Stylish and historic Hampstead was resplendent in history on Friday 10 July as the enclave’s famous Town Hall played host to a very special musical tribute to one of the area’s most famous visitors – the Bengali cultural icon Rabindranath Tagore.
The intimate evening marked the UK launch of ‘ANANT’, a compilation of songs first penned by Tagore – regarded as India’s greatest ever poet – translated into Hindi by arguably India’s greatest living poet Javed Akhtar, and brought to life through the voice of writer, filmmaker and singer Sangeeta Datta with music provided by the talented, London-based musician and composer Soumik Datta.
Two years in the making, ANANT is intended to take Tagore’s precious and much-loved ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ (“Tagore’s Songs”), which form an important part of Bengali culture, to a wider, global audience and coincides with Tagore’s Nobel Centenary.
In Akhtar’s masterful hands, the songs have retained their famously classical romanticism, evoked splendidly by Sangeeta Datta who is trained in the pure tradition of Rabindra Sangeet.
Speaking of the challenge of translating Tagore’s iconic poems, Javed Akhtar said: “The very idea of translating Tagore is intimidating because the name really overwhelms you. When you listen to his poetry carefully, even if you don’t know Bengali, the words overwhelm you in a very gentle manner, so much so that it is difficult to be certain if you would be able to translate that magic that is inherent in his poetry.
“And then when you come to the translation, when you understand what he is writing, then you realize he is saying the most heart-wrenching things in the simplest language. He’s not being ‘clever’ with words at all. He merely relates what he feels in the simplest manner and that simplicity is much more effective than any complicated or any intricate or ornate language. As a writer, I know that that simplicity is the most difficult to achieve”.
Soumik Datta – the gifted Sarod player best known for his ‘Circle of Sound’ compositions – was tasked with composing the music for ‘ANANT’.
For the unenviable task, Soumik signed up some of the best young musicians in London, including pianist Zoe Rahman and her clarinettist brother Idris and tabla player Sandy Man.
Akhtar paid tribute to the 31-year-old Soumik, saying the musician had opened up Tagore’s poetry to today’s generation whilst retaining the dignity and purity” of the poet’s words.
“With this project I couldn’t take the traditional route of just sitting down and imagining the compositions in my head and then writing it out as I would normally do. When I read the translations, something moved me in each song. And that feeling equated to a certain kind of sound or an instrument and I could feel it. So what I did was to bring all these amazing musicians together and unleashed them to try and get that energy on tape”, Soumik said.
The result is a wonderfully evocative amalgamation of 100-year-old poetry and classical and contemporary music styles.
Each song was preceded by a recitation – in English – of the original poem by a host of different well-known personalities, including the legendary actress and campaigner Shabana Azmi, storyteller Seema Anand, academic Mukulika Banerjee and the award-winning photographer Souvid Datta.
Here Javed Akhtar explain the challenge he faced translating Tagore’s iconic words.