Place of Music in his Life

Music was an important part of Rabindranath’s education. The family music teacher, Vishnu Chakraborty, taught youngsters the common Bengali folk songs. He has described how he loved them:

Tabla drums
Tabla drums

“The modern custom is first to practice scales – sa-re-gama, etc., on the harmonium, and then to teach some simple Hindustani songs. But the wise supervisor who was then in charge of our studies understood that boyhood has its own childish needs, and that these simple Bengali words would come much more easily to Bengali children than Hindi speech.

Besides this the rhythm of this folk music defied all accompaniment by tabla. It danced itself into our very pulses. The experiment thus made showed that as a child learns his first enjoyment of literature from his mother’s nursery rhymes, he learns his first enjoyment of music also from the same source.


The harmonium, that bane of Indian music, was then not in vogue. I practiced my songs with my tambura resting on my shoulder and did not subject myself to the slavery of the keyboard.” [20]


For him, personally, Rabindranath’s song was unloosed from a young age by his brother Jyotirindranath. Jyotidada played the piano while composing tunes in various new styles, keeping his younger brother by his side as he did so. Rabindranath was given the task to match the tunes by setting words to them, right there! At the end of the day a mat and a pillow would be spread on the terrace for Bouthakrun and Jyotidada to come and sit. Jyotidada would draw the bow across his violin and Rabindranath would sing. [21]

We could take that as the beginning of his phenomenal ‘career’ as a composer and writer of well over a thousand songs. The one thing from his legacy that has enjoyed the most popularity in Bengal are his songs. His songs are known also across India and abroad. He himself wrote that his songs would outlive him longest.  This genre is known as Rabindrasangit or Rabindra-songs. His songs were also integral to the ‘life’ of his Santiniketan school and to his ideas of a creative and joyful education. It was a liberating force to him. In his conversation with Einstein he said,


“There is in human affairs an element of elasticity – some freedom within a small range, which is for the expression of our personality. It is like the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as in western music.”[22]


In composing the melodies for his songs he was influenced by all the forms of the Indian musical tradition, folk and the classical. These were baul, kirtan, Shyamasangit, kheyal, thumri, dhrupad. He was drawn to Carnatic music and also music from the other regions of India. He used the classical ragas freely but he did also accept some conventions.

He loved some Western music to which he was exposed in his early years in England, and used them in his melodies. The best explanation of what he was intending is there in his autobiographical notes on his musical drama Valmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki). He wrote,


“When I came back home [from England] I sang the Irish melodies I had learnt to my family. ‘What is the matter with Rabi’s voice?’ they exclaimed. ‘How funny and foreign it sounds!’ They even felt I spoke differently.


From this mixed cultivation of foreign and native melody was born Valmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki). The tunes in this musical drama are mostly Indian, but they have been dragged out of their classic dignity; that which soared in the sky has been taught to run on the earth. Those who have seen and heard it performed will, I trust, bear witness that the harnessing of Indian melodic tunes in the service of the drama has proved neither demeaning nor futile. This conjunction is the only special feature of Valmiki Pratibha. The pleasing task of loosening the chains on melodic forms and making them adaptable to a variety of treatment completely engrossed me.

Several of the songs of Valmiki Pratibha were set to tunes originally severely classical in mode; some of the tunes were composed by my brother Jyotirindra; a few were adapted from European sources. The telena style of Indian modes specially lends to dramatic purposes, and has been frequently utilized in this work. Two English tunes served form the drinking songs of the robber band, and an Irish melody for the lament of the wood-nymphs.

Valmiki Pratibha is not a composition which will bear being read. Its significance is lost if it not sung and acted. It is not what Europeans call an opera, but a small drama set to music. That is to say, it is not primarily a musical composition. Very few of the songs are important or attractive in themselves; they serve merely as the musical text of the play.


“Before I went to England we occasionally had gatherings of literary men in our house at which music, recitations were accompanied with light refreshments. After my return one more such gathering in our house at which music, recitations were accompanied with light refreshments.  [23]


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This article was written by Uma Das Gupta

Professor Uma Das Gupta is a historian and a renowned Tagore biographer. She is the author of many books and articles on Tagore. Some of the most recent are: Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2010;  Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013.