“To-bu mon-eh re-kho,” wrote young Rabindranath Tagore, revolutionary poet and powerful influence of the early Bengali Renaissance. Written in 1887, three years after the passing of his closest friend and sister-in-law Kadambari, Tagore’s words roughly translates to “Remember me, still,” voicing Kadambari’s ubiquitous presence in his infamous grief hallucinations. Tagore couples his somber poem with a twisted, cryptic melody that together, forms one hauntingly beautiful monument of Bengali culture and music. The song is revered as one of Tagore’s masterpieces in his personal genre of musical romanticism, Rabindra Sangeet.
When my father first asked me to sing “Tobu Mone Rekho,” for my great uncle’s funeral, I had no understanding of the gravity of Tagore’s composition. Although I can speak Bengali fluently, the language in the poem exceeded my capacity for interpretation, with its coy metaphors and doleful subtext. What I could offer was merely learning the melody by ear, singing the text with an acceptable accent, and grasping the melancholy nature of the funeral at which I was performing. At the time, I did not know the historical background of the words or its implications on Tagore’s life, and so, to find the moments that I needed to emote, I employed an often overlooked, but crucial facet of the composition – the phonetics of its lyrics. I intuitively knew that where the hard consonants, such as the ck’s, fell, I was to shorten the note, and long vowels of u and o signified unwritten fermatas, or held-out notes for as long as felt appropriate. Through understanding the phonetics and how it intertwined with the melody, I could infer the structural features that often denote emotion in music, such as the tempo and amplitude or emphasis of the sound. Literal comprehension of Tagore’s poem seemed unnecessary, as the placement of consonants and vowels in the Bengali language had conveyed to me the words’ connotations and how to precisely sing them.
I performed the song at the funeral with this knowledge and sung with specificity to each connected note and syllable. As family members tearfully expressed their appreciation, many were surprised that I hadn’t known the backstory behind “Tobu Mone Rekho” and commended me for the emotion they had heard in my voice. I graciously accepted and attributed the compliments solely to my understanding of linguistics in relation to song, one so intrinsic and deep-rooted I was not able to explain the process to anyone but myself.
Later that year, in my Vocal Workshop class at school, I came across the phrase “word painting,” a term used in the 16th century to define “the technique of using phonic qualities of words to suggest or reinforce their meaning.” The terminology clicked – this exact duality of music was what I, as a singer, had picked up on. I felt comforted by the fact that what I had always inherently known and used, had actually been embedded in music theory much before my time. I had not discovered a new aspect of music, I had simply connected two dots in my short breadth of musical experience.
My understanding of music and its conjugation of lyrics and melody pushed me to think more deeply and analytically about linguistics and the roles phonetics and syntax play in musical and emotional communication. My interpretation of “Tobu Mone Rekho,” Tagore’s masterpiece, utilized this “word painting” and bridged the ideas of musicality and morphology in my mind, possibly a connection that has been less explored in its field. Through creating music, I have become amazed by how our curated language has fused with our perceptions of melody and am deeply interested in further understanding how we, as a society, have evolved to create words that exemplify and relate our multifaceted expressions.