Italian singer adds new facet to Rabindra Sangeet

New Delhi, Aug 21 (IANS) Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's music transcends geography and culture. For Italian singer Francesca Cassio, a blue-blooded Roman, it is both a passion and vocation.

New Delhi, Aug 21 (IANS) Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's music transcends geography and culture. For Italian singer Francesca Cassio, a blue-blooded Roman, it is both a passion and vocation.

Cassio received a resounding ovation at the India International Centre Tuesday evening for her rendition of Tagore's songs, Rabindra Sangeet, in English.

She sang to a packed house accompanied by pianist Ugo Bonessi.

Cassio, who grew up listening to her family playing the grand piano, fell in love with Tagore, his poetry and his music at the age of 15.

'I was always interested in India. I was an avid reader and had a copy of 'Gitanjali (The book that won Tagore the Nobel Prize). However, I came to know that Tagore was a musician at 15,' the tall brown-eyed singer told IANS. The singer is also an accomplished pianist.

The concert, 'Tagore's Songs of Love and Destiny', featured a collection of nine songs translated and specially transcribed for piano by Italian writer-translator-cum-musician Alain Danielou, who met the Nobel Laureate in 1932 at Santiniketan and struck a friendship.

The friendship was unique because it fulfilled the Nobel Laureate's dream of seeing his poetry being translated into English and French. And set to music on piano, an instrument that he loved.

Danielou, an Indophile, spent 15 years in Varanasi where he learnt to play the Rudra Veena and took the name of Shiva Saran. He also taught for several years at the Benaras Hindu University.

'Tagore believed that if a westerner had to sing his songs translated in European languages, it should be confined to the Lieder format - piano and vocals. There was a piano at Santiniketan on which Danielou played his music and Tagore listened to the songs before the scores were published. Tagore asked Danielou to teach in Santiniketan, but the writer-musician refused,' Cassio said.

The singer, who hails from a 2,000-year-old family of Roman nobles, trained in Indian classical musical genres of Dhrupad and Thumri under Rahim Fahimuddin Khan and Girija Devi.

She holds a doctorate in 'Women in Hindustani Music' from the Benaras Hindu University and is a student of Danielou's institute of Indian music in Venice, 'Fondazione Cini - The Institute For Comparative Musical Studies'.

Tagore, incidentally, is well known across Italy. 'We have several translations of his works in Italian but very few people know that he came to Italy in 1927 to meet Benito Mussolini,' Cassio said.

Clad in a gold-embroidered sari, Cassio looked every bit the Indian she is at heart. So did pianist Bonessi, attired in traditional Indian churidar-kurta.

According to Cassio, Tagore blended western classical music with the traditions of Dhrupad and the gentle approach of Thumri in his songs.

Explaining the influences, she said: 'Tagore was influenced by the 'Baiji (nautch girls)' music. They often visited his father's house to perform and he loved the Thumris (classical songs themed on love and moods) sung by them. The embellishments (the vocal resonance in his music) in his songs show. It is the only genre of music where the score follows the poetry. The singer has to understand the lyrics to sing it.'

Cassio's favourite Rabindra Sangeet is 'Jodi Prem Dilena Prane (If out Heart...)'. 'I love it because of the lyrics. They are so profound,' she said.

Cassio, who claims that her soul speaks the language of music, breaks out into a impromptu song: 'The Dusty Road, the Red Road, Winds Endless Away, Towards the Far Off Land Unknown'. And translates it in Bengali, the next moment: 'Gram chara oi ranga maatir poth, amar mon bhulai re...'.

'This is a song of the Baul, the wandering minstrels of Bengal. Tagore was deeply influenced by the Baul tradition and I love singing Baul songs,' she said.

The singer makes it a point to keep her voice natural while singing so that her operatic tenor does not creep in. 'I trained in opera too,' she adds.

Cassio decided to take up Rabindra Sangeet seriously in 2002, after listening to Reba Som, wife of Himachal Som, then India's ambassador to Italy. 'I even produced a collection of her Rabindra Sangeet in Italy,' said Cassio, who is also a lecturer of musicology and vocals at the Conservatory of Vicenza.

Her next concert is in Kolkata Aug 23. Then she goes to Santiniketan to research on the influence of Dhrupad and Thumri on Rabindra Sangeet on an honorary fellowship from the India International Centre.

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