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No Holds Bard

Isheeta Ganguly’s forthcoming album gives a jazz-electronica-loungy twist to Tagore’s tunes

Shamik Bag Jan 19, 2009
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“Tagore could well have been a New Yorker,” says Isheeta Ganguly as she sips on her cold coffee at a swanky south Kolkata outlet of a café chain.

It was in the US that Ganguly, who juggles between the two careers of singing and management consulting, first realised the full import of Tagore’s writing and her own standing in relation to the Nobel Laureate’s music. “Those songs represented home to me,” recounts the 34-year-old singer of the days when, as a teenager, she was grappling with broken, Anglicised Bengali and a dilemma in cultural identities.

When Ganguly’s tentatively titled album Damaru: I Feel Your Rhythm releases this year on Times Music, it will, in many ways, address the intellectual quandary she had to contend with as a second-generation Indian immigrant in the US marked often as an American. Her Bengali, though, continues to bear broad hints of her Western upbringing. “The album will speak of my journey; the flux between worlds.”

Damaru, a seven-song, multi-lingual (it’s got songs in English, Hindi and Bengali) “Tagore fusion” album, asserts Ganguly, is a tie-up of her musical worlds and cultural contexts – jazz, gospel, pop, R&B, Billie Holiday, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Sade and Sarah McLachlan at one end and Rabindrasangeet, the 2000-plus body of songs left behind by Tagore, at the other. The album has been created in active collaboration with percussionist Tanmoy Bose, Bollywood music director Santanu Moitra and New York-based producer Phil Levy. The latter two, especially, have drafted in elements of lounge, hip-hop and electronica into songs that are either spiritual or musical lift-offs from Tagore’s compositions. “It expresses Rabindrasangeet in a new language, which is essentially my language,” says Ganguly, who has also done the English translations of the songs.

Ganguly had already established her footing as a Rabindrasangeet singer with seven albums to her credit – the latest being The Light of the Way released on Saregama in 2008 – and her previous efforts “conformed to the traditional Rabindrasangeet style”. The shift towards giving a contemporary twist to Tagore’s music was a result of her collaboration in 2001 in the US with Jonathan Hollander and the Battery Dance Company when Rabindrasangeet was rendered to the troupe’s ballet performances. “I was amazed to see Tagore’s songs adapting so well to ballet and vice versa. It opened my mind.” More experiments followed, including an Indo-American Arts Council event where Ganguly weaved in the Indian national anthem, Tagore’s ”˜Jana Gana Mana’ with ”˜God Bless America’ and ”˜Star Spangled Banner’ in front of an involved audience that included Harry Belafonte and Martin Scorsese. This led to her working with danseuse Mallika Sarabhai on a piece where Ganguly knitted a Tagore song with a Maya Angelou poem. “I got an inkling of Tagore’s universal appeal. And felt the need to introduce his music to a wider audience.”

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At the Kolkata studio where Tanmoy Bose is busy laying out instrumental tracks on a Tagore tune blended with a Senegalese folk song, the mood is tinctured heavily with anxious energy. ”˜Heartdance’ is the last of the three tracks that Bose, a multi-percussionist who has firmed his reputation as a tabla player accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Amjad Ali and with his fusion outfit Taal Tantra, is arranging for the album. While in ”˜Riversong,’ based on the bard’s ”˜Ebar Tor Mora Gangye,’ guitarist Sumith Ramachandran has lent a lush jazz-bossa nova feel, in ”˜I Feel your Rhythm,’ the saxophone dominates over the song that has been stretched languorously over the original.

In its utmost traditional sense, Rabindrasangeet is best rendered using sitar, sarod, khol, harmonium and tabla, where skin instruments work within laid down time signatures and string instruments strictly follow the vocal melody. When Viswa Bharati, the university founded by Tagore in Santiniketan, held the copyright over the songs, anyone wanting to record Tagore’s songs had to pass through the authorities’ scanner. During the copyright days, each song had to carefully conform to the original scansion, phrasing, pronunciation, mood, melody and arrangement if it stood a chance of being cleared. One of the most popular Rabindrasangeet singers from the copyright era, Debabrata Biswas, was even prohibited from further recording by the copyright custodians for letting the songs stray from the rigid rules. In neighbouring Bangladesh, which shares Bengal’s sense of reverence towards Tagore, former vocalist of rock band Feedback Maqsoodul Haque faced widespread censure and condemnation from cultural purists when he used jazz-rock progressions to sing a Tagore song in 1999. Incidentally, on both sides of the border, Tagore is unanimously acknowledged as a Biswa Kobi (Global Poet). The copyright restrictions were lifted in 2001, allowing free use of Tagore’s tunes by musicians. “The whole copyright issue made an icon of Tagore,” says Ganguly, who is also a long-time student of Suchitra Mitra, an influential exponent of Rabindrasangeet. “It has led to an oppressive atmosphere and made Rabindrasangeet unsexy for young audiences.”

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At the recording, Deboprasad Dey, a veteran esraj player on Rabindrasangeet records, is struggling – he is expected to play a distinct solo that doesn’t imitate ”˜Heartdance’s’ (based on a popular Tagore song, ”˜Mama Chitthe’) melodic line while being in sync with an African tribal rhythmic pattern designed by Bose. “You can’t blame him [Dey] for he is used to playing Rabindrasangeet differently,” says Ashish Das, the keyboardist at the recording who remembers organisers turning him away from a Rabindrasangeet concert once for bringing a keyboard along. “Isheeta, you’ll be far away in America while we’ll have to face the music here,” Bose quips as the tribal rhythm plays out from the studio’s speakers. “I think Tagore was more contemporary than all of us,” he adds. “He was influenced by European music and his compositions had scope for harmonic structures. That is why I haven’t tampered with the songs, merely designed around them. For some, the album might seem apocalyptic, but as musicians we have to do what we have to do.”

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