- Think Rabindranath Tagore. Think Rabrindra Sangeet. And you inevitably think Shama Rahman. As the year of celebrating Tagore continues, this Bangladeshi singer, who has a deep understanding of Tagore’s lyrics and tunes, has paid a rich tribute to the master writer, poet, composer and artist. In collaboration with UNESCO, Rahman has produced a nine-CD album – five audio albums of Gurudev’s songs on Prem (love), Prokriti (nature), Puja (devotion), Swadesh (patriotism) and Bichitra (diverse), and four that commemorate the 100 years of the publication of ‘Gitanjali’.
For her five audio albums Rahman chose to sing the ‘Gitabitan’. She says, “In my pursuit of Rabindra Sangeet I find the lyrics of ‘Gitabitan’ to be the most versatile. In it are compositions of every genre, although the poet himself had based them on the broad categories of Puja, Bichitra, Saundarya, and so on. I can express my innermost feelings through the words in this volume.”
It wasn’t easy travelling frequently betweenDhakaand Kolkata – where the album was recorded, or spending over 10 hours every day inside a recording studio, but she did it because she wanted to do something special for aficionados of Tagore’s music.
Of course, if Rahman on CD is a treat to the ears, Rahman ‘live in concert’ is another experience altogether. Best loved for her absorbing performances, at a recent concert inNew Delhishe enthralled everyone with her innovative style and her interactive approach. For instance, surprising everyone present, instead of starting off with a traditional ‘puja’ (devotional) number, Rahman chose to render the love song, ‘Sheyee bhaalo…’. She invested each word with poignancy as she sang in a slow-flowing style – and that too sans a fixed rhythmic beat – so that the pathos of the lyrics was conveyed perfectly. Her performance covered all of Tagore’s genres, including the tappa-oriented compositions, raga-based ones and, of course, his nature poetry, particularly the number, ‘Megher parey megh jomechey’ that he composed at his family estate at Shilaidaha inBangladeshwhile monsoon clouds were gathering slowly in the sky.
As the evening grew, Rahman was inundated with requests from the audience, which she readily responded to, much to the delight of everyone present. Of course, thehigh pointof the concert was when she was coaxed into singing ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, theBangladeshnational anthem, even as the crowd readily joined in.
But it’s not just inIndia, Rahman has captivated audiences across the world. She says, “The words and tune are Tagore’s but I deliver them as my own. I find great ‘ananda’ (happiness) in singing, even if the song is about ‘viraha’ (estrangement). Prior to a concert, I prepare a rough list of numbers that I will sing, but as the mood sets in I find myself going with the flow and according to requests from the audience. That makes it an enjoyable experience for all.”
Today, Rahman is a performer par excellence, but she has got to this point only after years of ‘riyaaz’ (practice), under some of the best gurus. She began training in this genre from an early age. Initially, she learnt classical music, more specifically the ‘khayal’ style, at home under the supervision of the late Ustad Fazlul Huq. Later, she studied music at Chhayanat, the well-known cultural organisation inDhakafor two years. Finally, she trained at the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA),Dhaka, under the late Atiqul Islam for five years. Four decades after her first training session, Rahman brought out her first album, ‘Lukale Boli’ in 1997. Four more albums have followed over the years. Says Rahman, “I heard my first Tagore songs as a child. Even today, I read the Gitabitan every day so that the words and tune are meticulously imbibed. You can now say that I literally breathe Tagore and feel that he had written those songs especially for me!”
Rahman may have grown up listening to the legends of Tagore songs – according to her she used to listen to Dwijen Mukherjee, Konika Banerjee, Debobrato Biswas and others – but she has evolved a distinct style of her own. “For a while I was influenced by these personalities. But I eventually built up my own style of singing. I think every artiste has this in them and the original style comes out at one time or the other,” she says.
To make sure she gives her best each time, Rahman, a mother of two, is particular about the musical accompaniments in her entourage. Although she plays the harmonium herself, she has a tabla ‘ustad’ (maestro), who plays the conventional beat as well as simulates the sounds of the khol, a high-pitched earthen drum accompaniment that is popular with the kirtan-based melodies of the Vaishnava sect. Of course, modern instruments too make their presence felt, with the keyboard providing melody and volume to vocal rendition. However, the star in her orchestra is the nearly-forgotten string instrument, the esraj.
There are not many esraj exponents nowadays, so for theDelhiconcert, esrajist Shubhayo Sen-Majumdar joined her since he is familiar with her timbre and musical strengths and has accompanied her on several tours. Says Rahman, “The esraj is enough for me. I can fathom all the moods of the song through it. Many a time, other instruments seem to ‘disturb’ me and I’m not able to feel Tagore’s songs.”
In fact, she is always reluctant to end her concerts. As she put it during herDelhiconcert, “I feel I could sing Tagore all night for you.” That’s vintage Rahman for you.
For Rahman, Tagore is an ever-present reality, and she believes there is “a bit of Tagore in all our lives”. As she had once put it, “When I am happy, sad or in trouble, I take shelter in Rabindranath. I like to share that experience with people… [And] the response I get from my audience is my greatest reward.”
(© Women’s Feature Service)