With Rabindranath Tagore suffusing the air of cultural institutions for over a year now, one might have thought the multifaceted genius, whose 150th anniversary India is celebrating, has been commemorated exhaustively. But even as productions featuring Tagore's music and the dance that grew out of Santiniketan, the institution he founded, are presented across the world, veteran cultural commentator Utpal K. Banerjee says, in his preface to the book under review, that the poet's views on dance and their development into a genre have not been much documented. This is not surprising, since pursuing the performing arts in practice is a far cry from documenting their development and philosophy.
Setting out to plug this lacuna, Banerjee has come up with a work that attempts to trace Tagore's dance legacy and its relevance. The poet's interest in dance stemmed from his penchant for pursuing several arts. Sustained by his open-minded vision, it prodded him to try and blend select elements of various classical dance forms, and the result is a unique style of dance.
In the section titled “Evolution”, Banerjee traces the factors that influenced Tagore's creativity, like the milieu within which he worked, and tells us about the people who were pivotal to the development of dance at Santiniketan, as, for instance, Santidev Ghosh and Pratima Devi. “Tagore was unmistakably a Titan, but the environment in which he manifested his genius was also all set to foster his creativity in whichever way he chose. Not all maestros… have received such a fostering atmosphere…,” notes the author.
In “Cross-cultural Horizons” we learn how Tagore from the mid-1920s started formalising Santiniketan's dance genre by introducing folk forms and Indian classical dance styles into the curriculum. Wherever Santidev travelled, he made it a point to witness dance performances and, on return, briefed Tagore and Pratima Devi on his impressions. Tagore himself introduced Manipuri dance in Shantiniketan after witnessing it while on a visit to Sylhet district. Revelations such as these evoke a vibrant picture of someone who inspired others into pioneering creativity.
Girls, we are told, were initially taught Manipuri “on the quiet” because society in those times was conservative. As the author notes, they were “easily the female ‘pioneer brigade' to learn a codified classical dance for the first time in Bengal (and India).”
Santidev learnt the basics of Kathakali at the newly established Kerala Kalamandalam and went on to build upon it. With Tagore getting more and more interested in the dance form, Kelu Nair came to be inducted to teach the art at Santiniketan.
Banerjee claims for Tagore a share of the credit for the revival of Kathakali and Mohiniattam, along with Kalamandalam founder Vallathol Narayana Menon, with whom Tagore was in close touch. But what is hard to digest is the author's contention that “Kathakali existed as a village art” and it was Tagore and Vallathol who gave it “a classical, structured form.” If Kathakali wasn't always a classical, highly structured and stylised form, which Indian dance was?
Among the reference material, the segment on the pioneering four-year dance syllabus at Santiniketan is revealing. The dance syllabus implemented in 1936 included basic classes in Manipuri, besides “elementary classes in South Indian dancing” and, for senior students, “South Indian Kathakali and Ceylonese dance.” It became technically more precise by 1941, before the founder's death. This revised syllabus features separate four-year Kathakali courses for boys and girls — including “all 700 mudras and all exercises” for both — and a four-year Manipuri course.
The book contains some beautiful vintage photos. There are also biographical notes on personalities including Uday Shankar, Vallathol, and Isadora Duncan, to name a few.
Little slip-ups are jarring, at times. Take the order in which Rukmini Devi produced her dance dramas or the reference to “Mrinalini Swaminathan (nee Sarabhai)” which ought to read “Mrinalini Sarabhai (nee Swaminathan)”. Maybe, they are just typos; but the result is incorrect data.
To assess the impact of this legacy more than seven decades after Tagore's demise, Banerjee says he interviewed nearly 50 choreographers, then edited and compiled the answers given by 41 of them. Left as first person accounts and collated to reflect their proximity to Tagore or his work (instead of presenting them alphabetically), the answers might have made absorbing reading.
As a work of love and dedication, this publication ranks high, but with sharper and patient editing would be even more useful to students and dance researchers.