Rabindra Sangeet: The Music of Rabindranath Tagore

Bengal enjoys a rich musical tradition and the Bengali music is not limited by political boundaries. Its music is related to ancient prayers and deities. The modernization of this music took place independently of Western influence with new classical genres in works of Rabindranath Tagore with the fusion of traditional music with modern instruments and themes made necessary by the advent and success of the Bengali cinema.

The râgas are interpreted in the same way as elsewhere, with the same system of complex rhythms called talala. The Bengali scholar Rabindranath Tagore wrote and composed thousands of songs still popular today, despite their philosophical dimension.

The Rabindra Sangeet is a specific genre created for this purpose, with the following sub-genres inspired by the Indian musical scales of puja porjay or prayer songs, prem porjai or love songs, bichitra porjai or songs of variety and swadesh porjai or patriotic songs. Some argue that the prem porjai is actually a part of puja porjai. In his lyrics, as in his life, Tagore expresses his passion, even erotic, convinced in his search for harmony and beauty, despite all difficulties, including pain.

All categories are linked by a common theme of philosophy and love. Tagore, himself composed most of the songs. All the songs are based on minor variations of sub-continental music or Ragas. On the other hand, some songs are fundamental creations of Tagore. He also composed some songs on the basis of European music. He learned music in the West during his time of one year and five months in England, in 1878 when he was 17.

The Rabindra sangeet is an integral part of almost all of Bengali cultural festivals and is considered as one of the most important elements of Bengali cultural heritage. These songs have also been used in several films, both in Bengali cinema and Bollywood too.

Popular singers of the Rabindra Sangeet include Arati Mukhopadhyay, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Hemanta Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Indrani Sen, Kabir Suman, Kanika Bandyopadhyay, Rezwana Chowdhury Banya, Sagar Sen, Suchitra Mitra,
Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta, Kishore Kumar, Shaan and Shreya Ghoshal.


Rabindranath Tagore, the son of Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi was born in Jorasanko in Calcutta in 1861 and died in 1941. Tagore was the youngest of fourteen sons. As a child, Tagore lived in an atmosphere of publishing literary magazines and musical performances and theater. In fact the Tagore's of Jorasanko were the center of an extensive social art lover group.

Tagore's elder brother, Dwijendranath, was a respected poet and philosopher. Another of the brothers, Satyendranath, was the first Indian member admitted to the elitist Indian Civil Service, formerly formed only by the English. In addition another brother, Jyotirindranath Tagore, was a musician of talent, composer and author. Among his sisters, Swarna Kumari Devi, gained fame as a novelist in her own right. Jyotirindranath's wife, Kadambari, who was about the same age as Tagore, was a dear friend and had a powerful influence on Tagore.

In 1878, Tagore traveled to Brighton in England to study in a public school. He later studied at University College, London. However, he did not finish his studies and left England after a year's stay. This exposure to English culture and its language would be filtered in its first dances with the tradition of Bengali music to create new forms of music. Despite this, Tagore never fully embraced the rigid English norms or the strict interpretation of the traditional Hindu religion by his family in his life or his art, choosing instead to take the best of both spheres of experience.

On December 9, 1883 Tagore married Mrinalini Devi. The couple had two sons and three daughters, several of whom died in their early years. By that time, he had become the center of attention of the literary world with several works, including a long poem adapted to the Maithili style of which pioneer Vidyapati, who in turn claimed that belonged to the lost poet called Bhanu Simha. His reputation was consolidated with compilations such as Sandhya Sangit (1882), which includes the famous poem Nirjharer Swapnabhanga.

In 1890 Tagore left to manage the family properties in Shilaidaha, an estuary region located in present-day Bangladesh, where he lived in a houseboat on the tributary system of the Padma River. Works of this period such as Sonar Tari (1894), Chitra (1892) and Katha O Kahini (1900), finished showing him as a poet. In addition, he was also gaining a reputation as an essayist, writer of works and short stories, reflecting the life of the people he saw around him, causing him considerable praise.

In 1901 Tagore left Shilaidaha and moved to Santiniketan in West Bengal, where he set up an experimental school.
His father had left him property in this place. This school, established according to the traditional brahmacharya structure of students living together with their guru in a self-sufficient community, was an imam for international groups of talented students, artists, linguists and musicians. Tagore dedicated prodigious amounts of energy to obtaining funds for this school. Today the institution is known as Visva Bharati University, under the control of the Indian government.

He continued to write, with works such as Naivedya (1901) and Kheya (1906) being published during that period. Unfortunately, his wife died, and so did one of his dearest daughters and a son, leaving him shattered. By then, it already had a large number of followers among the Bengali readers. Some translations of his works were also carried out, but they were often of mediocre quality. In response to some English admirers such as the painter William Rothenstein, Tagore began to translate some of his poems into free verse. In 1912, he marched to England carrying with him a handful of his translations.

In the lectures given there, these poems shocked several Englishmen, most notably the Anglo-Irish poet WB Yeats and the English missionary Charles F. Andrews (protégé of Gandhi). Yeats would later write the preface to the English version of Gitanjali, and Andrews spent a short time with him in India. The Gitanjali in its English version was later published by the Indian Society with a dazzling foreword by Yeats. In November of that same year he was surprised to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, based on a relatively small set of translated works, whose center was the Gitanjali.

Together with Charles F. Andrews and WW Pearson, Tagore embarked in 1916 on a circuit of conferences that took him to Japan and the United States. During a four-month break in Japan, Tagore wrote On the Road to Japan and In Japan, which were subsequently collected in the book Japanyatri.

During this trip, Tagore denounced nationalist chauvinism and belligerent nationalisms on a global basis, including that of the Japanese and Americans themselves. He would also be the author of the essay Nationalism in India, framing the subject from the point of view of his homeland. This position made him receive many criticisms but also earned him the praise of pacifists such as Romain Rolland.

Tagore's work as an assistant and mentor in Santiniketan occupied him during the following years, teaching in the mornings and personally developing students' textbooks during the afternoons. In 1927, Tagore and two companions embarked on a four-month tour of Southeast Asia, visiting places such as Bali, Java, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Siam and Singapore. The travel diaries he wrote during this time were compiled in his work Jatri.
In April 1932 Tagore was invited to host the Iranian Shah Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Tagore wrote several songs supporting the Indian independence movement. He rejected the knighthood that granted him the British crown in 1915 in protest of the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar) in 1919. His deep feeling was that the nation could only be awakened through education for all people. These views were reflected in his school in Santiniketan.

Throughout his life, Tagore maintained multiple contacts with other intellectuals of his time, including Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Romain Rolland. Particularly famous was the Tagore-Einstein meeting that took place at Einstein's home in Caputh (Berlin) on July 14, 1930; The second part of the conversation was when Einstein visited Tagore in the house of an ordinary friend, Dr. Mendel. They discussed a wide variety of topics including epistemology, ontology, music theory and creativity.

He began painting at the age of 60, making several successful shows of his art in much of Europe. He died in his Jorasanko in 1941, a day that is still remembered at public events within the Bengali speaking world. He was a Bengali poet, philosopher of the Brahmo Samaj movement propagated by Raja Rammohun Roy, an artist, playwright, musician, novelist and songwriter, who was Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, becoming the first Asian to win this award. Tagore, also known as Gurudev, revolutionized Bengali literature with works such as Ghare Baire and Gitanjali.

Tagore extended the broad Bengali art with its multitude of poems, short stories, letters, essays and paintings. Tagore was also a cultural savant and reformer who modernized Bengali art by challenging the harsh criticisms that had hitherto linked him to classical forms. Two of his songs are now the national anthems of Bangladesh and India with Amar Shonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana.

Tagore also knew western music and composed a few songs with these musical scales in addition to the musical dramas Balmiki Protiva and Kalmrigaya. The corpus of rabindra sangît is still used in Bengali films and is taught in schools.