Singapore Talking

Tagore, Tagore, burning bright

The Bengali language is facing a renaissance in Singapore, with more students taking the language every year.

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered while others are thriving. In the latest instalment of a weekly series, we look at Bengali.

The Nobel Prize may be the highest accolade a writer could aspire to.

But for Rabindranath Tagore - the first non-European to win the prize in 1913, when he was 52, for poetry that the Swedish Academy in Stockholm said was profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful - the honour pales in comparison to how he is revered by Bengalis the world over.

"Tagore is the root of all," says Mr Subhendu Mukherjee, a regular adviser and coordinator of Bengali cultural performances in Singapore.

The 49-year-old, who has been playing the tabla, a traditional percussion instrument, since he was a young child, adds for emphasis: "Tagore is everything."


Senior piping engineer Subhendu Mukherjee (left) is an adviser and coordinator of Bengali cultural performances. The experienced tabla player is rehearsing with master sitarist Chandranath Bhattacharyya for a Noboborsho performance. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

A senior piping engineer by trade, he explains that Tagore, often called the bard of Bengal, reshaped Bengali-language literature and performance art throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, up till his death in 1941.

'SWEET' LANGUAGE

I would compare Bengali to French in terms of how poetic it is as a language.

BUSINESS ANALYST AND RECREATIONAL BENGALI DANCER SUCHANDRA SAHA, on the beauty of the Bengali language.

GRAND EVENT

We celebrate the Bengali language and culture in a grand manner, through music, dance and poetry recitations.

VICE-PRINCIPAL SHABNAM AKHTER OF BANGLA LANGUAGE AND LITERARY SOCIETY SINGAPORE SCHOOL, on how the school marks International Mother Language Day every year.

  • Facts and figures

  • ORIGINS

    Bengal is a geographical area that encompasses the nation of Bangladesh and, in India, West Bengal, Tripura and the southern part of Assam. The main language is Bengali, which is also the national language of Bangladesh.

    NUMBER OF SPEAKERS

    According to statistics by language journal Ethnologue in 2015, there are 245 million Bengali speakers worldwide.

    In Singapore, there are no clear figures on the Bengali- speaking population as they are not tracked in the 2010 census. Bengalis are considered as "Other Indians", of whom there are more than 80,000.

    WHERE TO LEARN IT

    The Bangla Language and Literary Society was set up to provide Bengali-language instruction from primary school to junior college. Bengali is a non-Tamil Indian language officially recognised by the Education Ministry as a second language.

    CULTURAL ASSOCIATIONS

    The Bengali Association Singapore is the largest Bengali cultural association here, with over 800 members. It holds celebrations for important Bengali holidays and observances such as Holi, the festival of colours, and Noboborsho, the Bengali new year.

"Almost all of the classical Bengali songs that we perform regularly today came from Tagore."

It is known that Tagore wrote and composed at least 2,000 songs, spanning a wide range of topics, from Indian independence to the natural environment of the Bengal region.

Tagore's dominance in classical Bengali literature and music, Mr Mukherjee adds, arose from a colossal body of work that was consistently masterful in its use of the "sweet" language.

Says Mr Mukherjee: "Bengali has a certain softness to its pronunciation, accent and tone."

Agreeing, business analyst and recreational Bengali dancer Suchan- dra Saha, 35, adds: "I would compare Bengali to French in terms of how poetic it is as a language."

The Kolkata native, who learnt Bengali dance throughout her formative years, says her favourite Bengali word is coincidentally "mishti", which means "sweet".

Mr Mukherjee and Ms Saha were rehearsing a song and dance routine at the Singapore Indian Development Association's compound in Beatty Road.

The routine will be performed by their ensemble at the Bengali Association Singapore's (BAS's) annual Noboborsho celebration concert, to be held at the Singapore Chinese Girls' School on April 22.

Noboborsho is the Bengali new year, which falls on April 15 this year. BAS is a non-profit organisation dedicated to celebrating and preserving Bengali culture and values locally, through performances and gatherings during holidays such as Holi, the festival of colours.

Performed mostly to music composed and written by Tagore and, occasionally, his contemporary, Kazi Nazrul Islam, classical Bengali dance is characterised by its extensive use of gentle, swaying movements, says Ms Saha.

"Rabindric dance, as this form of dance is called, is very atmospheric, just like the music and lyrics accompanying it," she adds.

"I stopped dancing because of work, but I decided to start again around three to four years ago to help preserve Bengali tradition in my own way."

Even non-Bengali speakers, such as music teacher Anand Dhamelia, who holds a master's degree in tabla, have chipped in to help.

He will play the keyboard for the ensemble at the Noboborsho celebrations. Despite being a speaker of Hindi and Gujarati instead, the 36-year-old native of Gujarat state has performed at various BAS events for almost a decade, having discovered the association and Bengali music through his friends.

"I like listening to the rhythm and melody of the songs," he says, adding with a grin: "Music is the universal language."

The Bangla Language and Literary Society Singapore (BLLS) School, established in 1994 to teach Bengali as an Education Ministry-approved second language for students in local schools, exemplifies the Bengali community's commitment to their mother tongue.

The school's enrolment has expanded from 45 students in its first year to more than 600 today, vice-principal Shabnam Akhter, 64, says. The textbooks and mastery books used by the school were designed in collaboration with the Education Ministry.

"We try to incorporate Bengali culture into these books, including some poems by Tagore," she says, though students are also exposed to a wider variety of work beyond Tagore.

Nevertheless, she says, Tagore's works are regularly performed by students when the school celebrates International Mother Language Day on Feb 21 annually.


Dancers rehearsing their routine for the Bengali Association Singapore's annual Noboborsho celebration concert, to be held at the Singapore Chinese Girls' School on April 22. Inspired by the natural environment of the Bengal region, classical Bengali dance uses rhythmic, graceful movements, often set to the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

"We celebrate the Bengali language and culture in a grand manner, through music, dance and poetry recitations," she says of the latest edition that saw more than 600 performers and audience members.

"Tagore was very inspirational in the independence (struggle) of Bangladesh and his words were very powerful in getting people to stand up for their rights."

However, not all is rosy with Bengali-language teaching in Singapore. Ms Akhter is concerned that children of Bengali-speaking foreigners and permanent residents will start to lose touch with their mother tongue.

She says that, of late, some of these children are either on a long wait list or have not been able to secure admission into local schools, where they can elect to learn Bengali as their compulsory mother tongue. This has meant that some parents have resorted to placing them in international schools, many of which do not offer the language.

"The parents have to pay extra for Bengali lessons on top of the international schools' fees," she says.

"We are very concerned because we need new students to carry on our lessons and we do not wish for the numbers to go down."

WATCH THE VIDEO
Bengali language revival in Singapore. http://str.sg/4XBG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Tagore, Tagore, burning bright '. Print Edition | Subscribe