“Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!
Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life;
The light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love;
The sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.”
Legendary poet and musician, Rabindranath Tagore, in an era of black-and-white melancholy, managed to bring joy to the lives of people with his beautiful poetry, an example of which can be seen above. This song of his, like most others, is a translation from one of his Bengali poems titled, Alo Amar Alo Ogo which translates to ‘Light, my light, the world-filling light’. Each line drips with rich wordplay and colourful visualisation, an unmistakable staple in his vast repertoire of work. The evocative power of his music has surpassed the barriers of time, and today, the melodies attributed to his songs unify generations of Bengalis.
A child prodigy, Tagore’s literary prowess developed at age five with his first poem being published at age twelve. From that point onwards, his 2233 poems, further lyricised as songs, were compiled in a book, Gitabitan, which means ‘Garden of Songs’—a staple in every Bengali household much like salt, an absence of either strongly inflicting tasteless monotony. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that his next piece of literature, Gitanjali, made him the first and only Indian to win a Nobel Prize in the field of literature. Although he gained worldwide recognition for his writing ability, Tagore wanted to express himself better using music, which he did by introducing six new rhythms or taals to explore the full depth of his songs. By taking inspiration from other music genres such as Hindustani Classical music, Carnatic Classical music, Western tunes, and the indigenous folk music of Bengal, Tagore was able to blend various genres of music, creating a unique sound.
This wide-ranging creative talent led his songs to not only hold a place of eminence in India’s rich history but also in the hearts of most belonging to the Bengali community. Bengalis can concur that Rabindra Sangeet forms an integral part of every family, with old cassettes and records stacked up in some corner of the home gathering dust. Despite this apparent neglect, on auspicious occasions like pujas or special events like Tagore’s birthday or Independence Day, these records finally see the light of day as a stream of ragas begins to dance in the air. It forms no doubt that Tagore being born in an era of intrepid struggle and patriotic sacrifices would leave no stone unturned to aid the rising inferno of the independence movement. One of his most noteworthy Bengali songs, Banglar Mati, Banglar Jol (Soil of Bengal, Water of Bengal) is a result of this ardent spirit. In 1904, when the British implemented the ‘divide and rule’ policy in Bengal to break the integrity of its people, he wrote this song to unify the spirits of the people towards a common goal.
Another prominent poem dedicated to the fight against Bengal’s partition, Amar Sonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) was later adopted as Bangladesh’s national anthem. Amongst his other works, one of his most illustrious Bengali compositions called Bharata Bhagya Bidhata now observes a very eminent position in Indian history as the national anthem of the nation. His songs, while gauging the magnitude of conflicts of the freedom struggle, attempted to bridge the widening gap between different cultural and socio-ethnic groups. One of his classic poems, ‘A Tryst with Destiny’ romanticises the nation we must strive for, and the society we should aim to build. There are also several other pieces of writing which cannot be characterised as his Sangeet, but still play an indispensable role in India’s history.
Along with playing an important role in catalysing the freedom struggle, Tagore’s music has the unique ability to evoke distinct emotions and tug at the listener’s heartstrings. Each song is replete with depictions of varying scenes, ranging from love and devotion to dance and drama. Like standing in front of a mirror, the songs reflect what the mind feels, the congruent rhythm amplifying the lyrics. A fraction of his songs celebrating the beauty of nature are decked in metaphors, his adulation pouring through each word with a message cloaked underneath it all.
“A touch of a sweet breeze,
That today softly cradles the buds,
A winding stream that gently gurgles,
In its happy, playful journey,
The cuckoo sings in the trees and gardens,
My absent heart does not know why,
It was borne away completely.”
This popular song—Phoole Phoole, Dhole Dhole—written in Bengali, resonates strongly with a large audience. It shows that despite the presence of a cheerful environment and good company, sometimes, for inexplicable reasons, melancholy and dark thought can still overwhelm the heart. The tune of the song was inspired by a Scottish Ballad, Ye Banks And Braes O’ Bonnie Doon, written by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Another one of Tagore’s songs driven powerfully by nostalgic nuances, Purano Shei Diner Kotha ( Tales of the Golden Days), reminisces lost friendship and the pain of separation and is based on Burn’s acclaimed Scottish song, Auld Lang Syne ( Long Long Ago).
From childhood favourites describing the joy of dancing carefree in the sun to the more profound ones dealing with the changes accompanying adulthood, the versatility in his work is what draws the Bengali community to his songs, the profundity of the words tying perfectly to the beauty of the melody.
His words, as powerful as they are in liberating the mind, are equally strong in liberating traditionalist, baseless ideas from society. From his novels and short stories, his liberal thinking speaks volumes. In his literary prose like ‘A Wife’s Letter’, ‘Nastanirh’, and ‘Sampati’, he potently embraces the narrative of bold, empowered women, unrelenting to the forces restraining them in an age where women were fighting for fundamental human rights. The same emotive power can be extracted from his songs which do not directly address the issue but encourage the audience to follow their own beliefs. His song, Jodi Tor Dak Shune, captures this essence.
“If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
Open thy mind and speak out alone.”
His words stand an inspiration to those ill-fated souls, who are forced to navigate through treacherous times courageously even when the world does not abide by them. Amongst other stigmas plaguing our society, one’s caste and skin colour are some of the beliefs the Indian populace is vehemently fixated upon. Tagore tried to overcome this notion in his works, voicing the plight of those who are inadequately privileged. In his song, ‘Krishna Koli ami tare bole’ (I call her Krishna Koli), he emphasises this by focusing on the other charismatic traits of a young girl when all society recognises is her dark skin. “She is dark as the message of shower in summer, dark as the shade of flowering woodland; she is dark as the longing for unknown love in the wistful night of May,” he writes.
To read more, click here.