Romancing the East

Prose and poetry get translated, films get dubbed and subtitled, even comic strips are published in different languages. But songs? They just get ripped off. What is it in the nature of music that doesn’t allow too many translations in acknowledged publications? Copyright laws can address only a

part of the question.

The thought might just have been on Pankaj Mullick’s mind when in the 1940s he set out to ‘popularise’ Rabindranath Tagore’s songs in Hindi and Sanskrit. The transliterations were strung along the original melodies and Mullick rendered them in his pitch-perfect, sonorous voice. Thanks to funds from HDFC’s Deepak Parekh, whose parents learnt from Mullick, the recordings were published in the late 1990s. Another set of translations were recorded in 1961 on the occasion of the poet’s birth centenary. Such efforts have made Tagore the most translated songwriter in India.

But contrary to expectations, when Viswa Bharati’s copyright on the songs ended in 2001 the new versions didn’t move far from the original words or tunes. Most of them – like ‘Pagla hawa’ in Anjan Dutta’s film Bong Connection – just sexed up the instrumental arrangements. Last year’s album ‘Jaya Hey’ gave us more of the same.

‘Romancing Tagore’ is a new experiment from Saregama, a company whose first factory (as Gramophone Company) was inaugurated by the poet.  Indira Varma has written Urdu nazms inspired by Tagore’s songs and Debajyoti Misra has set them to tune – also inspired by Tagore’s songs.

The I-know-my-Tagore Bengalis will demand to know exactly which song inspired which one in the album. They will have to told gently that though the inspirations may have been fast, their transpositions were loose at best. Or that’s what I thought at first.

The first verse – ‘Garmi ki woh thehri hui ek raat’ – keeps a studied distance. While it’s being recited by Varma, the piano at the back plays out ‘Akash bhora surjo taara’; but the poem isn’t a translation. Instead, it shadows some Tagoresque thoughts such as seeing one’s love reflected in nature. The following song is given flight by Shubha Mudgal, with whom Misra had collaborated spectacularly for Raincoat; it too goes on a bit about reflected love.

The closest correspondence in words and tune – producing the worst result musically – is between ‘Amar hiyar majhe’ (the only song in Bengali, sung by Kamalini Mukherjee) and ‘Maine tumko nahin paya’ (by Najam Sheraz of Pakistan, whose voice is capable of openness and volume like Mudgal’s).

You get the idea a tad too soon. The experiment works when the distance between Tagore and the Varma-Misra combine grows; it stumbles into pitfalls littered with corpses of earlier experiments when the gap closes. It’s not clear which direction this team is running.

Vidya/Bidya in Kolkata

If you have watched the film’s promo, you would know that Kahaani never promised to be anything but a feast of clichés on Kolkata. Once you have got that sorted, you might enjoy its music.

The first song stands for a whole star in the album’s rating. Usha Uthup rips into ‘Ami shotti bolchhi’ (‘I’m telling the truth’) with an affected enunciation she hasn’t shown even in 7 Khoon Maaf’s ‘Darrrling’. The frenzied gypsy rhythm is worthy of a corner-turning chase sequence. Vishal Dadlani’s words – ‘Aisa sheher jiska double role hai, chalti rehta hai phir bhi jaata kahin nahin’ – screams aloud the sentiment.

‘Piya tu kaahe rootha re’ is a Hindustani classical tune overridden with a classic rock heave-ho. And Javed Bashir is a Pakistani singer who can execute fast taans at high pitches, reminding you of Shafqat Amanat Ali.

The next song also reminds you of Shafqat, but for a different reason: KK’s ‘Kahaani’ runs a bit too close to Vishal-Shekhar’s winner for I Hate Luv Storys, ‘Bin tere’. The similarity becomes clearer when you hear Shreya Ghoshal’s brilliant acoustic reprisal of ‘Kahaani’.

And Amitabh Bachchan’s rendition of Tagore’s ‘Ekla cholo re’? Well, it wants me to go back to this column’s third para.

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