The Bengali Renaissance brought in a big change in the outlook towards women in society. Many social reformers like Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar etc took different steps like introduction of widow remarriage, abolition of child marriage amongst women, stopping the practice of “Sati” as well as opening the doors of formal education for women. A substantial change had taken place and more were to come, when Tagore came of age.
Thus writings of Tagore were no exception, as a substantial portion has been dedicated to the emancipation of women. The images of his thoughts are vividly reflected in his poems, essays, novels and dramas. Yet it is the dance dramas of Tagore, a genre quite unique in his time, which portrays an entirely new outlook toward women and paints a completely different picture of their selfhood. Not only were they radical in their thoughts, but there were different levels of experimentation by adaptations of different Indian classical dance forms like Manipuri, Kathakali and Bharatnatyam.
They have been beautifully adapted and have been given an entirely new outlook. The key point of Rabindra Nritya Natya is expressive dancing. Abhinaya plays a very vital role in it. The dancer should entirely immerse her/himself into the character while maintaining the proper dancing style. At the same time he also experimented with the theatrical aspects, folk compositions as well western classical music.
In fact Tagore first started writing “Geeti Natyas” or musical dramas. In 1881-82 he composed “Balmiki Pratibha” (Valmiki’s talent) and “Kalmrigaya” (The fateful hunt). These stories were based on anecdotes picked up from the epics Mahabharata/Ramayana, a subject which writers from time immemorial have chosen to explore.
Balmiki Pratibha tells the story of the transformation of the bandit “Ratnakar” to become the saint “Valmiki”. “Kalmrigaya” deals with the story of how king Dasarath inadvertently kills the son of an ascetic with his “Sabdabhedi baan” (An arrow breaking the sound barrier) and is cursed and later pardoned for the same.
He was influenced both by the typical bengali folk theatre known as “JATRA” which thrived on mythological stories as well as he chose to experiment with Scottish and Irish folk tunes as used in operas. He added fantasy into the subject by introducing the characters of “Vandevi –or forest nymphs” in “Balmiki Pratibha”. Geeti Natyas have close resemblance to natya sangeet that has been quite predominant in Maharashtra.
In 1888 he came up with “Mayar Khela” which is a transition from “Geeti Natya” to “Nritya Natya”. Women from respected families came up for acting. The topic was no more mythological but dwelled around the love triangle of common humans like Amar, Promoda and Shanta. “Maya Kumaris” or dream maidens were used to create the illusions in the human mind to generate the feeling of love, despair and jealousy.
It was not until the late 1930’s that Tagore created his immortal nritya natyas or dance dramas. The intermittent period was spent in creating thousands of poems, and songs, a huge collection of novels, plays and short stories. Some of these poetic expressions like “Parishod” and “Chitrangada kavya” got converted into the famous dance dramas like “Shyama” and “Chitrangada”
The primary difference between Geeti Natya and Nritya Natya was that the actors in geeti natya had to sing the songs themselves, whereas in Nirtya natya there were a separate set of live singers on stage. This enabled the dancers to experiment much more with their “abhinaya skills”, while the relevance of music remained equally potent, but not foremost in the spectator’s attention.
It was in 1925, that Tagore came up with his poetic dance drama “Natir Puja” (The dancer’s prayer) based on an earlier poem “Pujarini” written in 1899. This was enacted entirely by women and it was a watershed event of Santiniketan. Dance got formally introduced as an art form in Santiniketan at this point of time. Tagore invited the famous Manipuri dancer Nabakumar Thakur from Agartala, who helped in introducing the nuances of Manipuri dance in Natir Puja.
Till then dance was being used in bits and pieces and it did not make a lasting impressions on the minds of spectators. First time in “Shapmochan” (The redemption) the substance of drama was brought in through dance. This was the point from where Tagore fully switched on to Nritya Natya or dance dramas.
The story of Shapmochan starts with the Gandharva Saurosen, a celestial musician being cursed into deformity by Indra the king of the gods and was born as Aruneswar in the human world. Saurosen’s wife Madhushree was also born as Kamalika. In due course Kamalika was married to Aruneswar. During the wedding, Aruneswar is represented by his Veena. Even after the marriage, Aruneshwar never appears to the views of Kamalika. At the long insistence of Kamalika, Aruneswar granted her wish and appeared before her. Kamalika was appalled by his deformity and ugliness and left him for a self exile. After a long meditative separation Kamalika came to terms with her own heart and realized the true nature of Aruneswar’s love and came back to him again.
After that came “Chitrangada” which was written in 1936, by converting his earlier “Kavya Natya” Chitra written on the same subject in 1892. This was closely followed up by “Chandalika” in 1938 which was transformed from an earlier play by the same name and finally “Shyama” came up in 1939 which is based on his earlier poems “Parishod”
Chitrangada was a retelling of Rabindranath Tagore's feminist dance drama. The king and queen of Manipur pray for a son but they get Chitrangada, a daughter. They rear her as a son and she becomes a warrior-princess. She is out hunting in the forest with her friends, when she encounters the legendary hero, Arjuna, the protagonist of the epic, Mahabharata. She falls in love. Chitrangada offers herself to Arjuna in marriage.
He refuses her on grounds of vowed celibacy. Although Chitrangada is in tears, the warrior in her is undefeated. She asks Madana, the God of Love, for the weapon she needs, `beauty', for one year. A transformed Chitrangada has Arjuna entranced by her beauty, breaks his vow of celibacy.
But soon he learns of the woman who rules Manipur - one who loves like a mother and fights like a tigress. He longs to meet his equal. It is time for Chitrangada to return her “stolen” beauty to Madana. Chitrangada, the Warrior Princess, enters her own court and demands the right and power to be an equal in prosperity and adversity if Arjuna still wants to marry her. Arjuna accepts her on her own terms.
The story of Chandalika centers around Prokriti (Chandalika) a low caste girl, who for that reason is thoroughly despised by her neighbours so much so that even hawkers in the street would not sell her their goods. She broods over her destiny and curses her mother for bringing her into this world. While in this mood, she goes to fetch water from the well where she meets the Bouddha bhikku, Ananda.
Thirsty and exhausted, Ananda begs her for a drink of water. Prokriti informs him that she is an untouchable and as such it is highly objectionable that high caste people should drink water from her hands. Ananda replies that all human beings are created equal, drinks the water, blesses her and departs.
This act of kindness kindles a one-sided love in the mind of Prokriti whose entire outlook on life changes. She now starts to live her days only for Ananda and starts counting the day when he would appear before her. One day he does appear before her but as a Buddhist sanyasin and he barely notices her.
Piqued, she seeks help from her mother who is a witch and the mother by various means of sorcery succeeds in bringing Ananda before her. Prokriti realising her folly, begs forgiveness from Ananda for dragging him into this mess and bringing him down to her level. The play ends with the unperturbed Ananda pronouncing his blessings on Prokriti and walking his way alone.
Chandalika is a very powerful dance-drama and symbolises Gurudev's concern for social inequalities.
Shyama is a story about a court-dancer (Shyama), falling in love with a foreign merchant (Bajrasen). The drama starts with Bajrasen, a noble merchant, acquiring a priceless set of jewels called ‘Indramonir Haar’(a precious necklace) from ‘Subarna Dwip’ (Subarna Island) looking for a suitable bride. Soon, he is seen being chased by a royal guard. They come across Shyama, the royal courtesan, and her acquaintances. Strikingly beautiful Shyama is pursued by many but her heart sets on Bajrasen at the very first sight.
The royal guard arrests Bajrasen and Shyama starts plotting how to rescue the object of her affection and soon comes up with a brilliant plan. She manipulates one of her suitors, Uttiyo, to take the blame of the crime Bajrasen has been arrested for. Thus, Bajrasen is saved. Shyama and her beloved elope to a land where no one knows them. However, eventually the truth is revealed and Bajrasen is appalled by Shyama's treachery that had apparently caused an innocent young man his life. Unable to deal with the guilt, Bajrasen rejects Shyama. Heartbroken, Shyama leaves her lover.
Bajrasen is torn between strong feelings of guilt and undying love for Shyama; in the back of his mind he's aware that the purpose of Shyama's despicable act was to save his life. The story of ‘Shyama’ may be set in the ancient times, but its message and appeal is still relevant. ‘Shyama’ is a sad story of eternal love, temptation and manipulation in the name of love.
The theme of female desire and love has been the central to these three nritya natyas. As we move through the different story lines, Tagore has explored the world of love from different viewpoints. Tagore’s modern views about women and their selfhood by voicing their desires as women are conspicuous in its presence. Chitrangada seeks a boon from Madana to win over Arjuna’s heart. Chandalika uses her mother Maya’s witchcraft to get Anando closer to her and Shyama uses treachery to seek love from Bajra sen.
Tagore's trilogy expresses the limitless powers of love transcending the barriers of Dichotomies in Chitrangada, the social Divides in Chandalika and Conscience in Shyama."
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