Rabindra-Sangeet as a Resource for Indian Classical Bandishes

Anirban Dasgupta


Rabindranath's titanic intellect found manifestation in almost every facet of fine art. One of the most outstanding amongst them is Rabindra-sangeet, which embodies a breathtaking fusion of his musicianship and poetic genius. Such was the impact of this creation, that it not only withstood the test of time for more than a century, but also secured a unique place for itself in the subcontinent's musical culture.

The objective of this article is not to deliberate on the beauty and depth of Rabindra-sangeet. There are countless works in this regard by people far more knowledgeable on Rabindranath and Rabindra-sangeet, and the influence of Classical music on Rabindra Sangeet has been amply analyzed and now stands as an accepted fact. What this article aims to focus on, is how and to what extent has Rabindra-sangeet, in its turn, influenced the more traditional forms of music and its exponents. In particular, there has been a pronounced influence of Rabindra-sangeet on some of the noted classical instrumentalists of North India. There are indeed scopes of debate over the rationale and the extent of potential of this influence, but the fact remains that it cannot be denied. There are far too many precedents in its favor.

In the succeeding sections of this article, it has been attempted to investigate, what elements in Rabindra-sangeet triggered this kind of influence on Indian Classical instrumentalists and what consequences it led to.


Traditional elements in Rabindra-sangeet:

It is an accepted fact that elements of Indian classical music have been used in an extremely intelligent and effective fashion in Rabindra-sangeet. It is indeed one of its most significant features. The application of this ingredient was however dictated principally by the perceived requirements of the mood evoked in the song, which was after all the core entity of his creation. An overt application of elements derived from classical music would have conflicted with this requirement. Therefore the application of classical elements, more often than not, had been subtle, and only to the extent necessary to express the emotive content of the song. Many of his songs therefore have only a partial conformity to ragas. Of course, in cases where he found the tonal color of the raga in almost total conformity to the sentiment of the song, he adopted the raga in its entirety. On certain instances, we even see authentic classical compositions adopted faithfully in respect of both melody and rhythm, set to outstanding Bengali lyric. The urge to evoke a particular mood to his own satisfaction, often led him to blend ragas in unexpectedly beautiful and interesting ways, or to look for uncharted and unexplored nuances within the known frameworks of ragas. It was on these occasions that some of his most beautiful and intellectually challenging creations came forth.

The influence of Rabindra-sangeet on Indian classical Instrumental music is perhaps due to the fact that much of what is played on Indian classical instruments today is derived from vocal music, principally of classical as also to some extent, of non classical origin (like lighter variety of compositions derived from folk music such as Kirtan or Bhatiyali). Classical instrumentalists have always looked for newer ideas and inspirations to feed their imagination not merely from these sources. Rabindra-sangeet with its sheer beauty and lyricism combined with the exquisite embodiment of the classical genre, naturally turns out to be a very potential resource to prospect.



Influence of Rabindra sangeet on Classical Instruments and Instrumentalists.

The Beginning:

The pioneering example in this regard was set by none other than the great Ustad Vilayat Khan Sahib. He had adopted the famous song, Bhenge Mor Gharer Chabi, into a beautiful, lilting light-classical composition. This was an interesting instance of a distinguished classical musician being motivated to imbibe the beauty and lyricism in Rabindra-sangeet .

The next example in this regard was set by Sri Buddhadev Dasgupta, the renowned sarodiya. Being a person with cultural roots in Bengal, he might have had a greater exposure to Rabindra-sangeet in general. His approach towards adoption of Rabindra-sangeet to classical music, naturally, was a more involved one. Out of the numerous classical compositions he has derived so far from Rabindra Sangeet, there are examples of transformations inspired by a variety of different aspects such as melodic appeal, interesting and unexpected application of raga movements, interesting ways of blending of ragas and even re-discovery of old classical compositions. His work in this area is based on years of exhaustive study and research in collaboration with Rabindra-sangeet experts like Shubhash Chowdhury.

The introduction of these kind of compositions in the arena of authentic Indian Classical Music took place over the decades of sixties and seventies. The initiation had been cautious and measured, considering the conventional mind-set of most of the contemporary musicians and listeners. For example, Sri Dasgupta played his first sarod composition, derived from the Rabindrasageet Shedin dujone, in his AIR National Program in 1978, dubbing it as a "light classical composition set to Pilu" and not as "a sarod gat based on Rabindra Sangeet".

The Endeavor and its Acceptance:

It took quite some time for this novel approach to be accepted by the musicians, critics and listeners in its correct perspective. At the initial stage, presentation of such compositions were limited to more intimate gatherings rather than important and full fledged classical concerts. The response of the musical community, though not of outright rejection was somewhat confused. On one hand they were moved by the aesthetic appeal of the compositions, but on the other, were not quite sure of the categorization of such compositions. These compositions were definitely not like light classical compositions (commonly termed as "dhun"). Their appeal was definitely more dignified, and were set to purer forms of Ragas for the Dhuns are mostly set to lighter and blended Ragas with an ambience akin to that of folk music. They could also not be classified as authentic classical compositions or bandishes propagated over musical generations, as their origin was quite different. Sometimes they were sweepingly described as "Rabindra-sangeet played on sarod". This was a totally inappropriate description as well, as the compositions, more often than not, were quite different in their overall melodic construction, rythmic orientation and tempo than the original Rabindra-sangeet it had been derived from. In most cases the similarity was at a much more abstract level of melodic ideas and movements.

Therefore it was left to the proponents of this approach to educate and appraise the audience over the true characteristic of these compositions. This led to the formulation of certain experimental presentations featuring exponents of Rabindra-sangeet and classical musicians on a common stage, where some selected songs were presented along with their transformed versions of instrumental composition (or "gat" in the parlance of Hindusthani music), with adequate explanations in between. One of the earliest presentations of this kind was featured by Doordarshan Kendra, Calcutta with Budhhadev Dasgupta, V.Balsara (the famous pianist and film music personality) and Sri Ramanuj Dasgupta, (one of the contemporary upcoming Rabindra Sangeet singers). The reception to this program was very positive. Noted personalities from the sphere of Rabindra-sangeet as well as classical music acclaimed the effort. Further, as an interesting spin off, a large section of lay music-lovers and Tagore enthusiasts found an interesting cue towards the so-called "abstract" appeal of classical music. A number of similar experimental programs were staged over the following years, with other eminent personalities from spheres of classical music and Rabindra-sangeet, volunteering to take part in such ventures. There have been quite a few presentations of these nature featuring Suchitra Mitra and Budhhadev Dasgupta, Subinoy Roy, Ravi Kichlu and Jaya Biswas and many others. Programs on this theme were accepted and presented by the AIR and Doordarshan on a number of occasions as well. Following suit, the Sangeet Natak Academy also funded a complete project on this theme. From this point onwards, it can be said, that the endeavor received its formal acceptance from the connoisseurs and listeners of classical music as also from the mass media. The idea was thereafter emulated by some of the most well known classical instrumentalists like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The trend continues to this day with dedicated stage programs focusing on classical compositions derived from Rabindra-sangeet. The interesting thing to note here is that just as the stage is shared by Rabindra-sangeet singers and classical instrumentalists, the galleries as well are shared by listeners of Rabindra-sangeet and classical music.


The Aspects of transformation:


Having delineated the course of evolution of this interesting work, it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the aspects of transformation that it involves. Since this has to be examined on the basis of concrete examples, the author has chosen a few, from the works of Sri Budhhadev Dasgupta, whose contribution in this regard has not only been a pioneering one, but perhaps also the most profound and exhaustive. The compositions derived by him had been based on a number of different perspectives of musical thinking.

It should be borne in mind that when we talk of transformation, we are obviously not talking about simply playing Rabindra-sangeet on sarod. Certain ideas are taken from the original Rabindra-sangeet and used to formulate a composition suitable for the context of a classical instrument. The original song therefore, undergoes a change or a sort of reconstruction in that certain salient ideas taken from the song are represented using the elements of sarod vocabulary. The resulting composition can consequently differ to a considerable extent from the orginal song that inspired its creation. The difference mostly is on counts of rhythmic construction or tempo but sometimes also in details of melodic construction. The similarity on the other hand is rather abstract and more often than not at the level of an overall melodic outline. There are a few examples of course, where the nature of the original song itself is so akin to that of a classical presentation that it finds its way almost unaltered into a classical composition.

Revisiting lost domains in ragas or ragas themselves:

As mentioned before, in many of his creations Rabindranath had focussed on ragas from rather striking and unexpected perspectives. Some of the movements he had used, though unusual, could not be challenged on counts of beauty and conformity to the raga. Some of these movements were taken from very old and traditional conventions in classical music. One such example is the use of R, G, M, P, D.., M G in the opening lines of Shanti karo borishono, based on Rag Tilak Kamod. From this took birth a beautiful, medium tempo (Madhya Laya) sarod composition (gat). An almost forgotten but exceedingly lyrical and romantic usage of Komal Gandhar in the latter part of the opening stanza (sthayee) of the song Oi Janalar dhare (Click here for an excerpt of the song or the bandish (Singer: Aniruddha Sinha; Ensemble: Sitar - Sugata Nag, Rahul Chatterjee, Sarod - Anirban Dasgupta, Pratyush Banerjee) is another outstanding example of such an application. In Emono dine tare bola jai we find a beautiful yet unconventional portrayal of Desh Malhar. Both of these songs have inspired excellent sarod gats set to teental. In some of the songs there has been an excellent delineation of uncommon Ragas. Aji jato tara tabo akashe (Excerpts: of the song or sarod-solo bandish . Artists: Sriradha Banerjee, sarod solo: Buddhadev Dasgupta) beautifully pictures Manjh Khambaj, a Raga which existed in the days of yore, but was somewhat rarely heard in the arena of pure classical music. This song was almost completely imbibed into an excellent slow teental (Vilambit) composition by Buddhadev, and has been rendered by him in many of his important concerts. (Excerpt: Anirban Dasgupta, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Zakir Hussain playing Manjh Khamaj at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, 1985.) Incidentally, the same raga which Tagore so adeptly applied in his song, was later revived and popularised in the world of classical music by Acharya Alauddin Khan and his son, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the legendary sarodiya.

Beauty of Approach, Movement and Melody .

As mentioned before, many of the songs, have such a poignant and emotionally moving representation of commonly known ragas, that it would become rather difficult for a sensitive classical musician to overlook their intrinsic musicality. This poignancy or musicality in more objective terms can be interpreted as interesting application of note sequences. Many of the derived sarod compositions have been inspired by this factor. For example, in the song Shedin dujone one finds such an entrancing portrayal of the raga Pilu; here the notes of this rather common raga have been played with creative mastery. This was, in fact, Budhadev's first inspiration to derive a sarod composition from Rabindra sangeet. In "Chokhe-r aaloey" one finds a simple yet serenely beautiful depiction of Yaman Kalyan. This was converted into a medium tempo composition set to Teen tal. A scintillating fast Tintal composition of Khambaj was created from Amar kantha hote gaan ke nilo. The rhythm of the original song (Dadra) had to be entirely changed in order to adapt it to the ambience of an instrumental presentation. This was necessary as the idea was to present not just the song but a full-fledged classical composition derived out of it. The basis of this transformation was the beauty of the melodic outline of the song. In contrast, Jodi e amaro is a striking example where not only is the melodic construction but also the rhythmic framework has been followed in to-to in the derived instrumental composition based on raga Kafi. Here as well, Tagore entrances us with the rare, beautiful yet unmistakable approach to Kafi starting from the note Dhaibat. Out of Tagore's many songs based on Bhairabi, Tabo daya is one of the most outstanding considering the exquisite application of notes the heightens the expression of beauty and devotion. This prompted the creation of a medium tempo gat, largely maintaining the note sequences but changing the rhythmic framework to the somewhat-more-brisk Teen tal. There are more examples of this nature, such as Shey kon boner horin (Hemant) vocal [by Agnibha Banerjee] or instrumental bandish [by the "Ensemble"}, or Shopney amar mone holo (Hameer). vocal [by Aniruddha Sinha] or instrumental bandish [composed by the "Ensemble"].


(Re)Discovering old classical compositions

Most of the songs composed by Rabindranath are characterised by their outstanding individuality, both from the point of views of lyric and melody. But on a certain instances we also find him faithfully adapting the melodic content of old classical compositions. In certain cases where he found the melodic as well as rhythmic orientation of existing or old classical compositions in keeping with the clime of the song being composed he never hesitated to follow them with complete faith. It was perhaps his tribute to a rich tradition of classical music. Hence in some of the songs like Shukho hin nishi din, ( vocal [by Haimanti Shukla], sarod bandish [by Buddhadev Dasgupta] or Shunyo hate phiri he we find priceless classical bandishes, faithfully captured and set to outstanding poetry. Even playing these songs verbatim on an instrument would make them sound like authentic classical instrumental compositions. An interesting commentary on this is provided in the audio-cassette series named "Rupantori", featuring stalwarts like Subinoy Roy and Prasun Banerjee.

Highlighting Tagore's outstanding ideations on blending ragas.


Sometimes, his flights of imagination had led Tagore to such emotional moods, that the tonal colors available from the basic ragas were not adequate to express them. Under such circumstances he used his artistic liberty to blend ragas. This resulted in masterful combination of some of the known ragas producing unforeseen melodic shades of the highest artistic order. One sees such a marriage between the ragas Todi and Bhairvi in the song Rajani-r shesh tara. Another unparalleled confluence of Bahar and Basant is noted in the song Ami tomari shonge ( vocal [by Sriradha Banerjee] or bandish [by Buddhadev Dasgupta]). There may be many more examples. However, in the context of this discussion, it can be mentioned that both of these songs have provided potent ideas not only towards framing beautiful bandishes but also creating new kinds of blended ragas.

What it means for a classical instrumentalist.

Evolution of new ideas in the realm of classical instrumental music inspired by Rabindra-sangeet is of more than incidental significance to some classical instrumentalists. An instrumentalist who has experienced, understood the classical appeal in Rabindra Sangeet and has succeeded in deriving useful ideas from it will obviously find his musical horizon widening much more than ever before. He will develop the insight to discover interesting and unknown corners of known ragas, which will not only apply to the derived compositions but also to the more conventional aspects of his playing like Alap and Vistar. At a more abstract level it might also have significant effects and possibly improvements on his perspective of thinking on ragas. The derived compositions, which as metioned before, have a very distinctive aesthetic ambience would considerably expand his repertoire. He will find himself in possession the magic key to an inexhaustible repository of ideas.



It is a known fact that classical musicians over all ages and centuries have derived musical ideas from classical as well as non-classical sources. In a sense, therefore, this example of Rabindra-sangeet inspiring creation of classical compositions may be interpreted as a repetition of history. However, a closer look suggests a difference. This lies in the artistic maturity of the source material in this case, so that a strong temptation to plagiarize must be resisted and the essence gleaned, and this can be an extremely challenging task.

Also, this endeavour has encouraged an interesting cross-influence. Some of the classical musicians have come down from their ivory towers and given Rabindra-sangeet its much overdue recognition. The exponents of Rabindra-sangeet by and large have welcomed this dialogue between these two islands of India's musical culture which were so far largely isolated from each other. For classical instrumentalists it opened up an extremely potent resource to excavate for newer ideas which are applicable to their own realm. Finally, the subtle yet long-term consequence could be to motivate future generations of musicians to enrich the realm of Classical Music from similar sources beyond the boundary their own domain

Illustrations by Nilanjana Basu

Published July 15, 2001

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