by Shambhu Neil Vineberg

 

Sri Chinmoy sits on the floor in his meditation room playing the harmonium. Around him are strewn a few of his old notebooks from the Ashram from which he chooses the poems to set to music. He is lost in the very private, personal world of musical creativity. Diligently trying out numerous musical phrases to a particular line of poetry, he plays his harmonium quickly, until he decides that he has captured the essence of the words he is working with. He notates the musical passage in his native Bengali notation and immediately starts to work on the next line of poetry. He composes with complete freedom and spontaneity, his main concern being that the music perfectly embodies the consciousness of the Bengali poetry. Gradually the songs emerge, joined together by unexpected intervals and beautiful glissandos which glide by so gently and gracefully that one is immediately lifted to that higher plane of consciousness where the outer sound is transformed into inner bliss, and the listener becomes surcharged with the ever-increasing flow of divine nectar which floods the Master’s entire existence.

The music of Sri Chinmoy embodies a variety of characteristics which apply to his entire repertoire of vocal music. The most predominant aspect of the Master’s style is constant motion. It is rare that one note will receive enough durational emphasis to result in its implication as a tonal center (although combinations of notes often imply tonal centers around Db and Gb). Whether the song is diatonic or whether accidentals are introduced, whether the song is strongly rhythmic or sweetly flowing, whether there are unusual intervals or the simplest stepwise phrases, there is always a sense of moving from one place to another. Both rhythmically and melodically, Sri Chinmoy’s songs draw their life from a constant sense of motion. This primary characteristic includes all the other aspects of the Master’s music.

The most important quality of this motion is that it is, by and large, ascendant motion. Ascending scale-wise movement dominates the repertoire. Sri Chinmoy usually starts a song on Db, Gb, F or Ab and immediately ascends to a higher note. A study of the starting notes in the 99 songs from the collection Supreme, Teach Me How to Surrender songbook shows that 24 songs begin on the note Db. In 21 of those 24 cases, the note following Db is the next higher whole step: Eb. The three songs which did not contain this scale-wise motion did leap to a higher note: twice to Gb, and once to Bb. It may be wise to note that the ascending melody, a natural characteristic of Sri Chinmoy’s style, is the natural embodiment of spiritual aspiration and the inner cry for a higher and more fulfilling existence. It symbolizes the untiring effort on the part of the spiritual seeker to continually transcend himself.

Sri Chinmoy’s songs are generally linear in form. They rarely employ what could be called a conscious use of compositional technique. One always gets a sense of freedom in the Master’s music, and never rigidity. It is interesting to notice, therefore, the very precise form the Bengali poetry adheres to. The great majority of the poems are metrically consistent and rhyme in couplets. For example, the rhyme scheme of “Tomar Adesh” is AA, BB, CC, A’:

Tomar adesh shunbo ami shunbo
Tomar nabhe urbo ami urbho
Tumi amar chira apan
Tumi amar hiya ratan
Ashru sathe kandbo rate
Alor sathe hashbo prate
Tomar lagi kandbo ami hashbo

The syllables per line of this poem are neatly arranged as 10, 10, 8, 8, 8, 8, 10. This poem was written in 1968-1969, but it is representative of hundreds that Sri Chinmoy wrote prior to 1964, the year he left India for the United States.

 

Tomar Adesh Shunbo Ami Shunbo

Score:

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

I shall listen to Your Command, I shall.
In Your Sky I shall fly, I shall fly.
Eternally You are mine, my very own.
You are my heart’s wealth.
For You at night, in tears I shall cry.
For You at dawn, with light I shall smile.
For You, for You, Beloved, only for You.

Looking at the music, we find that the two lines set to the first two lines of the poem are identical. The symmetrical structure AA, BB of the text follows through perfectly with a melodic AA, BB pattern in the song. The tendency toward symmetry already established carries into the last part of the song. In the third line, Sri Chinmoy starts the musical phrase in the same way as the preceding two phrases, but after two notes he continues with the figure  until the pause C#’, and then he completes the phrase with a complementary phrase identical in rhythm to the one which precedes it. “Tomar Adesh” is, therefore, an example of how the form of the text suggests the form the melody will take. This is not a common practise of the Master, but yet certain examples, usually on a smaller scale than this example, do exist.

Most often it is the sense, or consciousness, of the poem that determines how the melody will turn out. The words carry the message for the ears to hear, and the music breathes life into the words for the soul to feel. “Tomar Hasi Bhalobasi” is a good example of Sri Chinmoy’s representation of the spiritual qualities of the text in music.

 

Tomar Hasi Bhalobasi

Score:

 

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

Supreme,
Your Smile I love.
Your Torture I love.
Your Feet I love.
Your Eyes I love.
Your Soul I love.
Your Body I love.
Everything that is You I love.
Every moment I love You.
O Lord Supreme, O Lord Supreme,
I love You, I love You.
You are the Flute of my existence.

For the line “Tomar charan bhalobasi” (“Your Feet I love”), Sri Chinmoy has begun his phrase on the low C#, representing the humble bow of the seeker when face-to-face with the Supreme. In addition, the C# signals the locrian mode which, because of its harmonic instability, may represent humility in the presence of God. The phrase “Pratikhane bhalobasi” (“At every moment I love You”) begins on a low D and leaps an octave to d’ for the line “Prabhu tomai bhalobasi” (“O Lord Supreme, I love You”), which introduces the climax of the song. The low register of the phrases containing references to the body and the feet is entirely called for in this instance, since the body is the lowest part of the seeker’s existence, and the last part to be illumined, and since the humble person traditionally approaches a holy man in India by touching his feet.

Although one rarely finds evidence of melodic development in Sri Chinmoy’s songs, there is a constant tendency to develop the various rhythmic motifs of any given song. In “Ogo Sundara”, for example, Sri Chinmoy begins the song on a c’ and he establishes the motif ‘A’ which repeats three times.

 

Ogo Sundara Ogo Ananda Ogo Mor

Score:

 

 

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

O my beautiful One, O my Lord of Delight,
O Lord of my life-breath,
In the finite and the Infinite I have met
Your Universal Consciousness.
I shall play on the flute of transformation-light
In the forest of my heart.
Smiling and dancing I shall lose myself
In the wealth of Lord Krishna.

This repetition of an established motif is common throughout the Master’s songs. One may pause for a moment to reflect on Sri Chinmoy’s illumining philosophy, which speaks of the soul as being the ‘divine child’ within, which has unfortunately been covered over in the process of our growth and, therefore, cries to be heard. The utter simplicity of the motif and its subsequent repetition elicits a response from our own divine ‘child-soul’, just as a child singing some favourite rhyme over and over can touch our hearts in a simple yet profound way.

In the following phrase, Sri Chinmoy stays with the c’, creating motif ‘B’, where he repeats the rhythmic pattern  using substitute pitches. Motif ‘C’ is created, which consists of  and , borrowed from the first motif. He repeats the pattern  (‘hriday bane’), but this time he substitutes segments from motif ‘B’  before ending the phrase as an extended form of motif ‘A’.

Here one finds a natural compositional form and structure in Sri Chinmoy’s music. The various rhythmic motifs unite the song as an organic whole in the way they emerge out of and elaborate on each other.

Often the Master establishes a set meter, such as in “Basana Hase”, where the motif is repeated  is repeated three times and could easily be manipulated to serve as a cadence, but the phrase is disrupted at the cadence in such a way that the metrical balance of the phrase is upset. The metre is established in 3/4 and the cadence  upsets the flow. In the second phrases, the motif is quite different –  – and it is repeated six times, but the figure  at the cadence disrupts the flow:

 

Basana Hase Basana Kande Basana

Score:

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

My desire smiles and my desire cries.
My desire loves the sweet smile
Of the goddess dawn
And the darkness
Of dark night.
I know not how and why
My aspiration-flame is climbing up
To reach the skies.
I know in a twinkling
My desire-world
Will come to its final end.

There are many rhythmic similarities between “Basana Hase” and “Nai Kicchu Nai”:

 

Nai Kicchu Nai Tai Bujhi Ma Paina Taba1

Score:

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

Mother, do You not love me
Just because I have nothing to offer You?
Do You love only those
Who are blessed with striking capacities?
Mother, I do not want to be a man of virtues or capacity;
I want to remain a fool.
Although You bless me not with Your smile divine,
I claim myself Your fondest child.

In “Nai Kicchu Nai”, one can easily follow the simple scale-wise passage. Likewise in “Shubhra Akash”, the same pitches used in “Nai Kicchu Nai” appear, but in a different rhythmic pattern:

 

Shubhra Akash Shubhra Batas Shanta

Score:

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

A clear, bright sky and clear, bright air
And a tranquil earth heart I feel within me.
Alone I am roaming in the cosmos wide
With my eternity’s partner heart.

In both of these songs, the common cadential figure  appears. This figure is used by Sri Chinmoy at the ends of many musical phrases and as a common thematic device. Variations may occur, which include the common figure .

In “Banshi Tomar Lahi Baje”, the figure  is repeated three times, followed by the figure . In fact, the entire song consists almost primarily of these two rhythmic figures.

 

Banshi Tomar Nahi Baje Amar Ushar Hiya

Score:

 

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

I hear not Your flute
In my barren heart.
I see not Your Smile
In my barren heart.
Yet I invoke You morning and evening
In my barren heart.
If You do not respond,
I shall die in utter shame
In my barren heart.

The question may arise: what causes certain rhythmic patterns to be so often expounded when myriads of other possibilities avail themselves? Sri Chinmoy explains that he uses these “because I get a kind of unusual thrill”.2 Another answer to this question concerns the Bengali language. The syntax of the Bengali words combined with the Master’s natural styles of pronunciation and interpretation result in the common figures  and . For the two-syllable words ‘banshi’, ‘tomar’, ‘nahi’ the Master emphasizes the first syllable (i.e.     ) and he continues throughout the song with this type of emphasis.

Sri Chinmoy usually adheres to the given key signature in any particular song for the majority of the pitches within that song. When he uses accidentals, it is most often to shift the tonality of a moving line to provide contrast to the other diatonically moving phrases.3 “Ekti Katha Balbo” is an interesting exception to this generalization. Here the Master uses accidentals to create the half-steps which follow the repeated note ‘G’. The effect is almost one of staticity. This makes the first two lines and the last line of “Ekti Katha” quite different from the flowing motion we are used to hearing in the other songs.

 

Ekti Katha Balbo Tomai

Score:

 

Translation by Sri Chinmoy:

I shall tell You one thing,
Therefore, I have come to Your door.
Mother, why does my mind commit
The same mistake time and again?
Mother, will I get the flow of Your Blessing-Smile
In my teeming errors?
Striking my heart, do break asunder
The prison-cell of all my attachments.

Even though this is a departure from the expected, we can see the reason for “Ekti Katha’s” use of accidentals and staticity by going to the Bengali text:

Ekti katha balbo tomai
Tai eshechi tomar dware
Mago ekiy bhul kena kare
Paran mama barebare
Bhuler majhe pabo ki ma
Ashish hasi dhara
Aghat hani prane amar
Bhango sakal moha kara

The first four Bengali lines are translated by the first three lines of English. The poetry speaks with some despair about how time and again (‘barebare’) the speaker in the poem commits the same errors. This inhibits the seeker’s progress and, therefore, there is a lack of motion both in the seeker’s life and in the music. The next two lines of Bengali correspond to the fourth line of English. The seeker implores the Divine Mother for the ‘flow’ of Her Blessing. Accordingly, the music frees itself from the tortured intervals of the half-step created by the accidentals, and begins moving diatonically. ‘Dhara’, or ‘flow’, is a melisma that rises and falls back to the original c#, thus embodying in a subtle but effective way the sense of the word.

The last phrase of the song immediately reverts back to the style of the beginning. ‘Aghat hani’, or ‘strike’, is expressed by the accented repeats on ‘G’. ‘Kara’, or ‘prison-cell’, again picks up the repeated half-step. The seeker is still caught in this ‘prison-cell’ and the music clearly implies the aborted wish to move freely.

“Ekti Katha Balbo” is, therefore, an excellent example of how Sri Chinmoy will depart from his usual diatonic motion if the consciousness of the poem calls for it.

The last musical consideration in this brief survey of Sri Chinmoy’s music4 is the use of the repeat. Many of the songs have one or more phrases repeated, almost all have a ‘D.C.’ marking, which means the songs invariably end with the first line or two of the beginning. Sri Chinmoy elaborates on the repeat:

“When I sing my songs, why do I very often repeat the same line twice? When I sing each line twice, it has a mantric effect. When we sing a line only once, someone’s heart may be receptive but the other members of his family may not be receptive. Or the seeker’s vital may be receptive, but his mind is roaming. Each time a different part of the being may be receptive. When I repeat, it gives those members that were not listening the first time another opportunity to pay attention. By repeating, I give the opportunity to the mind or vital or body-consciousness to also listen to my music.”

On the subject of singing and learning the Master’s songs, Tanima Bossart5 relates: “Sri Chinmoy has made it clear to me that in teaching his songs to the Centres, the songs have to be standardized and not left open to individual interpretation or changes, even if there are times when he himself sings them differently. There are a few cases when, after singing a song over the years, he has incorporated a change and requested us to do the same. Ekbar Shudhu Balo is one example. Ore Mor Kheya is another.”

It should be noted that Sri Chinmoy stresses the importance of singing his songs in the key in which they are transcribed. He has composed a song in a certain key in order to bring out the quality of the text. Since the notes each have their own special vibration and spiritual quality, one should adhere to this rule.

It is important to remember, finally, that Sri Chinmoy’s songs are first and foremost an offering to the world, an offering of himself and of the infinite peace, light and bliss that he embodies. This, too, is why there are so many songs, and why the Master is determined to write so many more: his offering is unconditional and, therefore, endless. Sri Chinmoy has realized that one of his divine purposes in life is to offer an abundance of beauty and inspiration to the world in the form of his soulful, illumining music.
 

– End –

 

This analysis first appeared in the author’s book “Sri Chinmoy: The Silence-Sound: An Overview of Sri Chinmoy’s Musical Manifestation (1944-75)”, Aum Publications, New York, 1977.

 

Author's & Editor's Endnotes:
1 Sri Chinmoy composed this song and the two that follow on the occasion of his 42nd birthday.
2 This and subsequent comments made during a taped conversation with the author.
3 Often the #4 and b7 degrees are added to the major scale, resulting in a nine-tone scale. The #4 degree is usually introduced within the third phrase as a bridge to the dominant tonality. The b7 degree brings the implied tonality back to the tonic.
4 Previous chapters of Shambhu’s book discuss the development of Indian music from the early Vedic chants to the devotional songs of the modern age. He shows how various aspects of Sri Chinmoy’s music fit into this historical stream and relate to contemporary Indian spiritual music. In doing this, he discusses Sri Chinmoy’s use of accents, melismas, ascendant melodic motion, repetition of established motifs and cadential figures.
5 Tanima Bossart is one of the original transcribers of Sri Chinmoy’s music. We are indebted to her and to Archee for their assistance with the musical notation for several songs in this article.

 

Copyright © 2010, Shambhu Neil Vineberg. All rights reserved.