Artists from different regions and in diverse languages staged fresh interpretations of the poets’ works.
A rediscovery of Tagore’s works through the eyes of people outside Bengal was the aim of a Kolkata group, professionals in different fields, with the challenge to allow artists to share the thoughts and values of the Bard in different languages with their own interpretations.
With the late theatre legend Habib Tanvir as their mentor, a Tagore Festival, was organised in 2006 by this group, Happenings, to ensure that Tagore was no longer restricted to a region or language.
The success of the initial venture has laid a platform for other frontiers of the arts and made it an annual event. Alongside, other facets of Tagore’s genius, painting, dance and music were included during the years.
The highlight of the 7th Festival was three theatre productions from three corners of the country, at different venues, opening with a dance drama, ‘Lajwanti’ by Attyam Kalakshetra of Kolkata at the Star Theatre.
Both Nilakanthaeswara Natyaseva Sangha known as Ninasam and Jana Natya Manch abbreviated to Janam were first timers in Kolkata as well as the rural-based tribal theatre group, Badungduppa, named after their onomatopoeic drums, which was established in 1998 at Rampur village in Goalpara, Assam.
The best production of the festival was ‘Rather Rashi’ (The ropes of the chariot), one of the three plays collected in the book, ‘Kaler Yatra’ in the dialect Rabha by Bandungduppa under the directorship of Sukracharya Rabha, a Bismaillah Khan Yuba Puraskar awardee, trained under H. Kanhailal and H. Sabitri at Kalakshetra, Imphal.
Bandungduppa presented this play at Tollygunge Club, based on Tagore’s work against the evils of the caste system, in the form of an energetic colourful dance –theatre excluding a major part of the text. The chariot during Ratha Yatra (called the Mahakal-Lord of Time/Shiva) does not move when pushed by the people of the upper caste - the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Baishyas. Finally it is the Sudras who are successful.
The chariot is a metaphor for the division of society into different castes and sections, while its rope symbolises the bond of human relationship. Sukracharya shifts Tagore’s idea of united labour for the welfare of the society to prevent imbalance into an upper-caste –Sudra conflict and untouchability - which Tagore did indicate –but not in the form of crisis of humanity. He includes scenes where the lower-castes are denied drinking water from a well or the river or entry into the village temple.
Choreography by Dhananjay and Radhika Rabha engage rhythmic group vocabulary with vaults and turns at charged moments of protest and argument by the people of different classes. A movement to cherish was the synchronised sways, lyrical or energetic pull of the rashi (rope). The music had strong ethnic flavour, sometimes strong marching melodies, a touch of Bhatiyali and fine use of drums.
Comic relief was provided by the village priests and details in costumes were taken good care of. Sukracharya has used a lot of his personal experience such as Rabha’s Cultural Heritage movement in conceiving and designing the play, which spoke volumes with a brilliant performance. A bigger stage would have been better.
Ninasam’s ‘Babugiri’ in Kannada at Rabindranath Tagore Centre, combined two short stories – ‘The Babus of Naynjore (Thakurda)’ and ‘My Lord, The Baby(Khokababur Pratyabartan),’ written during different periods of Tagore’s career and obviously appear disconnected to each other. But they share the commonality of the ‘babu’ culture.
Storytelling, not theatre
While the first is a story of nostalgia, the second one is a poignant and dramatic tale of how a servant is held responsible for the drowning of a child of the family. The servant brings up his own son as a ‘Babu’ and presents him as their son. The multilayered narrative interspersed with Rabindrasangeet had very little theatre, more of storytelling with the four actors dramatising the prose, reading directly from the books seated on blocks. Yards of white cloth used to depict the river and the drowning were appealing.
Vidya Hegde’s powerful Rabindrasangeet in Bengali compensates for the weakness in the production directed by Akshara K.V. by reinforcing the underlying emotions in the narrative. Also the limited acting could not cross the barrier of language for effective communication.
Sudhanva Deshpande and Brijesh of Janam composed, ‘Char Rang,’ with a 21st century twist to Tagore’s novella, ‘Chaturanga’ with parallel characters from daily life set largely in a Delhi Metro.
The play about relationships and concern about women, disapproval of superstition is a story of many journeys but has gaps, which director Deshpande attempts to fill up in his own way. He links four characters instead of four friends.
A professor teaches Tagore to a student who is fascinated by it and a young man travelling in the metro gets attracted to her and to Tagore. An older man also on the metro is strangely menacing. All four start off as strangers but find their lives criss-crossing and in the process discover facets of Tagore.
Even with Moloyashree Hashmi in the cast, the characters were not convincing and do not communicate the original theme. Use of puppetry to depict scenes from ‘Chaturanga’ was amateurish. The play lacked fluidity, but the saving grace was the skilful glass painting interpreting onstage action by Shaaz Ahmed. The five-day festival concluded with a wonderful evening of 18-raga based Rabindrasangeet by Mohan Singh Khangura of Santiniketan.