It takes courage to stage Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Raktakarobi,’ immortalised by stalwarts of the Bengali theatre such as Shambhu Mitra, first in Bengali and then in English. Bharatanatyam dancer Madhuboni Chatterjee accepted the challenge to conceive, direct and choreograph it. The successful shows of this allegorical play in Bengali by her organisation, Jahnavi Centre of Performing Arts,’ prompted support from The Ministry of Culture , Government of India, to create its English version, ‘Red Oleander’ to reach a larger audience.
Premiered recently at the G.D. Birla Sabhagar, Kolkata, the English version is based on Professor Ananda Lal’s translation, ‘Tagore –three plays’ and got special support from the Rabindranath Study Centre, Jadavpur University. This Tagore masterpiece echoes the personal rousing of an individual in the eternal quest for truth and beauty and reflects the humanism smeared with the poet’s social values together with a love for nature.
The 110-minute play opens with a gloomy empty stage, the backdrop of a palace, with pillars (made of columns of lengths of cloth suspended from the ceiling). The sound of shovels reverberates, depicting the digging by labourers in the gold mine of the unseen king, who lives in a dark chamber behind a complex net, alienated from people by the demagogues of his kingdom - Yakshapuri.
The song, ‘Pous toder daak diyechhe,’ ushers in the joyous celebration of harvest from which the King is deprived. He tries to salvage himself from the prison of his own system with the help of Nandini, a young girl symbolising nature’s eternal beauty, a rebel in her own right, who awakens humanity by fighting against injustice and the ruthless power.
Madhuboni’s production begins with the story of the King, nicknamed Maker Raaj and this is the first time that the King (Raja) in ‘Raktakarobi’ is brought out from behind the net, from the mesh of entangled emotions and inner conflicts, but he remains hidden under a mask.
Use of the traditional Kathakali costume for Raja adds power and appeal to this treatment. Though Tagore’s portrayal may appear to be challenged, his message is not. Dance is an essential part of the production together with installation, puppetry, mime, music and theatre symmetrically welded into a work of interest.
Different dance forms such as a magnificent Kathakali by the well known Rabindrasangeet singer Manoj Murali Nair, a taut energetic Kalaripayyettu by Sirful Islam Mallick as sardar, contemporary moves by the excavators, some acrobatics, a graceful Bharatanatyam extended to suit the needs of the elegant ‘Rabindranritya’ by Madhuboni as Nandini – apart from others such as Bishu, Professor, Kishore and the headman with their respective acting skills – enables the director to mesh the aesthetic insights of the choreography with the nuances of the text, which make an impact. Madhuboni uses her judgement to utilise the vertical and horizontal space, allowing the performers, especially Raja, to remain in their respective positions and emanate a stimulated efflorescence. The ambivalence between drama and theatre is realised in the scene where Nandini questions the formidable king of the whereabouts of her dear friend Ranjan. She exudes the innocent charm of Nandini with her spontaneous execution. Though the dialogue is in English, the songs are in Bengali and by the director’s own admission, the reason is to retain the flavour of the lyrics. The script is also sprinkled with Bengali words such as Kajal, aanchal which jar at times but it can be ignored. Manoj Murali Nair as the King dwells on the specific moments of the text to depict his helplessness with the support of his hasta mudras. He delights with his first stage presence as a dancer learning the rudiments of the techniques of Kathakali from his celebrated father. His music composition, especially the blend of Western symphony in the first half together with the refrains of Tagore’s ‘Momochitye’ and Rabindrasangeet, adds soul to the production. Madhuboni and Manoj have enhanced the appeal with their soulful singing. There are some lovely duets such as ‘Ami poth bhola ak pothik eshechhi.’ The magical melody of ‘ Bhalobasha Bhalobasha’ by Madhuboni and ‘Tomaye gaan shonabo’ by Manoj smoothens into the dialogue in English to form a close union between dance, theatre and singing with an individualistic style, which is the director’s own. Even though the production shows good team work, homogeneity of style and colour, there are some distinct inequalities in execution especially articulation, delivery and pronunciation.
The second half stretches its dramatic illusions resulting in monotony at times. Chaitali Chatterjee shows imagination in the costume design and so does the set and light design. The more-than life- size golden puppet as Maker Raaj is introduced in this version as an experiment but does not transfer much character to the presentation. However, ‘Red Oleander’ is a work of maturity, an exercise of hard work and personal style, which is worth experiencing.