The purpose of this article is to introduce Tagore as a dramatist, director, actor and choreographer to readers who do not know of his pioneering contributions in these areas. He wrote over 60 plays, directed, acted in, scored the songs and music for, and choreographed many of them.
Tagore’s large extended family regularly organized a variety of in-house cultural activities in their improvised courtyard theatre. Here he made his acting debut, at the age of 16, in his elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore’s Bengali adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In 1881 he published his first three plays, of which the musical Balmiki-pratibha (‘Valmiki’s Genius’, on the legendary author of the Ramayana) created an immediate public impact: he acted the lead and composed the elaborate score, boldly refashioning classical ragas and even adapting a few British folk melodies.
Also, as reported by one newspaper, “a maiden from a respectable family acted before the public” for the first time. For another of his musicals, Mayar khela (‘The Game of Maya’, 1888), the women of the family acted all the roles, including those of men―an unusual event for its time, when only so-called “fallen” women acted on stage.
Over the next few years Tagore wrote heightened verse drama and a number of skits subtitled ‘riddle plays’. Prakritir pratishodh (‘Nature’s Revenge’, 1884) presented an ascetic who finds truth not in renunciation but in affection for an ostracized orphan girl. Raja o rani (‘Raja and Rani’, 1889) and Bisarjan (‘Immersion’, 1890) were somewhat melodramatic five-act tragedies modelled after Shakespeare, a style he rejected later as ‘exaggeration’, though Bisarjan still carries a powerful message against idol worship.
It offended Hindus by its final iconoclastic scene in which the priest throws out his image of the goddess. Significantly, Raja o rani was the one Tagore play repeatedly revived on Calcutta’s commercial stage. In Chitrangada (1892), he created a more original, lyrical form for his thesis on the chimera of physical attractiveness and the true nature of love and human beauty.
It scandalized conservatives, who found its frank exploration of female sexuality appalling. In Malini (1896), he first dramatized his deep respect for Buddhist principles. He also produced two full-length farces of social satire during this period: Goray galad (‘Error at the Outset’, 1892) and Baikunther khata (‘Baikuntha’s Notebook’, 1897).
In 1901, Tagore moved to Santiniketan in the Bengal countryside, which his father used as a religious retreat, and where he founded a boys’ ashram that grew into an experimental school and ultimately into the university, Visva-Bharati. He rethought his approach to theatre, attacking foreign influences in a revolutionary essay, The Stage (1902): ‘The cost which is incurred for mere accessories on the stage in Europe would swamp the whole of histrionic art in famine-stricken India … the creative richness of poet and player are overshadowed by the wealth of the capitalist.’
Decrying that our spectators had “been too far infected with the greed for realism”, he proposed instead to follow the example of classical Sanskrit theatre and Indian folk forms like the Jatra, using symbolism, suggestive imagination, as little scenery as possible and the free interaction in folk theatre.
Season-Dramas for Children
This theory heralded completely new dramatic vistas for him, starting with Sharadotsab (Autumn-Festival, 1908), possibly reinforced by the fact that he now composed and directed plays specifically for the students in his school, thus pioneering educational children’s theatre as a curricular activity in India. He insisted on participation in drama as part of the curriculum every term, and he held open rehearsals, which he considered of pedagogical value.
These productions often took place in the open, under the trees, as in folk theatre; it stands to reason that Sharadotsab sang a paean to autumn, as a season of fulfilment. It was the first of several plays about the seasons, stressing the immanent bond between nature and humanity, and introducing the sensitivity to nature that has only now become a part of environmental studies in schools. Also, he turned to prose as his preferred medium, interspersed liberally with songs.
A very productive period in Tagore’s dramatic career followed. Many people think that Tagore was an airy-fairy romantic, with no sense of the political sphere. It will surprise them to know that in Prayashchitta (‘Penance’, 1909), he introduced a character prefiguring Mahatma Gandhi and propagating the political doctrine of satyagraha, years before Gandhi arrived in India.
The masterpiece Raja (1910) allegorized man’s realization of the true nature of divinity. It returned to spiritualism, the forte of his poetry, crystallizing the essence of the Upanishadic faith that he believed in, and dramatizing the human quest for union with the divine.
Achalayatan (‘Immovable Institution’, 1911) parodied the rigid, frequently unjust beliefs of orthodox Hinduism, and in turn faced denunciation from conservative Bengalis. The touching Dakghar (Post Office, 1912), about a little boy’s death, perhaps Tagore’s best-known play internationally, received its world premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland, in 1913 – even before his own Bengali production. It was the first time that a Western theatre company had taken up a modern Indian dramatist; the empire had indeed written back.
The announcement late in 1913 that he had won the Nobel Prize for his book of poems, Gitanjali, made him an instant worldwide celebrity, and many of his works, including his dramas, began appearing in translations. They were performed all over the globe – the largest number by any twentieth-century Indian author. Sadly, the familiar English translations published by Macmillan and later reprinted by Rupa are unsatisfactory―most of them condensed, some quite inept, and one even unauthorized (The King of the Dark Chamber).
From this point on, typically, Tagore premiered his Bengali originals in Santiniketan and took them subsequently to Calcutta for eagerly awaited public shows. Phalguni (1915, translated as The Cycle of Spring), another season play, overwhelmed Calcutta spectators with its beauty, but also introduced dramaturgical novelties like a play within the play and generic dialogue unassigned to specific characters.
However, he was unable to stage two of his finest, prophetic and difficult symbolical works, Muktadhara (1922) and Rakta-karabi (Red Oleander, 1924). They forcefully indicted the oppression of subjugated people and exploitation of the earth’s resources―Muktadhara on damming rivers and Rakta-karabi on digging mines―while embodying in their protagonists the spirit of self-sacrifice for a noble cause.
The dam over Muktadhara leads to conflict with the kingdom downstream; no author in the world was writing on this subject at that time, but now of course everyone discusses sharing of river waters and warns of water wars, while the Narmada project has proved an ecological disaster.
Rakta-karabi has been traditionally interpreted as a leftist call to revolt against the tyrannical king; but we don’t have to look for political allegory, which Tagore extended to anti-colonialism here. All we need to register is what happens every day in the Indian mining industry and the scars it leaves on the indigenous people and environment.
Natir puja (1926, translated as The Court Dancer and released as a film, 1932) contrasted institutional Hinduism historically as oppressive and violent with the fundamental equality and pacifism preached by Buddhism, but also originally contained no male characters―a radical step in Indian theatre at a time when society frowned on actresses’ morality, suggesting that Tagore wanted to practically redress the status of women in performance.
Tagore displayed a characteristic restlessness in playwriting, frequently changing lines in the rehearsal process, reworking earlier scripts, compressing or improving them for new performances, or continuing to revise the text until he had convinced himself he had done justice to the theme.
Sometimes the alterations were substantial enough to warrant new titles, virtually assuming the guise of new plays: for example Raja turned into Arup ratan (Formless Jewel, 1935), a much tighter rendering. In 1929 he undertook perhaps his most ambitious such project, completely recasting Raja o rani into Tapati, its heroine a powerful testament to feminism.
Tapati resists her chauvinistic husband who wants to control her by force, and ultimately commits suicide rather than give herself up to him. He also dramatized his own fiction, often at the request of professional Bengali companies; the social comedy Chirakumar sabha (‘Celibates’ Club’, 1925), adapted from a novel, proved quite successful and is periodically revived in Bengali theatre.
In later life, Tagore grew fascinated with the incorporation of dance into theatre. As with music, his implementation of dance resulted from a drive to liberate classical styles from strict conformity and sheer virtuosity to a heterogeneous lyricism that appealed to the emotions. Purists disapproved of his hybrid technique, but he could not be bothered with man-made regulations and emphasized the expression of aesthetic values without any formal rigidity, although he had these disciplines taught separately in Visva-Bharati. He almost single-handedly raised Manipuri into the national spotlight; previously, Indians used to look upon the form as an inferior tribal dance.
Inspired by the dance-dramas he had seen on trips to south-east Asia, he applied mixed choreography (including Bharatanatyam and Kathakali) to fully musical texts. Testing the ground with Taser desh (‘Land of Cards’, 1933), which satirized fossilized prejudices, he perfected the art in a triptych upon the varying registers of love―Chitrangada (1936), Chandalika (1938, from his 1933 play about an untouchable girl), and Shyama (1939)―touring the productions to acclaim across India.
Tagore avoided the professional playhouses of Calcutta because he disliked the commercialization of art, and considered them as manufacturers of escapist entertainment in the main. Like all the innovators of modern Western dramaturgy, he created an “art theatre”, consciously aimed at small audiences of like-minded people as a serious alternative. And he remained acutely aware of its theatricality: he insisted that his plays ‘be seen and heard, but not read’.
This impulse also made him repeatedly rewrite them into what he called ‘stageworthy’ versions. It justifies the performatory importance of his songs, too, which crystallize the theatrical rasa at critical points. As a director, though a perfectionist, he shared a wonderful understanding and easy relationship with his actors.
Eyewitnesses describe his acting as natural, revealing ‘an inner world of beauty and truth’; understandably, Tagore condemned the great Henry Irving’s ‘imitative naturalism’ and exaggeration, which ruined ‘inner beauty’. Progressively he broke all illusions of reality in design, culminating in aesthetic minimalism and, in his later work, openly sat in one corner downstage for all to see.
Tagore’s enormous output of songs, poetry, fiction, essays, philosophical discourses, and paintings have tended to swamp appreciation of his achievement in theatre, which needs separate attention to emerge from that neglect. It is a pity that contemporary Indian theatre has not given his plays the treatment they deserve, because they are difficult, requiring sensitive handling by directors with vision. Most definitely, he was the leading pathfinder of modern Indian theatre.
Major international productions
Even many Tagore specialists do not remember that the first English production of any of his plays, The Post Office, was in fact the world premiere of that drama, in 1913, six months before he won the Nobel Prize and four years before he directed it in the original Bengali in Calcutta. W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory co-directed it at the legendary Abbey Theatre in Dublin, with simple sets in primary colours designed by the famed Lennox Robinson, and it travelled to London soon after.
Probably the most publicized intercultural production was The King of the Dark Chamber (Raja, 1960-61) directed by Krishna Shah, first staged at Iowa State University, then off-Broadway for several months to good houses and reviews from critics of the stature of Robert Brustein, and culminating in a South Africa tour where thousands of viewers saw it in Cape Town and Durban. In recent years, a multiracial and double-casting experimental interpretation of Red Oleander, directed by Kevin Rowntree (2006), received some attention in London, with appreciation from Michael Billington, among others.
Bibliography of plays and books in English
Chitra (London: India Society, 1913); Chitrangada, translated by B. N. Roy (Calcutta: Sribhumi, 1957); ‘Chitrangada’ and Other Dramatic Poems, translated by Shailesh Parekh (New Delhi: Rupa, 2007); ‘The Crown’, ‘King and Rebel’ (New Delhi: Rupa, 2002); The Curse at Farewell, translated by Edward Thompson (London: George Harrap, 1924); The Cycle of Spring (London: Macmillan, 1917); The Dancing Girl’s Worship (New Delhi: Rupa, 2003); Devouring Love, translated by Shakuntala Rao Sastri (New York: East West Institute, 1961); The King of the Dark Chamber (London: Macmillan, 1914); The Post Office, translated by Devabrata Mukerjea (London: Macmillan, 1914); The Post Office, translated by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (New York: St Martin’s, 1996); ‘The Post Office’ and ‘Card Country’, translated by William Radice (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2008); Red Oleanders (London: Macmillan, 1925); ‘Sacrifice’ and Other Plays (London: Macmillan, 1917); Three Plays, translated by Marjorie Sykes (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1950); Three Plays, translated and with a critical introduction by Ananda Lal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001); Three Riddle Plays, translated by Prithvindra Chakravarti (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1983); ‘The Trial’, ‘Autumn-Festival’ (New Delhi: Rupa, 2002); Two Buddhist Plays, translated by Shyamasree Devi (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1993); The Waterfall (New Delhi: Rupa, 2002); K. S. Appaswami Ayyar, A Critical Study of Rabindranath’s ‘Chitra’ (Madras: Chandra, 1952); Bishweshwar Chakraverty, Tagore the Dramatist (Delhi: B. R., 2000); R. N. Roy, Rabindranath Tagore the Dramatist (Calcutta: A. Mukherjee, 1992); Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (London: Oxford University Press, 1948).
[Note: Much of this material has already appeared in Ananda Lal, ed., The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, 2004.]
Ananda Lal is Professor of English and heads the Tagore Cultural Centre at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He wrote the first full-length book in English on Tagore’s plays (1987, 2001), conceptualized and narrated a CD of Tagore’s audio recordings (1997), and founded the Rabindranath Studies Centre in Jadavpur University (2010).