I firmly believe that it must be heard and understood in the original (not through translation), I know it and cannot help quoting Rabindranath’s own remark on translation -“Can you enjoy the kisses of your sweetheart through your private secretary?” No, you cannot. Might be literature can be translated but songs? -no. Rabindra Sangeet is such a composite unity that, if you separate the lyric from the music, the lyric becomes a “wingless bird.” Rabindranath created the particular music suitable to express his lyrics or vice versa, which is unique in itself. Some say he has taken it from classical music, some say from folk music. But these are half-truths.

Music for a particular age takes the necessary shape in the able hands of a masters required by him to express the feelings of that age. When Rabindranath came into the field of music it was groping to find a way to express the tremendous burden of the people's awakening  of the national consciousness  - the feeling to part with all that is rotten in the past in the glowing passion of liberty and fraternity aroused by the renaissance in Bengal. Everything was taking a new shape. Literature, painting, language, dress, customs - everything. Music, was lagging behind. The impact on it of the new consciousness came gradually. It was waiting for the master hands of Tagore.

It must be remembered that music was almost a taboo amongst the middle class and the higher societies in Bengal as anywhere else in India. Singing in front of your superiors was supposed to be bad manners. Practicing music meant going to the dogs. Music was in the hands of prostitutes and "backward", vulgar folk-singers expressing the frustration of the people.

Two factors are most important for the students of the history of evolution of modern Indian music - the Indian national movement and the Brahmo Samaj of Bengal. These two factors are mostly responsible for creating the ground of modern music.

The growing consciousness of nationalism was demanding a new form in music as in all other arts. It demanded a type of music which can be sung in chorus of hundreds - music on which people can march, music which will arouse in people the consciousness of nationalism. Composers like Jyotirindranath Tagore, D.L.Roy and scores of others came up to meet the need, creating hundreds of songs.

People started hearing a new music - inspired by Western technique - a new tempo, a new rhythm with simplified notes devoid of the complications possible for an individual singer. This stage of the development of Indian music needs special research and nothing much has been done. Actually this "craze" for a change, this carving for individual liberty to break all the accepted shackles of formalism and grammar, inspired composers to thrash out a new form. And this may be considered the origin of modern music in India.


The second factor is the Bahmo Samaj movement in Bengal against orthodox HInduism. It took up music as its weapon. From the gutters it took out music and placed it on the pedestal of the temple. Very much in the style of church choir, prayer songs were composed. Some "slokas" from the Vedas were also tuned. (One such example in the song which the Bombay Youth Choir presents as the opening prayer, tuned and arranged for the choir by poet Tagore himself). The Brahmo Samaj gave birth to hundreds of prayer songs. Some of them are exquisitely beautiful and fresh even today. (Rabindranath in his early days, started writing prayers for the Samaj). If one hears these old choral prayers, one can easily feel how great was the influence of that music on the poet. So when he came, the ground was almost ready but music was still crawling, not finding an organised medium. It was only trying to come out of the set standards of traditional and classical music. It was left for the genius of Tagore to help it to its feet.

His songs do not fall in any single category as he has written on as many different subjects as devotional, patriotic, songs of seasons, songs of love, folk songs, lyrical ballads, experimental modern songs in the Western style. And in compositions also he has not limited himself to one pattern. He has experimented in all possible forms of music and lyrics writing. Of course, Indian classical music has a distinct stamp on many of his compositions but, strictly speaking they are different. If Rabindra Sangeet is a classic today, that classicism is not the traditional classicism. It is a new class in Indian music created by him, taking inspiration from our "raags", folk songs and, to some extent Western music also. In more than 3000 songs composed by him, one is spell-bound by the range and variety in tunes and thought he could command.


Rabindra Sangeet must be looked upon as a new movement in music. It came as flood to express the humanism, patriotism, religion, sense of natural beauty, love and fury of our people, almost as powerfully as the "kirtan" came as the musical medium of the Vaishhavaite movement. His great mastery over the language and his unusual sense of music combined to make him the greatest of song composers India has ever produced. Moreover, his was the most organised and disciplined music we ever had, like never before in our country. Each and every note of his music was noted down and it was he and Dinendranath Tagore, if I am not wrong, who originated a system of notation, which, though not perfect, is at least enough for preserving our music for prosperity.
Rabindra Sangeet is, by all logic, modern Indian music, although it has reached the standard of the classics. Its impact on modern music, in films, stage, gramophone records and so on was tremendous. Almost all the older film music in pictures produced by New Theaters bore the very distinct stamp of his music, including many songs which were his own. Those songs were hummed all over the country and composers were inspired to create a new music for the new medium of films. Even today, some of the very popular songs in Hindi films are from his compositions, which many of us do not know.
That is why definite efforts should be made to popularise his music all over India - because the great heritage that we have in him, only a proper understanding of his work can enable us to a better way of approach to lyric writing and music, which will be more near to our people and which will deserve to be the musical language of the people of free India today.

- Published in Screen on 5-5-1961