Tagore Songs make a unique aspect of Rabindranath's creative life. Opinions differ on when he first started composing songs. According to some authorities, his first song was composed when he was 12; some others think that he began composing songs in 1875 at the age of 14. He then composed 'Jval jval chita dvigun dvigun' for the play Sarojini written by his elder brother jyotirindranath tagore. The same year two songs by him appeared in print as offerings for hindu mela. One of them, 'Tomari tare ma sa'pinu e deha' (O mother, this body of mine is dedicated to you), was undisputedly composed by Tagore; but the other, 'Ek sutre bandhiyachhi sahasrati man' (I have tied a thousand minds with one string), is regarded by some as having been composed or set to music by Jyotirindranath Tagore. If 'Tomari tare ma 85' was composed at the age of 12, it was certainly Tagore's first song. For his last birthday he composed 'He nutan, dekha dik ar-bar janmer pratham shubhaksan' (Hail the new, let the auspicious moment of birth appear again) on 7 May 1941. This means he composed songs for 68 years. All his 2,232 songs have been compiled in his Gitabitan.
The tradition of pre-Rabindranath Bangla songs took a new turn in the tagore family. Rabindranath's father debendranath tagore, brothers satyendranath tagore and Jyotirindranath Tagore and others composed a genre of devotional songs for Brahma Samaj prayers. In this respect they were following rammohun roy. Rabindranath enriched the genre by following his brothers in composing Brahma Sangit in the classical style.
Tagore songs are deeply influenced by classical influence. Although he himself did not learn classical music formally, the family atmosphere of cultivating this form of music enables him to compose many of his songs in the Hindustani classical style. On the occasion of Brahma Samaj's Magh festival, he composed many devotional songs in the Hindustani classical style. The Tagore songs composed in this tradition are treasures of our music. Many of his songs abound in the classical forms of sthayi, antara, savchari and abhog. The influence of the classical style is also manifested in the tunes, words and articulation of the songs. During his childhood, several music teachers from the Vishnupur gharana used to come to the Tagore house. Of them, Vishnuchandra Chakravarty and Radhikaprasad Goswami left a deep impression on Tagore's mind. The ragas and raginis heard in his childhood managed to cast long shadows on his songs.
Rabindranath established his uniqueness by applying multiple ragas and raginis in a single song. For instance, he applied four ragas - lalit, vibhas, jogiya and ashavari - in his song 'Achhe duhkha achhe mrtyu, biraha dahana lage'. To him, theme was more important than ragas. Even in folk tunes he experimented with a mixture of ragas to create a genre of his own.
tappa is yet another form that has enriched Tagore songs. The use of tappa in giving expression to Bengali emotions has been noteworthy. Rabindranath composed some songs following the tappa tradition of 'Shori Miar Punjabi'. His own tappas utilize no discernible combination of tals. The use of folk tunes is also obvious in Tagore tappas.
Rabindranath composed tunes for some Vedic and Bauddha hymns to create devotional songs. He also composed a number of songs with the help of South Indian tunes. The folksongs of Bengal have significantly influenced Tagore songs too. He used extensively tunes and styles from baul, kirtan, shyamasangit, sari and even kathakata to give his songs a distinctive flavour and beauty.
Rabindranath's familiarity with the folk tunes, and kirtan, syamasangit and ramprasadi is seen in the songs he composed between 1884 and 1886. The use of baul tunes became noticeable since 1905. While agitating against the partition of bengal, Rabindranath realized that the best way to touch the hearts of the people was to utilize the tunes drawn from the soil. Twenty songs composed by him at the time were published in a book entitled Baul. Among them were Gandhiji's favourite song 'Yadi tor dak shune keu na ase tabe ekla chalo re' (If no one comes to respond to your call, go forth all alone) and 'Amar sonar Bangla, ami tomay bhalobasi' (My Bengal of gold, I love you), later adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh. Rabindranath also used folk tunes from different Indian states like Mumbai, Gujarat, Madras, Mysore and Punjab (Sikh bhajan).
The Tagore family was familiar with many western musical tunes. In his autobiography, Rabindranath speaks of a book called Irish Melodies that he read early in life. His grandfatherDwarakanath Tagore was known to have taken lessons in western music. The family of Rabindranath's elder brother Satyendranath Tagore used to cultivate western music. His knowledge about western music was enhanced when at the age of 17 he went to England to study bar-at-law and had an opportunity to live with different English families. He applied many western tunes in the songs of his musical plays Valmiki Pratibha (1881) and Kalmrgaya (1882). Thanks to his unique abilities, he could maintain his own distinctive note even after using varied elements from other musical sources. Because of this quality, his tunes can be easily identified even when he has based them on other musical forms.
Rabindranath has used many tals in composing songs. These included chautal, ada chautal, dhamar, adatheka, surfankta, yat, jhanptal, trital, ektal, teoda, dadra, kaharba and adkhemta. He has utilized some tals which are new to North Indian music; these include sasthi, jhampak, rupkada, navatal, ekadashi and navapavchatal. In poetic measures too, Rabindranath showed some distinctiveness, especially in using multiple times. He has occasionally used multiple tempos in a single song and has skillfully mixed times and tempos to create a very unusual musical form.
Usually songs have a preponderance of tunes and measures but Tagore songs are essentially poetic and therefore their poetic themes are as important as their tunes. The thematic variety of his songs reflects the rich emotional life of Bangalis. Gitabitan, his main and final compilation of songs, has a large number of sections. His devotional songs have been listed under 'Puja', love songs under 'Prem', songs on seasons under 'Prakrti', patriotic songs under 'Swadesh', occasional songs under 'Anusthanik', and miscellaneous songs under 'Vichitra'. Some of his songs for his stage plays are satirical. The divisions of his songs relating to worship, love and nature are no doubt arbitrary as the themes are often intermixed so overwhelmingly that drawing clear lines between them becomes difficult.
His occasional songs treat an amazing variety of themes. He wrote songs on weddings, births and deaths, house warming, tree planting, plowing land, sinking a tubewell, tying rakhi, convocations, inauguration ceremonies, harvesting and even teaching of martial art to women. This has made Tagore songs an essential part of life of the Bengalis who sing them in happiness, in distress, and at work.
Rabindranath once said that a song begins where a poem ends and that the message of music travels further than that of words. He used to ride on the wings of music in utter delight to spread his ideals, something he also did through his poems.
Visva-Bharati has so far published 63 volumes of Gitabitan, arranging the Tagore songs in alphabetical order with notations. A few more volumes are yet to be published. [Sanjida Khatun]