Nevis viola player, Sagnick Mukherjee received support from our Directors’ Fund in 2020 to carry out a research project on Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Here, Sagnick writes about his findings so far.
Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, playwright, author, composer, artist, and educationist who reshaped the cultural landscape of South Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century as an exponent of the Bengali Renaissance. My aim for this project is to transcribe some of his music, study various recordings of his works, and further explore these musical ideas on violin.
Growing up in a Bengali household, I have always been surrounded by Rabindranath’s music. My musical studies began as a vocalist, studying Rabindrasangeet alongside the raags of the Hindustani classical tradition. As I continued my studies on violin and viola with Abraham Mazumder, I again had the chance to experience this music from a new perspective through his pioneering and inspiring work in the field of Rabindrasangeet in an orchestral setting.
Rabindranath drew inspiration from a spectacularly diverse range of sources – from Bengali folk music, devotional music, and Indian classical music to western classical music and Scottish ballads. His songs, numbering over 2000, are compiled in the Geetobitan – ‘garden of songs’. While the Geetobitan is primarily a compendium of the lyrics, the primary source of musical notations and performance directions is the Swarabitan – ‘garden of sound’, in 64 volumes. I have used this text as the source material for my transcriptions.
My first task was to listen to different recordings of Rabindranath’s songs that I had previously interacted with, in whatever capacity, in order to create a shortlist of songs that I would further explore in this project. In this shortlist, I wanted to represent the staggering variation of style, form, meter, mood, and theme of Rabindranath’s music, while ensuring that I can still connect with each song at a fundamental level. Based on the feedback from my project application for the Nevis Ensemble’s Directors’ Fund, I decided to focus my initial work on four songs from this shortlist as a pilot project.
I wanted my transcriptions to accurately represent all the information contained in the source without any interpretive influences. It was important to begin my own musical explorations on this material from a well-grounded starting point. Based on these transcriptions, I began to think about the composition/arrangement aspect of the project. The way in which I decided to explore the musical ideas in each song depends on the nature of the song and was largely established by trial and error. The resultant pieces are thus varied in approach and can be placed differently in the spectrum between a composition and an arrangement.
This working process has been recorded and discussed in detail in my commentary of the project.
A recording of one of the songs I recently finished working on is shared below – Shokatore oi kaandiche shokole (Listen to the cry of your children, father). Many thanks to Colin Barr for help with recording the audio.
The song uses a simple repeating musical idea (with changing graces and ornaments) to convey the message of the text over five verses. I decided to strip down this musical theme and model the piece in the form of a passacaglia – starting with the melody in the form of a quasi-bass line that gradually grows in intensity with each iteration. I was inspired by composers like Heinrich Biber who used this form to write for solo violin and whose music I have studied. The piece ends with a simplistic interpretation of Rabindranath’s original melody.
After some experimentation, I found the key of C major to best suit this song, however I wanted to make better use of the violin’s open resonances. I decided to experiment with various tuning systems, and ultimately settled on an open C scordatura with the D and A strings tuned down a tone to C and G respectively. Having the intervals of a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth on the open strings came with its own set of challenges and opportunities. The change in tension across the strings changed the position of certain intervals and made me think critically about tuning these while simultaneously allowing me to explore a range of new chordal and timbral possibilities.
Alongside the recording, I have also included the Bengali text accompanied by Rabindranath’s own English translation and other general information, presented in a format similar to that in my commentary.
Listening to, analysing, transcribing and playing these songs have helped me gain a deeper insight into Rabindranath’s music, while exploring these musical ideas on my instrument have given me a better understanding of the limitations and possibilities of the unaccompanied violin, from the perspective of a performer as well as an arranger and composer.
I have decided to continue pursuing this project at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with the aim of preparing these pieces for performance alongside recording these works and completing the commentary on my working process and observations.
I would like to convey my sincere gratitude to the Nevis Ensemble for supporting this project, without which this would not have been possible.