Growing up with Rabindrasangeet

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Fakrul Alam

One of the earliest memories I have of my father is of him coming out of his bedroom, transistor radio in hand, eager to share his delight about a Tagore song being broadcast in Dhaka or Calcutta radio with someone else in our family. “Aha!” he would say, shaking his head to the beat, or clapping as if to accentuate it, or humming the tune out loud. The youngsters in the house, of course, didn’t very much care about these songs and, in fact, weren’t thrilled at all about his craze for these tunes. Indeed, if we could, we would have much rather listened to the modern Bengali songs being played in some other channels at that time. Failing to inspire us, therefore, my father would retreat to his room. But for us there was no escaping the Tagore tunes as long as he was in the house; he would simply increase the volume a bit till it seemed to us the whole house was filled with those awfully serious, somewhat sedate, occasionally tedious songs.

Whether we liked it or not, then, we grew up with Rabindrasangeet. Little by little, we even learned to live with it—after all, it was just about a part of the air we were breathing in our house. From my present perspective, it appears now that in being exposed to Rabindrasangeet thus my soul had a “fair seed-time,” although at that time no doubt I felt more like someone “flying from something that he dreads than one/who sought the thing he loved.”

Gradually, I began to like at-least a few of the songs composed by Tagore. The ones that appealed to the growing boy in me, not surprisingly, were the ones with the quickest, most throbbing beat. It was nice to see dances based on these pulsating songs staged for Tagore birth anniversaries or for some neighborhood cultural functions. Who cared if the dancing was amateurish, the singing out of tune, the lighting lacking synchronization? Who cared indeed, if it was Tagore’s birth anniversary? What attracted us neighborhood boys was the spectacle of the girls we were getting increasingly excited about dancing to fluttering lyrics such as this one: “My heart dances like a peacock, /passionately, and spreads, refulgent, like a peacock’s tail.

Not surprisingly, then, certain Rabindrasangeet tunes attracted me even more in my teens because of the aura of romance associated with them. Sung by a singer like Chinmoy, you were transported to a world of intense emotional longing or made to empathize with the lover’s anguished question: “If loving brings no bliss, why, oh why, love at all?” You almost could hear the helpless lover in the doleful voice, and you were always getting some amount of perverse thrill at the vulnerability of the lover. No doubt, a teenager’s taste for mushy music or the maudlin made me overvalue certain sentimental Tagore songs or misinterpret them. However, there were also songs which uplifted your spirits when you felt the stirring of desire in you or when you fancied yourself in love, or were fascinated by the prospect of loving someone, even if this meant committing yourself to unrequited love. Certainly, Tagore had the words and the tunes for grand gestures and exotic attachments: “In my soul there is nectar, do you want it/Alas, you don’t know about it” or “I know you, know you well, oh wondrous one from a far-off land!”

In the ’60s, still in our teens, my generation was feeling not only the stirring of desire but was also waking up to the fact that we had become second-class citizens in a country supposed to be our own. The time had come for East Pakistanis, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was telling us, to shake off the shackles imposed on us and to rise and shine. As we sensitized ourselves to our culture we found an obvious source of pride and inspiration in Rabindrasangeet. The fact that the Pakistani government had tried to prevent Tagore’s songs from being broadcast on public radio in the early ’60s only increased their popularity amongst us. It was at the end of the decade that we began to be regulars in such events as Chayanaut’s Poila Boishakh function, where the main items in the program were inevitably songs by Rabindranath, tunes such as “Arise this day in happiness fresh and new, soak in the light of the newly arisen sun.” This was the time when we were delighting too in a young and exciting group of singers, fresh as the dew or the leaves in the Balda Garden setting (the venue would shift to Ramna Park later) of Chayanaut’s celebration of the coming of the Bengali year: Milia Ghani, Iffat Ara Dewan, Flora Ahmed, and others, votaries of the beautiful, vestals, it seemed to us, who were reviving traditions long suppressed by a regime bent on driving a wedge between us and our Bangla heritage. But the more that regime tried to disparage whatever constituted our culture, the more they tried to discredit Rabindranath’s songs, for example, the more they attracted our attention to it, and his music became an unfailing source of pride and joy.

Looking back from my present perspective at the burgeoning popularity of Rabindrasangeet in the late ’60s and 1970 and 1971, it is obvious that our taste for the songs of Tagore had to do with the national longing for form. The Bangladeshi moment had come, and Tagore’s song appeared especially appropriate for all of us budding nationalists. Everyone everywhere was humming tunes such as “My Golden Bangla, I love thee!” At rallies and demonstrations, the idea of Bangladesh seemed to have been vividly encapsulated in Tagore’s lyrics: “From the heart of Bangladesh suddenly today, and all on your own/ You have emerged in beauty that is beyond compare, mother!” Bengal’s other great lyricist, Kazi Nazrul Islam, did sound more revolutionary, but Tagore too gave us pulsating tunes. Indeed, who can doubt that his songs were a source of inspiration throughout 1971 and that lines such as “The more they try to shackle us in, the more our bonds will loosen” stimulated our freedom fighters throughout that year?

In fact, it was in 1971, that I first began to come close to appreciating the spirit of Rabindrasangeet. Confined to our homes most of the day and all night long, and forced to listen to Calcutta radio or Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro or our tape recorders, we were exposed to the riches of Rabindrasangeet as never before. Certainly, from that year I began to see how Rabindranath’s songs were woven out of our seasons, were sweet songs which told of our happiest as well as our saddest thoughts, were gems cut from veins that ran deep into our subconscious.

As I came close to grasping the essence of Rabindrasangeet, I could see that no matter what the time of the year or the frame of mind I was in, Rabindranath had the words and the tunes for the occasion. Where else but in his songs, for example, could you find such a consummate treatment of our rainy season and the mood it could induce in us? If the drifting rain-bearing clouds made you restless, hadn’t Rabindranath found the perfect song for the moment: “what is that wind that drives my thoughts/ my mind swings, swings suddenly at its onset.” In looking at the clouds thickening before the rains, you felt impelled to hum “After innumerable years and from another shore, ashar comes to my mind/ who is that poet whose rhymes sound in such incessant showers?” If you were inclined to be metaphysical, where could you come across a better conceit than in Raindranath’s song as sung in Debabrata Biswas’ incomparable style and voice where God is baul, a mystic and crazed singer, who plays on his ektara until that instrument produces thunder, lightening, and rain? In the years that bring something of a philosophic mind, this, then, is the ultimate lesson one learns from Rabindrasangeet: because of it you get to at least think of the possibility that everything in this world is tinged with the infinite, and can conceive of yourself as a traveler destined perhaps for some final revelation.

*          *          *

My father’s death on February 21, 1992 was quite sudden, at-least for me. A few days before he died, he complained of discomfort and confined himself to his bed. I could see that he was unwell but had no idea that he was dying. When I went to see him the day before he went into a coma, I asked him if he would listen to the radio or hear some of his favorite Tagore songs on the tape recorder that was his constant companion. When he shook his head to say no, I should have known that his time had come, but I failed to read this sign, bent on believing that he was suffering from some passing illness. Then, when he died, I was, for a while, inconsolable. It was as if there is grief so intensely painful that even Rabindranath’s delicate songs cannot assuage them. But later, I would remember that Rabindranath had the words and music for the utter bleakness induced by the death of a loved one, as in the song so hauntingly rendered by Kanika Bandyopadhyay: “Everything has ended, almost all dreams/Where has he hid himself, where is he alas!” And much later, I would remember Rabindranath’s insight into the human condition as the supreme consolation for those in mourning: “There is life, and there is death, and the anguish of separation/Still, there is peace, happiness, arising everlastingly.” And somehow, it seemed appropriate that I would ultimately come to accept my father’s death at-least partly because he had at one time introduced me to the endless source of wisdom and delight that is Rabindrasangeet!
Note: The memoir was first published in The Daily Star on May 6, 2006 (Vol 5, No. 687)

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is Pro-Vice Chancellor of East West University, and he was Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. He has multifarious publications to his credit and was bestowed SAARC Literature Award at the SAARC Literature Festival in 2012. Professor Alam was awarded the Bangla Academy Puraskar (Literature Award) in the Translation category in 2013.

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