A huge pile of books on Rabindranath Tagore eats up half the settee in Subhas Chowdhury’s Palm Avenue drawing room. On the wall hangs a painting of his wife by Abanindranath Tagore, along with an array of works by Nandalal Bose and Ramkinker Baij. The divan, on which he settles down for a chat, is occupied by a harmonium. More books on Tagore, faded and fusty, are stashed in shelves along another wall.
For the septuagenarian, life has been a heartfelt quest for all things Tagore — his family, his life, his works and the artistes who have sung his songs through the years. The bond nurtured over a span of nearly four decades in Santiniketan, where Chowdhury first enrolled as a student of Visva-Bharati’s Sangeet Bhavan and later served in the university’s swaralipi department for around 30 years.
Since then, he has been digging up and culling material on Tagore’s works, while also penning and editing a number of books on the bard. Of these, Rabindrasangeetayan, which he co-edited with Suchitra Mitra, and Muktir Gaan, a compilation of rare swadeshi songs with notations, deserve special mention.
Presently, Chowdhury is busy applying the finishing touches to Gitabitaner Jagat, an exhaustive book tracing the history of Tagore’s Gitabitan with interesting footnotes. Thakurbarir Sangeetcharcha and Balmiki Pratibhar Itihash are two more projects that are keeping his hands full at the moment.
Chowdhury would collect rare Bengali songs and transform them in LPs. His first two projects were the songs of Jyotirindranath Tagore and swadeshi melodies. Since then, he has worked with almost all veteran exponents of Rabindrasangeet, including the current crop of Srikanta Acharya and Indranil Sen.
A few months ago, Chowdhury published a package of a book and a CD — comprising a write-up on Rabindrasangeet by Satyajit Ray and a longish interview of Ray by Chowdhury, where the maestro aired his views on Tagore. “I had a long chat with Sahana Debi, too, where she often broke into song. She was around 90 then. I wish to bring that out on a CD, too,” says Chowdhury.
His most ambitious scheme, and earnest desire, is to build a library of books on Bengali songs. “I have faced problems all my life while writing anything on Tagore as research material on him is scattered. There has not been any proper documentation on Rabindrasangeet, or in fact, Bengali songs,” he says before fishing out a tattered copy, where Indira Debi had scribbled many songs (some with notations) of different genres she had learnt by listening. “The book will be on the racks once we start the library,” he says with a glint in his bespectacled eyes.