An essay in Towards Tagore (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2014):
Seventy years of placing Tagore on a pedestal effectively shut the door on the possibilities of engaging with the largest body of experimental theatre in Bengal, if not India. His revolutionary stage approaches were fossilized into an achalayatan, an institutionalized Method of “the right way to do Tagore”. Nobody pointed out that he himself relentlessly changed techniques, seeking new paths, constantly inventive and imaginative. The imperative fell on staying faithful to the authorized text, ignoring the contentious question, where lies the fruitful artistic middle ground between bardolatry and iconoclasm? Literary critics fetishize dramatic fidelity, as if a printed book is an unalterable absolute. Of course most authors do not conform to these dictates; they produce several drafts or revisions of one work, different editions often incorporating changes. Some of Shakespeare’s plays are textual nightmares – there is no unanimously accepted version of Hamlet. Likewise, Tagore kept fine-tuning his dramas, making them abhinay-yogya (“stageworthy”), even renaming them. However, the conservative Bengali and Indian scholar remained blind to these theatrical practicalities.
This essay is the first stage history of Tagore’s plays covering the last 25 years, from his 125th birth anniversary in 1986, when I began seeing theatre regularly, up to late 2010. I stop at the point in 2010 from which a spurt of Tagore productions began to appear, jumping on the bandwagon of tributes to Gurudev on his sesquicentenary. To retain a single focus, I have analysed productions only of his full-length drama, not his shorter plays or dramatizations of his fiction by other hands, of which there have been several. No doubt I have missed some productions, but I would like to believe that I have not overlooked anything major. Also, I have not discussed his very popular dance-dramas, because that would have enlarged this survey beyond readability; nor most of his musicals, except for a few significant productions that help to make my points. For primary source material, I have relied on my own reviews printed in The Telegraph, Kolkata, during this period (dates refer to the month in which they appeared) and on the groups’ folders, leaflets or brochures (which I give to Natya Shodh Sansthan, Kolkata, for archiving).
I proceed with Tagore’s plays chronologically as he published them, but wish to break that convention once at the start only to spotlight a production that I consider a historic turning point. In order to do that, I first introduce Visarjan, which may have become the one Tagore play with the greatest number of productions in Bengali theatre. Yet Tagore seemed dissatisfied with it: although one could argue that he always tinkered around with his writings even after the book appeared, in the case of Visarjan the number of major revisions he committed in print exceeds that on any other of his plays. After the first edition (1890), thoroughly reworked versions came out in 1896, 1899 and 1926, and in 1936 he prepared a final drastic draft (condensed into prose and ostensibly for children), dispensing with all female characters, which Visva-Bharati eventually published in 1961, even though it let that book lapse into out-of-print status. The direction in which he was moving had become clear as early as 1917, when Macmillan brought out Tagore’s own English translation titled Sacrifice. He cut extensively from the second half, compressed the surviving matter and changed five acts into one continuous scene. Thus, Tagore was trying his best in his advanced years to bring Visarjan in line with the style of his later works.
The first important experiment with Visarjan came as late as 1984, when Bibhash Chakraborty, guided by his belief that he had never seen a completely successful production of the drama, decided to explore the reasons for his notion. He identified two technical causes that most previous academics and directors had not bothered about: Tagore’s blank verse was not theatrically convincing in this day and age, and the dramatic structure was flawed. Tagore had just not developed several characters (like the prince Dhruva) and had allowed the subplot of the Dewan Chandpal to divert attention (Tagore had of course finally deleted Chandpal in Sacrifice). So Chakraborty and Ashok Mukhopadhyay of Theatre Workshop took a brave step, staging a different Visarjan, creating a new prose script by splicing the original tragedy with appropriate passages from Rajarshi (the source novel) and the compact Sacrifice translated back into Bengali. But this adventurous, praiseworthy idea met with rejection from many of Kolkata’s cultural bigwigs, who thought Theatre Workshop had taken unnecessary liberties with Gurudev’s sacrosanct work. The show flopped, leading to recriminations. Ultimately Chakraborty departed from the group and launched Anya Theatre (significantly, “other theatre”). His approach, however, signalled a new beginning to stage interpretations of Tagore.
Valmiki Pratibha (1881)
I shall now return to Tagore’s dramatic corpus sequentially. His very first play, Valmiki Pratibha, usually receives routine treatment that I prefer to ignore. Since most shows of his operatic and dance-dramas are virtually indistinguishable from one another, I consider it futile to attend, leave alone review, them. In order to explain what I mean, I simply contrast two productions of Valmiki Pratibha. In 2004, the group Baikali surprised me with its fresh, earnest, deeply-felt and stirringly-performed version with the magic of live singing throughout, under the noted Rabindrasangit exponent Pramita Mallick. Unlike most presentations that deal with the play as no more than a vehicle for songs, she saw it as theatre first, the way Tagore intended. Even each of the dacoits received an individuated and humorous characterization. Baikali’s considerable effort in this department made us look forward to more.
The Tagoreans, from London, illustrated the opposite. Their production (February 2010), at the Tagore Centre of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, in supposedly traditional style, meant painted backcloth, extensive foliage chopped from trees to represent the forest, all songs lip-synced to a soundtrack, and smoke machines whenever goddesses entered. Any true Tagorean would understand that this was a bundle of contradictions. Tagore rejected the obsolete Victorian pictorial scenery in his mature productions, so this kind of misguided antiquarianism was pointless. On the other hand, using recorded music and smoke technology made it obviously untraditional. And to desecrate living green branches in the name of artistic décor showed utter callousness in our ecologically-minded times. The director, Gairika Gupta, protracted the duration to nearly two hours by repeating songs like “Rim jhim ghana ghana re” without any justification in the original. She split the Vanadevis into a group plus an unwarranted soloist and turned the dacoits into buffoons. As Valmiki, Ananda Gupta affected a sickly saintliness from the beginning and moved stiffly as if scared of losing his longhair wig or diagnosed with acute spondylosis. No wonder he sought divine support. The only redeeming feature was the little girl, performed with sincerity by Suchismita Ganguli.
Later the same year, I saw a most inspiring Tagore production, Valmiki Pratibha by the West Bengal Correctional Services, which proved how drama therapy can transform the lives of prisoners. Tagore himself could not have foreseen a more appropriate match of actor with character: Nigel Akkara, serving time as a criminal and subsequently released and now rehabilitated, performed the part of Ratnakar the dacoit redeemed into Valmiki, composer of the Ramayana. The director, Alokananda Roy, took art into prison, successfully instilling dignity and self-esteem into once-demoralized inmates – her cast and crew. They used forms they knew, like Chhau dance and cottage handicrafts, to create everything down to the costumes and props. I only wished that, in the spirit of things, the Chhau representation of deities had come back in the concluding tableau, instead of Roy herself appearing as Saraswati. Inspector-General B. D. Sharma, who sang Valmiki’s songs himself, claimed that West Bengal boasts the only such programme of public performances by convicts in the world. If so, then the old adage of what Bengal does today, India may do tomorrow, could still hold true.
Mayar Khela (1888)
Mayar Khela does not occupy a particularly lofty niche in Tagore’s oeuvre. An early musical drama owing its triangular plot to his first prose play, Nalini (1884), it treats love with immature romanticism compared to his complex explorations of relationships later. Unlike Valmiki Pratibha, it was theatrically weak, too, because Tagore gave the songs precedence and sketched a thin story around them. Yet it has its own significance. Pramada’s character offers a prototype of the Tagorean theme of the suffering that results if one mistakes love as superficial attraction and pleasure. In theatre history, its all-women premiere (including the male roles) at Bethune College in 1888 proved revolutionary at a time when respectable ladies never appeared on stage. Its music was exceptional. And it obviously meant a lot to Tagore, since he revisited it fifty years later, transforming it into a dance-drama, though not in the same league as the reigning trinity of Chandalika, Chitrangada and Shyama.
So, by deciding to present the original Mayar Khela, Baikali (September 2009) took a calculated risk that the superior or intrinsically Tagorean qualities would overcome the syrupy content. The gamble did not entirely pay off. We got a faithful production, but felt that the director, Pramita Mallick, should have adopted the dance-drama text, as Tagore’s experienced hand had whittled down a third of it in 1938, tightening it substantially. The brochure remarked that this composition remained incomplete, but that is a myth; anyone reading it (first published in the 1950 edition of Gitabitan) will realize that it shares the typically economic, episodic structure of the other dance-dramas.
Tagore’s unskilled, youthful characterization handicapped the actors: Ashok and Kumar flitted about like moonstruck adolescents (no wonder Tagore gave them just a token presence in 1938) but, surprisingly, so did the hero Amar (Sasha Ghosal). The leads’ faces resembled fixed masks – the stolid, self-effacing Shanta (Snita Pramanik) signifying restraint and reluctance, and Amar gazing lovelorn. Pramada is the most dramatic character, but Shruti Naha Sen could not express Pramada’s potential for inner conflict. The songs, albeit impeccably recorded by the cast themselves, proved the biggest disappointment – theatre must never resort to lip-syncing to a soundtrack, for it immediately loses the magic of live singing, which Baikali had accomplished so charmingly in their previous Valmiki Pratibha. However, the choreography clicked very well; I could hardly believe that the performers had virtually no previous training in dance. Saugata Banerjee’s colourfully-designed costumes were offset by Sohan Bandopadhyay’s blatantly symbolical triangular set pieces.
Raja o Rani (1889)
In one of those strange twists of stage history, the Tagore play that became his biggest hit on the commercial Kolkata stage during his lifetime, Raja o Rani, has vanished from the Bengali theatre now. Understandably so, for it is even more derivative than Visarjan. The only production I have seen, a Mauritian Raja aur Rani brought by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (July 2009), proved yet again the poor quality yet wide circulation of Tagore’s authorized English versions published by Macmillan, and the general ignorance about later, better, more complete translations. Tagore himself condensed his five-act blank-verse original into a lifeless two-act paraphrase titled The King and the Queen, which has neither the poetic flourish of Raja o Rani, nor the power of his final take on this drama, Tapati. Not knowing the difference, nor the existence of full translations of both plays, Triveni Kala Mandir from Mauritius rendered The King and the Queen into Hindi, a terrible decision. No wonder the predominantly Bengali audience gaped in disbelief. They might have appreciated the production a little more had they, in turn, been informed that the director, Balraj Rampaul, applied the very popular Mauritian form called Natak to the story. Indian labourers from the Hindi heartland who settled on the island from the nineteenth century onwards took with them memories of Ramlila and Nautanki, eventually naturalizing them there. The loud declamations and posturing on stage therefore had a separate pedigree from what our homegrown hoity-toity Tagoreans expected. Still, it was a bad mismatch between folk style and Readers Digest text. Amid the colourful royal costumes, however, a constable in London bobby helmet, Punjabi kurta and Kolhapuri sandals looked quite an anachronistic treat.
One contemporary difficulty with Visarjan is the issue of animal sacrifice, a sensational subject in 1890 that has lost much of its relevance now. The straightforward story, therefore, becomes wholly transformed to the level of symbols, which in a sense saves the play from the wastebasket of mere topicality. Sombhu Mitra, for example, meant his Bohurupee production in 1961 to express modern man’s quest for lost faith. Leftist interpreters see the drama as a dialectic between reactionary superstition and progressive ideology. For Bibhash Chakraborty, Visarjan suggested that any belief – religious, political, social – becomes dangerous for man when it has no logic behind it, just blind fanaticism. But he had actually selected Visarjan in shocked reaction to an internecine massacre during the years of insurgency in Tripura. Today, idolatry should become the major target of the tragedy, given the increasing proclivity among Bengalis to organize ostentatious pujas to various gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon that hardly attracted as much attention a hundred years ago.
Abhijit Sen’s directorial note to Visarjan, produced by Natyam (June 1989), sought to explain the choice of this play for the group’s debut, whereas it seemed quite appropriate that a young outfit should begin with an early work by Tagore. People sometimes forget that Tagore was barely 29 when he published Visarjan, that it does not bear the marks of a sophisticated dramatic hand. Written under the influence of Shakespearean tragedy, it is so different from his mature plays that he recognized its contrived qualities later on. Natyam’s manifesto indicated their twin desires to take Bengali theatre into new directions through Rabindranath and to become aware of his plays anew. Unfortunately, the indigenous theatrical tradition in Tagore cited by Sen is scarcely evident in Visarjan. But as he observed, the play remains relevant thematically for its propagation of humanism and rejection of blind faith and superstitious ritual. Yet Natyam played safe with the literally iconoclastic last scene: they should have depicted more explicitly Tagore’s very important stage direction towards the end, specifically requiring Raghupati to throw the image into the river waters.
Stylistically, the acting fell into the declamatory mode that has become the norm for delivering Tagore’s verse drama. The script itself encourages melodrama (the last scene, for example, contains 25 exclamation marks) and, unhappily, Sen appeared not to have heeded Tagore’s own later reservations about the play: “our attempts to imitate the blast of a hurricane led us easily into exaggeration” (My Reminiscences). Lower-key speech rhythms would have prevented such excesses. The worst offenders were Aparna and Gunavati – no wonder Tagore tended to discard the women’s roles in the later versions. And Govindamanikya gave such an emasculated performance that one wondered how he could remain the Raja of Tripura for even a day.
In 1991, Visarjan seemed to have prophetically reflected the deadly conflict of Hindu revivalism versus state law. The productions by Theatron and Gandhar (February 1991) referred to this threat. Consequently, Salil Bandyopadhyay of Theatron justified retaining the full political dimension of the play, including the Mughal assault on Tripura. Asit Mukhopadhyay of Gandhar omitted this portion but kept most of the textual ending (which Theatron surprisingly dropped); not only that, he appended a little epilogue to embody his personal message, “How many more Jaysinhas will have to be sacrificed to bring enlightenment to the innumerable Raghupatis?” The only other unconventional touch was Gandhar’s addition of the singing beggar, a role employed famously by Sisir Bhaduri.
Otherwise, as with most Visarjans, both Theatron and Gandhar remained cautious. An indication of how much was Gandhar’s visualization of the scene in which Raghupati laments over Jaysinha’s body – Mukhopadhyay consciously copied the familiar photo of Tagore (who acted the priest’s part when young) bent over the corpse. Theatron maintained the heightened elocution of verse when normal speaking rhythms serve better: Bengali groups do not seem to know that Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter has been delivered in ordinary tones for over a hundred years, and that Tagore can surely benefit from similar treatment; one does not pour salt over already salted food. However, Asit Mukhopadhyay did cultivate a conversational pitch for Raghupati. Unfortunately, very few of the other characterizations lived in the memory. Theatron’s most individualized part was Dipak Mitra’s Machiavellian Chandpal, while Sumanta Mukhopadhyay as Jaysinha certainly chose a heart-stopping way to fall after dying – collapsing backwards over a flight of stairs. Debasish Roychowdhury made a more regal Gobindamanikya than his Gandhar counterpart, but Gandhar’s Sumita Sinha was a better queen. Theatron’s set by Gautam Basu had an impact with its brooding and gloomy stone facades.
Neither Visarjan materialized Tagore’s iconoclastic title pun: visarjan does not just mean sacrifice, whether of animals or of Jaysinha, but also immersion. Does fear of reaction stop directors from showing the idol tossed into the river, with the accompanying sound effect? After all, Tagore was saying something about image worship too – that God is everywhere, not confined in a clod of clay. When Raghupati addresses Aparna at the end as “mother” and says he has seen the pratyaksha pratima, “perceptible goddess”, Tagore is returning to the motto of Prakritir Pratisodh, where his sanyasi finds ultimate truth in affection for an ostracized orphan girl. Love for God is best achieved through love for other human beings, by “attaining the Infinite within the finite” (My Reminiscences).
In January 2006, the most sought-after ticket in Kolkata theatre was Visarjan, a collaboration between Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre and Usha Ganguli’s Rangakarmee. Never of late had one seen such a press of people desperate to get into a premiere. The sight of theatregoers and workers alike scouring strange faces for a possible extra ticket and pouncing on the rare one if offered, recalled scenes outside the Academy of Fine Arts three decades previously. Evidently the spectators (including this viewer) came anticipating much. Simply put, the results belied the buzz, culminating in lukewarm applause from the discerning audience. “Habib-sahib had phoned me last year that he wanted to direct Visarjan,” recounted Ganguli, “And I readily agreed. Rangakarmee took on this project to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary this month. I translated the play anew because published Hindi translations were poor.” This was an ambitious undertaking to begin with, since Tagore composed a full-length verse drama. By rendering it into prose, albeit smooth and idiomatic spoken Hindustani, Ganguli did away with the text’s appealing poetic quality. Thus stripped into less than two hours, this version exposed the plot, which is not its strongest feature.
Let us face it, Visarjan is not one of Tagore’s best plays, though its anti-fundamentalist message has become even more vital. The problem lies in its derivative dramaturgy, for in his twenties Tagore, attacking idol worship, was still idolizing the style and form of Shakespeare. Still to discover his original theatrical voice, he converted his far superior novel Rajarshi into a five-act tragedy with multiple subplots. But neither the abrupt melodramatic death at the end nor the superfluous stapled-together subplots convince, once shorn of the poetry. Ganguli should have taken her cue from Tagore’s own reduction of Visarjan into the one-act English translation and the simpler Bengali edition for children, completely disassembling the script and dramatizing it like she did impressively with such texts as Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali. Instead, both Ganguli and Tanvir treated Visarjan with too much respect.
Meanwhile in performance, the respective acting techniques of their groups clashed. Tanvir is famous for his Indianized variation on the Brechtian epic-theatre approach: openly presentational, with objective, detached acting. Ganguli is known for psychologically realistic theatre, often highly involved with emotions and turbocharged action. In Visarjan, the performers followed one or the other style, leaving us confounded. In a parade of reversals, for example, Naya Theatre’s Ram Chandra Singh (as Raghupati) strutted and fretted passionately, whereas Rangakarmee’s Raja Ram Yagnik (Gobindamanikya), normally a fine naturalistic actor, mouthed his speeches coldly. A blatantly wrong choice, Nageen Tanvir played Aparna as almost mentally challenged, while Partha Sarathi Sarkar showed no motivation for Jaysinha’s sudden suicide. I thought the live goat did the best job: sensing that it was not to be sacrificed, it disdainfully surveyed the scene. Technically, too, the production was below par. The black backdrop went up and down without reason; the only set piece, of the temple, looked puny and its image of Kali threatened to teeter off midway, dissatisfied with the proceedings; light cues regularly misfired, with the backlighting for Kali a major disaster. Only Zarin Chaudhuri’s authentic Tripura costumes stood out as unusual.
As for Naya Theatre’s own later Raj-Rakt (August 2006), adapted into Chhattisgarhi by Habib Tanvir, little distinguished it from his collaboration on Visarjan. Although also billed as an adaptation of the source Rajarshi, that debt occurred only in some narrative portions that actually killed the theatricality. Tanvir’s obligatory tribal dancers trooped in for no reason at all, like a brand tag frayed at the edges. Sadly, he proved the weak structure of Tagore’s original and, in his director’s note, badly mixed up the sequence of its various editions, matched by an inaccurate stage history in Samik Bandyopadhyay’s programme note on Tagorean drama. The production gained importance only because it featured in the inaugural Rabindra Utsav organized by Happenings, the palpable buzz around which recalled the enthusiasm that used to greet the pioneering national theatre festivals two decades ago, before festivals degenerated into wheeler-dealing event management. On paper, this promised a feast of Tagorean premieres, which the organizers have since established as an annual event. For the concept, effort behind and commissioning of these recent productions, therefore, Happenings deserves thanks.
Most ironically, given the iconoclastic nature of Visarjan, Happenings’ second Rabindra Utsav in August 2007, aided by the Government of West Bengal, maintained the Indian habit of bardolatry, virtually commanding the VIP artists and left-leaning mandarins present to offer floral homage to a large portrait of Tagore, who would surely have disapproved of such image worship. The play that left the greatest impact at the festival was Visarjan in its Tamil incarnation, Vituttal, by the Kattaikkuttu Sangam of Kanchipuram, which imparts professional training to young villagers in the traditional form of Terukkuttu. Unconsciously, it followed Tagore’s footsteps when in 1936 he had abridged the top-heavy tragedy for a show by the schoolchildren of Santiniketan. If directors P. Rajagopal and Hanne de Bruin had consulted that text, their adaptation could have benefitted from Tagore’s excision of the extraneous subplots in the original. Still, the tremendously talented kids (including girls, normally excluded from Terukkuttu), their high-pitched singing meant for the outdoors, kirukki pirouettes and ornate bujakirti costumes made it a treat. The conflict between religion and state retains its validity, Rajagopal (Raghupati) and R. Devan (Govindamanikya) adding a local Tamil colour too. The troupe said that it intends to create an eight-hour overnight version in Terukkuttu style: a stirring prospect.
Bohurupee staged Malini in 1986, a historically significant production because this early play has rarely appeared on stage. In this respect it was in keeping with the group’s trailblazing theatrical activities of three decades before, under Sombhu Mitra. Malini is important as Tagore’s first dramatic expression of his deep respect for Buddhist principles. In spite of some structural weaknesses, it remains socially very relevant as a plea for religious tolerance. Kumar Roy’s capable direction (I saw it in May 1987) resurrected the play from theatrical obscurity, bringing its literary content to life. However, the major setback in staging was the title role. Malini is a princess with great strength of character and conviction; she must express an inner dignity and spiritual peace that is the central force in the play. Dipa Dasgupta conveyed beauty and emotion, but not the kind of powerful personality and spirituality that could plausibly convert orthodox Brahman priests to her faith. Consequently, the transcendent values embodied in Malini became subservient to the human dilemma in Supriya, whose emotional choice between love for Malini and friendship for Kshemankar was emphasized at the cost of the ethical choice between religious right (Malini) and wrong (Kshemankar). Debesh Ray Chaudhuri as Kshemankar made the most of the antagonist’s role; Saumitra Basu and Namita Majumdar put in sensitive portrayals of Supriya and the Queen, respectively. From the purist’s viewpoint the inclusion of songs was unnecessary since they are absent in the original text.
Kolkata’s only academic Drama Department, at Rabindra Bharati University, received some long-overdue reinvigoration under its new faculty, judging by its production of Prayaschitta (August 1995) – an intriguing selection in itself, because it is not one of Tagore’s best plays. The source novel, Bau-thakuranir Hat, is weak to begin with, but Tagore faced even greater trouble dramatizing it into a manageable play, eventually rewriting it altogether as Paritran (1927). Consequently, Somnath Sinha deserved praise for editing it into shape; furthermore, he directed with a sensitivity to its emotional resonances. This version of Prayaschitta got the feeling of the play across, the rasa. No director of Tagore can succeed without understanding this ineffable element in his dramatic oeuvre, though Sinha should have curbed the tendency to go melodramatic. Another unusually solid contribution came from the choreography: Sruti Bandyopadhyay obviously laboured over this aspect. While her picturizations did not always work, some were very moving, especially that of the villagers in “Ami marer sagar pari debo” (a song, incidentally, that is not in the original text). It did not surprise to find Pijush Chakrabarti do well in Pratapaditya’s role, since he was a professor in the Department. Among the students, Debabrata Chakrabarti as Dhananjay and Mahuya Sarkar as Pratap’s daughter impressed the most. For historical reasons, Chakrabarti could have reinforced Dhananjay’s Gandhian side a little more – after all, Tagore created this prototype of Gandhi even before the Mahatma came to India.
After years of no productions of Tagore’s metaphysical masterpiece, 2000 brought three. Sangbarta’s version (March 2000) did not live up to expectations. The director Sunil Das inexplicably followed the final script of The King of the Dark Chamber, recently printed in Sisir Das’s edition of Tagore’s English Writings. If he wanted the most stageworthy and authoritative version, he should have taken Arup Ratan (1935), in which Tagore tautened the drama, deleting superfluous characters like Sudarshana’s father, reducing the warring kings to three, and conflating Surangama and Rohini into one maid’s role. Sunil Das’s well-argued rationale for visualizing the Raja (resonantly delivered by Santanu Gangopadhyay) still misrepresented Tagorean philosophy about the treachery of sight. The cast, too, failed to express the depth of this classic. Finally, despite Enakshi Chattopadhyay’s evocative soundtrack, recordings militate against Tagore’s concept of openly showing all singers and musicians.
The next director, Abhijit Sen, rightly argued that the religious climate called for reviving Raja, but Natyam’s production (June 2000) was relatively conventional. Tagore’s familiar plays demand deconstruction and reinterpretation by artists of vision and imagination so that we can see them afresh. Sen partially trod this path by editing Raja considerably, but as I have said, since Bengali directors obviously feel the need to edit it (and so did Tagore), they should go for Tagore’s own final compacted version, Arup Ratan. I cannot understand why they continue to hold the verbose Raja in esteem when Tagore himself evidently outgrew it. In fact, up to the interval, Sen followed more or less the same development as Arup Ratan, building to a crescendo that requires only the last scene to top it. The intermission ruined the tension; then came all the superfluities omitted by Tagore from Arup Ratan: Sudarshana’s departure to her father’s kingdom, the war among the kings for her. True, Arup Ratan decreases the Raja’s speeches, but Tagore knew what he was doing. Few actors can convey the unseen Raja adequately (Sen voiced the part himself over a mike); besides, he must have wanted the Raja as arup, or formless, as possible. However, Sen’s presentation had high traditional values: live songs by the actors, dances where necessary, distinctive performances by the secondary characters and supernumeraries. In particular, Ushasi Gangopadhyay (Surangama) had a strong singing voice, complemented by Rathin De (Thakurda). Only Sudakshina Ghosh (Sudarshana) disappointed, unable to express the heroine’s transcendent transformation.
Raja by the Centre for Asian Theatre, Dhaka (December 2000), offered an eye-opening experience. It took this young Bangladeshi repertory to show how the classic can flower. Local Rajas have been stiff, too literal, pompous. But Naila Azad directed it with the fluidity, joie de vivre and sincerity that Tagore would have wanted. It was remarkable for a junior director to reveal such mastery of editing (the text chopped and rearranged liberally, for example, interchanging the first two scenes), physicalization (in a spiritual play), colour (a vivid spring palette), mass choreography (freed from the shackles of conventional Rabindrik dance, yet precise) and music (full-throated solos and choruses sung by the actors themselves). The novel interpretation set up a Buddhist backdrop – justifiably, for Tagore sourced it from a Jataka tale – and portrayed Thakurda not as an elder but a priest. True, the acting did not always touch par, particularly the whiny Sudarshana (Tahmina Sharif) and grotesquely-caricatured rival Rajas. We could also protest against the Buddhist ceremonial preliminaries as something Tagore, an anti-ritualist, would not have approved, and the un-Tagorean reliance on harmonium as lead instrument. But given CAT’s achievement, we forgave these excesses.
With the exception of Bohurupee’s previous history, only after the copyright regime expired in 2001 did Tagore’s creative restlessness finally rub off on Bengali directors collectively. Welcome signs were evident at Rabindra Sadan’s first-ever Rabindra Natyotsav in March 2003.The concept of Blind Opera’s Raja (April 2003) stunned spectators. Tagore might never have imagined that his classic about deep inner vision versus glittering outer appearances could one day be staged by the visually impaired. And Blind Opera could not have chosen a more appropriate play for themselves. This group raised the stock of Kolkata’s theatre internationally, for how many countries can boast of a company of sightless actors? Plus it makes no concessions, regularly preparing new productions like other troupes. Apart from the obvious resonances of a handicapped Sudarshana (Sutapa Samanta) wanting to see her invisible Raja, Blind Opera delivered the songs beautifully and the dancers choreographed by Batu Pal were unbelievable. Director Shubhashis Gangopadhyay’s only error was reliance for sequencing on the notorious unauthorized translation, The King of the Dark Chamber. He moved on the right track toward economizing the 1910 source (which gets bogged down in the middle), but stopped short with that incomplete 1914 translation, not realizing that Tagore himself recognized the defect and rectified it in Arup Ratan. Still, this was an experience not to be missed.
Sopanam’s Malayalam interpretation of Raja (August 2006) went back to the traditional performances of Kerala with which respected director Kavalam Narayana Panikkar works. He used a script collated with Tagore’s Arup Ratan, evidencing an in-depth textual study of Tagore that most directors, Bengali or non-Bengali, do not pursue. He changed the invisible Raja into a phallic black Teyyam – a ritualistic oracle. My problem with this vision lay in its irreconcileability with Tagore’s, who resisted giving “formless” godhead any shape whatsoever. The music, on the other hand, conveyed the spiritual dimension because music in any case is abstract, not pictorial.
Prachyanat’s Raja … Ebang Anyanya, from Dhaka (December 2010), enthused us with Azad Abul Kalam’s novel directorial concept of politically interpreting Raja, but then rapidly slid into a mix of travesty and imposition. Just like the menacing soldiers in the hall disappeared after the play began, the initial spark dissipated. Kalam tackled head-on the problem with the uncut Raja, of the inessential plot of battling kings, making them relevant to our time by dressing them up as assorted international leaders like Manmohan Singh, an Arab sheikh, a cowboy with a stars-and-stripes scarf (Kanchiraj), and others. In such a context, Sudarshana obviously symbolized Bangladesh. But inspecting the royal ramp closely, we found one powerful country missing, China. Evidently Kalam saw no threat there. This blind spot immediately defeated his purpose for, if anything, Tagore attacked all kinds of inhuman state machinery. Moreover, Kalam forced burlesque on the actors in these parts, trivializing Tagore’s grand spiritual journey. In a feeble attempt to contemporize, he repeatedly screened overused videos ranging from atom bombs to 9/11, as if we could not make these connections ourselves. Yet he baulked at Tagore’s inclusiveness: he excluded his cowboy villain from the enlightenment at the end. On the positive side, the energetic dancing choreographed by Snata Shahrin attained professional levels, and combined Indian classical with Western innovatively. But Kaartik’s music and singing were surprisingly weak, besides leaving out many of the best songs. Much of the impact depends on Sudarshana and Surangama – given flat, cardboard portrayals by Afsana Mimi and Rubaiya Manjur respectively, while Kalam’s own voice as the Raja affected the standard Bengali poetic cliché. Only Sanjida Anwar’s Rohini was unusual in her liveliness.
Until 2001, to do Tagore in Bangladesh had its advantages: one did not fear the spectre of a censorial Visva-Bharati hovering over every dialogue. In India, Tagore scripts had to be submitted for approval, recalling the colonial policing of the Dramatic Performances Act. Indeed, that artist’s nightmare was just the picture painted in Achalayatan, by Nagarik from Dhaka (May 1998). A fossilized institution following calcified rules, perhaps the inevitable fate of all institutions – how ironic that Tagore never foresaw that his own freedom-oriented creation would go the way of Achalayatan! Or maybe he did – the play contains the characters of an Acharya (Chancellor) and Upacharya (Vice-Chancellor), though Nagarik unwisely deleted the latter.
Kolkata had not seen a major production of Achalayatan in the previous dozen years or so, though it is a classic satire on orthodoxy of all kinds, particularly religious. Dhaka, then, showed us the path to Tagore; and for most of the first half Nagarik did a splendid job, with emotive acting and rich singing. Unhappily, it did not hold together after the break, the Darbhaks being introduced too late and performed rather tentatively. Besides, from the start, Ali Zaker’s choppy editing of Tagore’s six scenes into thirteen interrupted the fluid original flow and caused technical difficulties on stage, while his ethnic concept for the Shonpanshus looked and sounded artificial. Nagarik also suffered from the absence of lots of young boys whom Tagore used so effectively. Still, Achalayatan offered our conservatives newer ways to approach Tagore.
A similar difficulty underlay Achalayatan by Chhandik (April 2003), from Baharampur in West Bengal. Like most Bengali intellectuals do with Tagore’s plays, they revered the standard edition, whereas any imaginative director now would consider other recensions, notably Guru (1918), to arrive at a conflated performance script suited to his purposes. As with Raja, the midsection of Achalayatan drags, which Tagore attempted to minimize in Guru. But since director Kishalay Sengupta was more respectful than Blind Opera, the problem persisted. He kept alive Tagore’s revolutionary fervour – to tear down the walls of ossified religion and education – while proposing that the new society integrate knowledge (in the ashramites), action (the Shonpanshus) and devotion (the Darbhaks) for the greater good. The show was actually 17 years old, but rarely got the chance to come to Kolkata. In 2003, the boys in the original cast looked visibly in their thirties, yet the liveliness survived. Chandan Majumder held the performance together as the sceptical Panchak.
In September 2008, Ideas Unlimited (Mumbai) staged Achalayatan in Gujarati, directed by Manoj Shah, the translation uncredited. For reasons related to Gujarat’s contemporary politics of religion, Shah’s choice seemed quite brave, for Tagore is at his most scathing about rigid institutionalized Hinduism in this play. What struck me about the audience reception was that the smattering of Gujaratis in the hall was obviously moved; they responded appreciatively at the right moments and applauded loudly at the curtain call. Evidently the dialogue hit home, even though Shah’s interpretation was not the best I have seen. He presented a simple, stripped-down version, with just a few actors constituting the various groups of young men, virtually no songs (which add so much to the impact of any Tagorean drama) and only a ramp upstage by way of set.
It is difficult to go wrong with a play like Dakghar. Those spectators who know it become teary in advance, while the few for whom the classic is new, succumb quite rapidly to its purity of pathos. The Marathi production by Awishkar of Mumbai (December 1987) was faithful to the original, despite the questionable use of some aural and visual special effects. The director, Sulabha Deshpande, inserted soundtrack recitations of several relevant poems from Gitanjali at opportune moments. This move was open to debate, for it did not strike one as being necessary. The impulse to explicate a symbolic text also manifested itself in Chander Honavar’s lighting design. A cycloramic backdrop projected different scenes as seen by Amal’s mind and at the end he moved upstage towards the backdrop, on which galaxies of stars rapidly receded into space. But does Tagore need embellishment with star-wars technology to become comprehensible?
There was perhaps a need to break with an interval (Tagore specifies three scenes whereas this production employed continuous staging), to separate the second half in which Amal is clearly bedridden. On the other hand, the low-key and sensitive acting allowed the simple surcharged emotions underlying Tagore’s prose to speak for themselves. Deshpande worked very well with children, for Pranoti Pradhan (Amal), Madhura Gore (Sudha) and the others delivered natural performances with no hint of precociousness. Among the adults, Arun Kakade (Madhav) and Nagesh Morvekar (Dahiwala) impressed the most.
It was curiously appropriate that Wolfram Mehring from Germany should direct Dakghar at Max Mueller Bhavan (January 1992), because it is the only Tagore play to have had its world premiere outside India, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1913. How curious, too, that Mehring used pure white costumes – virtually a uniform – just as the Abbey did so many decades ago. There the resemblances ended. Since this Dakghar was done in Bengali by members of Sangbarta, Mehring relied on directorial assistance from its head, Sunil Das. Where the Abbey’s designer Lennox Robinson utilized “Gordon Craig screens”, Mehring had no set or props, barring a rectangular white “ceiling” suspended above downstage right to indicate that the space below it was Amal’s room. Where the Abbey represented the script naturalistically and with pathos, Mehring brought into play the abstract tradition of German expressionism and converted it into a spiritual allegory from the start.
As usual, the play itself is so perfect that it works wonders whatever treatment it gets. There can be little doubt that its directness and simplicity attracted Mehring initially, the same traits that have made it the most familiar of Tagore’s plays outside Bengal and the easiest point of entry for anyone wanting to experience the world of his mature drama. Besides, the absence of Tagore’s characteristic songs in the printed text could only have helped Mehring in conceptualizing his own production. He deliberately slowed down the delivery of lines to achieve a stylized effect. He doubled roles. He employed half-masks apparently to distinguish insincere characters, in the expressionistic manner of Eugene O’Neill, but then somewhat incomprehensibly applied them on the divine representatives as well: the royal herald and the royal physician. The music was mainly percussive, omitting melody, probably to avoid the risk of sentimentality. Debkalpa Das was a dreamy, wistful Amal, and Sudarshan Roy a down-to-earth Madhab. Sunil Das fluently doubled as the watchman and Thakurda/Fakir. Subhasishranjan Das made a distinctive impact with a mannered, jerky caricature of the village doctor. However, Munmun Datta looked too old for the part of Sudha, who surely must be a girl as young and innocent as Amal.
Kalakshetra’s Dakghar (August 2006) completely transformed young Amal into a symbol. Instead of the usual child, H. Kanhailal cast his sixty-year-old wife, H. Sabitri. Immediately, Amal signified something else: not just the human spirit (which Tagore wanted), but also Manipur herself, indoctrinated and languishing in ill health as the doctor prescribed the “cure” of closing all windows. Kanhailal even painted Sudha negatively, stressing that she asks Amal to pay for her flower. Sabitri’s face displayed a child’s feelings expressively, and the lyrical Manipuri dances combined with H. Tomba’s music suited the play’s mood. Most remarkably, Kanhailal included actors from Tripura, Silchar and upper Assam speaking Bengali, Assamese and Manipuri to make it a unified northeastern statement – about sociopolitical neglect?
Swapna-sandhani’s Dakghar (October 2007) merited attention on account of director Koushik Sen’s innovative contemporization, though he mistakenly attributed the play to “a time when verse drama was enjoying a revival in Europe”. On the contrary, prose had become the accepted theatrical medium of the first two decades of the twentieth century. It opened with the sight of Sanchayan Ghosh’s set, constructed like a horizontal triangle rather than the normal rectangle, the apex formed by two sides meeting upstage at the centre of the backdrop. The two converging white walls and ceiling created not just a confining effect but also resembled a sanitized bubble or enclosed tomographic dome, as opposed to the usual liberating spiritual associations of white. Inside stood Amal’s toys, other playthings and a beanbag on which he lay whenever he felt tired, but no clichéd bed. Behind, he saw the backlit shadows of people passing by in the real world outside.
The politics of today’s Bengal intruded – Amal got to hear a procession of protesters shouting for their land – but other than that, Sen did not interfere with Tagore’s text. Nonetheless, he did bring it up to date: the Kabiraj was a regular doctor (albeit with an excessively childish bag), the Daiwala looked lost surrounded by fast food in tetrapacks, the Prahari wore camouflage fatigues, the village headman was a greasy speechifying politician. It seemed like Amal’s role had been awaiting young Riddhi Sen, whose parents had placed him on stage as soon as he could walk, and in acting he had gone from strength to strength before reaching double digits in age. This show revolved around him – perfectly natural, charming yet vulnerable, not a word tripped over or gesture extra – the first of many brilliant lead performances to come, one hoped.
Like every other artistic journeyman today, director Sunil Shanbag needed to connect “disparate narratives” in Walking to the Sun (Arpana from Mumbai, August 2010); Dakghar by itself could not suffice. It does not take long for anyone into that play to discover the touching production by the Polish Dr Janusz Korczak preparing his Jewish orphans in the Warsaw ghetto for the inevitable death they faced at Nazi hands. So Shanbag got Vivek Narayan to write a play beside a play – Korczak narrating in English on stage left and Dakghar enacted in Hindi on stage right – yet forgot to acknowledge their debt to Jill Parvin, the British director who first researched the 1942 production and created her own The Post Office-within-a-play in 1993. Narayan’s script was different, but used two of Parvin’s distinctive techniques: Korczak crossed over to act the royal Kabiraj at the end, and the whole adult cast lapsed into behaving like kids. Surprisingly, he deleted Korczak’s amazing dream in which Tagore asked him to produce The Post Office, and the lady teacher in the orphanage who actually directed it. Meanwhile, in order to incorporate Korczak, he cut Tagore’s yogurt seller, the little boys and much dialogue. As for the acting, Korczak’s English accent was imperfect, but the rest expressed Dakghar poignantly. Barbed wire taut across high pillars gave the set (by Nayantara Kotian and Vivej Jadhav) a concentration-camp effect, but Moushumi Bhowmik’s usually pellucid music left us strangely dissatisfied.
The premier Rabindrasangit school Dakshini held a theatre festival (January 2002) that featured not just the obligatory musical- and dance-dramas, but “regular” plays. Phalguni came as a major surprise owing to the presence of a large number of talented juvenile males – an extremely rare commodity in contemporary theatre, for most boys have no time to spare from learning how to become engineers and managers or, in leisure hours, opening batsmen. The energy and feeling with which they acted and sang conveyed beautifully the joy of living that Tagore evoked in this paean to spring and life. In fact, they completely outshone the girls, who danced the entr’actes in lacklustre fashion, greatly deficient in facial abhinaya. The director, Debasish Roychowdhury, soulfully sang the part that Tagore himself made famous, of Andha Baul, but could not enact him with the same verve. He should also have paid attention to costume aesthetics: in one duet, two girls resembled nurses in starched white uniform.
Traditionalists may tut-tut, but Tagore would have loved every minute of Chetana’s interpretation of the prelude to Phalguni (April 2003). It seemed most appropriate for an author who himself championed the new in this play. Suman Mukhopadhyay captured the fun, the vitality, the immediacy and the radicalism of the original. Taking a leaf out of Peter Brook’s book, he applied the metaphor of a playground, like Brook did with the circus for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the mise-en-scene designed by Hiran Mitra. So, amid seesaws, slides and swings, the Raja (acted by Supriya Datta in a flabbergasted manner) perched on a rope trapeze suspended from above, apprehensive of all the problems that beset him: war, famine, politics, death, even his in-laws. Mukhopadhyay contemporized the text brilliantly yet faithfully, never losing sight of Tagore’s humour – an aspect many Tagoreans unfortunately neglect as beneath their dignity to notice. Innovatively, Tagore did not name the speakers of his dialogue; Mukhopadhyay distributed the lines perfectly. Sudipta Kundu’s choreography expressed the joie de vivre of “Path diye ke jay go chale”, set to soft rock by Debajyoti Mishra in a musical masterstroke.
Muktadhara became suddenly topical with the new concern for ecology and the controversy surrounding the Narmada dam. A production by the Drama Department of Rabindra Bharati University (March 1991) confirmed Tagore’s farsighted intuition in disapproving of such mammoth technological behemoths for human, social and natural reasons. Despite Kumar Roy’s timely choice of the play, it amazed one to find such amateurish standards of acting emanating from a department of theatre. The bombastic stance of the engineer Bibhuti, the purely decorative function of the crown prince Abhijit, the monotonous wails of the bereaved mother belonged to bad melodrama. Only Asit Sarkar as Dhananjay Bairagi impressed with his natural portrayal and tuneful singing voice. Roy also arranged the crowd scenes effectively. However, in dropping the Guru’s role he deleted one of the rare instances of Tagorean farce, while the omission of Biswajit robbed Abhijit of the opportunity to justify his noble cause in the crucial valedictory speeches before his self-sacrifice. The abstract set design by Rabindranath Chattopadhyay, of triangular pinnacles connected with tiny pennants, created an appropriate effect against the blue and pink lighting on the white backdrop.
Paradoxically enough, Muktadhara sounds far more relevant today than it may have been when Tagore wrote it. It almost seems he had a prophetic vision of how twentieth-century mankind – and specifically Indians – would impose their tyranny on nature in the name of progress. He advocated every tenet now embraced by environmentalists, long before people even deemed it necessary to discuss ecological issues; he was a pioneer green long before the green movement arose in the West and, obviously, long before it became fashionable in our parts. The basic dramatic situation, of a high dam newly constructed straddling a mountain river, immediately recalls such decidedly controversial structures as the Narmada, Tehri and Tista dams. Tagore even named the locale Uttarkut – shades of Uttarkhand. He also imputed a political angle to the dam-building which reminds us of recent times: Uttarkut’s authorities use the dam to control water supply to the inhabitants of Shivtarai lower down in the valley. Uncannily, the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu dispute over the Kaveri, the India-Bangladesh wrangle over the Ganga, stare us in the face. Tagore did not present a single-factor defence for his argument against dams (itself a symbolic argument against dependence on mechanization and technology at the expense of humanism). Besides the political angle and the natural angle – damming a river is unnatural – he expresses the social divide whereby the power of science becomes a tool for one race to exult in its “superiority” over the other. The colloquial exchanges between the citizens of Uttarkut and Shivtarai occur on the level of racist remarks about physical appearance and clothing. Man’s inhumanity to both man and nature is Tagore’s theme.
We must view Bohurupee’s revival of Muktadhara (September 1996) in this context. The group staged it long ago, under Sombhu Mitra, in 1959. The fact that the present director, Kumar Roy, returned to it five years after his production for Rabindra Bharati pointed to a personal fascination with the play, which one could only commend. Among Tagore’s plays, Muktadhara is one of the most neglected. On various occasions I have recommended it to various directors. Only Roy appeared to be on the same wavelength. He made it move surprisingly fast, transforming it into an event-packed story – an unusual sensation in a Tagorean drama. He achieved utmost success in the rustics’ comic realism, including his own minor role as a folk performer, which he elevated into one of the high points. By bringing back the part of the Guru (whom he had wrongly dropped in the Rabindra Bharati production), he built on his intrinsic directorial flair for humour and demonstrated Tagore’s underrated talents as a farceur. He also had Asit Sarkar from the earlier cast reprise Dhananjay Bairagi; Sarkar proved himself again as a singer of exceptional mettle. Among the others, Utpal Bhattacharya was noteworthy as Raja Ranjit.
Nevertheless, this was not a perfect interpretation. Roy persisted in dropping the character of Biswajit – inexplicably so, because of the reason I explained above, not allowing Abhijit to crystallize as protagonist. He also edited too heavily, cutting the play to 90 minutes. Tagore’s two-hour script seems ideal, bolstered by several significant songs which Roy (or music director Arghya Sen) omitted unwarrantably. Finally, one expected more visually from Bohurupee. Tapas Sen’s projections on the backdrop rapidly turned repetitive and predictable. Tagore demands a looming, monstrous structure suggesting the dam, but Indrapramit Ray’s set excluded this and Sen’s lights did not compensate.
Path (The Waterfall), a bilingual version of Muktadhara by the Institute of Factual Theatre Arts (March 2009), had an interesting concept, though one wondered about the meaning of the primary title. Muktadhara’s ecological value grows by the day, whether on industrialization, water sharing or nature conservation amid government vacillation, yet no major groups have touched this classic drama for fourteen years. Director Debasish Dutta scored theoretically in his decision to use both Bengali and English, but their random application made little sense, and the cast’s poor enunciation of the English lines made us wish he had stuck to Bengali entirely. Dutta’s visual design, colourful and symbol-heavy, was the most memorable aspect, with a multi-level installation set by Samir Sarkar and extending to the highly eclectic costumes (even cowboy garb for the authorities, laughably enough). Among the characters one remembered the bald and unclothed Bibhuti, slithering underground like a reptile.
By far the most staged Tagore play in these 25 years was Rakta-karavi. Pathasena based its edition (June 1997) on Badal Sircar’s condensation; he disclaims the rumour that he directed the production. Although Kolkatans did not get too many opportunities to see it, this version travelled extensively outside the metropolis, to rural and suburban areas (including Santiniketan) where audiences welcomed it. Understandably so, because Sircar preserved the fundament of Tagore’s timeless classic pitting innocence, humanity and nature in the shape of Nandini against tyranny, mechanization and plunder of resources in the form of the Raja. A fresh heroine helped, but the Raja tried to emulate Sombhu Mitra’s tremulous voice too much. Nevertheless, it was a production Tagore, who disliked picture-frame theatre, would have been proud of, and Pathasena did the right thing in not approaching Visva-Bharati for permission because the Raja-like guardians of Tagore’s treasures there might have niggled about textual omissions and disapproved of Sircar using Tagore’s preface as expository dialogue.
Jogesh Mime Academy’s Kholo Dwar (June 2000), based on Rakta-karavi, proved the worth of conceptualizing Tagore’s plays anew. Because Jogesh Dutta’s medium is mime, he had to forge a completely nonverbal “text”. With all the words banished, he artistically reconstructed the drama in his own style. This made it more exciting than a standard production because we did not know what to expect. Although Tagore himself staged a “mime” Arup Ratan in 1924, most Indian mime is stuck in the modern Western mould derived from Decroux and Marceau. It was heartening to find Dutta experimenting with an indigenous story. A young team enacted all the main parts. They entered from the auditorium, celebrating the harvest festival, and exited the same way in conclusion, freezing in the lobby as a farewell to spectators. In between, Tagore’s plot occupied no more than 40 minutes. Dutta made interesting changes: since the Raja cannot speak, his invisible presence (or absence) became quite ambivalent, more so because Dutta dropped his appearance at the end (always a tricky scene for such a powerful role). Too simplistically, though, the revolution against the Sardars succeeded – unlike Tagore’s ambiguous finale. But intriguingly, Bishu was a Baul, and Chandra no termagant. Dutta had an eye for the right symbols: red oleanders, green sari, blue roller’s feather. However, the Raja’s gate looked vague and flimsy, and the music strayed too liberally across the whole corpus of Rabindrasangit.
The pioneering Dhaka group, Nagorik Natya Sampradaya, showed remarkable courage in choosing Rakta-karavi (May 2003). Director Ataur Rahman admitted as much in the leaflet, speaking with awe about the status of the classic and Bohurupee’s achievement in establishing it on stage. But too much respect can inhibit performance. Rather than interpret this masterpiece about materialistic modernization and its exploitation of natural and human resources, he decided to stick closely to the text and visually play it straight. This can be a virtue, of course, but only by recreating the original spirit; otherwise, mere delivery of dialogue kills theatre. Rahman had uneven success on this score. For one thing, he set off wrong expectations of major literary deconstruction when we find Gokul opening the drama instead of Kishor. Soon, however, everything settled into normal sequence, disappointing our initial pleasant surprise. A few other interpolations – as of a song – did occur, but added nothing of consequence to Tagore, so one wondered whether they should not have been dispensed with. Some episodes smacked of naive literalism, like when the Raja displayed a fat rubber toad as the one that he had crushed. Suggestion works better than explicitness.
The biggest disappointments arose in the acting. Tagore conceived the Raja as an unseen superman whose voice powers the play. Amazingly, Rahman himself portrayed the Raja as clearly visible behind a see-through black scrim. Not just that, he did not stand still but fidgeted about most irritatingly. And, scandalously, he talked by remote mike as if on a TV chat show, plus his voice was not magnetic at all. The other hope is Nandini, but Api Karim, possibly overwhelmed by the occasion and her own youth, tried too hard to be natural, though she sang and danced well. The Sardar (Gazi Rakayet) behaved like a glorified durwan, not someone in de facto charge of the kingdom. The only memorable actor was Khaled Khan, as a grizzled, cynical but charming and full-throated Bishu. Md. Saiful Islam’s set created the black ambience of a coal mine; effective, but perhaps too mundane a concept. I longed for the visionary director who will place Rakta-karavi in the metaphorical tunnels of the modern metropolis – the urban jungle where the real gold is extracted nowadays. Lastly, Rahman thought mistakenly that Bohurupee first performed Rakta-karavi. Tagore saw it himself, done by a branch of the family in 1934.
As if answering my desire, much to my awe, I found the rock group Insomnia singing a cappella (not even acoustic instrumentation) for Best of Kolkata Campus’s deconstructed Rakta-karavi (July 2003). Amazingly, all of them could harmonize. That, and Parnab Mukherjee’s stroke of genius in placing it inside the bowels of Apeejay School’s unfinished basement, made this production very different. We physically suffered the sweaty, stifling darkness of Yakshapuri underground, led to the four sites installed by Sanchayan Ghosh as urban detritus out of cellophane and discarded computers, to the sound of loud industrial percussion. But Mukherjee should have let the play speak for itself. His incorrigible habit of explicating everything himself trivialized its aesthetic, though he was the first director to explicitly link Nandini with Ranu Mukherjee, using the Rabindranath-Ranu correspondence published recently. He also perpetuated a new mistake (originating in Chithipatra, volume 18) of ascribing the English translation jointly to the French-speaking Fernand Benoit. Sudipta Chakraborty played a remarkably unaffected Nandini, Raja Bhattacharya a grotesque, reptilian Sardar, and Janardan Ghosh’s resonant timbre suited the Raja.
As many as five productions of Rakta-karavi were running in 2004-5, the golden anniversary of Bohurupee’s trailblazing premiere. The one by Natadha, from Howrah (May 2005), drew some appreciation but, as in most others over the last half-century, Bohurupee’s shadow loomed large. I cannot understand why our directors cannot break through its apparently impenetrable barriers and re-view the text imaginatively with fresh insight. Signs of such a vision glimmered under Shib Mukhopadhyay’s direction, for the first thing that struck us was Subrata Chattopadhyay’s set, which decked the pillars of the Raja’s gates in the Indian tricolour. This bold concept suggested that the nation (or its politicians) had become as exploitative and distanced from the people as Tagore’s Raja was. But beyond that, no radical departure emerged. Tripti Mitra’s characterization of Nandini influenced Sadhana Mukhopadhyay, particularly in vocal delivery, as did Sombhu Mitra’s direction overall. The crucible of Rakta-karavi on stage is the invisible Raja’s voice and his ultimate entrance. Sombhu Mitra carried it off by his distinctive power and tone, but those who try to emulate him are doomed. Amarnath Upadhyay just did not have enough force. Among the others, Bedanta Badyopadhyay impressed as Bishu, singing with full-throated ease, while Soumen Banerjee tinged Gosain with the ominous saffron nexus between religion and politics.
In August 2006, Suman Mukhopadhyay’s direction of Rakta-karavi for Tritiya Sutra came closest to matching Tagore’s revolutionary stagecraft. With a nip and a tuck here and there, it could have done for this generation what Sombhu Mitra did for his a half-century before. The very first picture stuck in one’s mind. The curtain rose to reveal barbed wire on the proscenium line, separating us from the cast gathered on the other side, staring blankly or pleadingly at us, almost to set them free. It epitomized Mukhopadhyay’s highly visual style, which most Bengali theatre lacks. Sankar Debnath’s forbidding set of heavy cell-like doors and a huge grey sculpted head upstage looked like a concentration camp, literally topped by a megaphone that became the perfect medium for the Raja’s voice. The soundtrack of atmospheric music composed by Mokam evoked the ominous ambience. But Mukhopadhyay’s biggest achievement was to make his actors deliver Tagore’s lines and even songs naturally, detonating the theory that only poetic speech a la Sombhu Mitra works for Tagore. All the characters instantly turned into flesh and blood. Anindita Das Mullick gave Nandini the aura of a virgin nature’s child. Perhaps the Sardars could have behaved more oppressively, whereas the Gosain came across as too vampiric, robbing the dialogue of some of its rare satiric relief. In the given circumstances, the physicalization of Ranjan and “Rakta-karabi” by dancers in white and red respectively went against the realistic grain. And Mukhopadhyay ran out of ideas in the end, copping out and confusing matters when the Raja appeared.
Arghya, who first attempted Rakta-karavi in 1996, revived it under director Manish Mitra (June 2009), who edited the classic quite a bit, understandably, but interpolated some passages from Tagore’s poetry and songs (and a narrator’s part) that ultimately did not seem essential, for he remained faithful to the source otherwise. Man’s depredation of the planet was his focus, for which interpretation Sima Ghosh’s portrayal of Nandini as an innocent embodiment of nature looked appropriate. The more striking presence, though, was of the famous singer Pallab Kirtania as Bishu, particularly for his robust vocals. Among supporting roles, Premangsu Dasgupta and Moonmoon Chatterjee merited mention, as an authoritarian but taciturn Sardar and a simple, no-nonsense Chandra respectively. For the set, the eminent artist Shuvaprasanna erected a huge monolithic profile of a head at upstage right, but it did not have much theatrical functionality. Mitra himself took some images too literally, like the frog in the Raja’s hand, which resembled a stuffed toy. And, like virtually all actors of Tagore’s Raja, his, too, appeared less than imposing when, in the greatest challenge of the play, he finally emerged.
The young Anya Desh comprising blind and otherwise-abled youth enthusiastically presented an unusual one-hour condensation of Rakta-karavi (May 2010). Demarcating the area with ropes like a boxing ring conveyed the characters’ entrapment while functionally indicating to the cast the stage limits. Three girls took turns to enact Nandini, one with a wonderful singing voice. However, like many other directors, Shubhashis Gangopadhay interpolated some Rabindrasangit from elsewhere. That aside, Tagore would have blessed this endeavour.
Producers of Tagore rarely experiment with his lesser-known works. He wrote over sixty scripts, but no more than the same handful are periodically revived. Another prevalent misconception is that the only stageable Tagore plays are those that Sombhu Mitra produced. Since he did only five, and Tripti Mitra two more, Bengali directors prefer not to touch the others out of sheer stage fright. It is this myth that Kalapi’s Grihapraves (November 1998) broke, the first point on which we must applaud them. Even though, as far back as 1961, Shankha Ghosh placed Grihapraves nearly on par with Dakghar as Tagore’s second deeply lyrical play, few scholars have analysed it and fewer major groups (probably only Santiniketan’s Asramik Sangha, in 1976) have staged it since Independence.
Most critics misread it as a sentimental family drama, made more morbid by the hovering omnipresence of death – the hero’s terminal illness is known virtually from the beginning. On the one hand, death did preoccupy Tagore, and this play does seem to reprise Dakghar with an older protagonist instead. But Kalapi’s director, Anil Mukhopadhyay, interprets it as an allegory; and this new perspective merits praise as the second point in Kalapi’s favour. In Mukhopadhyay’s view, the hero Jatin symbolizes all mankind. The mansion he wants to build for his immature, materialistic wife represents all that people can never possess in reality. Like Jatin, man knows he can never realize his dream, yet he cannot stop himself from dreaming, for such is his nature. This conflict between reality and imagination makes human pain unavoidable. At the same time, the edifice of the house, like that of the post office in Dakghar, stands for ultimate entry into the other world.
Despite the metaphysical reading, Kalapi’s presentation was realistic and quite moving finally. The three main characters – Jatin (Saumya De Sarkar), his sister Himi (Nandita Chattopadhyay) and their aunt (Jharna Chaudhuri) – were acted sensitively, once we accepted that a preponderance of tears and emotional stress was natural in their circumstances. Chattopadhyay delivered Himi’s songs with power, notably “Amar man cheye ray mane mane here madhuri” and the transcendent “Jibana-maraner simana chharaye” at the end. Mukhopadhyay had laboured hard, collating the different textual variants, unlike the casual work of most directors. Prithwish Gangopadhyay’s set and Kanishka Sen’s lights supported the performance unobtrusively. The souvenir, with essays and historical material pertaining to the premiere at the Star Theatre in 1925, was a collector’s item. The entire enterprise, therefore, especially as it came from a mid-ranked group, deserved congratulations.
Anya Theatre staged the relatively little-known Sodhbodh, directed by Bibhash Chakraborty (May 2005). It originates in the long story Karmaphal, published in 1903. Requested in 1925 by the professional company Art Theatre to write a play for them, Tagore converted Karmaphal into Sodhbodh, which did not take much effort because Karmaphal, quite unusually, had been composed almost entirely in the form of dialogues. But it was not a brilliant piece: basically a morality play bearing an exemplary tale, it also had a contrived sentimental ending. We may speculate that the commercial theatre’s predilection for melodrama encouraged Tagore to prepare this script about Satish, who foolishly steals to buy an expensive gift for his beloved Nalini, daughter of an Anglicized couple. This leads him into a spiral of vice.
Uncharacteristically, Chakraborty misread this as a satire on aping Western manners. Tagore never held extreme positions – he satirized equally the dogmatic nationalist rigidity of Satish’s father, as well as the indulgent love of Satish’s mother and aunt, whose mollycoddling spoilt him. By treating it as “a farcical comedy”, Chakraborty also went against its stylistic grain. In the midst of this uninspired approach, only flashes of good acting surfaced: Sulakshana Chakrabarti allowed Nalini’s genuineness to shine through in patches. Krishna Datta and Rajat Sengupta gave Satish’s parents some solidity; Nandini Bhaumik made the aunt credibly fickle; Debasish Roychowdhury presented the uncle as a preparatory exercise for his deeper portrayal of a similar role in Rangroop’s Sesh Raksha. But Partha Bandyopadhyay (Satish) behaved too namby-pamby to convince. Surprisingly, Chakraborty neglected realistic details, letting Nalini’s father wear half-pants and the bearers carry tea and snacks, not as if in an upper-class home but precariously piled on as if from Basanta Cabin.
Chirakumar Sabha (1925)
Tagore’s plays are more challenging than most others because they demand singing as well as acting skills. Performers with equal fluency in both arts are a rarity, and the amateur status of Bengali cultural groups is such that they specialize in either one or the other. The normal Tagore production by a theatre unit tends to be weak in its songs, while one by a Rabindrasangit outfit tends to be deficient in the theatrical department. Kalapi’s presentation of Chirakumar Sabha (June 1993) fell into the latter category. There was some excellent, flawless singing by obviously accomplished vocalists, but the rough edges in stagecraft pointed to theatrical inexpertise. A related problem was the protracted five-act duration, which must be cut nowadays to retain audience attention. Although Banamali the matchmaker and Gurudas the ustad were omitted, more editing of the first half was needed to prevent rambling. The finest acting came from the senior generation: the most famous of many Chandra-babus, Ahindra Choudhury, would have been proud of Anil Mukhopadhyay’s absent-minded president of the bachelors’ club, and Prabhat Chaudhuri (Rasik-babu) was full of zest. One could understand the choice of the all-time favourite in the Tagorean dramatic canon – it provides both comedy and romance. But the romantic attachments did not receive lively treatment from the inexperienced younger crew, the best among whom was Sibaji Basu’s lost-for-words Purna and Sukanya Sen’s emancipated Nirmala.
Three different productions of Tagore’s most evergreen comedy were running in Kolkata in 1995-96 – the seventieth anniversary of Tagore dramatizing his own novel Prajapatir Nirbandha for the professional company at Star Theatre in 1925. Among this crop, Calcutta Performers’ version (February 1996) may arguably have ranked as the best. One factor in this judgement could have been Tamal Raychaudhuri’s directorial predilection for historical décor: Manu Datta’s set and the costumes by Prabir Bandyopadhyay and Mohammad Munir accurately reflected nineteenth-century Calcutta aristocracy, adding to the charm of the period piece. Raychaudhuri also found his metier in Tagorean comedy, evoking its sparkling humour. But he impressed most in his ability to edit the very long text down to a currently acceptable duration, and to get the cast to clearly differentiate among their characters’ personalities. The four sisters Purabala (Sripurna Chaudhuri), Sailabala (Prajnaparamita Basu), Nirabala (Srijata Biswas) and Nripabala (Baisakhi Das) revealed this last feature, as did the three young bachelors, specially Pijush Mitra as the painfully shy Purna who almost stole the show. Other notable performances came from Tamali Bhattacharya as Purna’s love, Nirmala, and Sukumar Bandyopadhyay as Chandra-babu. Both acting and singing balanced each other perfectly. Raychaudhuri’s casting of Ranjan Sarkar as Akshay and particularly Biswas as Nirabala capitalized on their excellent musical voices.
Rabindra Bharati’s Drama Department happily continued its newly-established policy of public performances with Chirakumar Sabha (April 1996), which compared unfavourably with Calcutta Performers’s production, but only due to its nature as a student effort, for which one must make concessions. The director, Ashok Mukhopadhyay, extracted meaning enjoyably from the neglected motif of eating, and did a neat job of blocking the intricate fourth act. While most of the men performed well, the unmarried sisters did not, while the singing and sets were weak.
In Dakshini’s Chirakumar Sabha (January 2002), the roles were reversed: the actresses stole the show, particularly the four sisters (differentially performed by Aditi Gupta, Aditi Gupta-Basu, Sutapa Bedajna and Basabdatta Chaudhuri). The bachelors were emasculated, though Arup Majumdar played the wisecracking Rasik Babu with zest. As director, Biswajit Gupta gave too much respect to the text, running the production overtime when he should have deleted or edited the inessential scenes. In both Phalguni and Chirakumar, Dakshini creditably employed remote mikes, an unusual gadget for Bengali theatre. Yet it raised problems too, for it undercut the tenet that actors must project their voices, and the use of technology does go against the Tagorean credo of full-throated song. Also typical of schools that prioritize music, the accompaniment was overdone, the sound mixing for instruments overpowered lines of dialogue, and the incidental atmospheric effects reminded us of TV serials.
Founded in 1945, Durgadas Smriti Sangha must be one of the oldest extant groups in Kolkata. To their credit, Tirthankar Chattopadhyay directed Chirakumar Sabha (October 2007) with an accomplished hand, and even more commendably, Piyali Chattopadhyay condensed its long five acts to a manageable 140 minutes. Several of the actors were well-known faces in Bengali theatre (Asit Mukhopadhyay as Rasik, Susmita Hati as Nirabala) and brought their considerable experience to bear on their portrayals, but the others did not lag behind, imparting an equilibrium to the production. However, Arghya Sen’s choice of songs strayed from the script, and Somdyuti Chattopadhyay designed heartily anachronistic costumes for the men, whose embroidered panjabis and colourful dhotis more accurately reflected 21st-century Bengali wedding fashions.
Commissioned by Happenings, Chetana’s Arun Mukhopadhyay contemplated dovetailing two Tagore novels, then began rehearsing Goray Galad, and finally Chirakumar Sabha (August 2009). He said, “ I cannot explain the reason. Maybe, Chirakumar Sabha is theatrically more interesting. It is just a comedy, and that is why I liked it.” This bit of history and the director’s note proved that two false starts and palpable uncertainty do not augur well when a deadline hangs over one’s head. A group can afford to explore possibilities when no date for a premiere has been fixed, but with opening night known well in advance, it cannot waste time. “ I cannot explain the reason”? But a director must have a rationale for his choice; he must have convinced himself at least. “Maybe” Chirakumar is theatrically more interesting? It either is for him or it is not; any equivocation spells trouble. “It is just a comedy”? But so is Goray Galad, leaving no logical explanation for Mukhopadhyay’s decision. In fact, with their time running out, he should have stuck to Goray Galad, as it is half the length of Chirakumar, so Chetana could have done justice to it.
The inevitable happened. This warm-blooded, five-act lovers’ carousel, probably the most popular Tagore play besides the dance-dramas (another reason to avoid it, whereas Goray Galad has had no revival in the recent past), resembled a tattered quilt barely held together by stitches that luckily did not give way. Mukhopadhyay had shorn the first half so badly that sometimes we could hardly recognize the storyline. No doubt it needs editing for today’s audiences, but not so much that the holes appear bigger than the fabric. He forgot that Tagore’s humour lies in his wit, less in his plot. If one omits large chunks of dialogue, one risks losing the hasya rasa. By also deleting nearly all the songs, Mukhopadhyay sacrificed other rasas too. However, he still could not suppress Tagore’s spirit that easily. By keeping intact most of the climactic multiple-conversation Act 4 Scene 1, Mukhopadhyay salvaged the second half somewhat, and Tagore’s comedy ended on a high, as it should.
Sesh Raksha (1927)
I consider Sesh Raksha, a nearly forgotten work deserving resurrection, one of Tagore’s two finest comedies. He wrote the original, Goray Galad, in 1892, but revised it at the request of the eminent director Sisir Bhaduri for the commercial stage in 1927. It proved one of Bhaduri’s hugest hits that year, transformed by his encouragement of audience participation, probably for the first time in Kolkata. Breaking the proscenium barrier, the dramatis personae invited spectators to join and sing in the merrymaking at the end, to celebrate the two marital reconciliations and one wedding. Of course, Tagore had not intended it as just entertainment. Beneath the conventional romantic plot, he consistently chipped away at social rigidities. At a time when matchmaking was the norm, he farcically exposed its pitfalls and pleaded the case for love instead. He presented two literate young women choosing their partners, at a time when most urban wives were uneducated. He even showed two of the marriages (one arranged and established, the other impulsive but impractical) breaking up due to different realistic pressures – and eventually reuniting, the spouses more mature. And he parodied the affectations of upper-class Bengalis for good measure.
In the 21st century, most of these conditions have changed for the better. Nor had Rangroop’s director, Sima Mukherjee, unveiled any spectacular sleight of hand to match Bhaduri’s. Yet their production (March 2005) was immensely enjoyable, both for Tagore’s timeless wit as well as for its good performances. Perhaps it remained relevant, too, since neither conjugal problems nor adoption of Western mores have disappeared. Edited ably by senior dramatist Mohit Chattopadhyaya to suit today’s lengths, it did not drag. The whole cast acted well. Particularly noteworthy was debutante Miska Halim as the heroine Indumati. She did not reveal beginner’s nerves; on the contrary, she expressed the life of the play by her effervescence. Hers was an intelligent Indumati. As a perfect foil, Sima Mukherjee deliberately portrayed a plain, older, unappreciated housewife with an unmusical voice, convinced that she does not appeal to her husband (himself quite the suave babu, played by Debasish Roychowdhury). Jayanta Mitra and Apurba Saha made appropriately moonstruck lovers as the poet and trainee doctor respectively. The two fathers – the strict Sibcharan and indulgent Nibaran – received aptly contrasting treatment from Kalipada Ghosh and Asim Bhattacharya. Those who think Tagore had no funny bone should have seen the scene where Sibcharan explodes when his son, who first rejected his choice, then requested him to arrange a match with another girl, reverses his decision and asks for the original choice. My only criticism had to do with the music: we would much rather hear the actors themselves sing (Gopa Nandi, for one, as Kamalmukhi, had a fine tenor) than a pro like Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta on the taped soundtrack, because live songs make a distinct difference.
Despite Tagore’s conviction about Tapati that he had written a play “beautiful in all aspects”, few Bengali groups have given it the theatrical attention it deserves. Therefore, Theatre Centre’s decision to stage it (December 1991) merited applause, particularly as a comeback after several years in the wings following Tarun Roy’s passing. Also worthy of praise was their overall fidelity to the script, though subsidiary roles like Shankar, Shikarini and Kunjalal were unnecessarily cut from the fourth scene, probably due to time constraints. One also missed evidence of deep textual analysis in the final form the production took. Admittedly, Tapati is a difficult drama to assimilate because of the grim, unrelenting nature of its theme; but on the other hand, the story develops along more conventional, realistic lines than Tagore’s far more abstract symbolic plays. Tapati propounds the belief that love should free, not possess the beloved; that duty and spirituality command action and respect; and that self and the ego must give way to humility. In its way, it is also an early feminist manifesto, making it surprisingly relevant to our times. The director, Bodhisattva Majumdar, did not seem to have thought very deeply about these matters, otherwise he would have instructed his leading lady to behave in a much more determined fashion right from the start. At the beginning, Anuradha Ray often adopted a subservient mode that just did not jell with the ascetically-inclined Queen’s austere fortitude and dignified reserve. Her infirmity weakened the production, for after all its success depended to a large degree on her characterization.
In comparison, Aparup Ganguli expressed the King’s destructive, obsessive passion reasonably well, though he could not quite plumb the almost insane depths to which Vikram falls in the middle and later scenes. Another interpretative error turned the foil subplot of Naresh and Bipasha into an adolescent romance, with Sujay Sinha conducting himself too boyishly to fit the part of a prince. Jayasri Mukhopadhyay acted more naturally, conveying Bipasha’s gift for outspokenness and song with a clear delivery. The basic, even stark sets – specially the suspended hanging and cords representing the forest in Kashmir – perfectly suited Tagore’s revised beliefs on economical stagecraft elaborated in his preface to the play. However, the heroine’s mismatched costumes disappointed, the designer turning a blind eye to Tagore’s own use of a blue and black scheme for her in the first half of his own production, which culminated in pure white for the conclusion. Nevertheless, the fiery ending was effective through simple lighting and manipulating of the backdrop to suggest a burning pyre.
Bibhash Chakraborty likes resurrecting neglected plays by Tagore or experimenting with them. Anya Theatre’s Malancha (January 1992) exemplified his search for untrodden ways. How many groups have ever staged this play, dramatized by Tagore from his own novel in 1933, but which he never performed or printed (Visva-Bharati published it as late as 1968)? In a sense it is one of Tagore’s “newest” plays, not even included in the collected works, so Chakraborty did it a service by bringing it before the public eye. As Tagore’s penultimate novel, Malancha belongs to the late period of his fiction when he repeatedly analysed extramarital love from different angles. His fiction is in the realistic mode, unlike his anti-illusionistic plays, but it is also possible that he shied away from these triangular or quadrangular affairs in his original dramas because he felt they may not be accepted by theatre audiences in those days. Now, however, such apprehensions have no basis, so Chakraborty could suggest Aditya and Sarala’s incestuous embrace without any qualms, delicately half-hidden by the wings. On the whole, he remained unusually faithful to the text.
What is true love, Tagore seems to keep asking in his works of that time. The bedridden Niraja’s wifely jealousy underscores Tagore’s theory proposed in Tapati that one should not selfishly hold on to one’s lover, that the index of true love is how far one can free one’s lover to seek his or her own personality, if necessary. Niraja tries but fails; in that respects she is a flawed, possessive human being like most of us, though the weak point of Malancha is her rather hysteric repulsion of Sarala at the end, and Anya Theatre could not improve on Tagore’s lame conclusion. But Sarala lets Aditya go, at least temporarily (she could have had him to herself if she wanted), giving us a clue where Tagore’s sympathies may lie. It requires sensitive acting to express such deep emotions, and Anita Mallik achieved the most success as a repressed, introverted Sarala. Chaiti Ghoshal made Niraja into a much too immature, high-pitched wife, losing the chance to create a well-rounded character. Sumanta Mukhopadhyaya’s Aditya was the classic Tagorean husband without presence of mind – unable even to spontaneously stop Niraja from falling at his feet for forgiveness. His younger cousin, Ramen (unfortunately made to look older by Parthasarathi Deb), perhaps closest to Tagore’s heart, warmly exhibited an affectionate relationship with Sarala. The well-designed two-tier set by Gautam Basu (upstage bedroom and downstage garden) conveyed the symbolic association of artificial human claustrophobia with the former and natural open-air freedom with the latter.
Tagore’s season-dramas do not receive as much exposure as they should because most Kolkatans have become so hopelessly urbanized that they cannot tell two trees apart, or the difference between the autumnal seasons sarat and hemanta. Sunandan redressed the balance with the unusual Sravan-gatha (August 2000). The production had importance on two counts: it presented Tagore’s last season-drama, expressing his ultimate statement in that genre; and it did so in terms of theatre, as Tagore intended, unlike most groups who just mount it as a concert. Once we hear the full script, we appreciate Tagore’s complex satirizing of conventional poetics, establishing his own liberal aesthetics, using the royal soiree setting and playing on its metatheatricality through the Raja, Nataraj and Court Poet. Enakshi Chattopadhyay, who directed, rightly chose the play text rather than variant lyrics and scores found elsewhere. A large chorus delivered 15 of the 22 songs with gusto. The women took “Eso nipabane” and the men “Hridaye mandrila” separately. However, the vocalists and musicians sat downstage while the dancers and actors faded into the background on a platform. This positioning should have been reversed because Tagore foregrounded the performance, not the singers.
The dance-dramas (1936-39)
Although, as stated at the beginning, I refrain from commenting on Tagore’s dance-dramas here, I still wish to emphasize their topicality by referring to Ranan’s dance-theatre production Chitra (revised version, August 2007). I felt director Vikram Iyengar took a radical stand on Chitrangada, through which “Tagore’s insight led us … to a Manipur which he could have never known in his lifetime.” But in practice that promise to see the Manipuri princess through the prism of today’s strife-torn state remained theoretical: eventually, Ranan’s Chitra turned out as much rooted in pretty aestheticism and choreographic convention as every Chitrangada before it. I hope someone actually stages the revolution that Chitrangada cries out for and has never received since Independence. The same applies to the other dance-dramas, which only Manjusri Chaki Sircar succeeded in adapting differently.
In conclusion, I list the main Tagore plays of which I have seen no major production during this period:
Chitrangada, the original poetic drama (1892)
Saradotsav / Rinsodh
Chandalika, the original prose play (1933)
Taser Des, not in dance-drama mode
There is a chastening lesson in this reality – approaching seventy years since the death of modern India’s greatest theatrical creator, his sixty-plus dramatic works still do not inspire enough directors to ensure just six or seven new productions every year. Contrast with Shakespeare in the UK and US: so many annual Shakespeare festivals do brisk business and attract tourists too, only because so many companies regularly mount new interpretations of his thirty-plus plays. It is not as if Tagore is a lesser author than Shakespeare. Therefore, Indian theatre workers ignore their preeminent modern dramatist, and Bengalis fail to project his genius convincingly to the rest of the country, chiefly through lack of new translations. Not just that, Bengali theatre calcified experimentation with Tagore’s plays. It leads one to think that perhaps the best way to resurrect Tagorean drama is shock therapy. As with Shakespeare, Bengalis know some of Tagore’s texts so well that the surprise element has gone, so to play them straight invites boredom. Various interpretations establish the strength of a classic author; even if we disagree about the result, the debate serves to revitalize the classic through rediscovery. The other way is to consciously unearth the plays that have rarely or never been done. All these routes, of course, require directors with vision.