So, my Tagore recording began, the esraj and flute and sitar and piano churned out the great poet’s music from paradise, and I couldn’t hold back my tears in front of some unknown people sitting in the studio.
Embarrassing! Geez! I said. Then I thought, heck, so what, I’m not doing anything wrong! In fact, I’m doing it just right. This is exactly how it should be. Anything else would be disrespectful and phony.
Yeah. But that was later. Early in the morning, when it was quite unusually cold and foggy, I arrived right on time at the doorstep of the North Kolkata studio — only to find out that the local cable company already had dug a long trench off the concrete alley to repair some faulty fixtures underground; they said it would take at least a week to finish the work and cover up the trenches. Dirt and debris piled up on the two sides of the trench, and you’d have to walk like a rope walker over and along the hill, balancing yourself every step of the way to reach your destination.
Which meant that the musicians and their instruments would have to walk the entire length of the alley — about a quarter mile off the main road — to enter the studio; given some of these musicians and their instruments are very expensive and famous (and heavy too), they would not like it a lot. Great! I’m definitely in Kolkata now, it seemed.
My friend, brother and director of the entire recording project Alak Roychoudhury took me inside Jupiter Studio — a few ground-floor rooms remodeled and insulated out of an old-fashioned, half-dilapidated house on Beniatola Street — and to our surprise, we found out that the lead composer of my music accompaniment was already waiting, along with his chief hands. Astonishing! (And they always complained that Kolkata was sloppy and Bengalis didn’t know professionalism!)
Rahul Chatterjee — the young lead composer and an eminent sitar player — and I had a phone conversation a couple of nights before on some of the ideas I had for my Tagore singing. I found his thoughts on arranging Tagore music to be overlapping with mine. I was brimming with confidence; I was settled down with reassurance.
In a few minutes, defying Kolkata’s infamous lack of punctuality, all the musicians showed up right on time: the keyboard, tabla, percussion, sarod, and the flutist who was probably a teeanger (at least he looked like one — the second day, another noted flutist took his place). Alak whispered to me that the kid was now one of the top three flutists even in this culturally light-years-ahead city where you could find at least one famous musician almost on every other block. The tabla and percussion players, they said, were regular accompaniments to celebrity singers like Swagata Lakshmi Dasgupta and Ajoy Chakraborty. The keyboard player frequently worked on major TV shows.
Now, I was feeling a little bit…like…you know…nervous.
And then, the bespectacled, young, modest, I-mean-business-looking owner of the studio and digital sound-recordist-cum-editor Mintoo Babu took his seat at the console, and after a small message of greetings to me, Alak and the group, turned on his complex equipment.
Click…tick…tock…Click…tick…tock…the 3×3-Dadra…at a 148-clocked-speed…the electronic click to keep the perfection rhythm set off, the humble esraj player put his head down, and pulled his wow-bow across the strings; then, Rahul Chatterjee immediately assumed his commanding position on the floor of the studio, and Alak flipped the pages of his Swara-Bitaan (Tagore’s own musical scores) because he would initially dub the songs along with the tracking of the arranged accompaniment. It was decided that I’d rest my voice for the actual dubbing when the tracking would be all done. (That was in itself celebrity status for me).
It was decided that the first song would be Tagore’s “Amar je gaan tomar parash pabe…” (the song of mine that touches you). Alak, Rahul and I pre-selected twenty Tagore songs, out of which four would be ad lib. The rest were more structured based on various talas (beats): three-three-beat Dadra, four-four-beat Kerwa, three-four-beat Tewra, or six-six-beat Sashthi. You could of course exercise a small latitude of poetic freedom even in his more structured songs (and eek out a few unscored voice modulations), according to liberal exponents like the famous maestro Debabrata Biswas…or…me; however, there is major controversy and debate on that. Ask anyone in this Tagore-loving city.
So, here it is one more time. Now, my Tagore recording really began, the esraj and flute and sitar and piano churned out the great poet’s music from paradise, and I couldn’t hold back my tears in front of some unknown people sitting in the studio.
I have heard and sung these songs many times…practically since my childhood. But sitting here in this studio, with these fantastic musicians going out of their way to arrange and play the accompaniment for …ME (!)… so that I could sing my best possible rendition of Tagore music…and that it would be a lifetime privilege for someone like me who lives twelve thousand miles away from this city of art, music, culture, society and friends…who would die for a reason to die for art, music, culture, society and friends…but there’s no reason to do it over there…at least not for Tagore or Bangla language…and therefore, now it’s a pressure-cooker emotion ready to “explode” any time…
So, it “exploded.” But it was restrained, subdued, subtle. Because we had already been simmered, cooked and softened in Tagore. We could not be wild, extravagant and loud. We were not Bollywood or Hollywood. We were civilized and progressive and humane. We refuse kitsch. We embrace the soul.
Tears flew freely. I took a dip in that sacred river of emotion.
And then, I was ready to interpret and express the celestial music and message of Tagore…musically…with love…with great care…with respect…and passion.
Here’s my first song…I hope it touches you…
Click…tick…tock…Click…tick…tock…there begins a deep, voluminous, heart-wrenching orchestra with the deep tabla and soft percussion…the vibrant vibe off the keyboard…the essential chord off the esraj…rising up and above from the studio floor…filling up the air…completely overwhelming mysenses…
Oh God…how can I thank you for this moment!
(Now in Kolkata — the city of Tagore, Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Ram Mohan Ray, Derozio and Satyajit Ray)