Tagore Songs: The Inner Spring and Outer Sources by Swapan Gupta

In the songs that Rabindranath Tagore composed, he assimilated many different classical ragas of India as well as melodies of the folk music of Bengal. He had a strong interest in Scottish, Irish and English popular songs, which he internalised and presented with unique Indian cultural inputs and personal feelings. His creations bear the stamp of his individuality while  retaining an affinity with the Western origin at the same time. 

Rabindranath (right) singing with Abanindranath Tagore.  Image credit: Ministry of Culture, Government of India
Rabindranath (right) singing with Abanindranath Tagore.
Image credit: Ministry of Culture, Government of India

Rabindranath Tagore wrote about 2500 lyrics and composed the tunes himself. The songs are divided into different categories according to subject matter in the Visva Bharati compilation called Geetabitan. The main categories are as follows: Puja (worship) and Swadesh (Patriotic) , Prem (Love) and  Prakriti (Nature).

The divisions, however, are for convenience’s sake and are not water-tight compartments since moods overlap. Sometimes love mingles with worship or nature, patriotism is tinged with spirituality, nature transcends physical existence. His songs are marked by an intense and subtle apprehension of nuances of mood and emotion expressed through appropriate concurrence of lyric and music.


Contemporary Relevance

Tagore’s songs are still popular and widely performed and taught. They are marked by a distinctive style and a reconfiguration of traditional genres and ragas. They have inspired poets and artists, and freedom fighters have embraced the noose singing his songs. There have been great singers, who have re-interpreted their feeling in sync with their own creative selves. To name a few stalwarts: Pankajkumar Mullick, Rajeswari Dutta, Santidev Ghosh, Subinoy Roy, Kanika Banerjee, Debabrata Biswas, Suchitra Mitra, Maya Sen, Hemanta Muhopadhyay, Chinmoy Chattopadhyay and others.

Tagore’s songs are still used in Bengali films and sung by contemporary artistes. It is, however, difficult to render the true colour of Tagore’s songs, if one does not have the required sensitivity and literary sensibility to not only appreciate but communicate the distinctive feeling of each song. Only a few performers succeed in doing this and mistake technical perfection for artistic finesse.


Western Inspiration and Eastern Sensibility

Tagore was a great assimilator of melodies and cultures, and whatever he imbibed from outer and other sources he transformed into something uniquely individual, Bengali, Indian.

Tagore’s career began in the days of India’s colonial modernity, when influences from the West were seeping in and crystallizing into a nationalism that was both homegrown and imported. But soon enough, in the hands of Tagore and his contemporaries, western cultural commodities transitioned into post-colonial modernity, when India started appropriating western culture and metamorphosing it, indigenizing it through local inputs. It should be added here that, in Tagore’s hands, even the local and the traditional, specifically his music, acquired a new aspect and heralded a new age.

Tagore was the world poet in more senses than one. Eclectic in his creation, he distilled the essence of the Bengali culture of both erstwhile East Bengal and West Bengal: the indigenous folk music and the music of the subalterns, the ‘bauls’ and boatmen.  Transcending the folds of organized religion, he attained a truly aesthetic religiosity distilled from the essence of the Vedas as well as his inner realization, which ultimately culminated in his ‘religion of man.’


Influences from the West

In his songs, Tagore culled influences of the West, especially England, Ireland and Scotland. Interest in western music was part of the Tagore family’s cultural tradition, and his grandfather Prince Dwarkanath Tagore personally cultivated this interest. Rabindranath, referring to western music, writes in his memoirs, ‘At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European  music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.’ This knowledge was deepened and widened by his first hand experience of the culture of the West that he acquired through his later wide-ranging travels.

During his early sojourn in England (his first visit was in 1878) he learnt western songs and even dance, attended concerts and operas and won the acclaim of friends by rendering English songs in his strong melodious tenor. Indira Devi Chaudhurani, in her book Rabindrasmriti (Memories of Rabindranath, p.14), remembers him singing popular English songs like ‘Won’t you tell me, Molly darling,’ ‘Darling you are growing old,’ ‘Good-bye, sweetheart good-bye’.

Just as he imbibed the classical music of his own land as well as the folk, so he adapted western music to his own compositions and created something that was uniquely individual. During his young days, referring to western music and comparing it to Indian, he would declare its comparative merits: he thought that it was more capable of expressing everyday human sentiments and that the tunes were more adaptive to a variety of realistic situations. He declared his inability to flex Indian melodies to serve the same purpose (Jibonsmriti, 114, Bengali year 1380).

This might be the reason why he modelled his early musical plays, Valmiki Prativa and Kalmrigaya, on western operas and why the tunes of many of the songs were reflections of Scottish, Irish and English songs, though the words were entirely different. He felt that the musical conversation introduced in opera required a different style than that of Indian melodies. Interestingly, these works became early incursions into intercultural performance, since the content was derived from indigenous mythological background, i.e. the Ramayana.

Even in songs, in which there was no borrowing of western tunes, he introduced a ‘chorus,’ which had been unknown in Bengali songs at the time. Indira Devi remembers accompanying her uncle Rabindranath on the piano, as the latter sang ‘In the gloaming’, Then you’ll remember me’, ‘Goodnight, goodnight beloved’, Swinburne’s ‘If,’ etc. He also used to sing the ‘Ave Maria’ accompanied by the piano and violin.


Orchestration and Variety of Moods

Tagore favoured experimentation with the system of harmonization of different strands of melody, thereby creating an orchestra effect for Bengali songs. This was also something new at the time, though nowadays it is more often applied to modern Bengali songs — though not always towards a successful aesthetic effect.

Tagore was also experimenting with well known Indian songs culled from various parts of the country. To these he would apply his own words, changing the feeling and rhythm, applying his own method of expression to traditional classical ragas. But he was always careful to match melody and rhythm to the sentiment. He would often demonstrate how the same tune could be used to express joy or sorrow by mere change of rhythm.

In two essays in 1881, he expressed the opinion that Indian classical music is too much bound by rules and unable to express the world of subtle, myriad, playfulness, dynamism and changefulness of moods and feelings (‘Sangiter Utpatti o Upojogita’ and ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). But in 1890, 16th Oct he wrote in Europe Jatrir Diary (The diary of a Traveller to Europe) that English songs are the melody of the human society, whereas our songs are that of the magnificent, indescribable sombre, sad melody of the universe.

Further, in a letter in 1894, he wrote that he is deeply affected by both European and Indian music. The first is the lively world of the day, whereas Indian music is the world of the night, pensive and somber in mood, the world of solitude. It transports us to the lonely detachment that lies at the root of eternity whereas European music nuances the eternal ups and downs of human destiny, the variety of human joys and sorrows.


Tagore in England 1878
Tagore in England 1878

British Tunes

Tagore had derived twelve songs directly from Scottish, English and Irish tunes from 1881 to 1888, and most of them were written to suit particular moments in his operas (Valmiki Prativa, Kalmrigaya, Mayar Khela). Only two were individual compositions, e.g. katabar bhebechhinu, purana shei diner katha.(based on ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’).

But after his second voyage to England at the age of 29 he was not as enthusiastic about direct adaptation of western tunes as he was at the age of 17, when he made the first voyage. The enthusiasm for opera also dwindled and he turned to introducing songs in his plays and created something unique. Assimilating the jatra tradition of his own Bengal, he created the dance drama which had elements of the western ballet though with a lot of difference.

Although the songs, in which he drew upon British tunes, are few in number (considering that he composed  2500 songs), his internalization of both western and Indian music gave his own melodies their unique individuality and richness. He contributed greatly towards the modernization of Indian lyrics, which were his own composition. Unlike in the case of Robert Burns and others, he also created the melodies drawing upon inner inspiration and outer sources.


Similarities and differences between original British songs and the Tagorean version

‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’

In 1885, Tagore composed ‘kotobar bhebechhilnu,’ using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyric.

Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different. Though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: ‘now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?’


‘Purano shei diner katha’

Also in 1885, Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘purano shei diner katha,’ on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). The Scottish is in dialect, the Bengali in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same.

Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that, even though Tagore adapts the tune of the western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of dola swing, banshi (flute) and bokuler tolay (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural inputs. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.


‘Phule phule dhole dhole’

Tagore’s ‘phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight.’ The first four lines of Tagore’s song evokes faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes,’ though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love.

In the Bengali, there is no hint of narrative, though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context, i.e. the opera Kalmrigaya. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something,’ intensified by the beauty of nature. In the context of the opera Kalmrigaya, the children of Valmiki’s ashram are singing the song while plucking flowers.


‘Shakalo phuralo’

‘Robin Adair’ is an Irish folksong of 1750, the lyric of which was written by Lady Caroline Kepple, and the tune was that of Carol Daly’s famous song ‘Eileen Aroon’. The inspiration behind Tagore’s ‘shakalo phuralo’ (all is ended) was Robin Adair. The original song is a lament for lost love. Robin Adair has deserted his beloved. Tagore adapted the sense without mentioning any names. As an independent lyric, the song appears to portray a sorrowful parting from the beloved. Yet in his opera Kalmrigaya, Tagore incorporated it in a different situation. It is the last song of the opera, in which the chorus mourns the death of the young son of the blind sage, whom King Dasharath, Ram’s father has killed, mistaking him for a deer. The tune, the tempo and the rhythm convey  the sentiment of intense sorrow.


‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’

Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was collected by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was based on ‘Maid of the Valley.’ Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ are based on these two lyrics. The former is an independent song, while the latter appears in his opera Mayar Khela. The sentiment of ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ is religious. The Shakespearean sonnet-like feeling of love that we have in the original is thus transformed, although the tune still matches the original. ‘Aha aji e basante’ expresses the sadness of parting from the beloved, conveys loneliness and is more in keeping with the essence of the original.


Change of Rhythms

Anuradha Pal Chaudhury drawing upon Santidev Ghosh opines that one major difference between western and Indian songs is that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Yet Tagore finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). This play with different rhythms might stem from his experimentation with western tunes, but could also be inspired by traditional kirtan songs, whose singers would have been aware of this technique.



Tagore adapted the tunes of three other British songs for operatic purposes viz. the English ballad Nancy Lee by Frederice Weatherly (1848-1933). The melody was composed by Stephen Adams (1844-1913) and rendered as kali kali bol re aaj in Tagore’s opera Valmiki Prativa. The ‘English hunting song’ by John Peele was rendered for the same opera as tobe aye sobe aye, ‘the British Grenadiers’ as tui aye re kachhe aye in Kalmrigaya and ‘The Vicar of Bray’ as oi dekhbi re bhai in Kalmrigaya.

A few other songs in the operas are supposed to be modelled on British melodies, e.g. ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ (Enechhi mora, enechhi mora in Kalmrigaya, and also a similar song in Valmiki Pratihba) and Auld Lang Syne (Kal sokale uthbo mora jabo nodir kule in Kalmrigaya). These renderings, however, are rooted to their narrative-dramatic context and do not have independent appeal.


Bibliographical Notes

Rabindranath Tagore, Jibonsmriti first published in Prabasi, Bhadra-Sravan,1328-1319, Bengali Year) 1911-12.

Rabindranath Tagore, Chhelebela (Childhood), Kolkata: Visva Bharati Granthan Bibhag, April, 1940.

Rabindranath Tagore, “Sangeet o Bhab” (Music and Feeling), Bharati, 1288 Bengali year, Jaishtha-Bhadra, (1881).

Basantakumar Chattopadhyay, Jyotirindranather Jibonsmriti ed. Prasantakumar Pal, Kolkata: Subarnarekha, 2002.

Indira Devi Chaudhurani, Rabindrasmriti, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati Granthan Bibhag, 1960.

Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, Jiboner Jharapata, Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, 2012.

Santidev Ghosh,  Rabindrasangeet, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2001.

Rabindrasangeet Miscellany, trans. Mohit Chakrabarty, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Co. 2006.

Anuradha Pal Chaudhury, Bilati Gaan Bhanga Rabindrasangeet, Kolkata: Subarnarekha, 2002.


[Note: The paper is a revised version of that presented at the ScoTS international conference on Tagore in May 2012 at the Edinburgh Napier University.]

Swapan Gupta
Swapan Gupta

Swapan Gupta is a renowned authority on Tagore songs and also a popular performer. He has been performing and teaching for the last forty-five years.