Sunday, August 01, 1999

Tagore Controversy – The Holiday Interview

Interviewed by Abu Jar M Akkas,
Assistant Editor,
Holiday


Question 1: What was the philosophy that drove you to re-create the composition and the tune of the song "Na chahile yare paoya yay" (in transcription: Na chahile jare pawa jay)?

I am a non-conformist in essence, and therefore propound no 'philosophy' for my re-creating a Tagore song. I had titled it 'Rabindranath 2010' - this basically is my vision of the shape of Tagore music in the coming millennium. As a creative artist I have a right to translate my dreams into work. This is my public record of that dream, of the hope !

However there was nothing sinister in my efforts - and all I wanted was to challenge the existing paradigm of 'traditional Rabindra shangeet' - where singing of the song is considered more important than the music. If that be the case than we should not be calling it 'Rabindra shangeet' (Tagore music) but 'Rabindra gaan' (Tagore songs). 'Traditional rabindra shangeet' music is dull, insipid and boring and nothing significant has happened to it, in the last 40 years or so. If songs are not supported by good music - they are doomed to death - perhaps even to be fossilized.

I thought we couldn’t allow that to happen to the music of a Bengalee who won the Noble prize for literature. Instead of complaining about it, I am at least proud I initiated a process where a debate could be started. I really had hoped it would be a healthy debate - and not the kind of chilla chilliz (shouting) and gaala gaaliz (expletives) that it has unfortunately been reduced to consequent to my performance in BTV on 4th July 1999.

Question 2: What have you, you think, achieved by singing the song in a jazz manner?

I achieved an element of satisfaction and mental peace, because I knew all along that what I was doing has never even been dreamt of or done before. I knew I was creating history and was conscious and responsible.

Jazz as you know is a two hundred year old western semi-classical form and tradition, and is till today not a mainstream music, but a connoisseur art form even in the land of its birth, the USA. It is a difficult form to master, needs years of training and patience and is no different in mood and approach than the rich classical or semi classical forms of music in the subcontinent. By rendering it in a jazz format, I had only enriched it and gave it some kind of buoyancy. As far as my book of aesthetics or ethics go - I have only attempted to change the environment in which people are used to listening to Tagores music. I have basically created a new and fresh sounds cape, and I have not only sung a jazz version, which allows freedom for infinite variations and improvisations, I have also improved on the music. There are more than a 100 chords in my arrangements - in contrast to the 8 or 10 basic chords that you see in the Bangla notations of Tagores music printed from Shantineketan.

Question 3: Why have you chosen this particular song? Was there any reason for this?

I have been in love with this song for a very long time, and yet another reason is – it is a very difficult song. You will rarely find our 'traditional Tagore artist' singing or recording this song - and the most important problem is, it is in what is called a 'baul ongyo' or in my translation of that in English - Bauliana ! I have lived and associated myself with the rustic and mendicant Bauls of Bangladesh for a very long time, and thought I was giving or attempting to give a more authentic Baul flavor in my rendition.

Question 4: Why have you chosen Tagore's song, and not someone else's, for example Nazrul's or other classical singers'?

The answer to that is 'why not' ?

Yes I do have a couple of Nazrul song in my list of priorities and for your information I have also experimented with the songs of Fakir Lalon shai, Shri Radha Romon, Shri Bijoy Shorkar, Pagla Jalal, Fakir Roshik shai to name a few. Give me merits that I am the only singer/musician in Bangladesh in our 'band music' arena doing these experiments - which have been widely acclaimed.

Question 5: Some people are saying that your re-creation of the song was a failed experimentation? What do you think?

People are entitled to their opinion as much as I am entitled to mine!

I think it has been a successful experiment, and time will judge me fairly, hopefully at a time in Bangladesh’s immense musical future and destiny, when people will talk more sensibly after they have a thorough understanding of jazz. The understanding, education and appreciation of jazz will open newer avenues in our thinking, because don’t forget, there are only a handful of South Asians indulging in the practice and performance of jazz in the world today.

In India for instance, I know of only one big jazz musician - Louis Banks. He is of course not a singer.

Question 6: Some people are questioning your ability to sing the song in the prescribed manner; and this is why you re-created it to suit your style? What do you say about this?

Perhaps they are right! I have never believed in any 'prescribed manner' in presentation, because ultimately it all boils down to how each artist conveys emotions in essence that are intimate and peculiar to their own. No two emotions as you know can ever be the same. By all these 'prescription's' we are only restricting our emotions to be guided by diktats. Music like culture is dynamics. It cannot be stagnated by diktats !

Question 7: How do you explain your right to re-create Rabindranath Tagore's songs, which have already been created by Rabindranath Tagore himself? How will you react if someone else re-creates one of your songs you do not feel it was sung your way? Someone might say that your hands end where Rabindranath Tagore's nose begins.

I wonder why you ask this RIGHT question!

Firstly Rabindranath did not leave a edict anywhere saying that his works cannot be changed...and importantly there is probably no record that Tagore sang the song and preserved his version as a strict mode to follow. Tagore was no ‘great’ singer...and he relied on the vocal nuances of singers better than him to create the songs he wanted. So at the end of the day are we to assume that the first singer of the song actually sang it in the 'prescribed manner’? NO - we may not...as NO two human voices are ever the same. If we are to let Banya, Sanjida, Mita and Papiya sing the song one at a time - you will see that each and every one will sound better than the other. So how do you decide which is the 'prescribed manner' !!! The question of 'right' starts right there. Everybody has a right to be different. If tomorrow somebody was to re-create my songs it would be a difficult thing. You will remember that I allowed Subir Nandi to sing 'dhanyobad hay bhalobasha' in the BTV programme of 1995 called 'jalsa'. He completely botched it up, which proved publicly that it is not very easy to sing a jazz song in Bangla, and importantly not easy to imitate Maqsood !

With all due respects to Subir, who is undoubtedly the greatest classical vocalist we have in Bangladesh, it took more than 4 hours for me to guide him through the song while dubbing it in the studio. Normally Subir does not take more than 20 minutes to dub a song ! And Subir will confirm that both our approaches to music are in two completely different traditions. We both have respect for each other - because we know we are unique in our own traditions.

If tomorrow somebody does my song better than me, I will have no objection. If he/she does better than me - I will publicly congratulate. If they cant it will be my fans they will have to deal with - NOT ME!

Question 8: One of Waheedul Haque's main arguments was that let Rabindranath be Rabindranath; and that he does not need retouching. How do you react to this?

Again that is his point of view, and one I don’t have to necessarily agree. His arguments are not based on facts of the changing realities in music, in the global world.

Question 9: You have played the song with much of instruments, which might be another reason for the Rabindra Sangeet "experts" to make such comments. What do you think?

Probably - but it all boils down to the hatred they have for the young generation, band music, and me in particular. Don’t forget they are the ones that have regularly abused us of promoting alien values or oposhongskriti ! Today they are shocked to see our love for Rabindranath. They thought we hated Rabindranath because they hated us. We proved them wrong. I cant help but ‘admire’ the hatred they have for me?

Question 10: What in the Western music, any particular name or group, has influenced you to do this?

My influences have been wide and varied.

However to give you an idea, fusion with Indian classical and jazz started in 1980 or so with John Mclaughlin (guitar), Ustad Zakir Hussein (tabla), L.Shankar (violin) and their fusion band 'SHAKTI'. That gave the world the first direction to the way world music will evolve in the next millennium. Back then, they were considered revisionist. Today the world recognizes them as musical genius!

On the other hand, the late Don Cherry experimented with Tibetan and Vedic hymns and Indian ragas. In South Africa Abdullah Ibrahim and his Islamic jazz band, improvised on suras from the Koran. In New York today Jai Uttal and his Pagan Love Ochestra is also doing music very similar to mine. In Australia, the aboriginal band Yothu Yindi is reviving traditional aborigine music into world beat.... there are hundred of examples I can give you...to justify that I must be doing something TERRIBLY RIGHT!

Punlished in HOLIDAY August 1999

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