Most Bengalis are aware that Tagore was inspired by old English, Scottish and Irish tunes in his youth - the poet admitted as much himself. Such songs are termed bilāti-bhāngā gān. Tagore went to England at the impressionable age of seventeen, and heard the tunes of Irish melodies and Scottish reels. He returned full of high spirits and began composing songs for the evening entertainments that were a regular feature of his ancestral home; and many of these songs were inspired by his musical experiences abroad.
Tagore first used bilati airs immediately after his return from England in 1881 in the musical Vālmīki Pratibhā which narrates the metamorphosis of Ratnākar, a formidable bandit king, to Vālmīki, legendary poet-sage who wrote the Rāmāyaņa. Of this work, Tagore himself said `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 was 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 modes to the service of the drama has proved neither derogatory nor futile.' Many of the tunes of this play were composed by Rabindranath's brother Jyotirindra. Two of the songs in the play were set to `English' tunes, viz. `Nancy Lee' by Michael Maybrick (who composed as Stephen Adams) and `John Peel'. `Nancy Lee', a rousing sea shanty in the original, metamorphosed to an invocation to the Goddess Kālī that the bandits sing in the forest in Tagore’s version.`D'you ken John Peel', a popular hunting song, has been surmised to inspire the song ‘tobé āy shobé āy’, of Valmiki Pratibha, which is similar in both melody and spirit.
Soon after this, Tagore stopped using bilāti tunes in his songs. Instead, the stream of ideas trickled underground, to emerge in his mature years in his great song offerings in the Gitanjali. Tagore's poems and music managed to break free of the rigidities of the classical Indian forms and achieved a brilliant fusion of both Indian and western sensibilities, and made him the Gurudev that we commemorate today.
This post is by Srovonti Basu Bandopadhyay. Srobonti is an accomplished Rabindra Sangeet singer. We hope to see her, her husband Arindam, and their friends, perform these songs one of these days. Incidentally, Srovonti is Rahul's cousin. -Neelima.