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Musings VII : On Music and Popular Taste

The other day, at our annual departmental farewell programme for the outgoing MA final semester students, Manoj Hansda’s song beckoning us away to the tea gardens of faraway Assam set the house on fire. The entire assembly, comprising students and teachers, spontaneously broke into a clap the moment they got a sense of the teasingly repetitive beat which ably bore that bare song along on its slender frame.

It woke me up, yet again, to our primal, enduring hunger for rhythm. Rhythm alone could explain the comparable spell cast by Santiniketan’s anthem of spring ‘খোল দ্বার খোল লাগল যে দোল’ on the day of Basantotsav. The endlessly repetitive singing of this choric melody of spring – not the most remarkable among Rabindranath’s spring songs – is functional: accompanying the long procession of dancers all the way to the venue designated for the next, equally predictable, routine of customary dance numbers from Gitabitan. Instead of sounding wearisome, however, the repetition creates a strangely incantatory effect, transporting the spectators flanking the route and even chance listeners from distant rooftops to Santiniketan’s yesteryear.  It manages to weave the past and the present in a trance-like eternity not unlike what I have heard devotees at the Jadavpur Ram Thakur Ashrama share daily, as they lend their voices to the kirtaniya’s rhapsodic frenzy. Revellers in Santiniketan and devotees at the Ashrama walk back to their everyday drudgery with a curious sense of happy connectedness.

Girindrasekhar Bose, the pioneer of psychoanalysis in colonial Bengal whom I have been reading lately, makes a profoundly relevant observation on the cathartic function of rhythm:

Rhythmic action is inhibited action. Whenever a motion is stopped and is only allowed to play within a limited sphere the activity tends to assume a rhythmic form. When we throw a stone, and it is unimpeded, it takes its usual course, but if the stone be attached to a piece of string it at once begins to oscillate in pendulum fashion. In the organic sphere also we find that inhibited action takes up a rhythmic mode of discharge, because it is only by this means that the stored up energy can be dissipated. The caged tiger walks to and fro … Rhythm in poetry belongs to this type. Poetry is capable of rousing up and discharging the most intense affect as it starts in the reader or in the listener a rhythmic activity.[1]

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