Aidan Soder’s performances display cross-cultural understanding
“My dear girl, this is going to be life-changing.”
Not what most musicians are accustomed to hearing, especially before they’ve sung a note, given a talk or taught a class. But here was the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Aidan Soder, barely 36 hours in West Bengal, being greeted in this manner by an excited, enthusiastic local gentleman.
Soder, Conservatory of Music and Dance Associate Professor of Vocal Studies, was still recovering from her long flight and the anxiety that accompanies one’s immersion into the life of a developing nation. Now she was being told that she was about to rewrite decades of accepted knowledge surrounding West Bengal’s favorite son and revered musician, Rabindranath Tagore. She was about to demonstrate that Tagore’s poems and writings could be interpreted in many languages, and still be treated respectfully and faithfully. And some Bengalis couldn’t wait.
It all began years before, when Soder and another student, a baritone, were preparing for a premiere of Rice University composition professor and composer Karim Al-Zand’s Tagore Love Songs. Like many other Western composers, Al-Zand set several of Tagore’s poems to music, known as art songs.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if the Bengalis have any idea how much influence Tagore has had on Western culture?’ He was an Indian national treasure, a poet, mystic, composer and performer,” Soder said. “He even wrote the Indian national anthem! He would be the cultural equivalent of Shakespeare, but worshiped almost like a divinity. Did they know about his lofty reputation and esteem outside of India?”
Tagore might have continued to labor in obscurity beyond his country’s borders, except for his book, “Gitanjali.” This collection of 103 Tagore poems, translated from Bengali to English by Tagore himself, captured the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and won him worldwide acclaim. The Western world grew to admire his writing and lyricism, and saw possibilities for adapting his well-turned phrases into songs.
Coupled with Tagore’s growing reputation was an emerging hunger for Indian culture. Creative types are usually more curious about the cultural world outside their normal sphere, so contact with Asia, especially Japan, had sparked an interest in all things “Eastern” that began in the mid-1880s and continued until WWII. Travel was faster and easier, and tastemakers enjoyed the exotic look and feel of “Orientalism.” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” was all the rage.
Questions about Tagore’s little-known reputation among his Western fans had occupied Soder’s mind for several years. Then, a chance conversation with a colleague on the Conservatory’s faculty made Soder aware of something called the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. Through this program, approximately 800 teaching and research grants are given to American faculty or experienced professionals in a variety of academic and professional fields. With the help of UMKC’s International Academic Programs office, Soder secured one of the coveted spots.
Next, Soder began to look for a good match with her background, research and teaching interests. Coincidentally, Rabindra Bharati, a West Bengal university in Kolkata, was offering a BA honors program in Western classical music for the first time. This was a perfect match. Soder would teach an Intro to Western Music class.
“I knew I could do that. At the same time, I could visit all the Tagore landmarks and explore just how much the Bengali people knew of Tagore’s impact on Western music,” Soder said.
So why was the Bengali gentleman so ecstatic?
“Tagore is almost a closed system; and, literally, the adoration of the man and his music permeates the entire culture,” Soder said. “Bengalis adhere to a rigid purity for Tagore’s works. So I would be revealing to the Bengalis perhaps the only thing they didn’t know about Tagore – just how much others loved him.”
There are three main reasons why Bengalis were so surprised at the extensive Western usage of Tagore’s material: first, Western classical composers use Tagore’s lyrics but not his melodies. Bengalis generally don’t separate the two, making it hard for them to imagine Tagore’s lyrics sung with any other melody. For them, separating the two practically renders them non-Tagore songs.
Next, Western classical composers write the voice and piano notations for performance. Tagore’s Bengali songs have only a melodic line for voice, a melody inextricably wed to specific poetry; and any accompaniment is improvised.
Finally, Bengalis feel passionately about Tagore being poorly translated into other languages. Unfortunately, Tagore’s self-translations are considered very poor, indeed. Bengalis find them incredibly inaccurate, sacrificing the lyricism, cadence and meaning of the originals; for them, Tagore’s beautiful poetry practically becomes ‘lost in translation.’ Tagore translated “Gitanjali” as an exercise in the art of translation, and referred to his English versions as ‘retellings’ instead of ‘translations.’
In spoken language, there are idioms that are difficult to explain. In society, there are mores and habits that are ingrained in its members but peculiar to outsiders. Bengalis believe that cultural translation is possible only for scholars willing to immerse themselves in that culture and language.
Soder had a window of opportunity, from October of 2014 to March, 2015, to convince Bengalis otherwise. So in addition to her teaching, she gave several concerts of Tagore’s art songs in Tagore’s home, Jorasanko Thakurbari, from the same stage where he performed. She sang in English and several other languages.
Was it life-changing? As Tagore himself once said, “Music fills the infinite between two souls.” Did Soder and the West Bengalis come to an understanding through music?
“The trip was really about awareness. Because of my visit there, Bengalis now know that Tagore reached a demographic (Western classical composers) that they never could have anticipated. For me, the trip itself was life-changing in all the ways that it should be – culturally, socially, educationally and professionally.”
Soder is hoping for another travel-abroad opportunity. She has several projects in mind, including one Herculean task: attempting her Western songs in the original Bengali.
“I want to try out a couple of songs with a better translation, or sing some of the songs in Bengali because I know how important language is for them, and because I love the Bengali people so much. It would be as a show of respect.“
She and Tagore will have come full-circle.