Copying It Right…

As a young student at IIT Madras, I made many friends. One of them had a very neat collection of a variety of songs: Hindi, English, and Bengali. The collections wasn’t very large, not at that time anyway, but it was neat. For instance, I had heard the version of Evita as rendered at a Broadway stage, right back then, in 1985–87, i.e. way before Madonna cut her own version of the songs. … I am sure as we go along, some of the songs I heard back then certainly are going to make it in this blog, in the usual “A Song I Like” section.

In case you have joined late: I thought of adding such a section following Jean Moroney-Binswanger’s writeup suggesting that you make it a practice to write down, at the end of each day, a few (say 5) good things—major or minor—that happened to you on that day. The practice would go towards a better enjoyment of life, that was her general idea. Given my irregular nature, writing down 5 good things each every day would be too much, I thought. (Irregular nature, and, of course, the kind of life I have, too! :)) But then, I also thought that it might not be a bad idea to add a few songs to every blog post. That makes it like one good thing every week or so—and it seems to fit in very nicely with my average “feel good” rate!

Anyway, to come back to those songs I heard some 25 years ago in that IIT Madras hostel. There was one Bengali song that I particularly loved. However, I forgot to get its details before I left the IIT. I anyway didn’t know the words of the song any particularly well. But the tune? That was extraordinary. Even heavenly. I hummed it sometimes. … A few years went by, and I found myself in one of my darkest patch of life in Alabama. The overall situation of my life at that time was such that moods like sadness, of betrayal, even of depression were unavoidable. It was a situation in which you want to be with your near and dear ones, with your close, dependable friends, and with your family—and it was a situation in which I didn’t have enough money that I could afford a ticket for a trip to India. I was a student, and further, in heavy debt due to some personal situation in my life (divorce, breaking of prior friendship, no other already known friends and certainly no family-member in the USA). … When the mood became particularly bad, I would find myself prolonging the shower, singing some tunes. Some expressed some pain so well, that in the act of singing them, the present pain/sorrow would ease sheer due to venting out. Call it a catharsis, if you wish. Some others lifted the spirit. This tune I mentioned above was one of the songs in the latter category.

A few more years passed by, and I would find myself humming this tune, more or less absent-mindedly, while riding my famous M80 to work at Viman Nagar in Pune—my very first job in software engineering. (The M80 was bought second-hand because I had no money to buy anything better. It became famous at CDAC because once its pillion rider’s seat cushion crumbled away due to aging and cuts, I didn’t replace it, because there was none to ride with me—and so, none of my friends at CDAC’s diploma could ever ride with me anyway. Anyway, the point is: I would definitely be riding it alone!)

Viman Nagar in those days (mid 1990s) certainly was under development, but nowhere nearly as developed as it is today. There was may be just one building per hundreds of meters, not per hundred feet. The road to the work went through a patch in the fields, an untarred road. The sky would be completely open to the eye from all sides. And when the monsoons arrived, one could watch miles and miles of clouds, unobstructed by buildings. There is a certain thing that had never happened before and only seldom after, but, somehow, during those years, in monsoons, many melodious—and unheard—tunes would seem to “come to” me—my mind would very easily synthesize them on the fly. I mean, while riding that moped, I would find myself turned into a music composer. Too bad that I didn’t know the music notation—so many tunes have been lost forever. (However, when I could manage it, I have taken care to memorize the tune and thereby keep it in mind through the day at the work, until I came back home, and then have taped a few such hummnigs.)

Another curious phenomenon then was, I could very easily imagine very grand orchestration schemes, particularly in the Western style (with tens, even hundreds, of violins, a complete rhythm section, etc.). And, more. I was moved to imagine such Western orchestration for even very simple Marathi songs. It all was simply in my imagination while I rode that M80, and some of it has remained there. For instance, a very grand, even royal kind of Western orchestration scheme—with some very easily imaginable but outright cheap frills eliminated from it—for this Marathi song is still with me: “soor sanaeet naadaawalaa… saang visaru kashee mee tulaa…” (Shanta Shelke, Usha, Hridaynath).

So, both new music would come to me, and some beautiful old music would get revived. That song—rather, that tune which I had heard in IIT—would come back to me unconsciously then. And, by this time, I had forgotten that it was a Bengali song—only the tune had remained with me.

Still many more years passed; I went back to the USA, and even came back to India, once again a failure in getting a green-card/citizenship. It was about 2002/3 times. My nephew, then in school, had come visiting us, and we were flicking through TV channels. Suddenly, on a Marathi TV channel (not DD Sahyadri), we heard a few college youths from Bombay sing that song. I was ecstatic. I started feverishly pacing the room, nay, almost dancing, almost everywhere in the house. The nephew didn’t understand why. It is a very well known song, he said. He could easily get it for me. But, no, he didn’t know any particulars such as who wrote, composed, etc. And, we had managed to catch only the last 10–15 seconds of it. But, yes, he would get it for me, he said. Ok.

A few months later, the nephew declared his inability to get it. He no longer even remembered the friends at whose place he had heard it.

A few more years passed by. Cut to the present.

Last month, we had a colleage visit us from Kolkota for an extended visit. He carried with him a few Marathi classical songs and many Bengali ones. I borrowed his Bengali collection for listening, and was listening to them at random and absent-mindedly going through the song listings.

And, suddenly, there it was. The Song. … I won’t stretch your curiousity. It had always been this song: “dhitang dhitang bole…” a part of Robindro Shongeet, with lyrics and composition by Ravindranath Tagore.

Indeed, the entire collection was nothing but Robindro Shongeet.

Initially, my condition was like a boy who has found a treasure (not coins, but colorful stones, feathers of birds, colorful insects). However, to be brutally honest, I found that I had begun to have this sense of repetitiveness as I went through those 200-odd songs. (The actual repertoire of Robindro Shongeet exceeds 2000 songs, all written and composed by that one man!)  Perhaps, as with all types of music, the ability to make finer distinctions comes later—and with it, a better appreciation.

Anyway, there still were a few songs I loved right at the first go. … I will introduce them slowly, one by one, in the usual last section on the songs I like. But, let me tell you one song right away. The reason is, it does have a bearing on the title of this post. (Yes, after expending 1300 words, we are getting at the title.)

The one song I particularly loved, on its own merits, was this:

“bhaalobaashee, bhaalobaashee..” (Robindro Shongeet; this rendition by Indrani Sen)

The song was so beautiful that I got enveloped in it—the complexity and the refinement of its melody, its rich and emotionally evocative structure, and the power this short piece of music derives through its specific form of being a lyric. Including that sense of incompleteness which you feel at the end due to the very form of the music—the terseness of a short lyric.

In fact, so powerful was the effect of “bhaalobashee” that it took a while before I fully became conscious of that mild deja vu feeling I had been having right in the middle of listening to it for the first time.

Some time later, I realized that Rabindranath Tagore, apparently, had copied an element or two from a very wonderful film song. (Forgive me if I don’t get it right as to who copied to what extent and in what way from whom—can’t you see I am so deep in music?)

That film song, so beautiful and wonderful on its own merits, is this:

(Hindi) “koi door se, aawaaz de, chale aao…”
Lyrics: Shaqeel Badaayuni
Music: Hemant Kumar

Ok. So here is one difficult aspect of anything such as copyrights. Go ahead, listen to both “bhaalobashee” and “koi door se” and come back and tell me on the following:

Is it right for us to say that Hemant Da had lifted something off Gurudeb (i.e. Tagore)?

That is to say, is it right to say that copyrights have been violated in this instance?

The second question is important. The critics of copyrights (and of IPRs in general) often like to bring forth what epistemologically are borderline cases, then erect some strawman out of them, then beat the strawman to its unnatural (i.e. floatingly abstract) death, then garner sympathy for their intellectual standpoint, and finally declare victory for their “simple” and  “commonsense” position.

One of the tactical defense against them to go ahead and ask the rightness of assuming whether copyrights were indeed violated—whether in the moral sense or the legal sense—in examples such as that pertaining to the above.

In this case, to me, it is obvious that Robindronath’s music was a deep, formative influence on Hemant Da (just the way it is on any Bengali kid). It is only to be expected that at certain elementary level of composition, esp. at the level of phrases, the heard music would exert some indirect influence on you—as is clear in this case. But such things do not qualify for “lifting,” or “stealing.” For that matter, I am not even sure whether a composer would be morally obliged to declare even “inspiration” in such a case. I mean, which Bengali worth his salt is not going to acknowledge Gurudeb’s general influence on him?

Is it necessary for a scientist to add: “I am indebted to Aristotle, Newton, Gauss, Maxwell, [just to pick some names] et al.” at the end (or the beginning) of each paper he writes? Indeed, in applied mechanics, we do not expect that an author acknowledge a Griffith, or a Prandtl, even if directly relevant, except in the formal references section. If acknowledged otherwise, we would rather find it a curious, albeit innocent, error of commission.

I do not wish to encourage violations of IPRs—indeed, I have fought for them. Yet, I do think that there is a sense in which we can say B has copied A, but done it right. From the field of music, Hemant Da’s “koi door se,” is one apt example.

And, before closing, there is another beautiful twist to “koi door se.”

As everyone knows, this is one of Geeta Dutt’s finest songs. She indeed has rendered it superlatively. So much so that people thought none would be able to match or exceed her. Not even Lata.

And then, in a live music program (Royal Albert Hall), Lata chose to sing Geeta Dutt’s song. After listening to Lata’s rendition, there are left only two possibilities: either Lata matched Geeta, or Lata exceeded Geeta.

I am happy to leave it to you to decide whether Lata’s copy is better than Geeta’s original, or whether it only matches the original. And, while you are at it, do also listen to that “bhaalobashee” by Tagore in the meanwhile. And let me know which version by what singer of “bhaalobashee” really is the best—there are so many of them.

And, one final point. An article a few days ago in the newspaper DNA by R. Jagannathan [^] was pathetic, pathetic, pathetic. I am in no mood to intellectually analyze his position in detail. But let me make my stand clear. I am for IPRs in all their forms, for their protection, against plagiarism. And, I buy nothing of what Jagannathan said or motivated.

Actually, Jagannathan’s position here is not what a typical socialist would take about it. His position—to the extent he manages to convey any position at all, what with his mediaman’s habit of encasing/padding that typical media-like noise around any position— seems more or less on the side of pragmatism. Which means, very possibly, some American friend or colleague of his is influencing him in writing the way he wrote on plagiarism. (In case you didn’t know, Pragmatism is an American contribution to philosophy—the only one coming from that land of honey and milk, i.e. USA.) Even otherwise, many of his other write-ups are, by comparison to this piece, much better. You too go ahead, tell him that—namely, that it is bad to even attempt to justify plagiarism.

That’s about it, for this post.

For obvious reasons, this post does not carry the usual “A Song I Like” section.

[At least one “finishing” touch to streamline English and to correct typos in this writeup, which was written purely on the fly, is required. May be later today]