It is hard to overstate the place Rabindranath Tagore holds in the culture of India and especially, Bengal. It is akin to the place Goethe or Shakespeare hold in German and English culture. A reference point and fountainhead. The standard against which almost every cultural, artistic or philosophical effort is judged. In the case of Tagore and unlike the Bard, his influence extends to the sphere of morals and public etiquette with many Bengalis speaking of Tagore in the same terms others refer to their spiritual guru.

The "out of the blue" fashion in which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 (Gitanjali, the winning tome having been published only several months earlier) thrust him into the consciousness of the West like no other Asian to that point.  Gandhi was yet to seize the attention of the Empire. And the fact that Tagore’s political thought and writings were not entirely in sync with the nationalist cause probably did much to enhance his standing (at least in Britain) as an Indian worth admiring.

While Gitanjali remains highly admired in literary circles beyond India and Bangladesh, Western critical opinion of his later writings is more erratic.  But his poetry has never ceased to inspire musicians whether they render classic Rabindra sangeet or place it in more innovative and challenging contexts.

Let’s check out just a few wonderful adaptations from the Gitabitan (Tagore song book).

Megh Bolechhe Jabo Jabo
Arnob Chowdry

Arnob Chowdry from Bangladesh gives a contemporary update to one of Tagore’s most popular poems from his 2011 album of Tagore songs , Adheko Ghume. Chowdry’s simple piano chords ground the piece in a meditative space while creating space for his attractive voice to hold the listener’s attention the lyric.

The Cloud said to me, "I vanish"; the Night said, "I plunge into the fiery dawn."
The Pain said, "I remain in deep silence as his footprint."
"I die into the fulness," said my life to me.
The Earth said, "My lights kiss your thoughts every moment."
"The days pass," Love said, "but I wait for you."
Death said, "I ply the boat of your life across the sea."

Baajilo Kaharo Beena
Aguntuk (1991)

Aguntuk (The Stranger) was Satyajit Ray’s final film before his death in 1992. This interlude sung by Sromona Guhathakurta is a straight forward, unadorned rendition of Rabindra sangeet in the style revered by purists.  A truly wonderful rendering.

Oh where from springs this ethereal melody
That saturates my senses

Tagore poem
Olafur Arnalds

Iceland seems about as distant from Shanti Niketan as one can get without entering the stratosphere. But that rugged volcanic island has made a name for itself by producing a slew of off-beat musical groups and artists.  One such is Olafur Arnalds, pianist, composer and sometime collaborator with metal bands, whose musical sensibility straddles the boundaries of classical and popular.  In this lovely composition, a poem from Gitanjali is his inspiration.

Tumi Amay Dekechile Chutir Nimontrone
Zoe Rahman

Zoe Rahman and her brother Idris are Bengali-British siblings who make their much admired music (she on piano, he on sax) in the world of modern jazz.  Tagore was a polymath and intellectual rover, at times taking contrary positions to the conventional wisdom of the day.  And yet, he bequeathed to his admirers a body of poems and melodies that have become nearly canonised. Purists of Rabindra Sangeet stipulate how each verse is to be sung and which instruments are to be used. Deviation is not encouraged.  What, I wonder, would the great man have made of this beautiful interpretation of his work?

Gitanjali Chants (Tagore and Craig Hella-Johnson)
USF Chamber Singers

American composer Craig Hella-Johnson wrote this of Tagore: “All of the verse he writes is so beautifully shaped that it feels like it is already music simply when read aloud. I decided to follow the contour of his lines and wrote what I called 'modern plainsong chant' as to give his words the most space to express their own shapely essence.”  The Gitanjali Chants, here performed by the University of South Florida, are stunning. And take Tagore to a whole other realm that seems to transcend time and space, as if the essence of the poetry is in some way divine.

Ever in my heart have I sought thee with my songs
It was they who led me from door to door
And with them have I felt about me
Searching and touching my world