Music of the Muses – Brahmo Sangeet From Raja Rammohan to Tagore

Last evening I attended a lecture demonstration by Srenanda Mukherjee organized by Sohini tracing out the path of the Brahmo sangeet from Raja Rammohan Roy to Rabindranath Tagore (The vowel in Brahmo being pronounced as the O in oval). Brahmo sangeet turned out into a genre of its own imbibing the Indian classical, the western classical and a variety of Indian folk, all contained within an assemblage of diverse religions into the meditation upon the Transcendental Formless God. With such a diversity in the grand unity of the Brahmo Samaj its music started attracting some of the best musical talents in the country. The startling fact is that most musicians were commendable philosophers and vice versa. Such a development has a lot to say about the importance of music in times such as the early 19th century.

Brahmo Samaj was started by Raja Rammohan Roy and a few others in the early 19th century and clearly music was at the very foundation of its praxis. Rammohan was trained by Kali Mirza for tappa and Vishnu Chakravarty in Dhrupad both of which he combined in his various songs. In the samples played at the lecture venue I fancied that the Brahmo music had already assumed the form of the modern song, which is amenable to the notation and instrumental accompaniment with a prelude. The other interesting feature is the chorus, a feature introduced most probably by the Marathas, for the Peshwas introduced the chorus in the Dhrupad.

The Brahmo Samaj attracted the best minds in Bengal and the best musicians as well, Jadunath Bhattacharya, better known as Jadu Bhatta, Ramgati Bandopadhyay, Bipin Chandra Pal and others and later Jagdish Chandra Bose, were deeply involved with the Brahmo music. Ramkrishna Paramhansa who represented almost a parallel worship of the Transcendental One, albeit with Kali’s image at the centre, too was in the same line of thought that all paths led only to the deep contemplation of the one who defies any form.

Maharshi Debendranath brought in two very interesting inputs into the Brahmo Sangeet, one is the poetry of Hafez, the Sufi Saint and Sanskrit hymns from the Vedas. Combined with these was the chorus and later when Jyotirindranath introduced the piano, a much greater level of harmony was possible into the Brahmo music. These made the music sound more officious and ecclesiastical. The role of the Tagore family was enormous in enriching the lyrics. While there were many talented lyricists outside the Tagore’s, most were sidelined because the Tagore’s documented and published their work with greater zeal.

It seems that the Brahmo prayers and the Maghotsav became very important events in the life of Calcutta for not only the songs were new and unique but also because these became opportunities for the people to hear women sing. It seems that a small time zamindar, Kalinarayan Gupta from Kushtiya, the same place as the one where Lallon Phakir was born and now in Bangladesh overheard unsavoury stuff about the Brahmo Samaj and desiring to verify the facts for himself trudged over to a prayer meeting. He became a devout Brahmo and introduced an entirely new trend in the music by merging with the rising harmony and the notations, the folk as in the bhatiyali and even the Panchali. This tradition continued his grandson, the renowned Atul Prasad Sen. Soon Harinath Majumdar who led a group called the Kangal Phikirs, a name taken after their guru Phikirchand, the baul became an important constituent of the Brahmo Sangeet.

Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, a photographer, children’s fiction writer, also wrote prolifically on music. Satyajit Ray’s command over music especially the technology that produces and records music seems to be a remarkable legacy from his grandfather but also from the long trend of the Brahmo sangeet.

Yet another watershed moment is perhaps Manomohan Chakravarty who spread the Brahmo Samaj into Bihar and Assam. As the Brahmo Samaj becomes more cosmopolitan, it starts absorbing features from the rest of India like the bhajans of Mira, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Surdas and other medieval Bhakti saints. Rajanikanth Sen and Atulprasad Sen seem to be masters at the punched and remixed heavy metal music.

Keshab Chandra Sen brought into the nagarsankirtan, which was tried to replicate the kirtan sung in a group that went in a procession, often turning rowdy through the streets of Nabadwip. Keshab Sen’s penchant for the kirtan, raised into almost a kind of a street procession is indeed both a musical as well as a political transformation of the song.

Most of the above mentioned musicians were excellent composers as well as accomplished players on the sitar, esraj, flute and pakhwaj. The pakhwaj seems to have played the key role in raising the essential Dhrupad into the chorus and in creating the harmony. The flute has mellowed the formal attire of the song into absorbing the lilt of the bhatiyali. It is quite another matter that these musicians were also writers, philosophers, mathematicians, linguists and perhaps this was why also theorists of music.

It is evident that Tagore has drawn enormously from the music of the Brahmomsangeet which he has refined to emerge into an entire genre of its own. He has exhausted almost every strain of the tunes composed and turned them into his own through mixes and modifications.

Two kinds of music quickly followed the Brahmosangeet in the early 20th century and those were the nationalist music of Charankobi Mukundadas, D L Ray and Rajanikanta Sen and the other was the film music totally dominated by a different class of musicians but working in the same format of the modern song, mixing Indian and western classical and the various strains of the folk. Interestingly, in the film music, the instruments in the background changed overwhelmingly to the tabla, harmonium, piano,accordion,sitar, sarod, violin, flute, saxophone, that is to say the pakhwaj, high was the centrepiece of Brahmo sangeet almost disappeared. The change could be due to the sound system in the film, a recorded medium.

We now return where we left, namely to understand how and why music became so important for the Renascent sensibilities of the Bengali society? Did everyone respond equally to the Brahmosnageet, or what is the same thing, was its popularity unalloyed? Does music have a deep connection with proselytisation of a new religion, which the Brahmo movement wanted to perpetuate? Actually, the assimilative character of the Brahmo Sangeet became the assimilative character of the National Movement when the nation was conceptualized as a unity of diverse cultures and legacies composed of many religions, creeds and belief and languages. There was also a deep need to absorb the West in order to modernize archaic religious systems that ran contrary to human freedom. The politics of the Bengal Renaissance that underlay the Freedom Movement and eventually went into the essence of the Constitution of India was a search for a liberated individual, free to pursue creativity and in the process absorb the others into a composite idea of the self. Brahmosangeet is an expression of this spirit, music represents its supralinguality, or what is the same thing, the transcendental thought.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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