A body of work that inspires generations of artists in various fields and continues to provide enjoyment to millions of people, more than seven decades after his death, is the enduring legacy of the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. We are in the 150th year of Tagore’s birth anniversary and this past year has seen the Maulana Azad Center for Indian Culture in Cairo organize a host of events to commemorate the important year, thus bringing Tagore’s varied works to Egypt.
This month, two visiting troupes from India are presenting Rabindrasangeet (songs of Rabindranath Tagore) and a dance drama from Tagore’s vast repertoire. At the opening night in the Small Hall of the Cairo Opera House on Sunday, the evening kicked off with Sumitra Guha and her four member troupe giving a beautiful rendition of selected songs from the Rabindra Sangeet canon and Indian classical numbers.
Rabindra Sangeet is the term used to refer to songs and poems written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore and is a genre of Bangla music, which has found resonance beyond the shores of the eastern state of West Bengal in India and the nation state of Bangladesh, where it originated. It has left an indelible mark on the sub-continent’s musical culture. The national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are songs composed by Tagore.
The songs of Tagore deal with various themes and he drew inspiration from some elements of the Indian classical music to convey the mood of the song and for expressing the emotive content of the song.
To the accompaniment of the flute, tabla and the harmonium, Guha sang of longing and yearning for meeting one’s beloved in her melodious voice. She presented songs set to various Ragas, which are musical notes upon which a melody is based, and in Indian musical tradition, different ragas are associated with different times of the day and even seasons. Raga Desh, for example, is usually associated with the monsoons, and songs based on this Raga are best enjoyed during the rains. Guha’s song based on Raga Desh was about invoking the rain god to grace the parched earth. She ended her performance with the song “Ekla Chalo Re” (If they Answer Not to Thy Call, Walk Alone), one of the two politically charged compositions by Tagore. The song was a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi and had acquired mass appeal during India’s freedom struggle against the British rule.
Having whetted the appetite of the audience for more, Rabindra sangeet was followed by the dance drama ‘Shyama,’ Tagore’s last major work for the stage. Tagore wrote a number of dance dramas that were a combination of song, dance, color and movement of the unique dance style that he created. His dance dramas were inspired by the traditions of the theater in the West as well as the folk theater tradition in India.
The epic drama narrates the story of a court dancer, Shyam’, who falls in love with a foreign merchant, Bajrasen, at a chance encounter between them. When Bajrasen is arrested by the royal guard, Shyama starts plotting his release and uses her charms to manipulate her suitor, Uttiyo, to take the blame for the crime. Shyama succeeds in securing the release of her love but loses him forever when he learns of her deceit and is racked by guilt for having caused an innocent man his life. The tragic love story of Shyama has all the ingredients for a successful drama — from unrequited love, betrayal and manipulation to sacrifice and guilt.
At the Small Hall in the Opera House, Kaberi Chatterji and her 11-member troupe were wonderful in their colorful costumes and exquisite dance movements as they enacted the drama. The rhythm of the movements of the ensemble cast, and the color, form and sound were indeed lyrical.
But understanding the emotions underlying a narrative is always a challenge; especially when the language of expression is alien. Many audience members, to which this reviewer spoke to, were of the opinion that what would have helped to make the experience more enjoyable was if a bare bones translation of the narrative were provided before the performance; so that they could relate to the nuances and the emotions.
But then again, some would argue that the dance form is universal and can reach out to audiences through barriers of language and culture. In fact, Tagore, himself, at the time of the first stage performance of Shyama had appealed to his audience to not distract their attention by searching for meaning which belongs to the “alien kingdom of language” but to keep their minds passive to absorb the beauty of the spectacle.
You can catch the performances at Sayed Darwish Opera House, Alexandria (Jan. 18, 8 pm), National Academy of Arts, Giza (Jan. 20, 6 pm) and Beni Suef Cultural Palace (Jan. 21, 7 pm).