fixing the standard by the extrinsic
Rabindranath Entrapped in Bangladesh Theatre
Therefore when men [sic] are seriously engaged in fixing the standard of value in art by something which is not inherent in it, - or in other words when the excellence of the river is going to be judged by the point of view of a canal, we cannot leave the question to its fate, but must take our part in the deliberations (Tagore 2008b: 350)
It is necessary to begin with a disclaimer: I have never been an ardent devotee of Rabindranath. A non-practicing Muslim by birth, a militant participant in the civil war of Bangladesh and a theatre practitioner cum academic by profession, my engagement with Rabindranath has been restricted only to designing three of his plays.1 Thus '[h]aving disqualified myself by this confession of inability to place myself in this instance among good Tagorites,' as Thompson (1989: 213) would say, I acknowledge unhesitatingly that I have never felt 'at home' with 'the greatest South Asian of our age' (Guha 2002: 5), who 'created a monumental umbrella for the Bengali mind' (Gupta 1972: 9). Nevertheless, urged by Rabindranath's exhortation cited in the epigraph, I am obliged to take part in this deliberation on the performance of his plays in Bangladesh. What I present below, I acknowledge, is informed by my subject position and is only partial, in that '[t]he "true" is always marked by the ambivalence of the process of emergence itself, … within the terms of a negotiation (rather than a negation) of oppositional and antagonistic elements' (Bhabha 1994: 22). Obviously, I undertake the risk of error, but as Rabindranath says, '[i]f you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out' (Tagore 1916: 19). Out of this hazardous deliberation that should be seen as a negotiation rather than negation, what will emerge, hopefully, will not be reduced to an academic application of theories with neatly derived answers that will 'let me off the hook,' but will compel me to engage fruitfully in my struggle with myself to return to the 'home' of Rabindranath in the 'world' that I live in and make my performances.
This paper proceeds to ask whether on not 'the standard of value' in the performance of Rabindranath's plays in Bangladesh have been fixed 'by something which is not inherent in it' (Tagore 1917: 14-15). In probing this question, the essay proceeds in three parts. The first maps performance of Rabindranath in Bangladesh theatre, extracts cultural nationalism as the ideological underpin of three performance ensembles with most productions to their credit, and uncovers how Bangladesh theatre has betrayed Rabindranath's theorizing on nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The second asses the 'meaning' of four notable productions (Bisarjan, Raktakarabi, Raja… Ebong Anyanya, and Shyama Prem) in terms of key inherent notions in Rabindranath's politics of the State and love, and argues that theatre in Bangladesh has veered far off from the 'standard of value' set by Rabindranath. The third part focuses on three recent Tagorean productions in Bangladesh (Dak-ghar, Raja… Ebong Anyanya, and Raktakarabi), and compares these with the 'standard' of performance code and vocabulary Rabindranath attempted to give shape to. The first two parts are informed by the declared intent of the ensembles as manifested in the programmes, brochures and/or flyers published by them, and the 'meaning' perceived by the critics in reviews published in newspapers; and the third, by first-hand observation and examination of visual documents of the performances. The paper ends with a self-reflexive note by invoking Barthes' (1977) Death of the Author, and urges, reformulating Heiner Muller's (1990: 133) caveat regarding Brecht, that to seek Rabindranath 'without criticizing him is betrayal.'
The Group Theatre ensembles, which claim the distinction of the 'main stream' theatre practice of Bangladesh, have performed thirty-seven of the forty-plus works that constitute the theatric oeuvre of Rabindranath. The performed works include tragedies (such as Bisarjan), comedies (such as Chira Kumar Sabha), charades, farces and satires (such as Khyatir Bidambana), verse dramas (such as Karna-Kunti Samvad), dance dramas (such as Shyama), and symbolist plays with metaphysical content (such as Dak-ghar and Raktakarabi). Launching beyond Rabindranath's theatric oeuvre, many theatre ensembles have produced adaptations of his novels (such as Ghare Baire), short stories (such as Shasti), poems (such as Juta Abishkar) and even epistles (Banglar Mati Banglar Jal based on Chhinnapatra). These thirty-one adaptations add up a total of sixty-five. The number of performances would increase manifold if all the works produced by the dance ensembles, educational institutions, office clubs, and the mass media were added. (For further details, see Appendices 3 and 4.)
The data discussed above should be seen in the perspective of the past, ie, performance of Tagore in eastern Bengal and East Pakistan. According to information available at hand (see Appendix 1), the production of Raktakarabi in Jessore at the end of the 19th century was the earliest performance of Rabindranath in the region today known as Bangladesh. From then till 1947, in a span of about fifty years, only fifteen of his works were produced in the region, the most popular of which proved to be Chirakumar Sabha (six productions). Till 1916, we hear of only three productions, and all these appear to have been produced by the Hindu bhadralok. From 1916 till 1930s, students' productions (mostly by the residential hall unions at the University of Dhaka) formed the entire bulk of performance of Rabindranath in eastern Bengal. All through this period, no amateur group or professional company in Bangladesh ever mounted any of Rabindranath's works. The situation changed slightly in the 1930s, when a few amateur groups came up to produce his work.
The state of affairs changed dramatically in East Pakistan. Within a span of twenty-four years (from 1947 to 1971), twenty-five works of Rabindranath were staged by a heterogeneous group of producers: student bodies, amateur groups, office clubs, women's organizations, and even a Buddhist society of youths (see Appendix 2). Instead of Chirakumar Sabha as in eastern Bengal, Raktakarabi tops the list in East Pakistan, with six productions to its credit.
The rise in the popularity of Rabindranath's plays from the late 19th to early 21st century should be read in the context of two landmark events that have been crucial to the rise of cultural nationalism in East Pakistan: the Language Movement of 1952, and the celebration of Rabindranath's birth centenary in 1961. Beginning in 1952, but particularly since 1961 when Rabibdranath's birth centenary was celebrated even in the remotest parts of East Pakistan (Jatin Sarker) in the face of stiff resistance from the Islamic state of Pakistan, 'the very name of Rabindranath Tagore worked magic to galvanize support for Bengali language and culture' (Qureshi, 2008: 1144). He has been crucial to national identity formation and 'has been inspirational for the cultural resistance that was at the core of the national liberation struggle of Bangladesh' (Alam 2010). His role in the national imaginary 'must be sought in the image of repossessing Shonar Bangla that his song focalized for the generation that fought the liberation war and are still striving to make the vision generated by it come true' (ibid)
In the domain of theatre, the two landmark events engendered the performance of Munier Chowdhury's Kabar by the political prisoners in Dhaka Central Jail on 21st February 1953, and those of Raja O Rani, Taser Desh and Raktakarabi produced by Drama Circle in 1961. The snowball effect caused by these performances has embossed Bangladesh theatre today with the singular inscription that overshadows all others: cultural nationalism. In the public debate of national identity, which has dominated all others since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 (Schendel 2001: 107), Rabindranath has been the silent yet pervasive touchstone and the ideological underpin for the Group Theatre ensembles. It is he who substantiates, authenticates and validates their urge to 'imagine' the nation not by the marker of religion but language, and to him they return as pilgrims to rediscover the quintessence of their Bengaliness.
The recurrent mobilization of Rabindranath by the Group Theatre ensembles for validating their insistence that the nation must be 'imagined' – imaged by the creative imagination of language as a cultural tool, is best exemplified in the articulation of Nagorik Natya Sampraday, the theatre ensemble that has produced the maximum number of Rabindranath's work in Bangladesh (six plays and a performance collage). The General Secretary of the ensemble, Ataur Rahman, who has earned the distinction of being acknowledged as one of the foremost exponents of Rabindranath in Bangladesh theatre because of his success as the director of five Tagorean productions,2 is quite explicit in laying claim on the playwright. He acknowledges:
We return to Rabindranath again and again. Whenever we search for the way in boundless darkness, we feel that there is he who can show us the way. Conviction return to us, as does courage. For us, Rabindranath is the foremost symbol of Bengali national consciousness and modern thinking (Rahman 1989, author's tr).
Nagorik's mobilization of Tagore as a cultural-nationalist tool goes back to 1980, when 'the mass appeal of Bengali nationalism was fading fast' because the post-Liberation power-holders 'were seen to be incapable of establishing a more just, equitable and safe society' (Schendel 2001: 108). In the context of the political crisis thrown up after Sheikh Mujibur Rahan's murder and the ensuing chain of military coup d'états, the ideological response from Nagorik was voiced in its unsigned programme note published on the occasion of the premiere of Achalayatan. The note declared, 'our debt to Rabindranath is our freedom, our journey in life, our existence. Hence, when the existence is imperiled, the language of protest and call to resistance are inevitably articulated in that of Rabindranath' (Nagorik 1980, author's tr).
Nagorik produced Bisarjan in 1985, a time when the national elite was struggling against authoritarianism, military rule and narrow party politics of Ershad regime, and sought 'to recover liberating potential of nationalism, maintain the post-colonial, post-communalist vision which had empowered the movement for Bangladesh' (Schendel 2001: 109). By disavowing religion as the preeminent sign of the nation, the director of the play argued:
It is with the excuse of religion that in 1947 the two distinctly different people were brought within the fold of one unnatural country called Pakistan. It is in the name of religion that the Pakistani neo-colonialists tried to maim and subjugate their fellow countrymen in 1971. […] Bisharjan [sic] is a play that speaks against religious fanaticism and our staging of Bisharjan [sic] is, in itself, a protest against the existing order (Hayat 1985).
Nagorik produced Raktakarabi in 2001, when the political party avowed to cultural nationalism (Awami League) had lost the general election to the party inclined to religious nationalism (Bangladesh Nationalist Party). In the programme note of the play, Syed Shamsul Haq bemoaned the loss with an impassioned plea.
[We] now need a Nandini - need the utterance of Nandini within the one-hundred-and-thirty-million of us, 'What a demon's curse has befallen this country!' [We] now need a Nandini who will tell us, 'O my hero, I crown you with this peacock's feather'. […] This red oleander is the seed of our dream, the mantra of our courage and the flings of our flight (Haq 2001, author's tr).
Haq came forward with a variant ideological response in 2010, when the cultural nationalists were back in administering the State. Not satisfied with mobilizing Rabindranath as a tool for resisting the religious nationalists, now he (ie, Haq) launched into the ambitious project of laying territorial claim over the poet. In the programme note published by Palakar on the occasion of the premiere of Banglar Mati Banglar Jal (his adaptation of Rabindranath's letters collected in Chhinnapatra), Haq envisioned his grand ambition thus:
If Rabindranath had not arrived in our country of nether times, if he had not acquainted himself with the domesticity of the impoverished, the songs of Lalan, folksongs and rural lifestyle, if he had felt the tug of the umbilical cord at his navel after having set his eyes on all of these, he would have remained Rabi Thakur, never a Rabindranath (Haq 2010, author's tr).
The discourse of cultural nationalism mobilized in Banglar Mati Banglar Jal is most explicit at the end when the song 'Amar Shonar Bangla' is played, obviously evoking the national anthem of Bangladesh.
Following Nagorik's example of mobilizing Rabindranath as the ideological underpin, but less vociferous than the first-mentioned is Tiryak Natya Dal, a Group Theatre ensemble based in Chittagong. Not only did it host the earliest theatre festival of Rabindranath in Bangladesh (perhaps in the world, as the ensemble claims),3 but has also produced five of his works (including three plays). Its Bisarjan produced in 1995 and heading towards bicentenary performance, has to be duly credited as the most-performed work of Rabindranath in Bangladesh. The ensemble is led by Ahmad Iqbal Haider, who has ten Tagorean productions to his credit as a director.
Tiryak manifests its ideological intent in the flyer published on the occasion of the Third Rabindra-Fest held in 1997. In it, Haider (1997) asserts: 'Rabindranath is that golden inheritance of our life, in the light of which the progress of the Bengali people could never be halted by each of the harsh and foreboding times it faced,' author's tr). On the event of the premiere of Bisarjan in 1995, when religious nationalism had made substantial inroad in political and social fields of Bangladesh under the patronage of Bangladesh Nationalist Party government, Tiryak echoed Nagorik's insistence that religion is not the preeminent sign of national identity. In an unsigned statement issued in the flyer for the production, the ensemble declared:
The purport of the message of Bisarjan, articulated against fanaticism and superstition and in favour of guileless humanism, remains unsoiled even after a hundred years [of its composition]. In the recent context of Bangladesh, the play Bisarjan is relevant and significant (Tiryak 1995, author's tr).
In the discourse generated out of the five theatre festivals that Tiryak hosted, the major line of articulation has claimed Rabindranath for all aspects of the life of the people in Bangladesh. For example, in his inaugural address at the Fifth Rabindra-Fest hosted by Tiryak in 2008, Ramendu Majumdar (President of International Theatre Institute) observed, 'Rabindranath is our prime support, kinsman of the soul. In him we are forced to seek refuge in all national crises' (Sangbad 2008, author's tr). Reporting on the same event, Faruq Taher (2008) asserted, 'Rabindranath will be immortal and inexhaustible so long as the culture of the Bengali people exists. […] He has given us the direction for […] every aspect of our life, which will eternally work as the beacon for us' (author's tr). At the inaugural ceremony of the Third Rabindra-Fest, the renowned artist Professor Mansoor ul Karim argued, '[i]n our language, poetry, literature, theatre and the field of fine arts, Rabindranath is the prime ideal figure' (Daily Azadi, 1997, author's tr).
Continuing the line of articulation that anchors on Rabindrnath for narrating the nation is Prangone Mor, a Dhaka-based ensemble that has produced three highly-acclaimed Tagorean productions in the seven years of its existence. Declaring its intent 'to establish the plays of Rabindranath as a regular endeavour' in Bangladesh, the manifesto of the ensemble asserts:
Rabindranath is resplendent in the life of the Bengali [speaking people] with an indispensable resonance. For us, Tagorean theatre-practice is an endeavour, possibly overwhelmed in passionate and devotional outbursts, directed at liberating the 'formless jewel' [arup rattan] that lies soiled. Nevertheless, we wish to maintain at the cost of our existence the philosophy of life – the splendourous Truth - [articulated in] the entire corpus of Rabindranath's literature; we wish to comprehend it – execute it in the practice of our theatre, our everyday living (Prangone Mor 2005a, author's tr).
The sign of arup ratan invoked in the manifesto invariably slips into Rabindranath's play by the same title (Arup Ratan), which, as a metamorphosed version of Raja, 'dramatize[s] the secret dealings of God with the human heart' and 'the truth that the service of God demands all one has' (Thompson 1989: 209 and 212). Hira (2011) agrees to the slippage and hence, it does not require a huge amount of intelligence to read the insistence that Arup Ratan (=God) lies 'soiled' in the recent socio-political context of Bangladesh, which has seen a resurgence of Islamism and abandonment of secularity as one of the four cardinal principles defining the Republic (declared in the preamble of the constitution of 1972), and comprehend that Prangone Mor is directing its energy in enhancing cultural nationalism.
However, when Prangone Mor's intention to reinstate the soiled Arup Ratan as the splendourous Truth is linked to its pledge to work secretly in the world to disseminate his work, and its 'vow to establish on stage the synthesis of art and life, and the truthful images of flowing life of the motherland and its people inscribed at the junctures of art and life' (Prangone Mor 2005a), one cannot but sense the uncanny presence of an all-encompassing metanarrative of Bangladesh culture that verges on to a totalitarian nationalism with the playwright as its prophet.
The grand edifice of cultural nationalism that Bangladesh theatre has been entrapped in, as it is evident in the rhetoric of three ensembles discussed above, is nothing short of a myth because its ideological underpin Rabindranath was a stringent adversary of nationalist rhetoric. '[T]he Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation' (Tagore 1918: 29), he asserted, and argued:
It [ie, the Nation] is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man's [sic] energy from its higher nature where he [sic] is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man's [sic] power of sacrifice is diverted from his [sic] ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical (Tagore 1918: 110).
Consequently, he castigates the notion of nationalism intertwined with realpolitik as 'a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age, and eating into its moral vitality' (Tagore 1918: 16). Because 'the spirit of conflict and conquest is at the origin and in the center of Western nationalism,' and because 'its basis is not social co-operation' (ibid: 12), Rabindranath urges his readers 'never to follow the West in its acceptance of the organized selfishness of Nationalism as its religion' (ibid: 39).
Rejecting the notion of the nation and its narrations in nationalism, Rabindranath turns his attention to India, a geographical receptacle of diverse races and many countries (Tagore 1918: 114), and explicates how the 'spirit of toleration has acted all through her history' (ibid: 115). The 'caste system is the outcome of this spirit of toleration,' he argues, which evolved out of experiments to forge 'a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, while fully maintaining their own differences' (ibid). In consequence, he claims, India 'has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism' (ibid). Although, caste regulations 'recognized differences,' avoided collisions of interest, 'accepted nature where it produces diversity,' 'treated life in all truth where it is manifold,' Rabindranath acknowledges that the regulations 'set up boundaries of immovable walls' (ibid). Thus, it failed to take into cognizance 'the mutability which is the law of life,' ignored nature 'where it uses [the] diversity for its world-game of infinite permutations and combinations,' and insulted life 'where it is ever moving' (ibid). In consequence, he found his homeland India 'worshipping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured' (ibid).
Situating himself away from the notion of the nation and the concomitant realpolitik borrowed from Europe and the homegrown experiment of social unity that the caste system exemplifies, Rabindranath aspires to the shifting site of a polyvocal orchestration of cosmopolitanism that acknowledges the necessity of being anchored in inherited tradition and at the same time seeks a line of flight in humanity. In The Way to Unity he writes:
I have come to feel that the mind, which has been matured in the atmosphere of a profound knowledge of its own country and of the perfect thoughts that have been produced in that land, is ready to accept and assimilate the cultures that come from other countries ('The Way to Unity,' English Writings 467).
Again, in 'The Voice of Humanity' he asserts, 'I have great faith in humanity. Like the sun, it can be clouded, but never extinguished' ('The Voice of Humanity,' English Writings 523).
Elaborating on the entwined notions of inherited tradition and humanity, Saranindranath Tagore (2008: 1077) shows, Rabindranath's cosmopolitan positioning 'is not derived from a conception of reason that in its universality always tends toward abstractions; rather, it is dependent upon reason's articulation of the universal through an engagement with the local.' This account of cosmopolitanism, in the last instance, orients itself existentially to 'a way of being in the world' predicated on a hermeneutic reasoning 'that understanding is achieved through and only through the sieve of preconceptions or prejudices' (Tagore, S. 2008: 1078). Seeking to unmoor otherness and alterity from the Orientalist discourse that insists on gazing on these markers as fixed universal artifacts, and testing the demarcating line between the home and the world by expanding the horizon of tradition, Rabindranath is incessantly in quest of the polivocality of the other. Hence he writes:
[W]hatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly become ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity, when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own (Letters to a Friend 111, emphasis added).
Importantly, the cosmopolitan sensibility that Rabindranath articulates is enveloped by a pervasive notion of humility that acknowledges the multiplicity of life with amazed wonder. Hence, he can argue, 'while creating man's mind, God did not have for his model the spider mentality doomed to a perpetual conformity in its production of web and that it is an outrage upon human nature to force it through a mill and reduce it to some standardised commodity of uniform size and shape and purpose' (Tagore 2011). The acknowledgement of multiplicity and heterogeneity moved him with such intense reverence to life that towards the end of his life, he chanted with reverence: 'How little of the vast world I know! […] In the vast array of life, my mind occupies only an infinitesimal corner' (Tagore 1353a: 821). It is here that the notion of Tagorean cosmopolitanism is to be sought: in the shifting ground woven by a line of flight to humanity with a thick account of rooted tradition, relentlessly examined by hermeneutic reasoning and enveloped with a deep sense of humility.
The discontinuity between 'the excellence of the river' of Tagorean cosmopolitanism and the canalized myopia of the Group Theatre practitioners to narrate the nation with Rabindranath as its substantiating, authenticating and validating fulcrum of truth-claim, is threatening Bangladesh theatre with tamed domestication. Instead of succumbing to religious nationalists' ploy and mobilize Rabindranath as an icon of cultural nationalism, the theatre activists can best resist the religious nationalists by evoking Rabindranath's notion of religion, the core principle of which may be chiseled as '[t]he idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man [sic] the Eternal' (Tagore 1996a: 88). This principle is based on the recognition that 'on the surface of our being we have ever-changing phases of the individual self, but in the depth there dwells the Eternal Spirit of human unity beyond our direct knowledge' (Tagore 1996a: 88).
… whatever name may have been given to the divine Reality has found its highest place in the history of our religion owing to its human character, giving meaning to the idea of sin and sanctity, and offering an eternal background to all the ideals of perfection which have their harmony with man's own nature' (Tagore 1996a: 172, emphasis added).
The assertion made in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.16: 12-13), tat tvam asi or 'you are that' is pitifully limiting for Rabindranath, because for him 'the throb of the "that" must be felt within' (Lal 1978: 51). Hence, echoing the Bauls of Bengal, he seeks god as Jivan Devata or the Lord of his life (Tagore 1996a: 123), who, situated at the confluence of Vedantic Absolute and theistic God, is the supreme principle of love.
In love at one of its poles you find the personal, and at the other the impersonal. At one you have the positive assertion – Here I am; at the other the equally strong denial – I am not. Without this ego what is love? And again, with only this ego how can love be possible? (Tagore 2008a: 324).
Thus, Rabindranath 'gives us a human God, dismisses with contempt the concept of world-illusion, praises action overmuch and promises fullness of life to the human soul' (Radhakrishnan 1918: 4). With ardent faith Rabindranath cites Chandidas: the truth of man [sic] is the highest truth, there is no other truth above it' (Tagore 1996a: 131). It is here that Rabindranath is most potent to subvert the insidious onslaught of the horde of Tabiban clones. However, to embrace Jivan Devatâ needs courage in a country where the inflexible intolerance of Islam is the norm, and where the Islamists are working surreptitiously and relentlessly to install its innocuously disguised insidious agenda by mobilizing the currency of signs such as 'Allah Hafiz' over 'Khoda Hafiz.'
- These are Raktakarabi (produced by Nandanik '77 sometime in the late 1970s or ealy 1980s), Achalayatan (produced by Nagorik in 1980) and Bisarjan (produced by Nagorik in 1985).
- Ataur Rahman's directorial credits are as follows: Agal Bhangar Pala (a collage of four plays produced in 1986), Taser Desh (2000), Raktakarabi (2001), Natya-trayi (Karna-Kunti Samvad, Biday Abhishap and Gandharir Abedan) (2005), and Banglar Mati Banglar Jal (2010)
- Tiryak hosted the earliest festival in 1995 and followed it up for three successive years in 1996, 1997 and 1998. After a gap of few years, it returned to hosting Rabinbdranath's works in the fifth festival held in 2008.
Syed Jamil Ahmed is a proactive theatre personality and scholar, and professor at the Department of Theatre, Dhaka University. He is the author of In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, Reading Against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics, and a number of vernacular publications on theatre and performances of the region. He is also member of the editorial board of Depart.