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A taste of the richness of Tagore's songs in Gujarati
- Dr. S.D. Desai

August 14, 2019

There is a celebration of life in Rabindranath Tagore's poems and songs. 'My heart longs to join in thy song,' he said in the third of his songs in Gitanjali, 'but vainly struggles for a voice.' That's the poet's perception of the Creator's song we call the universe and of the inadequateness of his poetic expression to be in tune with it. At the vocal rendering of nine of his songs in Gujarati translation and bandishes close to the original on the poet's 78th death anniversary (Viswakosh, Aug 7), a feel of the dhwani and connotation his poetry carries was given.

There are quite a few Tagore-lovers, including scholars, translators and vocalists, in Ahmedabad. As a singer and composer, Amar Bhatt has distinguished himself with noncommercial programs and CDs on eminent Gujarati poets. He sprang a welcome surprise with his compositions, seven in his own voice, of Tagore's songs translated into Gujarati. With words set to tunes in the Rabindra Sangeet tradition that let the verbal luxuriance of the poet unfold, he enhanced his image as a composer having a literary taste and insight. Shailesh Parekh, a Tagore scholar, coordinated the songs, in Bengali composed by Tagore, and gave interesting details about them.

Amar set the tone with Neerava rajanee joi lo..., the first song Tagore composed when he was 17, strolling on the moonlit terrace of Shah Jahan palace on the bank of the Sabarmati, where he stayed for two months when in Ahmedabad, the coordinator points out, with his elder brother Satyendranath. 'Sing softly,' the song flows quietly within the lowest octave, almost in a meditative mood, 'Interrupt not the song the night is singing!' While doing the song with a touch of serenity, the vocalist is quick to point out that the young poet-composer has fondly employed in it all the twelve notes of the octave.

In writing poetry and composing songs, Tagore had received no training. The wonder child at the age of 16 instead of learning letters and figures by rote had earlier attempted these sonorous lines Gahan kusuma-kunj maajhe... in Maithilee in the Vaishnav tradition. Deep in the flower-bedecked bowers of the wood are heard sweet notes floating from a flute and mandamanda bhramara gunje. 'Come, O Sakhis, come and behold Shri Govind!' The padavali introduced and acclaimed as one by an imaginary poet Bhanusingh, brings to mind poet Jayadev when Amar gets it rendered in lower notes by Saunik in controlled musical accompaniment.

In the same voice was heard Gurudev's gem of a prayer, Vipade muja raksha karo... (Bipode more rakkha koro...) 'It's not my prayer to protect me in adversity. May I never in adversity be afraid, I pray.' When on deathbed, he recalled and recited this mantra-like prayer he had by heart. In Jivan jakhan sukaye... there is an entreaty to God to be with him in varying circumstances - with compassion now, with a song, with quiet steps now, with fanfare, as light to dispel blinding desires. Tagore had rushed to Pune at the age of 71 on hearing of the deteriorating health of Mahatma Gandhi when on fast in Yerwada jail. Circumstances changed and Gandhi broke the fast. On Mahadev Desai's request he sang the song.

Mahadev Desai, Gandhiji's secretary, has translated two Tagore songs so beautifully they sound original Gujarati when sung. Had he not dedicated his life to the father of the nation, it was observed, Gujarat would have got an excellent Tagore translator! 'If no one heeds your call, then go on all alone.' Eklo jaane re... has been vastly popular in Gujarat. 'Even if everyone you consider your own deserts you, don't lose heart - Taara-n swajana tane jaay mooki... has been popular with singers and freedom fighters. One feels happy to notice kinship of Gujarati with Bengali in the translation of Anatara mama vikasita karo... There are lines verbatim the same in both the languages in this simple song, dear to Gandhiji, seeking ennobling qualities for the highest kind of joy one could feel within. A craving for an ascent from within gets expressed in the composition in gradually rising controlled notes.

Tagore's own English translation of a poem, not song, he wrote could be an anthem for any nation seeking the highest ideals of freedom. On a request from a leading local school, Niranjan Bhagat, a foremost Gujarati poet, turned it into a song, Where the head is held high in English, Chittane jyaa-n bhay na hoy, in Gujarati. The song, set to tunes by the school's music teacher Surendra Jaitly, was solemnly presented by Amar. During the year (1941) he breathed his last, on his birthday Tagore could not, as he used to do, compose a fresh poem. He modified an earlier poem and composed it in Bhairavi. Appropriately, the Tagore evening concluded with this song and in the chief singer's voice, Hey Nutan!, wherein he hears yonder on the eastern horizon the auspicious sound of a conch and it ushers in the eternal dawn of an unending sense of wonder to him. 'May you with light as of the Sun pierce the core of emptiness and let the joy of life radiate again!' he sings.

M S Subbulakshmi sang Hey Nutan! at a university in New York on Tagore's 150th birth anniversary. A French musicologist Alain Danielou, who visited Shanti Niketan in the '30s, it was revealed by the coordinator, translated 18 Tagore songs to English after his death and got them rendered by Francesca Cassio in bandishes close to the original! Two recorded lines in her voice were played before Hey Nutan!

The program gave a taste of the range, depth and richness of Tagore's songs in Gujarati translation with close proximity to their original bandishes. Amar Bhatt's sensibility and expressive felicity in the use of the lower notes in particular lent a flavour to the songs listeners savoured. A dependably knowledgeable Shailesh Parekh's contextual observations on the songs added to their authenticity.

Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts Critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti, Nartanam and Attendance. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.

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