The Dance Movement of Bengal: Rabindranath and His Dance-Dramas

Nilanjana Bhattacharya*

Abstract

In Bengal, colonial modernity manifested itself through several channels, new literary/artistic genres being some of them. Nrityanatya or dance-drama is one such genre that was introduced in Bengal in the twentieth century by Rabindranath Thakur (1861–1941). His dance dramas are unique in several ways, including occupying space in the arenas of literature as well as performance. Trying to address this fluidity that enables the genre to function in multiple platforms, this essay ventures to understand the generic characteristics of the genre dance-drama, along with the fluid dance form Rabindranritya, and how they contributed to the “dance movement.”

Keywords: Nrityanatya, modernity, Rabindranritya, Chitrangada, Chandalika, Shyama

Gurudev (Rabindranath) regarded dance as a moving art of the body. He felt exalted in the joy of its rhythm. Therefore, without any hesitation he managed to initiate a lively dance movement in Santiniketan. [He did that] in tune with the joyful and wholistic education system of Santiniketan. . .

Ghosh 2–3; own translation

This is the response of Santideb Ghosh (1910–99)—one of the students of Santiniketan, who later became a famous dancer and an equally acclaimed singer—to a critic of Rabindranritya who claims that it is not a form of dance but, rather, a curse. Although Ghosh does not mention any name, the criticism he quotes is not an isolated one. Post-independence India has often ignored this dance form by branding it formless and monotonous, thereby signifying that much of its radicality was lost over time.

This essay is an inquiry into that radicality to understand the “dance movement” as it was initiated and led by Rabindranath Thakur (1861–1941). The radicality, I argue, lies primarily in the fluid dance form that found its fullest expression in an equally flexible genre, nrityanatya or dance-drama. Here, I attempt to read this fluidity as a mode of resistance against the imposed colonial modernity which was largely shaping the nation-building process that was far from inclusive (Tagore).

My primary texts would be the three dance-dramas which have been performed and published as “dance-drama,” Chitrangada, Chandalika and Shyama. Due to a distinct lack of video documents of these texts as performed between 1936 (the first dance-drama performance of Chitrangada) and 1941 (Rabindranath’s death), to define the genre and the dance form, I shall rely on the published accounts of dancers who took part in these productions, reviews of productions, personal correspondence of Rabindranath and photographs.

To substantiate my arguments, I shall briefly refer to the dance practices in early-twentieth-century India, explaining how such practices responded to the demands of colonial modernity. Against that history, I shall try to read the dance practices led by Rabindranath, including his creation of the genre dance-drama that was meant not only to be performed but also to be read.

Dance and Nation-building

The term dance-drama is not found in Sanskrit dramaturgy, but various forms of ritual dance and drama have existed in Sanskrit and other regional performance traditions of India. The ancient Sanskrit tradition had no water-tight distinctions between the various art forms. The term kavya could refer to both sravyakavya (literally, aural art forms) and drisyakavya (literally, visual art forms). The ancient Sanskrit dramaturgy, Natyasastra, explained natya as amalgamation of nritya or dance, gita or songs, and vadya or instrumental music, signifying that dance was an integral part of drama. The text also differentiates between nritta or dance as bodily movements as opposed to nritya or dance that expresses certain moods.

Several local, region-specific forms of performance existed during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, many of which were blends of music, songs and dance. Jatra, kobir larai, sari, jari, half-akhrai, alcap, bolan, tamasha, prahasan are some examples of such performance practices found in Bengal (Roychowdhuri and Majumdar). People involved in these practices were usually trained in-profession. Apart from these, in some regions there were practices of temple dance. These dance recitals were performed within the temples as part of worship. Typically, these performances were accessible to a select audience, and the dancers received rigorous training before being initiated as devdasi. With the arrival of the British, various attempts at reformation began in Indian society, giving rise to a rather vague but very alluring idea of modernity. The modernity demanded a taste (ruchi) that would be at par with the colonial masters, which led to marking many of the existing performance practices as “vulgar” and “obscene.”

A Society for the Suppression of Public Obscenity was established in Kolkata in 1873 (Bandyopadhyay). Targeting primarily the devdasi custom, the anti-nautch movement called for a complete ban on dance. As a “vulgar” practice, dance became associated with “uneducated,” “lower caste” people (Johar); and efforts were made to destroy these practices, especially the forms practiced by women (Banerjee). Attempts to reconstruct the ancient past of India to resist the fast-penetrating British culture began in mid-nineteenth century. Dance joined hands with this movement in the twentieth century, with Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904–86) spearheading this attempt. With the support of the Theosophical Society of India, Bharatnatyam emerged as a “classical” and “pure” dance form (Ohtani), having its alleged roots in ancient dance practices. Performed in formal regalia, which includes a particular kind of costume, and jewellery, these “classical” dances came to symbolise training, expertise and the ancient glory of a budding nation.

Rabindranath, through many of his creations, expressed his dissatisfaction with the careful manipulation and construction of a “nation” and “national identity,” and the many binaries that were being created in this process of making of a nation. His essays on Nationalism, and many other writings on literature and education, reveal his attempts to build an inclusive society “from below,” rather than using a pre-given model to construct a nation. His songs and dance, in particular, bear evidence of those attempts.

Feminist critics (Moitra) have often analysed the women-centric dance-dramas for their portrayal of strong women characters and very real social problems. However, most analyses have not considered the question of genre and form. In a long letter to Amiya Chakraborty (dated February 14, 1939)—Rabindranath’s former secretary and a prominent poet—he drew attention to the genre and form by stating clearly that his dance-dramas were not meant to be “police case reports”; the songs and dance enabled him to cross the threshold of reality and reach the level of art. In fact, Rabindranath’s dance-dramas can be read as wonderful examples of dissolving the many binaries formed by colonial modernity—like masculine-feminine, urban-rural, modern-traditional, classical-folk—and creating a modernity “from below.”

Rabindranath and Dance

Rabindranath had no formal training in dance. However, having been born into a family that was a seat of culture in nineteenth-century Bengal, right from his childhood he was exposed to various forms of art. Being a very prominent figure in the early twentieth century, he was well aware of the developments happening in the field of music and dance. He saw the dance recitals of Rukmini Devi Arundale, Anna Pavlova, Uday Shankar, Ragini Devi and many other eminent dancers of his time. In 1878, Rabindranath went to England, where he spent almost a year. During this time, he became familiar with ballet, waltz and such other forms of dance. Since a young age, he was acclaimed as a fine singer and actor; many a time he had performed on stage. His dancing abilities are not very well-known publicly, but many people, among them also early students of Santiniketan, testified to have seen him dancing (Sen; Sita Devi). Scholars have shown how dance, or body movement in general, play a prominent role in Rabindranath’s songs and paintings (Bhattacharya, The Dancing Poet).

Rabindranath Thakur and Gouri Bhanja performing in Natir Puja. Photo: Courtesy of Rabindra Bhavana Photo Archive, Santiniketan

A staunch critic of the colonial education system, in 1901, Rabindranath established a small school in Santiniketan to provide an alternate system of education to the young generation. It was here where, together with some other enthusiasts, Rabindranath began what Santideb Ghosh called the “dance movement” of Bengal. Visva-Bharati was formally inaugurated in 1921, and since 1923 dance lessons were offered here. However, initially, such attempts were mostly erratic due to a lack of long-term teachers.

Rabindranath found dance practices in Japan and Sri Lanka particularly interesting, but his dance experience changed radically after his exposure to the Javanese performance practices during his South Asia tour in 1927. His admiration of these dances was expressed in the long letters he wrote to Pratima Devi (1893–1969), his daughter-in-law and associate in his dance experiments. In a letter to her (on September 17, 1927), he mentioned in detail his experience of watching a performance of a piece related to the Ramayana, making clear his admiration for the way the difference between Hanuman and Indrajit was expressed only through their different dance movements, without taking an easier recourse to bulky costume or crude make-up, as usually happened in India. Rabindranath brought back costumes and pictures from Java, and these significantly affected the dance experiments that were going on in Santiniketan. Gradually, dance became part of the formal curriculum of Visva-Bharati.

Several well-known maestros and students of Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Kathakali and other established dance forms, as well as modern dance forms, were invited to Santiniketan, and they performed and imparted dance lessons to the students there. For instance, Buddhimantra Singha, the court-dancer of the King of Tripura, taught Manipuri; Vasudevan, an expert of Bharatnatyam, came to Visva-Bharati to learn painting, but ended up performing Bharatnatyam; Kelu Nayar, an eminent practitioner of Kathakali imparted dance lessons; Srimati Thakur, a niece of Rabindranath, was the first to perform modern dance accompanied by poems. Simultaneously, the students were also exposed to various “folk” dance forms like garva, baul, jari, raybeshe; modern European dance, Hungarian dance, Kandyan, Javanese and other dance forms from South Asia, Russian folk dance and such other (Ghosh). Gradually, a style of dance developed in Santiniketan, a flexible and mixed dance form, known as Rabindranritya.

Unlike the “classical” dance forms, Rabindranritya does not use any structured set of movements, steps or gestures. It is a fluid dance form, usually performed with songs composed by Rabindranath himself and could use movements or gestures from any “classical” or “folk”—perhaps more than one—dance forms, yet the dancers are not bound to follow the structured movements or mudras of the “classical” forms. Rabindranath encouraged the students and teachers of Visva-Bharati to learn various dance forms, but he believed that his songs gave expression to certain moods (bhava), and while dancing to his songs, priority should be given to conveying the mood, instead of blindly following any particular dance form. Hence, the form is also known as bhavanritya. Rabindranath did not give any specific instruction as to how that mood was to be conveyed, but sometimes, he demonstrated it to the students himself, as Amita Sen, Roma Chakraborty and others testified in their memoirs. Mostly, however, he would leave that to the dancers, who followed instructions of Pratima Devi, Santideb Ghosh and others, as Sukriti Chakraborty explained. Trained dancers would often base their dance on their original school; however, Rabindranath was meticulous about the bodily movements not engulfing the mood. Rabindranritya gives the dancers maximum liberty to improvise their movements, to combine any form with any other, thereby making the form extremely subjective.

Pratima Devi played a crucial—and somewhat unacknowledged—role in the development of Rabindranritya and dance-drama. It was she who prepared the first draft of the dance-drama Chitrangada, which was revised and edited by Rabindranath (Ghosh). She had no formal training in any Indian dance form; in Darington Hall she took a few dance lessons with Kurt Jooss. Most probably, she never performed anywhere, but during the production process of the dance-dramas or other performances, Pratima Devi played a major role in conducting rehearsals, assigning roles and so on. While dance steps were taught by dance teachers, Pratima Devi was primarily responsible for choreography and costume design. Amita Sen recounted that many of the saris worn by dancers during the performances were from Pratima’s personal collection. Thus, she played a major role in shaping Rabindranath’s “dance movement.”

A performance of Chitrangada in Santiniketan, showing Jamuna Sen, Nivedita Bose and Nandita Devi. Photo: Courtesy of Rabindra Bhavana Photo Archive, Santiniketan
Rabindranritya and Dance-Drama

Dance-drama is a combination of dance and drama, where the entire presentation happens through dance. The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre differentiates between performance tradition in the “West” and the “Third World,” explaining that, “during the twentieth century, theatre as performance has been emphasized increasingly in the West and drama as a process of social development has flourished in the Third World. . . ” (Read 93). Dance-drama, the book describes, is a part of the latter, which might be difficult to understand using Western terminologies. As has been explained earlier, although many regional practices of storytelling through dance existed in India, the term dance-drama gained currency primarily with Rabindranath’s usage of it.

Rabindranath’s mimetic output can be broadly classified into three groups: plays which involve imitation primarily through dialogues, musical plays where the story unfolds mainly through songs and dance-dramas where the dramatic element is carried across exclusively through dance. The first two categories often involved rhythmic body movements in harmony with the songs, however, they were not dance as such. Pranaykumar Kundu has made a detailed analysis of the musical plays and dance-dramas of Rabindranath, showing how gradually Rabindranath became less and less reliant on extrinsic dramatic elements by emphasizing music and then dance. Kundu designates a long period of 40 years, from 1890 to 1930, as Rabindranath’s preparatory period for dance-dramas.

The first production of Natir Puja (A Dancer’s Worship) in 1926 was remarkable in its minimalistic stage decoration, which was very unusual in the then Bengal, and in its use of rhythmic body movements in accompaniment with songs. Primarily, it was the nati or the dancer who danced, not all the characters. Songs were played sometimes without any instrumental accompaniment, sometimes only with a string instrument. Seeds of dance-drama became particularly prominent in Shapmochan (Redemption, 1931), where dance was characterised by more structured and deft body movements and the dramatic element was also more prominent. Both the dance and dramatic elements were taken to the next level in the play Tasher Desh (Country of Cards, 1933), a play where many of the characters, being personified cards, had to use heavily structured body movements. Body movements, in many ways, become a central motif in this play, although Rabindranath did not call it dance-drama.  

The dance-drama Chitrangada was first staged in 1936, Chandalika in 1938 and Shyama in 1939—years when the septuagenarian poet was dealing with multiple ailments, physical and emotional. Like many other texts authored by Rabindranath, the three dance-dramas are intensely women-centric, with their central focus on female subjectivity and very active and articulate women characters. Chitrangada, through the eponymous warrior-princess, draws attention to the question of gendering and challenges the notions of “masculine” and “feminine.” Chandalika shows how a daughter of a “lower” caste chandal overcomes her caste identity and the stigma associated with it, drawing attention not only to the massive problem of untouchability that India has been facing but also to Buddhism that has shaped the Indian society in many ways. Shyama, the next eponymic text, problematises the much-lauded concepts of love and mercy by depicting the passion of a court dancer, who, attempting to save her beloved Bajrasen from a false accusation, sacrificed the life of a young boy, Uttiyo, one of her silent admirers.

Thus, dance, which is primarily understood as body movements, was used by Rabindranath in a very different way—to portray intense inner conflict and ethical dilemmas. Such a portrayal demands a form that would not be too strict in time and space. In this context, Rabindranath’s emphasis on bhavanritya becomes significant. To facilitate that expression, as Amita Sen, Sukriti Chakraborty, Jamuna Bose and several other early students recounted in their memoirs, students were allowed to base their dance on their primary area of training. For instance, in a performance of Chandalika, Nandini, Rabindranath’s granddaughter, who played the role of Prakriti, based her dance on Manipuri, while Mrinalini Swaminathan (later to become the famous Mrinalini Saravai), based her dance on Bharatnatyam and Kathakali (S. Chakraborty). Exactly what is to be borrowed and in what proportion depended largely on the dancers, guided primarily by Pratima Devi, who was adept at understanding the subtle moods of Rabindranath’s songs.

Remarkably, the “inner conflict” present in these dance-dramas was inserted into the ancient stories by Rabindranath. The stories of all these dance-dramas were sourced from ancient texts, Chitrangada from the Mahabharata, and the latter two from two different sections of The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal, edited by Rajendralal Mitra. Rabindranath did not deviate from the ancient storylines, but he inserted therein the question of female subjectivity that was practically absent in his source texts. Therefore, it is possible to read a connection between dance as an art form and female subjectivity in the creations of Rabindranath, which would require a deeper understanding of his ideas on performance.

Performance and Reading

In many ways, Rabindranath’s dance-dramas, being combination of nritya, gita and vadya, evoke the ancient natya. Yet, Rabindranath’s notion of performance is somewhat different. As Santideb Ghosh puts it, “On the one hand, Gurudev was the pioneer in evoking Indian dance following the ancient ideals, on the other he was the most modern” (Gurudeb Rabindranath 166). In some of his mimetic texts, Rabindranath attempted to explore spaces in between literature and performance. Some of Rabindranath’s plays have often been regarded as “unactable,” even by the poet himself. In the introduction to Arupratan (1919), one of his significant plays, he described it as an “actable version” of one of his previous plays, Raja (1910). From this statement, it is possible to infer that Rabindranath did not consider Raja to be “actable.” Yet, it was in a form that was meant to be performed, and indeed, it was performed. The “actability,” therefore, depended on the dramatic element. However, the fact that most of Rabindranath’s plays are remarkably devoid of any extrinsic dramatic element—like elaborate stage set-up, use of costumes and props—draws attention to the intrinsic dramatic elements which were built into the story. These intrinsic dramatic elements also characterise the dance-dramas.

As performance texts, the dance-dramas helped Rabindranath to change the concept of the stage in Bengal. All the dance dramas have been performed in proscenium as well as non-proscenium set-up. Many reviews of these dance-dramas repeatedly draw attention to the stage, highlighting the minimalist stage decoration, the orchestra sitting on the stage, and most importantly, the playwright sitting on the stage, even when he took no part in the dance-drama. To ensure the smooth flow of the dance-drama, it was necessary to do away with the conventional notion of changing stage settings at the end of the scene/act.

Sukriti Chakraborty pointed out that, usually, an entire dance-drama would be enacted against one backdrop that was set right at the beginning. Chitrangada, which has some scenes set in a forest and some in a royal palace, was enacted against the same backdrop of a dark blue curtain that could aptly symbolize forest and royalty. Pratima Devi and renowned painters like Nandalal Bose, Surendra Kar and others collaborated to create these sets. The function of the stage was not to limit the viewers’ imagination but to stir their imagination, as Rabindranath explained in an essay called “Rangamancha.” Echoing the ancient Indian aesthetic theories, particularly in tune with Abhinavagupta, in that essay he mentioned that the actual performance took place on a stage in the viewers’ mind, the performance on stage was only supposed to stimulate that “inner stage,” which could be done by performance as well as literary texts.

The dancers’ costumes and make-up were designed to complement the minimalist stage set-up. Sometimes, costumes were hired, but more often, the performers made their own costumes. Dancers’ ornaments were mostly made of fresh flowers and leaves, sometimes coloured papers etc were used, but almost always, ornaments were cheap and could be easily sourced, as opposed to the heavy metal ornaments that were widely used on the contemporary Indian stage. Sukriti Chakraborty recounted how Abanindranath Thakur, Nandalal Bose and other stalwarts of Indian art would tailor-make the costumes and make-up of each dancer before each performance, just as the stage was designed keeping in mind the performance space. This could be the reason why the literary texts of the dance dramas are remarkably devoid of any stage direction.

In fact, the journey of these texts from the realm of literature to that of performance can be helpful to fully comprehend the fluidity as well as the performativity of the dance dramas. The kavyanatya (play in verse) Chitrangada, was published in 1905 and translated into English in 1913. The print version of the dance-drama Chitrangada was published before its performance in 1936. The drama text, emphasizing the narrative, included many descriptions and dialogues, most of which were replaced by songs in the dance-drama version. The songs were all accompanied by dance, very few dialogues were used to string the songs together, and the dialogues were also accompanied by dance movements. Right before the performance, Rabindranath himself read out an introduction to the audience. This was also included in the print version as “Introduction.” A revised print version of the dance-drama Chitrangada was published, along with notations, a few weeks after its first performance in the New Empire theatre. The play Chandalika was first published in 1933, a print version of the dance-drama Chandalika—a heavily revised version of the play—was published in 1937, a few months prior to its first performance in 1938. This print version also included the notation. A revised print version, with fresh notation, was published in 1939. Revisions were made to the printed as well as the performance texts. This printed version carried the same introduction that was in the play version of the text, as well as a prose summary of the play. Shyama is remarkable in its multiple metamorphoses: it was first published as a narrative poem, “Parishodh,” in 1908; then, as a play, Parishodh, it was enacted in 1936, which was heavily revised; and finally, the dance-drama Shyama was presented in 1939. Unlike the previous two instances, the dance-drama text, along with notations, was published a few months after its staging. However, during its staging in 1939, Rabindranath published a prose summary of the dance-drama. This was probably for advertising purposes.

A comparison of the literary texts and the dance-drama texts could be helpful in discerning their generic features. Kavyanatya Chitrangada opens with a long dialogue, Chitrangada recounting her anguish of being rejected by Arjun, to Madan, the god of love. The dance-drama, instead, begins with a hunting song by Chitrangada and her fellow warriors. Her infatuation with Arjun and then being rejected by him are represented on stage through dance and songs.

In the musical play (natyagiti) Parishodh, Shyama narrated to her lover Bajrasen how she had saved his life, while in the dance-drama these incidents—Bajrasen being arrested under a false accusation, and Shyama requesting Uttiyo to save his life—are presented through dance and songs. That Prakriti, the chandal woman, is untouchable is revealed through dance and songs in the dance-drama, but in the play Chandalika itis presented through dialogues. However, such stress on dance and songs did not prevent Rabindranath from publishing printed versions of these texts, which brings back the question of fluidity of the dance-dramas.

Nandita Devi and Mrinalini Swaminathan in a performance of Chandalika in Santiniketan. Photo: Courtesy of Rabindra Bhavana Photo Archive, Santiniketan
Fluidity as a Challenge to Binaries

Many years after Rabindranath began the “dance movement” of Bengal, in the late twentieth century, Allegra Fuller Snyder talks about the importance of “inner space” in dance and the “experience of ‘transformation’” (442) that takes place at various levels, involving both the mind and the body. Snyder posits dance as simultaneously a kinaesthetic and conceptual experience that is based on an awareness and understanding of time and space. Space has usually been understood as static at one given point of time, but Snyder calls for experiencing space through feeling and not by seeing. If experienced through feeling, space, just like time, becomes fluid. Challenging the popular notion of dance being heavily based on structured time and space, Snyder argues that “Dance must be structured from the first-person point of view,” as dance is also “a way of knowing through experience.” The fact that a dancer can never “see” her dance (except using external devices) but can only feel her movements emphasizes the importance of the “inner space”; consequently, the dancer’s subjectivity becomes significant.

Rabindranath’s insistence on capturing the mood of the song instead of minutely copying body movements—in other words, underscoring nritya rather than nritta—can be read as an attempt to explore this “inner space” by highlighting the fluidity of the space and the dancer’s subjectivity. In a letter to Sahana Devi, a singer well-known for singing Rabindranath’s songs, the poet-composer explained that, through a song, a singer gives expression to her/his own feelings and understandings. These understandings may not match those of the composer, but that is precisely what renders a composition complete; in a song, the singer meets the composer (Sahana Devi). Perhaps, he expected something similar from the dancers. That could also be the reason why, despite being an admirer of Uday Shankar, Rabindranath did not like the emphasis Shankar gave to the perfection of bodily movements. In dance, the body was nothing but an instrument to create beauty, Rabindranath mentioned in a letter to Pramatha Chowdhury (dated September 25, 1933). Paying too much attention to the instrument would only draw attention away from that beauty.

Rabindranath once described dance as “songs of body movements” (Thakur, Java Jatrir Patra). Therefore, it would be helpful to explore the connection between his songs and dance. In his erudite review of Chitrangada, Dhurjutiprasad Mukhopadhyay, a renowned singer, described dance as the corporeal language of the mute poet, and a drama that was made of that language was dance-drama. He felt that dance had been liberated in Chitrangada as they were not merely following the songs but had their own independent existence. Dance, in these performances, could continue even when the songs stop. He also referred to the radical way in which Rabindranath had created his songs, mostly moving away from orthodox ragas and talas, arguing that such songs demand an unorthodox dance form. Depending on the mood of the songs, sometimes they were accompanied by beat and string instruments, sometimes any one of those instruments was used, and sometimes singers would sing a song unaccompanied by any instrument.

Many people who witnessed, in various capacities, the making of dance-dramas, later testified how Rabindranath used to exclude existing songs and include new songs for each performance, and how he would continue to alter the melody of the songs till the very last moment. These newer songs were more open to dance forms, unlike the songs of Rabindranath’s musical plays like Mayar Khela or Valmiki Pratibha. In fact, experimentations with songs as part of dance became clearer in the dance drama version of Mayar Khela, which was enacted in Santiniketan in 1938. Here, he discarded many songs from the musical play Mayar Khela and included many newer songs, changing the scene-structure and characterisation. However, no printed version of this dance-drama text was published in his lifetime, probably because he was not satisfied with the dance-drama version. Being also the composer of the songs of his dance dramas, Rabindranath was careful to set a tune that can be aptly represented through dance. Pratima Devi, Santideb Ghosh and later scholars like Pranaykumar Kundu have discussed in detail how these songs were different in tune, language and rhythm from the songs he composed for the gitinatya or musical plays.

In the initial performances, the women characters used to play male roles, as it was unthinkable for men and women to dance together on stage. Eventually, Rabindranath, together with his revolutionary cast, also made the latter happen; but women dressed and dancing as men was not a minor feat either. Scholars have sometimes questioned the efficacy of this “dance movement” by pointing out that “Tagore’s vision of absolving the feminine body of its inherent sexuality coincided with colonial Victorian notions of modesty and propriety. . . .” (Mukherjee 92). However, it would not have been possible for the women to dance as men without getting rid of the “Victorian notions of modesty and propriety.” Sukriti Chakraborty recounts how Nibedita Basu playing Arjun in Chitrangada completely baffled the audience, as they were convinced that it was a man.

It should be recalled here that the play Chitrangada was published in 1905 and then rendered into English in 1913; therefore, some of the audience were presumably familiar with the storyline. Prabhatkumar Mukhopadhyay points out that many critics regarded the play Chitrangada as “obscene.” A woman openly talking about her sexuality did not go down well with many orthodox members of the society. However, according to Mukhopadhyay, the dance-drama had to face no such criticism, which might be due to the novelty of the genre itself.

A performance of Mayar Khela in Gour Prangan, Santiniketan, with Rabindranath watching from a corner. Photo: Courtesy of Rabindra Bhavana Photo Archive, Santiniketan
The Dance Movement

The concept of dance-drama was new to Rabindranath’s audience, and most of them had no idea about how to define that form. A review of the first performance of the dance-drama Chitrangada, published in The Statesman on March 17, 1936, reflects the reviewer’s attempt to grasp the new form:

The form of dance drama makes it embarrassing to level it by a class-name. It is a ballet yet rebelling against its accepted conventions; it is pageant of dances, yet its theme, dramatic elements and continuous “story” carry it on a plane higher than recitals of thematic dances; it is a drama, but the dialogue is reduced to a minimum, and its movements are expressed not through events and happenings but through songs and dances. . . The production has the dash and the colour of the ballet, the piquancy of a drama, the fragrance of a lyric, the symbolism of a Tibetan mystery play, and the pageantry of lavishly staged dance-recitals.

P. Mukhopadhyay 53

That the audience was already familiar with the story did not affect the novelty of the genre, and yet the fact that the genre was playing on a fluid space was also clear. Perhaps, Rabindranath reading out an “introduction” before the performance was an attempt to mitigate the novelty of the genre.

After the first staging of Parishodh, out of which Shyama would emerge later, The Statesman wrote on October 14, 1936, how Rabindranath’s presence on the stage made “the stage human”:

Everyone else on the stage may be acting, but he is not. He is reality. Moreover, he gives a dignity to the performance—nautch is transformed into dance. The dancers are no longer to be exploited for our pleasure, but are brothers and sisters. . .  

P. Mukhopadhyay 81

This review also draws attention to another highly significant aspect of the “dance movement” that Rabindranath began. Dance, which once was part of everyday life and rituals, had gradually became a practice unsuitable for “respectable” women. Danseuses and actresses were typically regarded as women with “loose morals” and rarely received any formal training. In 1929, an article published in a rather “respected” Bengali periodical Prabashi, confidently rejected any possibility of a “respectable” woman taking up performance as a profession, without affecting her “morality” (Roy). In such a stifling atmosphere, Rabindranath arranged to offer dance lessons in his university not only to the boys but also to the girls. The fact that his Bramhacharyashram (boys’ school) gradually opened up to admit girls as well, favouring a coeducation system, was heavily criticised by certain orthodox groups in India. The introduction of dance as part of the curriculum was unthinkable. Rabindranath did all that and, on top of it, arranged public performances of his students, including girl students. The path was not easy. Amita Sen recollects that the boys were asked to watch the first stage performance by girls in Santiniketan from behind a screen, to ensure no one feels uncomfortable. It was customary in Bengal for women to watch public performances from behind a screen—a hierarchy that was effectively reversed by the poet’s dancing girls. Initially, male characters were played by girls themselves, but, gradually, boys and girls, men and women of “respectable” families began to perform together. The review cited above clearly shows that Rabindranath’s “dance movement” was successful in countering the ghettoization of dance. Read in this context, the fact that the three dance-dramas of Rabindranath challenge certain well-established binaries becomes much more significant.

It is evident that the primary conflict in all the dance dramasis, in some way or other, related to “inner space.” After a lot of struggles, Chitrangada managed to come to terms with her own body, Prakriti realised that she was not limited by her caste identity and Shyama dealt with questions of ethics, passion and mercy. Throughout, dance—bhavanritya—was used to portray these “inner conflicts.” Pratima Devi cited Chandalika as a classic example of the way dance, with all its bodily movements, transgressed the carnal body and loomed at the realm of art.

That a dance-drama could portray such inner conflicts was rather novel in contemporary India. Needless to add, that the prevailing dance scenario in India did not provide such training to the dancers. Therefore, most professional dancers and actors were unable to perform Rabindranath’s plays and dance-dramas. Nachghar, a Bengali periodical dedicated to performance, mentioned that none of the public theatre facilities in the country were capable of performing the plays of Rabindranath (Natyajagat). This was a feat reserved for the students and teachers of Visva-Bharati, thus lending an exclusivity to these performances. Retaining exclusivity was important, as these performances were a primary means for Rabindranath to collect funds for his university (Bhattacharya, “Performance and Beginning Missions”), which he reminded his grand-daughter Nandita Devi, one of the major danseuses in his troupe. Most of the performances by Visva-Bharati students and teachers were acclaimed by people, however, given their “exclusive” nature, they were not accessible to all. This could also be the reason why this “dance movement” remained confined largely to Santiniketan—and as mentioned right at the beginning of this essay—failed to survive the demise of Rabindranath.

However, between 1936 and 1941, apart from viewing these “exclusive” performances, the only alternative to common people was to read the plays and the dance-dramas, as they were all available in print. Publishing the dance-drama text simultaneously as literary text might be read as a strategic move—apart from advertising—to reach out to those people who might not be otherwise persuaded, or had any scope, to view the performance. Eventually, however, the printed form, standing tall on “authenticity”—especially in the absence of documented performed versions—made the texts finite, thereby taking away much of its radicality, which entailed the subjective and individually tailored dance form, songs, costume, décor and everything else. These finite texts might have been responsible in eradicating the radicality of Rabindranritya. Attempting to follow pre-given structures, many practitioners ended up making the form monotonous. However, for Rabindranath, this fluid genre challenged and expanded the contours of both literature and performance. He ushered in a new modernity “from below”—a modernity that was neither borrowed from the West nor based on any constructed past glory; a modernity that had no claim to “purity” yet was indigenous in the true sense of the term; a modernity that opened up new horizons by blurring the many boundaries created by colonialism in the realm of art as well as life.


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*Nilanjana Bhattacharya teaches Comparative Literature at Visva-Bharati University. Her research interests include Feminist Historiography, Translation Studies, Reception Studies, and Dance Studies with India and Latin America as primary areas of focus. Trained in Bharatnatyam and Rabindranritya, she also translates between Bengali, English and Spanish. Among her recent significant publications are An Annotated English Translation of Tagore en las barrancas de San Isidro (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), “Historicizing Rabindranath’s Reception in Argentina” (Routledge, 2024).

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