Bringing Tagore to the world
ANN ARBOR—The bell sounded at 12:30 p.m. Students slowly started trickling into the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School Orchestra rehearsal room, carrying instruments of every shape and size.
As they filled their seats and settled in, some craned their necks to get a glimpse of Indian musician Rajeeb Chakraborty dressed in a dark blue kurta, tuning his string instrument in the center of the room.
Slowly, everyone took their place in the orchestra formation, the string instruments on either side, the trumpets, tubas, flutes, clarinets and bassoons section in the middle and the percussion in the back.
Jonathan Glawe, director of orchestras at Pioneer High School, welcomed the guests: Mousumi Banerjee, a University of Michigan professor, and Chakraborty, an Indian musician on Fulbright scholarship at U-M.
“We are here to introduce you to Rabindranath Tagore,” Banerjee told the young musicians. “He is an Indian genius who composed lyrics and music for more than 2,200 songs but is largely unknown to the Western world.”
Banerjee, a research professor of biostatistics at U-M’s School of Public Health, grew up listening to and singing Tagore music. She engaged with the American students as a way to bring this beloved artist to the west, and for this practice session, the orchestra played Tagore’s Aguner Poroshmoni. The title translates to light my soul with your fire. Chakraborty played with them on sarod, a popular Indian string instrument.
“We were really excited to play this music,” said Miri Kim, a senior and president of the student orchestra. “It seemed simple when we read it yesterday, but it sounds different—contemporary and complex—when all the music comes together.”
This engagement with Pioneer High School is an effort by Banerjee to bring Tagore’s music—which is popular in India but little-known outside—to the Western world.
Rabindranath Tagore was a multitalented polymath who had a major cultural influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a poet, musician and a painter. He even started his own educational institution and was the first Asian to receive the Nobel prize in literature in 1913. Two of his compositions are national anthems: India‘s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh‘s “Amar Shonar Bangla.”
“Tagore’s 2,200 songs are the gemstones of his creations, a fusion of his poetic work and his music compositions,” Banerjee said. “But the music for the songs is in Indian notation, making it difficult to access them.”
Growing up, Tagore’s music permeated Banerjee’s everyday life. Her mother sang them as lullabies, she heard them at family gatherings and on the radio. They were more than just songs. “They were my constant companions when I first came to the U.S. They give me solace and immense peace and I want to share them with the world,” she said.
The biggest hurdle in sharing the music is the notation, basically a visual aide to communicate cues regarding rhythm, tempo and musical texture. Tagore songs are set in Indian notation called akarmatrik swaralipi. Banerjee is on a journey to convert them to Western notation, the most popular and established form, hoping it will make the music more accessible to the global community.
The spark for the idea came when she was in Vienna for a biostatistics conference a few years ago.
“I had some free time in the evening, so I went to the Vienna State Opera House where the philharmonic was playing Mozart,” she said. “When I listen to music, I mostly close my eyes. I had my eyes closed and was flowing with the music. And it came to me, what if Tagore’s music could be played in a concert like this?”
Banerjee teamed up with Chakraborty, a sarod virtuoso, and together they created Tagore Beyond Boundaries, a nonprofit that is transcribing the Tagore’s songs into western musical notation and publishing those notations online .
For each song, the website provide a bundle that includes lyrics in English and a transcript with western music notation. It also includes a MIDI file to help musicians listen to the music played on several different musical instruments like piano, guitar etc.
“We have transcribed 100 Tagore songs in western notation,” said Chakraborty. The goal is to have 500 songs in the western notation system, which will showcase the breadth and the depth of Tagore’s music.
Free of language constraints
Chakraborty says he hopes these transcriptions will offer “the initiated” an opportunity to get hands-on experience with Tagore’s catalog.
“And for those unfamiliar with the music, we hope the transcripts will ease the transition free of language constraints,” he said.
The transcriptions certainly helped the Pioneer High School students. “This was a great experience for the students to learn something new. What better way than to bring in a world renowned expert and help him bring his musical vision to life,” Glawe said.
Chakraborty feels much of Tagore’s poems and songs remain relevant today.
“With the involvement of the diverse student body of Pioneer High School, we are already on our way to bringing Tagore to the world,” Banerjee said.