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Re-imagining Tagore in style

November 18, 2016

Carrying for e'er your matted hair, ancient banyan tree, I was a little urchin once, do you remember me? wrote Tagore once, alluding to his early childhood memories spent under a severe servant regime, when his only diversion was to prise open the window shutters and gaze longingly on the nearby pond with its surrounding flora and fauna. It was only in 1912, at the age of 51, that he sat down to recapitulate the first 27 years of his life in Jiwansmriti (My Reminiscences), hailed by the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, as "a rich and most valuable work." Written with consummate wit and wisdom, it provided a unique insight into his times. In Tagore's own words, "I do not know who has painted the pictures of my life, imprinted on my memory. But whoever he is, he is an artist. He does not take up his brush simply to copy everything that happens, he retains or omits just as he fancies..."

Bhowanipur Baikali Association presented recently in the packed, spacious Nazrul Manch a fascinating collage of those formative years, illumined by prose and poetry narratives by film and theatre luminaries; live music by an amazingly large band of 230-strong male and female singers; and scintillating choreography by some of Kolkata's best-known dancers. Conceived and directed by the noted musician Pramita Mallick, and ably supported by a well-researched folio of still and video projections, the program gently led the spectators - one by one - into the times of the kid who would strut endlessly in the corridors of a closed mansion; the child who would furtively glance out of his school windows on the kites flying outside; the boy who would be given his first outing with the father to Bolpur meadows, Allahabad fort, Amritsar's Golden Temple and Dalhousie on the snow capped Himalayas, in that order; and finally, the youth who would be first taken to Ahmedabad and Bombay, and later across the seven seas - to Brighton in England for studying law, but primarily for savouring the music and dance of an alien West.

In between, Tagore's mind slowly opened up to the colours and cadenza of the outside world. Mamata Shankar's group of creative dancers, in resplendent white, vibed wonderfully to an open-armed welcome of the Mother Nature, The sky is full of the sun and stars / The earth is full of life... Mamata then sauntered in a serene mood to resonate to the tune of The silent night is dipped in moonshine... An adolescent Tagore had forayed into the Brijbhasha legacy of the nineteenth-century north India, to compose inimitable Bhanusingher Padavali under a pseudonym and the poet had recorded how this created furore in his own family. From this collection came the lilting song, In deep flower-bower's sway / Sweet 'n' tender flute does play..., accompanied by Purbita Mukherjee's elegantly attired Manipuri group.

An early poem of Tagore on an unequal encounter between the tamed bird in the gold cage and her counterpart from the wilderness - indulging into futile exhortations to each other for swapping places was beautifully sung and visualised in Odissi by Saswati Garai Ghosh and her partners across a shifting, hand-held screen. Then came dancer Sharmila Biswas in a thought provoking delineation of nature: Under the incessant rains in the month of Bhadra / My temple-abode lies empty, forlorn...

While the thespian Soumitra Chatterjee sonorously voiced: How have the sunrays entered this morning into my soul / And lit up the cave's each dark corner with the morning-bird's melodies..., and the choral song echoed: The boisterous waves, O the boisterous waves, Reaching for the sky, Enveloping the past and the future..., the brilliant pas de deux by Monojit Saha in Kathak and Sourav Roy in Bharatanatyam evoked images of a mindset liberated at long last.

After Ashoke Viswanathan's resonant reading of Tagore's early love-affair with the Western culture, whereafter he wrote Valmiki Pratibha (the Genius of Valmiki) on return - there was a lengthy enactment from the latter Wagnerian opera where the characters both sang and conveyed a story. The enlivening features were, one, the dance of the forest-deities emoting to a pensive song, We can't bear, we can't bear / The soul cries out in despair..., executed soulfully by Mamata Shankar's troupe and, second, the boisterous dance by the dacoits themselves, Kaali, Kaali, please come out / Let's all shout, shout and shout..., tuned by Tagore after a Scottish ditty.

Towards the end appeared Priti Patel in a solemn Manipuri cameo: Let me not die on this beauteous earth / Amid mortals, I would live in mirth... and the curtains came down with, Play on, you poet, your sweet song / With the solemn cascade of notes... when dancers from Kathak, Manipuri and Bharatanatyam streams joined hands in a rousing finale. It was a delightful evening.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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