The anthropological and archaeological source of dance differs from the contention that dance has a divine origin. Rabindranath Tagore believed in the former theory. He held that the history of dance is as ancient as the history of man. The poet came to the realisation that ‘Creation of rhythm by man is through his body, because it is the most fitting medium to display rhythm’.
Dance had always enticed the poet. It is believed that the poet's interest in dance took shape when in 1926, the poet’s friend Maharaj Veermanakya Singha of Agartala, invited him to Agartala. The Maharaja had arranged for a special Nrithyotsav in his honour. This was in Manipuri. The poet was mesmerised by its beauty and made up his mind to teach it to his students at Santiniketan. Soon, Nabakumar Singha was appointed dance teacher.
What’s more, the poet composed the dance drama, ‘Natir Puja’, in Manipuri. Nati, the protagonist, offers her nrityanjali by giving up her rich costume and jewels and dresses like a bhiksuni (beggar) to worship the Buddha. History has it that when Ajatashatru ascended the throne of Magadha after his father Bimbisar, the worship of the Buddha was strictly forbidden. But Nati or Srimati was not to be discouraged by such threats. She went ahead with her mission, only to be beheaded. Though her body was destroyed, her soul was not.
Nandalal Basu's daughter, Gauri Devi, a new bride at the time, learnt Manipuri and essayed the role of Nati. ‘Natir Puja’ was staged in New Empire, Calcutta and is considered a landmark event in the social history of Bengal. Tagore's lyric, “Amay Khamo he Khamo, namo he namo” (Forgive me oh! forgive me, I genuflect to you) became legend. Through Srimati's plea to the lord to forgive her for neglecting Him, the poet was literally asking the lord of dance to forgive mankind for neglecting dance. It gave to dance neglected so far -- its rightful place.
It was perhaps the first time that a woman from an upper-class background appeared on stage to dance. After this, there was no looking back. Bengali women adorned their ankles with bells and kept the rhythm. With the performance of ‘Natir Puja’, the dress code and stage decor at Santiniketan underwent a sea change.
Soon, the poet devoted himself to the dhyana or meditation of Nataraj. Then, he penned his immortal lyric, ‘Nrityero tale tale...’, where he says that “the rhythm of Nataraj's dance destroy all fetters and awakens us from our deep slumber.” He says, ‘Hey Nataraj, from eternal times and ages, the wind raised from your dancing feet has touched Saraswati's heart and the creation of ripples of tuneful music and rhythm has intoxicated and brought pure delight to her. I bow down to you, let my heart be enriched by the boundless wealth of your nritya...”
The poet has said that a human being creats rhythm through his/her body, because his physique is suited to it. When rhythm creates beauty, there is the stamp of eternity in it.
After the introduction of Manipuri at Santiniketan, other dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Ceylonese dance were also introduced. In his ashram, Tagore encouraged Javanese and Baul nritya. He penned dance dramas such as ‘Chandalika’, ‘Shyama’ and ‘Chitrangada’ drawing from ancient literature, which became instant hits. In fact, when ‘Chitrangada’ was staged at New Empire for the first time, the poet was on stage throughout, reciting portions from the play.
Thus, in Santiniketan, one not only saw the dances presented in their original and ancient forms, but also new art evolving. There was a synthesis of various forms.
Tagore is known to the world as a poet, and at times, as a dramatist. But how many know about his compositional skills? His talent as a poet, dramatist and composer blossomed through his dance dramas or Nrityanatyas.