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Rabindranath Tagore's Drama in the Perspective of Indian Theatre

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A critical study of Rabindranath Tagore’s plays in the backdrop of Indian dramatic/performance traditions

‘Rabindranath Tagore's Drama in the Perspective of Indian Theatre’ maps Tagore’s place in the Indian dramatic/performance traditions by examining unexplored critical perspectives on his drama such as his texts as performance texts; their exploration in multimedia; reflections of Indian culture in his plays; comparison with playwrights; theatrical links to his world of music and performance genres; his plays in the context of cross-cultural, intercultural theatre; the playwright as a poet-performer-composer and their interconnections and his drama on the Indian stage.

Editors’ Foreword; Section I: The Dramatic Tradition; 1. Rabindranath Tagore: Imagining Nation, Imagining Theatre, Abhijit Sen; 2. Rabindrik-Nritya, Tagore’s New Technique for Indian Dramatic Art: Discourse and Practice, Deepshikha Ghosh; 3. Place and Space in Tagore’s ‘Raktakarabi’ and ‘Muktadhara’, Chandrava Chakravarty; 4. Tagore’s Artistic Rendering of Spiritual Realism in ‘Dak Ghar’, Papiya Lahiri; 5. Tagore and the Indian Tradition of Hasyarasa: A Study in Tagore’s Shorter Humorous Plays, Arnab Bhattacharya; 6. The Comic Genius of Tagore: Interplay of Humour and Reality in ‘Chirakumar Sabha’, Deboshree Bhattacharjee; Section II: Theatre/Performance Tradition; 7. The Unrealized Theatre of Tagore, Dattatreya Dutt; 8. Encounters and Exchanges: An Intercultural Interrogation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dramaturgy in ‘Muktadhara’, Sarbani Sen Vengadasalam; 9. Performing Chitrangada: From Tagore to Rituparno Ghosh, Debopriya Bannerjee; 10. Visarjan as Performance: A Road towards Ritual Healing, Seetha Vijaykumar; 11. ‘Valmiki Pratibha’ and Its Afterlife, Sharmila Majumdar; 12. Postmodern Subversion and the Aesthetics of Film Adaptation: The Example of ‘Tasher Desh’, Sneha Kar Chaudhuri; Index.



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Edited by
Mala Renganathan
Arnab BhattacharyaAnthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
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© 2020 Mala Renganathan and Arnab Bhattacharya editorial matter and selection; individual chapters
© individual contributors
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All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this
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British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020936295
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-394-0 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-394-9 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.In Memory of the Innumerable Victims of Covid-19CONTENTS
The Understudied Dramatic Aesthetics of Rabindranath Tagore
Mala Renganathan and Arnab Bhattacharya
Chapter 1 Rabindranath Tagore: Imagining Nation, Imagining Theatre
Abhijit Sen
Chapter 2 Rabindrik-Nritya, Tagore’s New Aesthetic for Indian Dramatic Art: Discourse and
Deepshikha Ghosh
Chapter 3 Place and Space in Tagore’s Raktakarabi and Muktadhara
Chandrava Chakravarty
Chapter 4 Tagore’s Artistic Rendering of Spiritual Realism in Dak Ghar
Papiya Lahiri
Chapter 5 Tagore and the Indian Tradition of Hasyarasa: A Study in Tagore’s Shorter
Humorous Plays
Arnab Bhattacharya
Chapter 6 The Comic Genius of Tagore: Interplay of Humour and Reality in Chirakumar
Deboshree Bhattacharjee
Chapter 7 The Unrealized Theatre of Tagore
Dattatreya Dutt
Chapter 8 Encounters and Exchanges: An Intercultural Interrogation of Rabindranath Tagore’s
Dramaturgy in Muktadhara
Sarbani Sen Vengadasalam
Chapter 9 Performing Chitrangada: From Tagore to Rituparno Ghosh
Debopriya Banerjee
Chapter 10 Visarjan as Performance: A Road towards Ritual Healing
Seetha Vijayakumar
Chapter 11 Valmiki Pratibha and Its Afterlife
Sharmila Majumdar
Chapter 12 Postmodern Subversion and the Aesthetics of Film Adaptation: The Example of
Tasher Desh
Sneha Kar Chaudhuri
Mala Renganathan and Arnab Bhattacharya
It is indeed an honour for us, as editors of the volume titled Rabindranath Tagore’s Drama in
the Perspective of Indian Theatre, to contribute to Tagore studies and promote/enrich scholarship
on the dramatic works of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Asia’s first Nobel laureate. Tagore,
lauded primarily for his poetry, has left a voluminous amount of dramatic literature that has
gained recognition only from the recent decades. Primarily a poet, Tagore was no less a playwright
than a poet or fiction writer, a fact proved by his reasonably vast opus comprising more than 40
plays. Tagore’s drama, a substantial part of which is written in verse, demonstrates his creative
transformation of the Indian dramatic tradition, submerged in his unique and highly original
philosophy of life and art. Perhaps due to inadequate translations or biased notions on his plays as
not stage worthy, Tagore’s plays have not been mapped properly in the history of the Indian stage.
It is only in the past two decades that Tagore’s place in the local as well as global environs has
been realized in relation to his plays, which are now seen to be decisive to an understanding of his
philosophy of life, his social and political consciousness and his spiritual affinities.
Similarly, while Tagore’s plays have been critiqued, they have been rarely seen in the context of
his contributions to the Indian dramatic genre, particularly focusing on his cosmopolitan spirit, his
classic style of blending arts, his spirit of fusion and his effort to modernize theatre. Therefore, our
aim here is to map the poet-dramatist’s place in Indian drama and performance, since his plays
cover a wide variety of dramatic forms from folk plays, dance dramas to operatic forms as well as
from prose plays, humorous plays and children’s plays to political and social plays. Despite being
a world traveller with an awareness of the Western classical dramatic styles, Tagore never
compromised Indian cultures to Western dramatic forms or Western styles of staging. His plays
take the dramatic sweep typical of Kalidasa and at the same time, they do situate the plays within
the contemporary context of experimentation and renaissance fervour, giving his plays a new
technique, a new identity, a new dramatic method. Tagore’s plays and their experimental zeal can
also be seen in his dramatic characterizations of strong characters like Chandalika (Chandalika)
or Nandini (Red Oleanders), in his mythical retelling of stories, in his strong theatre landscape
that envisages a painterly imagination and breathes a poetic delight in things that come in his way.
What has he not done to enrich Indian drama and performance? If Habib Tanvir’s
experimentations with folk forms are revolutionary, has not Tagore done so much earlier with his
Baul singing infused in Manipuri dance forms? If Girish Karnad, Satish Alekar, Chandrasekhar
Kambar and Ratan Thiyam are well known for their individual styles of either retelling of epic
stories or recreating folk narratives or historical figures, did not Tagore attempt all these much
earlier in his Valmiki Pratibha (1881) or Biday Abhishaap (1894) or Chitrangada (1891)?
Valmiki Pratibha, which goes back to the life of Valmiki, could be considered as a postmodern
narrative that looks at the fringes and not at the centre of narrations. By choosing to narrate the
roots of Valmiki and his transformation from a thief to a poet, Tagore has retold the epic in a
different sense, not by narrating the narrative but by narrating the narrator. Similarly, without apingthe West, he has introduced all women characters in a play like Mayar Khela (1881). Today we
consider Indian dramatic experimentations as excelling in their awareness of their sociopolitical
environments and eco-sensitivity. But Tagore’s plays like Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders, 1926)
and Muktadhara (1922) deal with the slow mechanization and dehumanization that technology
has reduced us to, while Chandalika (1933) brings awareness into the social oppression and
casteism prevalent in the Indian society.
Tagore’s dramatic/theatrical arts established the first milestone of many a
dramatic/performance traditions that got forgotten due to the growing influence of Western
performance style in the colonial India. Instead of the colonial style of mechanical imitation of
Western styles prevalent then in Indian plays, Tagore’s art revealed the zeal of a synthetic
reconciliation, a kind of unification of diverse art forms of the world into a universally integrated
whole, guided by certain integrally unifying principles. Such an art form was the most suitable for
expressing Tagore’s views on society, politics and the world events. Tagore brings out the
unconventionality of the conventional Indian dance and dramatic traditions, in his act of fusion of
the Eastern and Western performance styles into a new, flexible patterned performance.
Tagore’s dramatic tradition tells tales of an experimentation of verse plays rendered into dance
dramas when we read plays such as Chitrangada (1891) and Shapmochan (1931). Even when
Tagore made use of European style of staging, like the use of Card Kingdom in Tasher Desh
(1933), he never displayed artificiality, but rather replayed surrealistic characters in an Indian
puppet-style dramatization, thereby modernizing indigenous arts.
Tagorean dance form integrates a variety of dance styles derived from one umbrella of the
mood it evokes, thereby putting an end to the long debate of abhinaya and rasa as root of nritya.
Dance, as an integral part of Tagorean dramatic tradition, is akin to dance as a primordial unit in
any theatrical tradition. Therefore, his use of dance as an effective component of theatrical
performances is an important Tagorean theatre tradition.
Further, Tagore’s style of fusion of dances such as Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi, Kandyan (Sri
Lanka) and so on, with which he reworked his plays into musicals, dance dramas and operas, is a
theatrical tradition unique to Indian performances. In such a theatre, women occupy centre stage,
since women are effective vehicles of Tagore’s dance and theatre performance tradition, where
they are partakers in his social revolutionary zeal rather than symbols of social victimization, the
realization of which point makes us opine that his plays stage female emancipation in a nuanced
The book Rabindranath Tagore’s Drama in the Perspective of Indian Theatre examines
Rabindranath Tagore’s plays in the perspective of the Indian dramatic/performance tradition,
locating Tagore as a playwright, performer and director in the panoramic continuum of Indian
dramatic performance tradition. It aims to map Rabindranath Tagore’s place in the Indian
dramatic/performance tradition, for which purpose it examines unexplored critical perspectives on
the following: Tagore’s texts as performance texts, their exploration in multimedia such as film,
television, and so on; reflections of Indian culture in his plays; certain inherent traits in his plays
such as mise en scène, humour, dance elements and the like; Tagore and Indian playwrights in
comparison, Tagorean theatre links to his world of music and performance genres; his plays in the
context of cross-cultural, intercultural theatre; Tagore as a poet-performer-composer and their
interconnections; and Tagore’s drama on the Indian stage.
The spirit of all that has been discussed above is what the book aspires to document in two
broad parts, based on our aim to explore both dramatic as well as theatrical traditions in Tagore’s
plays. The first part, in six chapters, discusses vital issues on Tagore’s drama including gender
politics, his poetic dramatic tradition of dramatic action, time and space, his use of myth, humourand satire in the Indian dramatic milieu, Tagore and his contemporaries, Tagore and modern Indian
drama, and nation and Tagore’s Drama. The second part comprising six chapters includes the
following subthemes: Tagore’s drama as performance; politics and perceptions behind the filmic
adaptations of Tagore’s plays, Indian cultures and traditions as reflected in Tagore’s theatre;
Tagore as a poet-dramatist, poet-translator, dramatist-producer, actor-singer – choreographer and
dramatist – scenographer; Tagore and intercultural performance/s; Tagore’s use of environ, mise
en scène and the theatrical milieu; and last but not the least, the modern productions of Tagore
With Tagore’s dramatic practice, Indian drama underwent a paradigmatic shift, when Tagore
shunned Western practices of theatre and explored alternative models for Indian theatre,
particularly indigenous traditions of our Indian cultures. The new model of theatre served as a new
vision for a new Indian nation, says Abhijit Sen, who in his chapter ‘Rabindranath Tagore:
Imagining Nation, Imagining Theatre’ highlights the spirit of the new energized theatre for an
equally vibrant new nation. Sen contends that Rabindranath’s vision of a new theatre has deeply
integrated with his vision of a new Indian nation. His move in the direction of this alternative
model for the Indian theatre was not merely dramaturgical or theatrical, but also remarkably
ideological. Such an endeavour is distinctly seen in his experimentation with dance forms that
explored fusion of varied dance forms.
I n ‘Rabindrik-Nritya, Tagore’s New Aesthetic for Indian Dramatic Art: Discourse and
Practice’, Deepshikha Ghosh discusses the audiences’ neglect of Tagore’s close association with
the art of dance and the utter ignorance of the educated middle class towards his distinctive dance
form emanating from a unique philosophical outlook. Through snippets of information and
discussion on the discourse and practice of Rabindrik-Nritya or Tagorean dance, Ghosh attempts
to assess the dance-drama texts as well his essays on art and aesthetics such as ‘What is Art?’, ‘Art
and Tradition’ and ‘The Religion of an Artist’ to establish Rabindrik-Nritya as an art form
comparable to Tagore’s music and paintings, in that it transcends mere norms, rules and gestures
towards a vision of an all-encompassing Oneness.
Tagore’s take on dance was also revolutionary, since at a time when the rest of India was
delving deep into the rich traditions of Indian classical dance, Tagore, says Ghosh, believed in the
spontaneity of physical movement to express the feelings and emotions of man, as a result of
which he was experimenting and searching for a new form, a new design and a new technique for
Indian dramatic art. He not only refashioned tradition but also allowed original and individual
creativity to permeate it. Assimilating the known with the unknown, he invented a novel cultural
tradition while remaining true to his own spirit. He was neither a professional composer nor a
well-trained dancer. But under the aegis of this thinker, seer, executive cum supervisor, the
essences of the East and the West were infused within a new ethos of dance. His eagerness to
develop a contemporary as well as cosmopolitan style of dance is evident from his restless search
for dance languages from different parts of India, even across national boundaries. Ghosh’s
chapter here tries to represent, discursively, Tagore’s alternative understanding of Indian culture
on the one hand and performance of dance and drama as praxis of his holistic philosophy of life
and education on the other. Such an endeavour, says Ghosh, can help us see his uniqueness not
only as a modern Indian dramatist but also as a modern thinker.
Chandrava Chakravarty’s ‘Place and Space in Tagore’s Raktakarabi and Muktadhara’ begins
with the idea that Tagore’s plays have been mostly conceived as elusive and philosophical, and
supposes it as the reason for their being more impressive as closet plays than theatrical
performances. She stresses on Tagore’s creation of complex visual and ideological registers
through the use of place and space in the plays making performance an uphill task, particularlystudying two plays Raktakarabi and Muktadhara, to critical exploration. The plays, Chakravarty
believes, are amenable to post-structuralist understanding of spatiality as an indispensable
component of social existence, and they offer profound insights into the themes that Tagore
repeatedly evokes in his plays – human greed, power, justice, the value of common human
experience and freedom.
‘Tagore’s Artistic Rendering of Spiritual Realism in Dak Ghar’ makes an interesting attempt
to study Tagore’s symbolic rendering of the play Dak Ghar (The Post Office,1912) in relation to
spiritual realism that distinguishes him from other mystic poets and dramatists. According to
Papiya Lahiri, Dak Ghar belongs to the Gitanjali (1910) period of Rabindranath Tagore’s long
literary career dealing with reflections on death, man in relation to God and the mysterious call
from the far-off world. Protagonist Amal’s innocence, curiosity and ability to imagine the world
outside delight the passers-by, when they communicate with him through the little window of his
room and learn the secret of living happily.
Tagore’s Upanishadic sensibility is woven intricately in every dialogue and scene of Dak Ghar,
magnified with Amal’s guileless and spirited understanding of the universe where he equally
embraces all. It is this devotion to the Infinite that removes any trace of vagueness and negativity
from the heart and mind of the ailing child, filling others with wonder for his ability to see the
good in people. The article sheds light on the doctrine of deliverance and spiritual consciousness
through the seamless rendering of Amal’s vision of life.
Arnab Bhattacharya’s ‘Tagore and the Indian Tradition of Hasyarasa: A Study in Tagore’s
Shorter Humorous Plays’ covers another yet unexplored area in Tagore’s drama, the humour
dimension in his plays. Tracing the humour tradition in Indian drama from Sanskrit drama
accentuated by Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra through Bengali drama to Tagore’s plays,
Bhattacharya traces the interesting trajectory of humour, from the critical to the creative,
establishing solidly that Tagore leaves his distinctive mark in the use of humour. Incidentally
Bhattacharya restricts his study to the critically unexplored shorter hasya plays or playlets of
Tagore called as Hasyakoutuk.
Deboshree Bhattacharjee in her chapter ‘The Comic Genius of Tagore: Interplay of Humour
and Reality in Chirakumar Sabha’ attempts to interpret Tagore’s well-known humour play,
Chirakumar Sabha, discussing the interplay of humour and reality in a subtle manner.
Chirakumar Sabha is here seen from a semiotic perspective through a performance analysis of his
plays. It views Tagore’s humour as not merely meant to invoke laughter, but to present the
sociopolitical reality in the garb of laughter thereby combining both entertainment as well as
educative value. Humour is in itself the supreme element of ‘disguise’– a tool most often used by
Tagore in his comedy of errors, says Bhattacharjee.
The second part of the book contains chapters crucial to the understanding of Tagore’s drama from
a theatre/performance-oriented perspective. The chapters listed here mostly discuss aspects of
Tagorean theatre such as mise en scène, performance styles, and so on. Dattatreya Dutt’s chapter
titled ‘The Unrealized Theatre of Tagore’ commences with the contention that, contrary to popular
notion, there is no single dramatic genre called ‘Tagore Drama’. To prove this point Dutt traces
his dramatic journey from Tagore’s deliberate absorption from diverse authors such as
Shakespeare, Wilde and Maeterlinck to his adherence to operatic, historical, symbolic and even
melodramatic styles with the professional stage in view, and finally ending with the dance-drama
form of the theatre. But in the meantime, he had also written Rangamancha (The Stage) – his
famous tirade against the illusion-oriented stage. Other than the above, one can address how he
had put up a strong case in favour of allowing free play of the spectators’ imagination, while
witnessing the action on the stage and also advocating an unadorned, suggestive stage setting.How successful he was in his actual practice of his theatre theorizing is questionable, as the
extant photograph of the Dak Ghar (The Post Office) production under his own direction amply
demonstrates. But of course there were extenuating factors like audience expectation – or what the
contemporary audience expected the theatre to be. Yet the idea remained with him, and he
attempted to embody his vision of theatre in the written text of his plays. Therefore Dutt attempts
to show through analyses of Tagore’s later plays that in his search for an ideal unadorned theatre,
Tagore had finally moved (at least in his theatrical imagination) beyond the walled proscenium
into the open-air theatre form. The texts of his plays show a gradual rejection of the proscenium
paraphernalia, and a strong tendency to utilize natural spaces as he had found in Santiniketan. As
Dutt rightly points out, in this as in so many other fields, he had anticipated the future trends of
world theatre.
Sarbani Sen Vengadasalam takes up a full intercultural analysis of Tagore’s Muktadhara in
‘Encounters and Exchanges: An Intercultural Interrogation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dramaturgy
i n Muktadhara’. Beginning with a brief encapsulation of the trauma of India’s colonial
experience, the chapter maps out the country’s and Tagore’s sociopolitical awakening during
freedom struggle to move towards interculturalism in art and politics. According to Sen, Tagore’s
exposure to foreign cultures equalling his awareness of the limitations of Calcutta’s public theatre
and folk forms catalysed his development of an intercultural, Santiniketan style of theatre. Further,
she highlights the significant influences on Tagore and the aim of his theatre of ideas brought out
in the symbolic, poetic, non-naturalistic nature of Tagore’s dramaturgy highlighted before
Muktadhara, with the aim to view them as a concretization of Tagore’s political philosophy and
personal ideology. This helps to understand how the play reflects the milieu of the period and the
manner in which it interweaves Western and native cultural elements and constructs, thereby
enabling to highlight Tagore’s ideas on kingship and the machine and the triumph of Tagore’s
Debopriya Banerjee in her chapter ‘Performing Chitrangada: From Tagore to Rituparno
Ghosh’ discusses performance of Tagore’s dance drama Chitrangada in two filmic
representations of two different eras: Tarun Majumdar’s popular family melodrama Dadar Kirti
(1980) alongside what can be considered film-maker Rituparno Ghosh’s swansong Chitrangada:
The Crowning Wish (2012). These two Bengali films become significant artefacts of critical
examination to comprehend/appreciate Tagore’s dramatic contemporaneity. Banerjee successfully
brings the question of gender identity to critical crossroads through her analysis of gender identity
in Tagore and the two films, one exploring a normative course and the other a transsexual one.
In ‘Visarjan as Performance: A Road towards Ritual Healing’, Seetha Vijayakumar believes
that Rabindranath Tagore’s Visarjan (1889) brings magic on stage by resonating the social
realities of its times, and making a mark on Tagore’s foresightedness, expressing these through the
ritual of performance on stage. She particularly explores the tradition of sacrifice which is deeply
rooted in Indian society with the aim to examine and understand the myth of sacrifice, thereby
offering a ritual reading of Visarjan, transforming the theatre apparatus to comment and criticize
the phony and credulous society he lived in and offer them the solace of ritual healing.
‘Valmiki Pratibha and Its Afterlife’, written by Sharmila Majumdar, discusses a particular
production of the play Valmiki Pratibha by the inmates of different correctional homes in the
Indian state of West Bengal, one of its kind in the history of production of Tagore’s plays that
happened in 2005, under the guidance of Alokananda Roy, a celebrated danseuse of Kolkata, who
worked with the inmates of the Presidency Correctional Home. Such a social reform movement
through Tagorean theatre, which took place within the four walls of a prison, namely producing
Valmiki Prativa, in 2007, became a phenomenal success. Such critical attempts take us back to
the question of timeless relevance of Tagore in the dramatic world.
Sneha Kar Chaudhuri transports the main strands of this volume to yet another relevant
dimension of Tagore studies, as she critiques a film adaptation on Tasher Desh (1933) in‘Postmodern Subversion and the Aesthetics of Film Adaptation: The Example of Tasher Desh’.
Specifically, she explores a recent Bengali big screen adaptation of Tagore’s play Tasher Desh
(2013) in the light of its postmodern performative experimentation with the form, content and
ideologies of one of Tagore’s most well-known plays. Tagore’s works, especially his novels,
novellas and short stories, have always been adapted by Indian film-makers. The adaptation of his
plays for the big screen is a less frequent affair in comparison with the overabundance of such
performances on the stage. However, in the recent past, the director/screenplay writer Q (Qashiq
Mukherjee) took up the challenge to make his film on Tagore’s play text. The overall intention of
this chapter is to interrogate the cinematic performance of Tagore’s drama that unfolds the
nuances of a cross-generic and transhistorical cultural exchange.
For a long time in the eyes of Indian critics, Indian English drama was only a burgeoning genre of
Indian literature, despite Tagore’s seminal works of drama that probably got lost in the quagmire
of bad or weak translations or lack of translations. His dramatic works, whether English or
Bengali, exemplify the Indian negotiations between diverse cultures or languages, which Indian
drama has been engaging in from time immemorial, as witnessed in many Indian dramatists from
ancient to modern times, from Kalidasa to Aurobindo and in many modern writers from Girish
Karnad to Mahesh Dattani. Tagore’s dramatic works themselves are a case study in this subject of
cultural negotiations, since he effectively negotiates between the local and the national, the
national and the international, the Indian and the Asian and so on in his spirit to create theatre of
the universal. However, the universal in Tagore’s drama does not really delink itself from its roots
and hence despite the universal spirit in his drama, in its performative aspect, Tagore’s theatre is
very much down to earth and nourished in its Indian roots. It is hoped that this volume will help to
highlight and make us realize his worth as a dramaturg.Part I


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