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'Originality,' 'Authenticity,' and 'Experimentation': Understanding Tagore’s Music on YouTube

Posted by Ipsita Sengupta at Jul 27, 2015 04:05 AM |
This post by Ipsita Sengupta is part of the 'Studying Internets in India' series. In this essay, she explores the responses to various renditions of songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore available on YouTube and the questions they raise regarding online listening cultures and ideas of authorship of music.

 

Introduction

On typing “Rabindra Sangeet” on YouTube, one finds videos of the concerned Bengali songs in diverse visual and aural compositions. Just like for every other type of video that is put up on the site, as interesting as the videos may be, is the feedback they receive.

At the centre of this essay are such videos found on the social media platform YouTube, ones that play Rabindra Sangeet. Literally, “Songs of Rabindra(nath)”, this is a term used to identify poetic and musical pieces penned and composed in the late 19th- early 20th centuries by the Bengali writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore. The body of work has today become a genre among Indian music.

User-generated expression of YouTube makes it a medium with simultaneous individual and group dynamics. Apart from feedback as quantitative data through “Views”, “Likes” and “Dislikes”, the opinions of many users can be found in the “Comments” section.

Visuals of YouTube song videos of Rabindra Sangeet are diverse. So are renditions, with solitary or duet or band performances, and with varying rhythm and instrumental accompaniment. The set of comments below each video sometimes take the form of a conversation. Between applause and criticism, the latter is of special interest here.

Content of specific kinds seem to face disapproval: visual montages and stills from contemporary cinema, like images of urban youth, romance, longing. Some have shots of band performers and some, album cover images. Some of these renditions can be categorized as remixes because of their fast pace, bouncy vocals and electronic melody. The comments in question reflect and reveal hurt sentiments of people trying to preserve some kind of sanctity and authenticity of Rabindra Sangeet.

They state in different ways that the ethics of presenting the genre have been violated, via their notation and design; either by either makers of the film in the song’s incorporation, or by the way young pop stars have been placed in particular montages.

Here are some comments below to illustrate what audiences find wrong. The video is embedded below, followed by the comments posted on the video page.

 

  • What a rubbish song! Just remember please that Rabindra sangeet is not for Band musicians ! Please do not distort Rabindra sangeet. Only idiots will try to do so. Shame on you lot !
  • Unfortunately these band party can never be anything like that great man....hence they should stop making fun of his creation....
  • This song is from Shyama and I think that the innocent beauty of a young boy falling in love with a court dancer. The arrangement does not suit the lyrics.

 

 

  • Who has sung this? Started well, but after a while it changed the melody on its own. Only Bengalis are so indecent to change the work of the composer while performing. But otherwise, the voice is promising.

 

 

  • Robindra shongoter ijjot nosto kore dise... super dislike... (“They have destroyed the dignity of Rabindra Sangeet... super dislike...”)
  • Henshit! rock does not suit to melody and classics. Don't fusion "Sangeet"/ folk/patriotic songs.

 

 

  • Rabindra sangeet is usually better off with minimum instrumental accompaniment. That is why the Kishore Kumar version is more appealing. And the maestro Hemanta Mukherji used only a harmonium and tabla for most of his superb renditions.
  • Simply bogus. In Bengali... Shreya r nyaka voice just intolerable (“Shreya's coquettish voice just intolerable”).

 

 

  • some confused experiments with a song rendered by many exponents. This singer in his misguided modernism mostly misses the target.
  • bhalo lagche na shunte...Rabindra Nath er gaan er opor please bekar improvisation ta korben na...onar opor churi kachi ta nai ba chalalen... (“I am not enjoying listening to this... please do not do useless improvisations on Rabindranath's songs... do not use knives and scissors on him...)
  • … Tomra please originality maintain kore experiment koro … (...Could you please maintain originality while experimenting...)

 

 

  • ...Go listen to the original tagore score and then come here with some innovative posts, k?
  • Absolutely bogus. Very badly sung. Who the hell is the singer? It has Jhankar beats too!!! Who the hell is the music director? Shame that people of such low taste and caliber are directing Bengali movies nowadays. Maobadi der diye petano uchit eder (“They should be beaten up by the Maoists)!!!!!

 

 

  • THere should be a self imposing limit of Screwing rabindra sangeet.
  • F...king Indian Hindi speaking bas....ds

 

This is not to say that these voices reign supreme. The listeners who enjoy the works leave great appreciation and also debate with the naysayers. But here I am taking into account the criticism that the videos receive. They have turned out to be more descriptive than the appreciation, and because of this they open up a lot of questions. We observe them in the light of both the medium as well as some understanding of the artistic ideals Tagore aspired to in his lifetime. The complete list of URLs of videos with their comments is given in the bibliography.

 

The Poetic/Musical Works of Tagore and Technologies of Access

Tagore was born in 1858 in a wealthy landowning household in Bengal. In his growing up years, the household Jorasanko was a space where Western and Indian lifestyles and artistic developments coexisted. Besides his own training in musical performance, and education and cultural exposure abroad, he also grew up amidst the rich musical, literary and theatrical talent of his family members.

Tagore was impressed and inspired by all kinds of artists and musical styles, and traces of these are found in his compositions and lyrics- whether folk, the ritualistic Kirtan, the mystic Bauls of rural Bengal, or even songs native to the West. For example the Scottish song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ influenced ‘purano shei diner kotha’ and ‘Ye banks and braes’ inspired ‘phule phule dhole dhole’ (Som, 2009).

From a young age itself, the poet was uncomfortable with strict boundaries and rules, one of them being the tight-rope walk over Raaga-based notations and rhythm structures of Indian classical music. He did believe in the power of Raagas to evoke the emotion they were said to be designed for, and while placing his poetry in musical compositions, he based his tunes on Raagas depending on the mood of his verse. However, he would combine melodic characteristics of established Raagas very often- a common practice with artists resulting in “mishra”, or mixed Raagas. He even combined rhythms or Taalas, and designed new ones for his songs. He found the classical genre embellishments of Taan and Aalaap unnecessary and left them out. “He declared his songs to be his unabashed expression of modernity because in them he could escape adhering to any expected literary standard” (Som, 2009).

Tagore lived in an era when Indian classical music was being written down with notations which were intelligible to Western audiences. Though he put on paper notations for his own songs, it so happened sometimes that when he was asked to sing in a public gathering, he could not remember the exact composition he’d first created. He would improvise immediately and complete the performance successfully. There were also times when his students or family members would sing their own interpretation of his tunes. Though his contemplation on it was based on a personal judgment of how well they adapted what he'd taught and how talented they were, he realised that the other singer was “not a gramophone” and he’d have to “grant that artistic independence” (Som, 2009).

“The art with which he matched melody with each nuanced lyric or combined ragas and improvised novel musical expressions, made each song a gem to be discovered anew everytime it is sung” (ibid, 2009). We may admit this but through this thought we may also understand that every live vocal rendition is intangible, however much we stick to notations.

In the electronic age, however much we record a rendition on devices, it is stored as data taking up space. Data is a common form that text, visuals, and audio all take. Though some recordings of Tagore's voice can be found online, they are digital versions that have been converted from the analog. Besides the technical transition, today's listener is also accessing it through a device and not listening to him performing. Two dynamics could happen here: either his performances are immortalised by the technology which has collected the sound of his voice in the exact way he has performed them and audiences will form an idea of “authentic” or “original”. And the other is that the audience will understand that in his time, when his voice was recorded, effects like electronic disco beats had not been invented.

That way, the performances of Tagore's verses that we are witnessing on YouTube today are the tangible notations combining with fresh new thought processes and constantly changing music performance styles, and manifesting on a contemporary media space. It is beyond just a copy, as we will see later, and to put it in Tagore's own words, it is “not a gramophone”.

Perhaps the accompanying instruments that were recommended for the verses have been replaced in a particular video with other and/or newer sources of musical sound- like digital sound. And the visuals in the video were probably not what the author was familiar with in his lifetime- body language of human actors, their clothes, the cityscape, and the like. In the film clips and non-cinematic material of Rabindra Sangeet videos, contemporary visuals include digital copies of photographs of Tagore and his contemporaries that help us make sense of his era.

“Adapting Chion’s theorisation of Dolby sound, the aesthetics of the remix may be thought of not as a consequence of technical changes but rather as the way in which technology combines with different musics to create the remix” (Duggal, 2010). It's not that new technology like electronic beats happens to an old composition when time passes and corrupts it like fungus or dust, it is that one one applies new aesthetics to an older text to innovate.

Describing the prime place of music in the hierarchy of sound in the cultural history of the West, Kahn discussed the phobia of sound that was not “significant” (Kahn, 2003). For a long time, sounds that reproduced the world for us- such as ambient sounds or noise- and which came via machines instead of established musical instruments were not considered valid within music. His stand in this context was that “it would make more sense to experience artistic works in their own right, not how they might conform to gross categorical distinctions”.

Given the artistic spontaneity which Tagore believed in, and the changing technology, what do we mean when we say that Rabindra Sangeet is being “distorted”, or its dignity (“ijjot”) or “innocence” threatened? What is the misunderstood modern? What is this “original” missing from “experimentation”? Especially when the composer himself is not witness to the forms his songs are taking today, what is this imagination of the ideal performance that leads to the judgment that another type of performance is not acceptable?

Perhaps at this point we can also shine a tiny light on Tagore's beliefs in other spheres. “Nationalism” is a compilation of a series of lectures given around the world, which Tagore gave in the 1916-‘17. In the introduction to this compilation, Guha illustrates Tagore’s realisation that mindless boycotting of everything that the West introduced in India in the name of Swadeshi (which he used to support) was to throw out the baby with the bath water. Quoting a letter Tagore wrote to a friend in 1908, he writes, “ ‘I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live” ’ (Guha, 2009).

Soon after delivering these lectures in US and Japan, the Visva Bharati University was founded in December 1918. Tagore envisioned “a synthesis of the East and the West through a healthy intellectual and cultural interaction” (Som, 2009). Ironically, Visva Bharati, for over six decades after his death, held a copyright on Tagore’s work and assumed exclusive right of approval over song recordings of how notations were to be followed.

Surely it is not only due to a lack of understanding of Tagore's ideals that some renditions are marked as wrong? Many who don't appreciate the new versions may actually be well aware of his life story or beliefs. At various instances, the beats, the voice, the performers are targeted. Can we put a finger on the problem? Does it have something to do with the means of interaction of the medium? What is this search for the authentic or the correct? Is there a xenophobia of generational shifts in lifestyle - the opposition to a lifestyle because that is the “other” of a fantasy of tradition, it is not “high culture”? Because internet access transcends boundaries of class, education, and generation?

 

Mechanical Reproduction and Digital Media

In the early 20th century, when Tagore was writing his songs, in another part of the world political thinker Benjamin wrote in his timeless essay that when a work of art is mechanically reproduced, when there are only copies and the “original” in a particular place and space in history loses significance, its distribution boosts its “exhibition value” (Benjamin, 1936). “The work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.” The “social significance” (ibid.) of an art work increases with multiple reproductions of it reaching the masses because the ritual value of it goes down, and it becomes open to as much criticism as enjoyment or reverence.

On social media spaces this democracy is visible on the same page- such as the “Comments” discussion. The “aura” (ibid.) of the “original” Tagore cannot exist in the flux of digital reproductions and uploads of individual creations- how valid then is the fight over it? Or is it in fact a fear of losing in this flux a memory of something revered? Does that imagined revered have something to do with defining and maintaining a community identity in this passageway of a multitude of identities that is the internet?

One of the integral features of a social media space is the option of “sharing” the content, i.e., individuals transmit it further to other users. While YouTube’s Likes and Comments give the content a boost and analytics from YouTube automatically circulate this more “popular” content, individual users have a major role in the circulation of online content.

Besides directly sharing, they can take either the audio or visual aspects of a video piece, restructure or redesign the piece, creating as a result an all new video and circulating that. Through “appropriation and reproduction”, “the web in general, and the web video in particular intensify the culture of the copy, for it provides its users free access to an immense database of ready-to-use information” (Vanderbeeken, 2011).

Someone may download from elsewhere an audio composition used earlier in a video of “concentration music”, attach it to different visuals, and upload it back on YouTube under “relaxation music”. After all, as studies have found, the response to one’s online content through mechanisms such as “likes” give the author a sense of gratification and encourages him/her to keep checking notifications every few minutes- on various social media platforms.

In such a situation, “the original creator suddenly occupies the position of yet another spectator. Within this process, the role of transmitters is so important that they assume a vague position of authority over the works” (Menotti, 2011). Through its one on one connection with the spectator, each individual video exists as an independent entity subject to active, on the spot feedback as well as manipulation by every individual who watches it. And of course, circulation is in the hands of each viewer resulting in content originating as altogether new information.

At this juncture I would like to make an intervention using a formulation by Frith, about the fluid, transitional nature of identity. “It is in deciding- playing and hearing what sounds right- that we both express ourselves, our own sense of rightness, and suborn ourselves, lose ourselves, in an act of participation” (Frith, 1996).

Let us take for example, another type of video found on YouTube. Instrumental pieces of music with descriptions such as “music for concentration”, “study music”, and even “brain music”. If we break down the description along these lines, we have firstly, tunes of any kind and varying pace on string and wind instruments. Then colourful visuals of mostly natural landscapes, the human body, or graphical representations of the “mind”. The written word accompanies the frame, and each aspect combines to add meaning to the other two.

Just because the label says that the music will enhance concentration, does it always have that effect? Our everyday experiences with the audio-visual would have surely shown us that the design of a composition- both musical and cinematic- does not necessarily make everyone feel the same way. Moreover, the credibility of video descriptions is always subject to doubt, as discussed above.

We see thus that in case of online media, it holds true all the more that one acquires or asserts an identity in playing/listening to a performance of some sort of music and adding opinions below, as much as the performance or presentation itself. We can actually trace this to a perspective that a remixed video is a form of feedback too- to an earlier understanding of Rabindra-Sangeet by the maker who thought that the genre could be expressed this way as well. “The intrinsic relationship of ‘original’ to ‘imitation’ is weakened” (Vanderbeeken, 2011), and this is where digital media picks up from where analog technology left off.

In such an interaction, between human beings exchanging data with equal authorship over it, could YouTube be playing a role in the “production of the rhetoric of the classical and canonical” (Duggal, 2010) around a historical figure from eastern India, where some audio-visual images are acceptable to his definition and others not?

An older and a newer understanding of the same cultural object co-exist on one space such as the standardised video frames of YouTube. Alongside Tagore's voice are those of Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, Jayati Chakraborty, Shreya Ghoshal, and many others. A sense of the “original” exists beyond Tagore's voice because everybody has not sung it fast- if its rules were to go slow. And if somebody wants to give a tribute to Rabindra Sangeet by pepping it up, he/she obviously must not have meant to “ruin” it.

Is it the anonymity of the Comments space which makes the discussions the way they are? Because one cannot see the person who has uploaded it and is confident that what they were taught was the only truth- the uploader/ content creator probably comes across as an imposter.

But maybe this search for the “correct” rendition is a search for political correctness in a world densely connected through information technology, where one's identity through a databank of online searches does not belong just to oneself but to corporations and advertisers too. Could there also be people who believe that the very act of having Rabindra Sangeet online is a mismatch of the authentic Tagore experience- because the internet is not from his time or geographical location?

 

Conclusion

As described earlier, when Tagore composed his music largely based on the notational arrangements prescribed by Raagas, he removed what he determined were complications of the indigenous classical music system. What he retained were what he comprehended as the moods evoked by particular Raagas, and engineered several songs on selected rules of different Raagas. In the process, he created a genre which those who were not fortunate enough to get formal training in the classical grammar of music could sing and engage in.

From the point of view of pure classical renditions being “high art”, Rabindra Sangeet thus could not fit into that umbrella. But it was popular and regarded because it spoke to the people, as a result of which it is still given a special place in collective memory after 100 years. Thus we see that “in terms of aesthetic process there is no real difference between high and low music” (Frith, 1996).

Social media exposes today that musical spontaneity has constraints in the collective memory of forms. Proving at the same time that music truly cannot be contained- since it has such diverse imaginations of the “real” at a time when the author is not alive any more. Tagore was “comfortable in the knowledge that his songs were like wild flowers” (Som, 2009), drawing from natural landscapes and human emotions. Is YouTube telling us that in this century, some consumers of his music might be narrowing down definitions of “significant sound” to identity politics around a literary figure and his homeland? Or simply trying to hold on to something familiar in an ever changing zone, resisting- perhaps unconsciously- an attempt by others to reinterpret it through their reality or sense of beauty?

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Schocken/Random House, 2005. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

Duggal, Vebhuti. The Hindi Film Song Remix: Memory, History, Affect. Diss. Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2010.

Frith, Simon. “Music and Identity”. Questions of Cultural Identity. Eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay. Sage Publications, 1996.

Guha, Ramachandra. Introduction. Nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore. Penguin Books, 2009.

Kahn, Douglas. “The Sound of Music”. The Auditory Culture Reader. Eds. Michael Bull and Les Black. Berg Publishers, 2003.

Menotti, Gabriel. “Objets Propages: The Internet Video as an Audiovisual Format”. Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond YouTube. Eds. Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles. INC Reader #6, 2011.

Som, Reba. Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and his Song. Penguin Books India, 2009.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Nationalism. Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1918.

Vanderbeeken, Robrecht. “Web Video and the Screen as a Mediator and Generator of Reality”. Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond YouTube. Eds. Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles. INC Reader #6, 2011.

 

The post is published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.

 

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