April is the month of theatre. April is the month of Shakespeare. This year the world celebrates the 400th death anniversary of the immortal bard of England who is synonymous with theatre in the English speaking world and even beyond. His plays have been translated and adapted for stage in almost all the languages of the countries colonized by Britain. This has extended the reach of Shakespearean drama beyond the Anglophone world making Shakespeare’s presence a global phenomenon. Even after four centuries, Shakespeare’s plays remain topical and vibrant because of the universal appeal of their subject matters and themes. However, not all playwrights enjoy such wide acceptance. Especially plays written in languages other than English hardly get to travel beyond the reach of their linguistic limits despite being great theatre. The plays written by Tagore in Bengali are similar examples.
In the Bengali speaking world Rabindranath Tagore has been constantly referred to as a poet by his countrymen thus underplaying his presence and denying him his due credit as a multifarious creative artiste who has created music, short stories, paintings and great experimental theatre. Tagore’s engagement with music and theatre was since his childhood, unlike his paintings, which was almost an obsessive preoccupation in his mature years. Through all these artistic expressions he ushered in ‘modernity’ for Bengali music, theatre and fine arts.
Tagore’s first visit to England at seventeen exposed him to Western music and opera. He had learnt Scottish, English and Irish songs, which influenced his first operatic play Valmiki Pratibha that he composed in 1880 after returning to Calcutta. There was a vibrant creative air in his ancestral mansion in Jorasanko where his elder siblings were constantly engaged in writing plays, composing songs, rehearsing and performing. This inspired Tagore to compose his operatic plays one after another in the 1880s.
The beginning of the twentieth century, however, brought a tremendous change in Tagore’s life. His personal life was devastated by the series of untimely bereavements between 1902 and 1907 of his wife, his middle daughter and his youngest son. He also lost his father and two of his close associates. Concurrently, his public life whisked him off to steer the ‘anti-partition’ and the Swadeshi movement, which rocked the politics of colonial Bengal. His politico-cultural role as a public speaker and composer of patriotic songs placed him in the vortex of the movement. This allowed him to realize the soul of the Indian masses. Thus, the first decade of the twentieth century finds him both introspective and outward looking. In order to come to terms with his tremendous personal grief he had to create a personal God who was both cruel and kind, a friend and a foe, the beloved and the tormentor! In his effort to transcend personal grief he embraced newer challenges in public life to bring about changes in the lives of his poor, illiterate subjects in his estates. This is also when he established his universalist school in Santiniketan. He embarked upon a new realization of the ‘divinity of man’ and the ‘humaneness of God’—a conviction that would later find expression in his Hibbert lectures later published as The Religion of Man. His convictions were also reflected in the poems of Gitanjali (1910), his novel Gora (1910) and his plays Sharadotsav (1908), Raja (1910), Dakghar (1912), Achalayatan (1912) and Phalguni (1915)—all crops of the early decades of the twentieth century. With Sharadotsav the world of Tagore’s plays entered a new realm rich in symbolism and allegorically multi –dimensional in character. These plays placed Bengali theatre at a level similar to the European modernist theatre. Yet Tagore’s theatre was not emulating European modernity. Tagore’s plays were creating a world that was entirely indigenous. His improvised dramaturgy and stagecraft were entirely Indian in style and spirit. These plays created a world, which was almost mythical without being religious and was acceptable to the trans-national modern intellect. These plays--though written more than a century ago – still remain contemporary and timeless. In the first decades of the twentieth century when the mainstream Bengali theatre regaled in aping European stage realism through the historical and religious sentimental melodrama Tagore consciously created an alternative dramatic art that would become a model for Indian modernist theatre in the years to come.
Tagore’s dramatic art followed this allegorical symbolic realism also in later plays like Muktadhara (1922), Raktakarabi (1926), Kaler Jatra (1932) and Taser Desh (1933). Instead of attempting to simulate realism on stage, Tagore designed a different dramatic idiom. This conveyed the deeper truths of life through a careful employment of dialogues, poetry and music. Amongst all the artistic genres utilized by Tagore, his plays hold a special place of importance because they have the power to convey the playwright’s complex ideas, convictions and philosophy to the audience more directly and immediately than any other medium.
The play Raja (The King of the Dark Chamber, in English version) was written during a particular crisis in the personal, artistic and public life of Tagore. With an almost superhuman mental strength and composure he was trying to transcend the grief and pain of bereavement through a conscious engagement in social activism and artistic creation. While he sublimated his personal crisis through creative art, his efforts at social activism left him in dire financial crisis. The novel Gora, the verses of Gitanjali and the play Raja reflect the creator’s realization of life during this crisis. This realization is both political and philosophical. Philosophically his cruel fate makes him realize that his ‘Jibandebata’ (The God of his life) is a tormentor. He is the Lord; he is the beloved, yet he is also a fearsome foe! He destroys all barriers of comfort through the storm of the calamitous night. Yet, in the verses of Gitanjali, the poet’s persona eagerly embarks on a tryst with this beloved tormentor! This beloved tormentor, synonymous with life itself, is the king in Raja. Like Tagore, his character Thakurda has ensured the friendship of Raja after wading through difficult times and endless sufferings. Another character Surangama has befriended Raja after courting similar hardships. But princess Sudarshana has to get rid of her obsession with form and beauty and her regal pride in order to court Raja. She has to leave her palace and tread the dusty path of the commoners in order to be united with him. Vikram, the powerful haughty king, begins by denying Raja’s existence, then challenges him, fights him as a foe, accepts defeat and finally surrenders his ego to Raja.
Significantly, Raja or the King is never seen on stage. This invisibility is in tune with both the philosophical and political themes of the play. Philosophically, if Raja symbolizes the Almighty, he has no form and therefore he remains unseen. If Raja is the synonym for a complex experience enwrapping joys and sufferings known as life, it again cannot be represented with a definite form. Incidentally, when Tagore revised this play in 1920, he called it Arupratan or ‘Formless jewel’. In 1910, when the play was written, India was a British colony. In common parlance ‘Raja’ denoted either the British Emperor or the regional royalty as can be seen in the warring feudal chieftains of the play. But the central character of Raja remains unseen and is none of these. This is because, as early as 1910 Tagore had envisioned an ideal democracy based on socialism. Therefore one cannot find the presence of a medieval decked-up ruler complete with appropriate courtiers in this country of the ‘unseen king’. Yet, the governance is perfect. This intrigues the foreigners in the play:
Bhabodatta: Look here, Kaundilya, the truth is that they just don’t have a king.
Kaundilya: I too thought so! In a country the king is the one who is most noticeable—he makes himself quite obviously visible.
Janardan: But the way everything is so well regulated in this country, it doesn’t seem that there is no king here. Look at the harmonious way the citizens are celebrating. This would not have been possible without a king! You must have seen countries where the king is only visible to the eyes but his presence is hardly noticed in the governance. There’s perfect chaos! But look at this country…
The citizens continue similar discussion with Thakurda:
Look here, Thakurda. There’s something that’s bothering us a lot today.
Thakurda: Really! What is it?
There are so many foreign guests in our festival this year. They are commenting: everything is so perfect. But where is the king? That is one big void in our country!
Thakurda: Void? In our country since the king does not appear in a particular place, the entire country is filled up with kings! You call it a void? He has made kings of all of us!
Then, with Thakurda as their leader, they burst out singing their anthem: Amra sobai raja … (“We are all kings in the kingdom of our king, or else how can we be one with our king?”). Tagore makes it clear that the king of his play Raja is actually the ‘naradebata’ or ‘divinity in man’ mentioned in the Gitanjali poem Bharat Teertha. He would discuss this at length in his Hibbert lectures ‘The Religion of Man’ and whose paean he would sing in his very last composition ‘Oi mahamanaba aashey’. The protagonist in Gora too discovers this ‘naradebeta’. It is surprising that Tagore could envisage an idealized picture of a socialist democratic system of governance when his country was a colony under a formidable imperial monarchy. The play actually initiates a debate on the ideal form of governance. It also talks about how the poor should themselves actively address the problems of poverty without being passively dependent on the rulers.
What does a king mean to the people who have to starve?
Thakurda: You are right! Go and look for the king who provides. Passive lamentations won’t bring him to you!
This ‘provider king’ is a metaphor for the concerted indigenous efforts of the common man. This reminds us of the initiatives taken by Tagore to introduce scientific techniques of agriculture and farming among the poor peasants of his own estates. He was the one who pioneered cooperative system and rural banking to alleviate the poverty of his subjects. The poor should not indefinitely wait on the charity of a foreign government to provide them with food. He used to convince the common people that they should develop their own indigenous means to solve their problems. He wanted them to develop their own agency with active initiative which he would call ‘atma shakti’ or ‘self empowerment’. Hence the characters of his play discuss these issues in the idioms of drama. Since 1902 Tagore discussed the true significance of ‘swadeshi’ and rural self-empowerment in several of his essays and speeches. As an activist he introduced several socialistic programmes in his estates braving numerous oppositions. Raja reflects the playwright’s socialist political ideology. The philosophical and political ideologies of Tagore synthesize smoothly in the complex and rich fabric of the play Raja. His political ideology developed since he had started working for the rural poor in his estates in Shilaidaha and other locations in the eastern parts of undivided Bengal during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Like his protagonist Gora he too had started discovering his India through his exposure to the folk culture—a process that had continued till the Gitanjali phase of his life. These experiences find dramatic expression in the play Raja.
In the play Suvarna (literally ‘gold’), the imposter king, pompously parades the streets covering himself with gold. The commoners are fooled by his glitter. His false assurance attracts the greed of the poor commoners who impoverish themselves by showering expensive gifts on him in the expectation of greater favours. In the history of the ‘developing’ third world countries people are regularly fooled by false rulers with the promises of good governance. Princess Sudarshana too is enamored by Suvarna’s glamour and taking him as her king sends him her garland. Both in love and politics misleading through glittery appearance is common even in the present consumerist open market societies. The entire third world today is ridden to the core with this external glitter and a pathetic internal poverty. This multi-layered text has an epic dimension which makes the play eternal and contemporary at the same time. This is why this play, written more than a century ago, retains its relevance in the twenty-first century stage.
Written in 1910, Raja was produced for the first time in 1911. There were many consecutive productions throughout the years. That this was a favourite play of Tagore is proved by the fact that he produced the play several times and also revised the text (in 1920 as Arup Ratan). Tagore’s last ever performance on stage was when at seventy-five he played both Raja and Thakurda on two consecutive nights in Calcutta. Between his fiftieth year and his seventy-fifth year Tagore had to revisit this play every now and then and this active engagement continued for twenty-five years!
We do not have a complete production history of Raja. A detailed research needs to be carried out to know in how many languages this play was produced in different places. However, The King of the Dark Chamber, the English version of Raja , directed by Krishna Shah became quite popular in 1960-61 in New York. In Kolkata the Bahurupi production of Raja directed by Shambhu Mitra became a landmark in the history of Bengali drama. During the 150th anniversary of Tagore, in 2011, which was also the centenary of the play, Raja returned to stage.
A complex and rich philosophical and political play like Raja should not remain confined to the Kolkata-centric Bengali audience. As a practitioner of Tagore’s arts I have always felt that Tagore has become confined within the limits of the Bengali language. The rich and varied works and thoughts he left for us should be the legacy of the entire humanity who can benefit by them in their hours of crisis, as Dr. Korzak prepared the captive Jewish children to face their termination in the Nazi concentration camps by enacting the German version of Tagore’s play Daakghar (The Post Office). The Bengalis who are engaged in Tagore studies should also reach out to the world audience through other languages. With this in mind, in the 150th anniversary of Tagore and the centenary of the play Raja, we thought of producing Raja in English for the English language audience of the world. If Shakespeare can travel beyond the boundaries of English, Tagore’s works and particularly his rich, universal and timeless plays should also be produced in other linguistic and cultural domains. Efforts to this end have been extremely scanty, partly because the Bengali scholars of Tagore never quite took his dramatic art seriously and partly because the Bengali theatre practitioners thought that Tagore’s plays were not stage worthy. That the latter is not true has been proved time and again with great productions on stage. To end this stagnation we planned to take RAJA in English to the world audience. Like Shakespeare, let them discover the fascinating world of Tagore’s plays. Let the plays enrich and excite them. Let them recognize the contemporary world with the wisdom and profundities of Tagore’s plays.
We did not choose The King of the Dark Chamber as this English play by Tagore was not a direct translation of the Bengali Raja. Tagore often altered his texts while translating into English. So we decided to have a text that comprised of elements from the two Bengali texts of Raja and Arupratan and the English The King of the Dark Chamber and prepared another English version for our production and entitled it as Raja in English. While deciding on the cast we thought of William Radice who was then a faculty at the Bengali department of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), an English poet and an already renowned Tagore translator and scholar. We had heard him recite some Gitanjali poems in his deep bass voice for our international, bilingual Tagore album The Dust and the Sunlight published by Hindusthan Record. His voice was deep with empathy and naturally sonorous. I thought this would be a very good choice for the voice of the protagonist in Raja in English. Besides, understanding the nuances of the play would not be easy for a person who is just an actor unfamiliar with Tagore. I was a guest at William’s London flat while conceiving the production. I told him that he would be the voice of Raja in my production. Initially he was amused with the idea that an academic would double up as an actor! Then he insisted that I should not ask him to appear on stage. I immediately agreed. In the play Raja does not appear on stage, only his voice is heard. William stood convinced and agreed. It was decided that when he would visit India and Bangladesh in January-February 2012 Raja in English would be premiered in Kolkata.
Songs play an extremely important role in the play. I decided to keep the songs in original Bengali as Peter Brook did in his English and French productions of the Mahabharata. Actors from Kolkata rehearsed with William in the final phase of the rehearsals. Many characters of the play narrated their past stories which were important for the understanding of the characters. I decided to shoot these past scenes and show them on stage as cinematic flashbacks. Thus Raja in English became a multi-media production involving live acting, singing and video projection with some forty odd cast on stage. The production was considered a landmark by the press and the overflowing audience because it inspired the actors and audience with the possibility of seeing Tagore’s play going global. We wish to reach out to the Anglophone theatre enthusiasts all over the world with a travelling Tagore theatre. We need to collaborate with several concerns all over the globe to make this happen. I am hopeful that we shall be able to give the world theatre a unique experience through Tagore’s Raja in English.
Published in Parabaas May 8 2016.