Gulzar is no stranger to Rabindranath Tagore. While assisting director Hemen Gupta on the film Kabuliwala (1961), based on Tagore’s story, Gulzar wrote the lyrics of Ganga Aaye Kahan Se, which was set to the tune of an east Bengal bhatyali (boatman) folk composition by Salil Chowdhury. Gulzar’s obsession with all things Bengali began to take shape, from the use of melodies to films inspired by Bengali writers and filmmakers. His marriage to the actress Rakhee, whom he humorously referred to as his “bangalan” wife, turned the Sikh writer into a “half Bengali”, he said.
The non-film album Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore features seven songs based on Hindi translations of poems by Tagore. The indefatigable 82-year-old poet and filmmaker has written the lyrics for compositions by Shantanu Moitra and Shreya Ghoshal, all rendered by the singer Shaan.
A poem narrated by Gulzar forms a prelude to each song, leading to a composition that is inspired by Rabindra Sangeet in its use of minimal orchestration and emphasis on lyrics. In Singaar Ko Rehne Do, the excellent use of a shehnai and a stringed instrument on Ghoshal’s ethereal vocals reflects the semi-classical influence.
Main Wahi Hoon encapsulates a woman’s longing for her lover, accompanied by a Western-style chorus that echoes her sentiments. Shaan leads Main Ghoomta Hoon, in which Gulzar paints the imagery of a musk deer chasing its own scent. The jaunty melody has the tempo of a nursery rhyme, perfectly calibrated with flute and accordion interludes. The tune is similar to the popular Tagore song Praan Chaaye.
In O Sakhi Sun, Ghoshal is backed by South Indian orchestration, in which the use of the drums, mridangam and kanjira along with the percussion instrument morsing, adds a unique touch to the ethos of Rabindra Sangeet. The tune is a captivating fusion of distinct styles and sounds, ending on a piano waltz note.
Bujh Gaya Tha Kyun Diya has shades of Ala Amar Alo and Tu, the ghazal Moitra composed in Bobby Jasoos (2014). Shaan and Ghoshal switch to singing a stanza in Bengali towards the end of the track, lifting the melody as a bridge between languages.
In Maine Toh Kuch, the instruments take a backseat, allowing Ghoshal and Gulzar to recite. Gulzar marvels at Tagore’s verse, “Jhaag bhare bartan pe tumhare, haathon ke kade thay, khanakte rahe” (My bangles were clanging, producing music while cleaning your unwashed utensils). Ghoshal repeats the same lines in Bengali, creating a sublime effect to their utterances.
The tune of Do Behne is similar to Kya Khayaal Hai, a song on which Moitra collaborated with the Pakistan-based pop duo Zeb and Haniya for the MTV India television show The Dewarists (2011). The chorus harmonies work wonderfully on this track.
Moitra’s compositions sound alike because of his repeated use of the saat matra (seven beats) rhythm that is common to Hindustani classical music and Rabindra Sangeet. Gulzar has chosen the Tagore verses that are common to his own poetic references. The songs allude to a woman in waiting, a theme commonly found in the poetry of the Nobel laureate and in the imagery of Gulzar’s choice of words such as diya (lamp), paghdandi (narrow path), chand (moon), all evoking her loneliness in love.
Gulzar’s relationship with Tagore has been a lifelong affair. In 1991, Gulzar adapted Tagore’s short story Kshudhita Pashan (Hungry Stones) for his film Lekin, which has a haunting score by Hridayanath Mangeshkar. Earlier in 2016, Gulzar translated Tagore’s poems in a set of two books, Nindiya Chor and Baghban. Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore is a companion piece to the books.