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Indians Cheer as Copyright on Nobel Poet Tagore Ends

CALCUTTA, India (Reuters) - Indians have finally won the right to freely sing in public the work of one of their best-loved poets, Rabindranth Tagore, after a decades-old copyright on his works expired this week.

This has drawn cheers from singers, intellectuals and ordinary Indians, especially in Tagore's home state of West Bengal, where he is widely regarded as second only to god.

"It's a huge relief that the copyright has finally gone and we don't have to wait long for approval,'' popular Bengali singer Indrani Sen told Reuters. "Now we're free to sing his songs.''

One music firm says Tagore's songs account for a quarter of the tape recordings it sold in 2000 in Bengali, the language in which the poet wrote.

Until now, some 2,300 songs by Tagore -- who won India's only Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 -- have been protected by a copyright held by Visva Bharati University which the poet set up more than 80 years ago.

The copyright lapsed on December 31. Until then, performers had been forced to secure the university's approval -- often a long and tedious process -- in order to release recordings of Tagore's songs.

The university has enjoyed the sole rights to Tagore's works since the poet, who won the Nobel for "Gitanjali'' -- a collection of lyrical poems -- died in 1941, and guarded them jealously to prevent what it feared might be tasteless versions.

The university accepts the copyright loss but says it fears ''rampant distortions.''

Pradip Banerjee, secretary of Visva Bharati's music board, said, "There will a free-from-shackle effect and people will do as they please. Distortions will be the norm.''

Others disagree.

"Tagore means more to Bengalis than Shakespeare means to the English. But if Beethoven can survive without copyright, so can Tagore,'' Bengali novelist Mani Shankar Mukherjee said.

The government passed a law in 1951 to give Visva Bharati the right to keep the copyright until 1991 and then extended it 10 years. The university lobbied furiously to get the copyright extended again but this time the call was ignored.

Passions ran so high that a Calcutta-based publisher threatened to kill himself if the copyright on Tagore's work was extended, the Times of India reported on Thursday.

Tagore's songs were at the center of a huge row last year when a singer released a cassette with his own version of Rabindrasangeet -- as the songs are known -- ignoring the university's strict rules over interpretation.

The RPG Group -- which runs music stores in several Indian cities -- said 2000 sales at its store in Calcutta, capital of West Bengal state, showed a quarter of Bengali cassettes sold were tapes of Tagore's songs.

By Sumali Moitra

 
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