Hindustani Classical Music in the Songs of Rabindranath Tagore

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the music of Rabindranath Tagore
Portrait of Rabindranath by Abanindranath Tagore.

The music created by Rabindranath Tagore is unique in style, form and class. Many scholars have widely written on the music of Rabindranath Tagore. But, it is such a lucrative topic for those who love his music, I could not resist its charm. However, the readers might find my piece similar to other articles they have read earlier; I would request them to please bear with me. 

I will start with a short introduction of Rabindranath Tagore’s grooming in music. Rabindranath Tagore wrote all his songs in the 64 years between 1877 and 1941. Tagore grew up in the classical tradition of Hindustani classical music (‘raaga sangeet’). His autobiographical sketches reveal the musical training he went through in his childhood. Though he had not followed a very strict method of learning classical music, yet he was the disciple of Sri Jadunath Bhatta (1840-1883), the famous Pandit of Vishnupur Gharana. Rabindranath followed this tradition and later on used it with mastery without abiding to its strictures. He experimented with dhrupad tunes using various rhythms (such as, ‘Jortal’, ‘Jhanptal’, ‘Sur Phanktal’ and ‘Teora’ – usually known only to the connoisseurs of Hindustani classical music) and composed more than 100 songs. Tagore used the classical form of khayal and thumri to create many songs, encompassing all the styles of the classical traditions. He used the ‘tappa’ style in his music, where the song-text is very short and not as elaborate structured as a khayal or a thumri. There have been two different styles of tappa, one that evolved in Punjab, in the tradition of Shori Miyan, and the other, adapted by Ramnidhi Gupta, better known as Nidhubabu in Bengal. Tagore from his early age was exposed to both styles. Tagore adapted ‘tappas’ from both the styles. He relinquished the Punjabi ‘tappa’ but when he wrote in Bengali the songs became soft and sweet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrK9mAfT9XI

Tagore also was influenced by Sri Bishnu Chandra Chakravarty and Sri Srikantha Sinha. He spent a considerable period in association with Sri Radhika Prasad Goswami and composed a number of songs with his assistance.

Rabindranath Tagore started writing songs and Geeti kavyas (musical verses) right from the age of 11 and continued till the age of 80. But most of his songs were composed after he turned 19. 

Also read: Post-Impressionism (1886-1910)

There are differences in opinion about the number of songs composed by Tagore. Research has revealed he composed more than 2000 original songs. But in the opinion of authorities on the subject, the number of songs is about 2178. Several songs written earlier were edited by him. Hence, the difference. Also, a good number of compositions are in Dhrupad and Dhamar. There are a number of unpublished songs also, which did not have the notations and the classifications as per Indian classical tradition.

If these are classified, as given below, according to the Hindustani classical raga/ragini or the type, we may have some idea about the depth of his talent:

Rabindranath and Abanindranath
Rabindranath during a music session. Photo Credit – facebook.com
  1. Bhairavi—268
  2. Yaman—147
  3. Piloo—143
  4. Khamaj—142
  5. Bihag—138
  6. Bhairav thaat (other than Kalingada)—118
  7. Kalingada—57
  8. Kafi—104
  9. Desh—96
  10. Kedara—69
  11. Malhar—69
  12. Bahar—54
  13. Chayanat—47
  14. Sahana—47
  15. Asavari—36 
  16. Baul-187
  17. Kirtan—151

While composing the songs, Tagore did not mention the names of the ragas neither he desired it. Smt Indira Devi Choudhurani constantly persuaded Tagore to do this but he was unwilling and also abstained others from doing it. In a 1935 letter he wrote to Smt Indira Devi about his fear of being criticized by the Ustads or Pundits of classical gharana. But with persistent persuasion by Smt Indira Devi, in 1936 he permitted her to identify the ragas used for composition of the songs as well as to create the notations (Swaralipi) for future generations. It is because of Smt Indira Devi Choudhurani that almost all his songs are classified and notations made. Apart from Tagore, several other people like Smt.Indira Devi Choudhurani, Sri Jyotirindranath Tagore, Sri Kangali Charan Sen, Sri Surendranath Bandopadhyay, Smt Sarala Devi Choudhurani, Smt.Pratibha Devi Choudhurani, Sri Dinendranath Tagore, Sri Bhimrao Shastri, Sri Anadi Kumar Dastidar, Sri Santidev Ghosh, Sri Sailaja Ranjan Majumdar and many others made the notations of Tagore’s songs.

A classification list is given below with some selected songs of Tagore with the associated raga.The list is not comprehensive due to limited space. However, all the songs with their respective ragas are available in my collection.




If the list is scruitinised, it will be observed that, as per the  tradition of Hindustani classical music, each raga has a timing for rendition.But, Tagore did not impose any such condition for his songs.He allowed the songs to be performed at any time of the day. He rather made the classification of his songs in terms of Prem, Puja, Prakriti, Seasons etc. Apart from the above table,Tagore composed a number of songs which comprise two or more ragas/raginis, of which a few samples are given below:

  1. Ache Dukhya, ache mrityu—Lalit+Bibhas+Jogiya+Asavari
  2. Prakhar tapan tapey—Todi+Multani+Bhimpalasi
  3. Moru bijayer ketan—Kedara+Hameer+Kirtan
  4. Amar praner pare chale gelo—Piloo+Kalingada+Paraj
  5. Eso eso basanta—Sohini+Pancham+Bhairav+Bahar
  6. Oi ase oi oti—Malhar+Piloo+Yaman Kalyan+Khamaj

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXH3rVFpjkI

There are other instances also.However,difference in opinion still prevails about the classification as Tagore used many ragas in broken form in composition which may have resemblance to varieties of ragas in addition to the mentioned one and some may not resemble a particular raga/ragini.

Tagore songs are deeply influenced by classical music. Although hehe did not have any formal training in Hindustani Classical Music he was exposed to this form of music at home from a tender age. This enabled him to compose many of his songs in the Hindustani classical tradition. On the occasion of Brahmo Samaj’s Magh festival, he composed many devotional songs in the Hindustani classical style. The Tagore songs composed in this tradition are treasures of our music. Many of his songs abound in the classical forms of sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog. The influence of the classical style is also manifested in the tunes, words and articulation of the songs. The Ragas and raginis heard in his childhood managed to cast long shadows on his songs.

To him, the theme of a song was more important than ragas. Even in folk tunes he experimented with a mixture of ragas to create a genre of his own TAPPA is yet another form that has enriched Tagore songs. The use of tappa in giving expression to Bengali emotions has been noteworthy. Tagore always emphasized that an ideal song is a perfect marriage of lyric and melody,where they go hand in hand.Tagore’s songs present a smooth blend of melody and lyrics where these two are inseparable,and evolve together in a unique musical language

The article will remain incomplete if something is not mentioned about the Talas created by Tagore.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5Ih6wUSGvg

Tal or beat is one of the important aspects of a song.Tagore experimented with the existing beats like Dhamar – a 14-beat taal and composed many tunes using this type. He also created some new beats or Tals.

One of these is Shasti-taal which has 6 counts, but unlike the standard 6 beat where Dadra divided in 3/3 it is divided in 2/4 or 4/2. Nava-taal is another such beat created for ‘pakhwaj’.

Rabindranath has used many tals in composing songs. These included chautal, ada chautal, dhamar, adatheka, surfanktal, yat, jhanptal, trital, ektal, teoda, dadra, kaharba and adkhemta. He has utilized some tals which are new to North Indian music; these include sasthi,jhampak, rupkada, navatal, ekadashi and navapanchatal. In poetic measures too, Rabindranath showed some distinctiveness,especially in using multiple times. He has occasionally used multiple tempos in a single song and has skillfully mixed times and tempos to create a very unusual musical form.Usually songs have a preponderance of tunes and measures but Tagore songs are essentially poetic and therefore their poetic themes are as important as their tunes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DhWAmv2Kww&t=182s

Before I conclude, I would like to make a submission. As per traditional Hindustani classical music, two or more ragas and raginis are required to create another ragini. There are many instances where the creator/composer of the ragini gave a new name to the newly created ragini. But the same thing did not happen in the case of Tagore. He many a times used multiple ragas/raginis to compose a song, sometimes, more than four but not a single ragini has been named linking the name of Tagore. He had used the vadi, vivadi, samvadi & anuvadi notes so seamlessly compatible that when the song is sung, no discrepancy is observed. This is a great quality of a composer using Hindustani classical base.

May the readers forum take it up so that at least one ragini is marked in his name and adopted in the mainstream Hindustani classical music form to offer him the greatest honor in the month of celebration. The raga form followed in the song— Ache Dukkho, Ache Mrityu—may be denoted as ’Ravi Ranjani’ and be adopted in the mainstream classical form for rendition.

I leave this entirely to the readers who really love  Rabindranath Tagore and his creations.

References & suggested reading:

1.Swarabitan,Geetabitan,Geetanjali—Sri Rabindranath tagore
2.Swaralipi-Geetimala—Sri Jyotirindranath Tagore

3.Shata gan—Smt.Sarala Devi Choudhurani 

4.Sangeet Geetanjali—Sri Bhim Rao Shastri
5.RabindraSangeet—Sri Sudhir Chanda
6.Understanding Indian Classical music—Prabir Datta

7.Understanding Karnatik Classical music—Prabir Datta
8.Rabindra Sangeet Mahakosh—Sri Prabir Guhathakurta
9.Geetabitaner Jagat—Sri Subhas Chowdhury
10.Akhanda Rabindrasangeet—Dr.Pabitra Kumar Sarkar

11.Rabindra Rachanabali—Viswa Bharati & Government of West Bengal
12.Brahma sangeet—Swaralipi—Sri Kangali Charan Sen

13.Sangeet Prakashika—Sri Jyotirindranath Tagore

14.Ananda sangeet Patrika—Smt.Pratibha Devi &Smt.Sarala Devi—Editors
15.Rabindra Sangeetey Triveni Sangam—Smt.Indira Devi Choudhurani
16.Rabindra Jibani—Sri Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay

17.Rag Sangraha—Sri Rabindra Kumar Das

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