It is not everyday that history comes alive and when it does, the experience refuses to depart easily from memory.
As the lights faded in, an old armchair slowly emerged into visibility carrying the weight of a frail man engrossed in writing with trembling hands. Clad in a magenta-coloured kaftan and loose pyjamas, wearing the distinct white beard accompanied with curly locks of hair, veteran actor Tom Alter became the ‘inner self’ of Rabindranath Tagore we were unaware of.
In remembering Tagore as a great poet, a music composer, painter, patriot or a reformer we have forgotten to meet the actual man beneath the iconic layers. Conceptualised by Indian classical dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai and Australian director Steve Mayer Millerin, the play- With love: Finding Rabi Thakur let the 21st century audience learn about Tagore beyond Rabindra Sangeet and love poems.
Tagore’s last love: Victoria Ocampo: The year is 1924; Tagore has arrived in Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. Latin America had a great impact on Tagore’s writings and it was in Argentina that he spent a considerable time of his life. Here, Tagore found his muse and probably his last love – Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo. She volunteered to be his nurse when Tagore fell ill on his tour. Emotionally moved by Tagore’s Gitanjali she requested Rabindranath to sign it- ‘With love, Rabindranath’. His song ‘Ami Chini Go Chini Tomaare O Go Bideshini’ (I know you well, my Englishwoman, I know you well) written in 1895 probably found its true addressee when he decided to give a copy of its translation to Victoria within days after their first meeting in 1924.
Tagore meets Tagore: The script of the dance-drama was innovative and experimental. For example, the 63-year-old Tagore played by Tom Alter travels to meet his childhood with the help of his own younger self, essayed by Revanta Sarabhai (Mallika Sarabhai’s son). The relationship between the two Tagores, the young and the old leads us to the inside of Tagore that battled with emotions of agony, loss, grief and restlessness no one was privy to. While the young Tagore goads the older self to confess his love for Victoria, the latter resists. This was also the time when Shantiniketan was going through a financial crisis and Tagore hesitated in professing his love for Victoria, lest it would be construed as a strategy to extract money from her for his school.
Women in Tagore’s life: In this co-mingling of the past and the present, the play offers an insight into the women Tagore loved and found inspiration in. When the young Tagore’s tireless persistence agitates the old man, Tom Alter breaks into an outburst, “I am 63-years-old. Victoria is 34 with a husband in her life. This love is not right.” To this, his youth reminds and questions him, “What about Kadambari, was that love right?” Kadambari was 10 when she got married to Rabi’s elder brother. The scene goes back to the days when they both spent hours in the garden composing lyrics and playing games. The memory is broken with a thud and Tagore finds himself married to his first wife Mrinalini. Did he really love her? “I learned to love her,” utters the withering Tagore sitting inside the room of Victoria’s villa Miralrio San Isidro 20 years after Mirinalini’s death. Or may be the truth is as Victoria tells him “You love your words more…”
As the secretary of Adi Brahma Samaj, Tagore could not reconcile to the idea of hailing Brahmans as the most respected of all castes. Failing to live up to the orthodox dictums of the Samaj, he took refuge in his old friend; his pen, to write about caste oppression. Thereafter, plays like Chandalika were born. He realises in his later life that he may have created strong women protagonists in his writings but they could not mature into actual beings. A frustrated Tagore exclaims, “I wrote the Wife’s Letters (Streer Pattra) addressing women’s rights and ills of child marriage, but look what I did to my own daughters. My words and actions have not matched.”
Tagore on education: Tagore’s critique of the education system is demonstrated on stage with the help of a caged parrot mercilessly fed with the pages of epics and other historical texts. The idea of designing a Shantiniketan ‘where the mind would be free and knowledge will flow’ finds its pretext here.
Tagore today: In the middle of the play (while changing costumes) both the Tagores become their original selves and start a discussion on the relevance of Tagore in the present age. They come to a conclusion that issues of class, corruption and gender bias still plague society and his words are only quoted in class assemblies and tourist brochures.
Interspersed with Mallika’s mesmerising dance performance, Revanta’s superlative expressions and Tom Alter’s Tagore avatar, the dance-drama enthralled all.