Chant of Buddhist prayers floating with the rhythm of the smoke-filled air had started to ebb away. From that blurred frame of human figures positioned around the sacrificial pyre, slowly emerged our heroine of the evening- ‘Chandalika’.
Chandalika: The untouchable: Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika written in the year 1938 was recreated for stage as a part of the ongoing 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi. Chandalika, an untouchable and the daughter of a black magician ‘Chandal’ emerges as a voice of the silenced and marginalised in history. She is a rebel who questions societal norms that relegated her to an existence of a lesser being, an untouchable.
Dance: A tool of liberation: The era in which Tagore conceived ‘Chandalika’ in the form of a dance drama (also known as Rabindra Nritya Natya) was also an age in which the British Raj condemned such a theatrical medium of expression and deemed it unacceptable within the Victorian codes of cultural ‘purity’. In compliance with the English rulers, the educated middle-class and urbanites restricted their understanding of ‘dance’ vis-a-vis prostitutes, courtesans and village folk. It was Tagore’s literary genius that introduced dance drama as a potential tool for defying the regressive yet accepted norms of society.
The ‘dancing body’ became a symbol of mobility, resistance and autonomy. Through her dance movements Chandalika (her stage name being Prakriti) articulates her anger and love. Anger, against a social status imposed upon her to which she finds herself shackled for life. And love, for a monk who respects and acknowledges her as a human being.
Chitrangada, Notir Puja (The Dancer’s Prayer) and Shyama were Tagore’s other answers to eliminate the social taboo associated with dancing on stage. He wanted to convey that dance is an expression of emotions in spiritual ecstasy.
Chandalika realises her true identity: Director Biwas Vishnu Chaudhuri successfully wove a tapestry on which he stitched the myriad emotions of a woman leading a life of an outcast who so far never realized her self-worth.
One of the defining moments in the play is when Ananda, the monk and disciple of Lord Buddha pleads, “Give me some water,” and Prakriti resists by voicing her powerlessness to quench the monk’s thirst. This is the moment of awakening for the daughter of Chandal when the monk tells her she is not ‘impure’ but the child of the same almighty like others. All this while when Prakriti had internalized herself as a victim of social stigma and negated her selfhood suddenly elevates to a moment of recognition. Recounting this incident to her mother, she says, “This is my new birth. In satisfying his thirst I feel baptised. I am aware of my ‘self’ now mother. I now know what freedom tastes like.”
Prakriti’s love turns possessive: It is true that the monk appears as an embodiment of freedom to Prakriti but he is not the protagonist of the play unlike the Buddhist legend describing Ananda’s journey, Tagore modelled his play on. For Tagore, it is Prakriti’s journey that occupies centre-stage. It is, indeed, ironic to see how a girl named ‘Prakriti’ meaning ‘nature’ can be enmeshed in a web of class, caste and gender distinctions.
It is when Prakriti’s yearning for Ananda crosses all bounds does she commit a flaw. The want to possess him makes her plead her mother, Maya, to bring him to her by chanting the fiercest magic spell of ‘Nagpash Mantra’. Only in the penultimate scene does she realise her guilt at making a person suffer against his wishes. When she sees him standing in front of her in almost a mutilated state she repents and surrenders in shame. In a battle of magical chants and spiritual power, Prakriti comes to a conclusion that love can never be forced or possessed.
Atmospherics: Poetic speeches, mellifluous songs and artistic dance postures coupled with the fragrance of incense sticks placed at occasional junctures created an atmosphere that had the audience completely mesmerised.
Tagore is immortal: Chandalika has been performed and staged in many languages with multiple interpretations across the country and overseas only to prove one thing – Tagore shall never die. He continues to live in his literary works and music that will never cease to have relevance across decades. The ongoing cultural festival will stage some of Tagore’s most popular plays that you can’t afford to miss.
Story link: Tagore’s lovelorn ‘Chandalika’ returns to stage