An Interview with Sahana Bajpaie
By Bhaswati Ghosh
Sahana Bajpaie is a leading name in the realm of Rabindrasangeet singers. Brought up and educated in Santiniketan, Sahana trained in Indian classical music and Rabindra Sangeet under Bijoy Sinha, Madhumita Roy, Chitra Roy, Shyamoli Bandopadhyay, Chandan Munshi and Mita Huq (Bangladesh) among others. She speaks to Bhaswati Ghosh.
Bhaswati Ghosh: You were raised in an environment where Tagore was a major presence. Tell us something about how he affected your formative years.
Sahana Bajpaie: It wasn’t any particular event that affected me. Since Santiketan is Rabindranath’s own creation, he is ubiquitous there: in the music, the dance, the plays, the scholarship. He seeped into my being while I was oblivious. I don’t recall having to actually do anything to get to know him while we were growing up. We didn’t have to look too far to find him. He was there. Every day. In everything we did.
BG: Despite his towering stature in Bengal, Tagore remains confined to a certain class or group of people. As a musician, how are you working on introducing Tagore to different audiences?
SB: I agree that his music does still remain largely confined to elites. I didn’t consciously start out to take his music to other audiences. What I did want to do was to set his words and music against a soundscape that was a bit more of my time; use instruments that would have a little more resonance with the younger people out there. I didn’t want to discard the instruments that traditionally accompanied Robi Thakur’s music either. The man himself liked to hear his songs sung a capella, or to the accompaniment of a single esraaj or piano – as he has stated numerous times in his book, Sangeet Shikhkha. He disliked the harmonium, but practically everyone sings his songs accompanied by that instrument these days. It’s as if the spirit of the music has lost out to the grim determination to hit all the right notes.
You see, Patha Bhaban, one of the schools in Santiniketan Rabindranath founded, taught us his music should be sung joyously. This style of singing practically all of his music in a funereal tempo, as if you’ve gone into a trance, is not what we were taught. We were taught to make a joyful noise, and that’s what I carry within me.
BG: You have been part of a young Bengali band. How did Tagore feature in that universe?
SB: Robi Thakur is omnipresent in our music. After my first album came out in 2007, many artists and bands have set his songs to a contemporary soundscape. Even before that, Kabir Suman sang ‘O go dukhojaganiya’ to the accompaniment of just his guitar. We sing for the joy of it. In West Bengal, the Rituparno Ghosh serial Gaaner Opaarey (2011-12) kindled a renewed interest in Rabindrasangeet, through the arrangements of Debojyoti Mishra and the interpretations of Samantak Sinha. I think the more people are introduced to the music and philosophy of Rabindranath, the better off the world will be, so we have to build on this momentum.
BG: What aspects of Rabindrasangeet are still open to exploration in your view? In this context, tell us a bit about your latest album.
SB: It is the soundscape that is still open to exploration. The notations are there for the interpreters to follow.
We have to be mindful of where a particular piece of music derives from. We have to be sensitive to the mood of the song, to the influences – either overt or subtle – that played on Robi Thakur’s mind when he composed his songs.
My new album, Ja Bolo Tai Bolo, came out in September 2015 from the Inreco label of Major 7th Music. Three of the songs in this album were arranged by three musicians from London. There’s an innate darkness in the song ‘Kar Milono Chao Birohee’; in the album, the song is accompanied by piano and clarinet in the jazz style. ‘Kee Gaabo Ami’ is framed by just a piano and an English flute. ‘Shokatorey Oi’ is a Brohmosangeet; you hear a church organ accompany it in your mind whenever you hear it, but we used western harmonies on it and accompanied it with cello and guitar.
Similarly, the inherent drama of the song ‘Jokhon Eshechhiley Ondhokaarey’ (from the play Shapmochon) is brought out by the chamber orchestra composition of Prabudhdha Banerjee. There’s a tension created by the conflicting moods of desperation and fulfillment in this song, which Prabudhdha has attempted to capture in the subtle turmoil of the soundscape. The title song ‘Ja Bolo Tai Bolo’ has been arranged like the Baul song it really is by Samantak Sinha. He has tried to capture the arrival of early autumn and the fragrance of the earth through this arrangement. Samantak’s use of mandolin in the song ‘O Je Maane Na Mana’ has brought out the ballad flavour that the song always had.
BG: You are a mother to a toddler. Do you have anything in mind to introduce Tagore to your child and other children?
SB: I don’t intend to do it. I will let her grow and be her own person. You can’t force these things on young people. They pick up their values and their sense of aesthetics from the environment they are brought up in. That is the way I grew up, too; nothing was forced on me. We hope our daughter will find her own identity this way, too.
Song from Sahana’s latest album, Ja Bolo Tai Bolo
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her website: bhaswatighosh.com.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.