WHERE THE SONG IS WITHOUT FEAR

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By Aveek Sen
  • Published 3.05.08
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Rabindranath Tagore was anything but orthodox. Musically, his avant garde heterodoxy was as enduringly Modernist, and modern, as that of European contemporaries like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. And this had nothing to do with youth or cleverness. Tagore’s very last songs come to life with rules sublimely broken. Every page of Sangeetchinta — that neglected or only-selectively-studied anthology of his writings on music — resonates with the openness, unconventionality and cosmopolitanism of his creativity.

So it was disconcerting to hear Dakshinee’s students, teachers and alumni inaugurating the school’s 60th anniversary celebrations (April 23, Nazrul Manch) by repeatedly paying homage to its founder as a man who believed in severe discipline (kathor niyomanubortita). Suvo Guha Thakurta had laid down the rules for the teaching of what the school website calls “Tagore music”, enshrined in his Rabindrasangeeter Dhara (1950). This is the only prescribed reading in the syllabi on the website. It was alarming, too, to hear student after student, young and old, extolling the anukaranpratibha (talent for imitation) that this teaching fostered. They also all spoke of fear and obedience.

Before the endless reminiscing en famille, followed by an equally endless video on the history of the school, was the lighting of the sixty lamps by Dakshinee’s students of “Tagore dance”. Their modesty armoured in Santiniketani batik, the dancers processed across the stage as if trying to flail their way through a hardening treacle of respectability. But the shrilly orchestrated tune they were dancing to was that of the cosmically mischievous Mamo chitte niti nritte.

By the time the singing started, a drenching nor’wester had already struck, most of the audience in the circus-sized Nazrul Manch were getting hungry, fidgety and chatty, and the potato-chips man was doing brisk and noisy business inside. There were the usual gifted students (Saikat Shekhareswar Roy, Kamalini Mukhopadhyay, Shreya Guha Thakurta) racing through the usual virtuoso numbers (frequently drowned by more than one keening esraj), together with some old faithfuls (Prabudhha Raha, Shekhar Gupta, Srikanta Acharya, Debashish Roychoudhury). There were the usual slips of paper, often clutched in front of the face as aides-memoire. Surprisingly, learning the lyrics by heart seems not to be part of the severe discipline, even when there is just one song to be sung.

The hugeness of the venue and unrestrained amplification made it impossible for the many, considerably skilled singers to bring out their songs’ depths of inwardness. The talent for imitation was amply in evidence too, and a peculiar habit of eating up some of the words so that the song comes out in little gusts of vocal effort. Notation-driven tunefulness is not all in Rabindrasangeet. But freedom of feeling and of interpretation cannot be the fruit of fear and obedience.