One noticed curious similarities of approach in the plays commissioned by Happenings for its eighth Rabindra Utsav. Laudably for one thing, three relatively young groups got the chance to display their work for the first time ever in Calcutta: aRANYA and Gillo Theatre Repertory from Mumbai, and Centre for Film and Drama with Abhinaya Taranga (Bangalore). Equally praiseworthy, the Mumbai units evinced much deeper rootedness in Bengali and Rabindrik culture than one normally finds in Tagorean interpretations from outside Bengal. To wit: their renditions of Rabindrasangeet bore the mark of authentic coaching and pronunciation, unlike the often awkward attempts encountered in the past. They also chose unusual subjects rather than the same texts that tend to resurface repeatedly. Finally, they shared a multilingual and imagistic presentational style, departing from conservative linear narratives.
On the other hand, the overwhelming awe with which other Indians react when they actually realize the phenomenon called Tagore still acts as an impediment to artistic creativity. In both the new productions, aRANYA’s Colour Blind and Gillo’s She-He-Shey, we sensed that the directors trod softly lest Gurudev’s formidable reputation blunderbussed them into smithereens. Yes, they must handle him with extra sensitivity because his aesthetics requires such sahridaya from sympathetic connoisseurs, but they must not kowtow into total submission, because his revolutionary artistry demands a radical experimentalism to match.
Colour Blind overreached by trying to present Tagore the man to its audience, even if correct in assuming that the latter knows very little about him. Dramatist-director Manav Kaul focused on Tagore’s preoccupations with childhood/youth and death (whom Kaul personified as a character), commendably selecting excerpts from works rarely staged in translation, like Chitrangada and Grihaprabesh, studiously avoiding overexposed pieces like Dakghar. Although undoubtedly important, these themes effectively obscured a dozen other equally significant Tagorean concerns, thereby ending up projecting an incomplete profile. Why enter his complex life at all if you already recognize that you cannot do justice to it?
Simultaneously, to stress Tagore’s human “vulnerability”, Kaul zeroed in on his relationship with Victoria Ocampo — one of those mysteries, like what happened between him and Kadambari Devi, that continue to excite vulgar curiosity. Twenty-five years ago, in my review of Ketaki Dyson’s book on Tagore and Ocampo, I had suggested that because certain incidents described by Ocampo in her journal obviously could not have independent corroboration, perhaps we need not dwell on them overmuch. By taking us there again, Kaul gives that side of the story without any such disclaimers, possibly misleading viewers. Besides, like most laymen obsessed with what went on between the two of them, he forgets the third party in Buenos Aires: Tagore’s young friend Leonard Elmhirst (“he is in love with you,” Tagore told her twice) who, according to Ocampo, made a blatant pass at her.
I think we can spend our time better with what Tagore has tangibly given us than get distracted by what otherwise does not edify our lives in any way. As actors, Satyajeet Sharma and Kalki Koechlin (picture) do fine polyglot jobs doubling in the roles of Tagore and Ocampo as well as a contemporary producer and writer respectively, attracted to each other. But even this metatheatrical device is not novel anymore and, after so many applications in recent film and drama, has become overworked, if not outright hackneyed. Many in the cast sang well.
Gillo Repertory specializes in young people’s theatre, which explains its choice of Tagore’s Se —nevertheless uncommon, for even Bengali troupes steer clear of this collection of whimsical tales that Tagore entertained his granddaughter, Nandini, with. The director, Shaili Sathyu, kept it short and simple, dramatizing only the five most theatrically conducive stories from Aparna Chaudhuri’s English translation, He, while avoiding materially elaborate fantastic touches. However, she gave her play a confusing name, for She-He-Shey, or the triangle of Nandini-Tagore-Se, seemed to refer instead to the gender ambivalence of the titular Bengali personal pronoun, whereas Tagore’s enigmatic tale-spinner is clearly a man, as Chaudhuri’s title indicates.
Liberally employing choreography by Hamsa Moily, Sathyu emulated “the sheer abandon” that she discovered in the book, in both Tagore’s text and sketches. But her cautious “tried to be as free spirited as I could dare” (my emphasis) again gave away the excessive reverence that cramps individual style. Gechho Baba proved the most imaginative episode, the others varying in their ability to bridge the gap from page to stage. Unfortunately, the target audience of children went missing, so one gathered no evidence on the production’s communicability to them.