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Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

Image courtesy - Jamini Roy photostream.

“Nohi Devi, Nohi Samanya Nari”: The Dialectics of Selfhood and Female Desire in the Dance Dramas of Rabindranath Tagore.

The Bengali Renaissance brought with it a new approach to the concept of women in society. In the flood of writings, inspired by the various movements that sought to redress the condition of women in society like, widow remarriage, abolition of sati, abolition of child marriage and kulinism, the initiatives taken for women’s education, the whole socio-cultural and familial view of women underwent a drastic change. The writings of Rabindranath Tagore were no exception. Much has been said about the way Tagore views his women in his poems, essays, novels and drama. Yet it is the dance dramas of Tagore, a genre quite unique in his time and milieu, which portray the radical nature of Tagore’s conception of women and the maturation of their selfhood. The dance dramas illustrate Tagore’s bold and perceptive experimentation with various literary forms and techniques and the radical nature of his ideological orientation. The dance dramas of Tagore, especially the three most popular among his readers, Chitrangada, Chandalika and Shyama, also foreground the theme of female desire, a tabooed subject in his times, indeed even now in Bengali writings. In these three dance dramas, Tagore’s modern views about women and their selfhood by voicing their desires as women are conspicuous in its presence. These three dance dramas thus amply illustrate the feminist inclinations that Tagore’s women portray. Significantly, Tagore uses the dance form in a subtly nuanced manner – he explores the intimate links between dance and the processes of female identity formation in Bengal. Dance dramas by Tagore examine alternative, non-classical artistic experiments in the realm of theatre dance inspired by the western traditions of theatre as well as the folk theatre tradition in Bengal as well as in India, focusing on dancing bodies that actively engaged with, and wrote different meanings for, the socio-political space they inhabited. They open up a space in which representation of Indian women through bodily performance troubles notions of cultural purity and origin and offers instead ‘impure’ but nevertheless powerful cultural texts.[1]

In Shyama, the identity of Shyama is left ambiguous; she is rajpuranandini, an inmate of the king’s palace, she has the power to wear the Rajanguriyo. She also has some power over the Nagar Kotal, the law keeper of the city. In the original story from which Tagore had taken the story, she is a Nati, a courtesan in the king’s court; but the word rajpuranandini problematizes the concept of selfhood in Shyama. Is she a concubine of the king, or even a daasi, a servant or merely a relative of the king? What is more important is her power to exercise her choice in choosing her partner. She feels attracted to Bajrasen, the merchant, a foreigner fleeing the king’s courtiers. Shyama knows the extent of the deadly game that she will play with the young Uttiya who loves and adores her silently from a distance, when she gives Uttiya the ring embossed with the king’s name, and asks him indirectly to sacrifice himself on behalf of Bajrasen- both of them are fully aware of the terrible outcome. Yet she purposely sacrifices Uttiya’s life for her desire for Bajrasen.

Significantly, in all three of these dance dramas, the women, are fully conscious of their desires as a woman, and they do not shy away from acknowledging desire; indeed they even travel great lengths to fulfil their desires. Though Tagore sets his dance dramas in a historial religious context yet he emphasizes and openly shows this aspect of female desire which was a tabooed subject. Shyama sacrifices Uttiya to get Bajrasen as a lover, and is ready to flee with him to unknown lands but her love and her desire are thwarted when Bajrasen himself rejects her as a sinful woman. The poignancy of her unrequited desire and self determinism comes out forcefully in the final dialogues between Shyama and Bajrasen: “ Tomar kache dosh kori nai, dosh kori nai/ doshi ami bidhatar paye, tini koriben rosh,/ sahibo nirabe/ tumi jodi na karo daya/ sabe na, sabe na, sabe na.”(I have not wronged you, I am a sinner in God’s eyes, if He shows his wrath, I would silently accept it; butif you do not show sympathy, I can’t bear it.) Bajrasen replies: “tabu charibina more”?( Even then you won’t leave me). Significantly here Bajrasen uses here the demeaning version of address- tui- to show that Shyama deserves no respect as a sinner. Shyama replies: “charibo na, charibo na, charibo na./ toma lagi paap nath, tumi karo marmaghath/ charibo na charibo na, charibona”. (I have sinned for you, and you are hurting my soul, I won’t let you go). Noticeably, Bajrasen uses violence on Shyama – the very Bajrasen that Shyama loves and whom she rescues from death by sacrificing Uttiya. Yet till the end Shyama remains loyal to Bajrasen even when he repulses and rejects her so harshly.

Ethically Shyama’s sin might not be condoned yet, what comes out of this dance drama is that Shyama does not shirk from or hesitate to acknowledge her own desires and thus acts as an agent with a choice of her own. This is what makes Shyama a radical figure, self- conscious of her choice – accepting full responsibility for her own actions. The portrayal of Shyama goes beyond the stereotype of the silent submissive selfless women who were considered the epitome of virtue, the idyll of the eternal feminine, the perfect woman that was inculcated in women in contemporary India. Significantly, Shyama retains her dignity and the audience’s sympathy till the end; while it is Bajrasen who comes out as a heartless brute: one who is unable to appreciate what Shyama has done for him, unable to show pity and yet more unable to recognize Shyama’s all consuming love for him – a love that makes her forget the norms of ethics and morality imposed by society.

In Chitrangada, the situation is significantly different. Chitrangada, the warrior princess, falls in love with Arjuna, the warrior prince. But Arjuna rejects her as she is Kurupa, a woman devoid of feminine charms to attract him. So with the help of Madana, the god of love, Chitrangada dons the mask of Surupa, the beautiful, seductive woman ready to entice men like Arjuna. Yet she is suffocating under this guise of the ‘true woman’- the eternal feminine; this façade, this veneer of lies that hide her essential and true identity of an intelligent, valourous woman. It is true that she desires Arjun, but she desires him as an equal. She thus yearns to tear the veil of the beautiful seductress that hides her truth- her undaunted personality, her strength, her valour. As soon as Arjun hears about the warrior princess who would be able to rid her subjects from danger, he loses interest in Surupa, the beautiful woman that Chitrangada had become in her desire for Arjun as a lover. Arjun longs to meet the real princess he has heard about so much. The crux of the story lies in the point that Chitrangada makes Arjun wait before revealing her true identity, her essential self shorn of all lies, in the famous speech which has become the credo of Tagore’s vision of women: ‘Ami Chitrangada,/ Ami Rajendranandini/ nohi devi, nohi samanya nari/ pujakori more rakhibe urddhe, se nohi, nohi/ hela korimore rakhibe piche, se nohi nohi/jadi parshe rakho more, sankate sampade/ Sammati dao jadi kothin brate sahay hote, pabe tumi chinite more/ aaj shudhu kori nibedan-/ Ami Chitrangada, Rajendranandini.’ (I am Chitrangada, I amthe daughter of a king, /I’m neither a goddess, nor an ordinary woman,/ if you worship me from afar, I ‘m not that/ if you ignore me leaving me behind, that is not me/ if you keep me beside you in all dangers, wealth / if you promise to let me be beside you in all hardships and penance,/only then would you know me for what I am / today I give you only my name/ I am Chitrangada, a princess). Chitrangada is not just an erotic playmate of youth; she is also his soulmate in life and beyond. Tagore’s idea of femininity shows a remarkable fusion of Western and Eastern ideas in his reconstruction of the character of Chitrangada here: the older Indian idea of wife as a partner in the duties of family life (sahadharmini) had developed, under Western influence, into the romantic concept of a comrade in perilous action.

Tagore envisions Chitrangada as an ideal consort of the man of her choice- a woman true to her own identity, conscious of her desires, aware of her potentials, ready for her vocation – not only understanding her partner’s needs but aware of her own needs as a fulfilled person. Chitrangada has pride in herself, in her own identity as a warrior princess, the saviour of her subjects, in her womanhood as well as in her vocation. She wants Arjun as an ideal companion equal to her in all respects, someone who would respect her for who she is. Yet she is also conscious of her multifariousness; in Surupa, the alter ego of Kurupa, we find the desirous woman who changes herself to woo her beloved man, she acts as the agent rather than a goal and her decision to change herself is her own; as Kurupa, Chitrangada also exercises her choice and agency when she determines the time when she would unmask herself before Arjun and reveal her true identity. Chitrangada becomes the exemplary woman in tune with her own identity, her desires and her womanhood. She possesses the power and agency to determine her own fate.

In Chandalika, the dialectics of Prakriti’s selfhood and desire gets problematized by the intersection of class and caste with gender. This adds not only to the complexities of her selfhood but also problematizes the attainment of that selfhood through the expression of her desire for Ananda. For Prakriti, the socio-culturally imposed selfhood is that of an untouchable, an outcaste; her desire would only be ratified if it is expressed within her caste and class. To desire for the companionship, indeed, the love of a monk is like reaching for the stars for the untouchable girl. It is a taboo no one should dare to cross. Rejected by others for her caste, her untouchable status, Prakriti at first learns to negate her societal self identity; but nevertheless she questions the efficacy and fairness of her social standing and silently rages against the Almighty for this unjustness. She remains a victim to her socio-culturally determined selfhood as she internalizes the social stigma attached to her caste and class. Yet her questionings show her inner consciousness of her self as a human and thus foreground her agency and power that remains as a latent force inside herself till Ananda awakens this slumbering, latent selfhood and ignites her passion for him.

It is through Ananda that Prakriti first learns to see herself as a human being in her own right, she learns the meaning of dignity – she learns what it is to be a woman, to serve others as an equal. With her awareness of herself as a woman comes the first awakening of desire, which turns into obsessive passion for the man who has shown her respect as a human being for the first time in her life. By giving water to the thirsty monk, it is as if Prakriti has satisfied her own thirst for self respect. It is a kind of self ablution as it were, cleansing her from the self negating stigma of being an outcaste. Ananda has given her the power to serve others, the power to give life (water), nourishment to thirsty travellers. It is in his eyes that Prakriti has seen herself as an equal to all the other human beings. She now gains an understanding of her selfhood; an awareness of her identity as a woman, and an acknowledgement of her self worth. Her desire for the monk is the elemental desire of the woman, Prakriti, for the man, Purush, and it comes only with her awareness of her still nascent womanhood. With her desire as a female comes courage, a daring even to bring Ananda back to her at any cost, by any means. Prakriti now takes the help of Maya, her mother, an exponent of black magic. The most potent realization of her selfhood comes when Prakriti calls the post Ananda episode as her ‘new birth’. She is in an euphoria about what she thinks of as a kind of baptism into humanity and her female desirous self. ‘e notun janmo, notun janmo, notun janmo amar…/ shiure uthlo deho amar/ chomke uthlo pran’ ( it’s a new birth for me, a new birth, my new birth… my body awoke with a jolt/ my soul got conscious all of a sudden) . This realization of Prakriti’s selfhood is intermingled with the conscious negation of her socially imposed caste and class as well as an acknowledgement of herself as a woman proud of her self worth. But when Maya’s black magic forces Ananda to her door, Prakriti realizes that her desire is not for the person that the monk represents but for the affirmation of her own identity as a female self equal to others in all respects. Through material desire Prakriti reaches a spiritual desire. Ananda's request, "Give me water," besides indicating his physical need symbolizes water's regenerative image common in many religious traditions. In the Indian context, a holy man asking for water from an untouchable, violates a social as well as a religious norm. To receive and to give food or water were sacrilegious for both. The monk's extraordinarily radical request awakens Prakriti's awareness of her own innate Self. Through the universal image of water, Tagore intertwines the ideological revolution reflected in the social, religious, and political scene of his own time. Prakriti's self-assertion imbued in desire is manifested in her love for the young monk. Infused by eros, Prakriti's love ascends to agape through dedication and repentance to liberation.

Tagore’s dance dramas enter into direct contact with his poetic material, between the intangible and the tangible, between the intangible reality of poetry and the tangible unreality of our daily lives. They occupy a position where religion, poetry, music and dance, merge into one another. They explore the intimate links between dance and the processes of identity formation, and examines alternative, non-classical artistic experiments in the realm of theatre dance focusing on dancing bodies that actively engaged with, and write different meanings for, the socio-political space they inhabited. Dance-dramas written by Rabindranath Tagore are used as points of entry into a discourse on feminism, opening up a space in which the twentieth century representation of Indian women through bodily performance troubles notions of cultural purity and origin and offers instead ‘impure’ but nevertheless powerful cultural texts.

One of the most significant aspects of these three female protagonists is their determination to go any lengths in order to fulfil their desires; yet they are not deceptive, nor are they gullible, - they exercise power and agency in their choices in life and as self assured, mature women, conscious of their selfhood and female desire, they take full responsibility of their own deeds. All of them have come to know the consciousness of their selfhood through pain and anguish. Their journey is a spiritual journey through desire to discover their own selves and their spiritual strength.


Bardhan, Kalpana, Of Love, Nature And Devotion: Selected Songs Of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: Oxford University Press,2008,.

Das, Sisir Kr.(ed.)The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. 1, Poems, New Delhi: Sahitya Academy,1994.

Ray, Rajat K., Exploring Emotional History: Gender, Mentality and Literature in the Indian Awakening New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sil, Narasingha P., Devotio Humana: Rabindranath’s Love Poems Revisited. Parabaas; Tagore Section; Feb. 15, 2005.

Tagore, Chitrangada (1299 B.E. Reprint. Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1356 B.E.], Translations mine.

Tagore, Rabindranath, Gitabitana, Kolkata: Visva Bharati, 1999. Translations mine.


Focus – "Reading Across Time": Tagore Today

  Amrit Sen : Editorial

Lead Article
  Udaya Narayana Singh : Redrawing the Boundaries

Critical Essays

  Nation, History, Cultural Exchange
    Avijit Banerjee : Tagore’s Visit to China
    Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History
    Biswanath Banerjee : Tagore and Acharya PC Ray
    Sagarika Chakraborty : Tagore the Diplomat
    Soumitra Roy : Tagore’s Ghare Baire

  Responses to Caste and Gender
    Dhriti Ray Dalai/ Panchanan Dalai : Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’
    Dipankar Roy : Women in Tagore’s ‘Domestic Novels’
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : “Streer Patra” - A Feminist Text?
    Swati Ganguly : Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti

  Translation and Reception
    Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations
    Jayati Gupta : Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?
    Sushobhan Adhikary : Cartoons on Tagore
    Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

  Rural Reconstruction and Ecopoetic
    Bipasha Raha : Experiments with Village Welfare
    Debotosh Sinha : Tagore and Rural Reconstruction
    Falguni Piyush Desai : Floriography in Tagore’s Poetry
    Marie Josephine Aruna : ‘Letters’ and Ecopoetics

  Aesthetics, Paintings and Dance Dramas
    Aju Mukhopadhyay : The Poet of Sublime Love
    Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo
    Sudeshna Majumdar : Paintings of Tagore
    Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

  Tagore and the Short Story
    Dominic K V : Tagore’s Short Stories
    Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee : ‘The Hunger of Stones’

  Tagore and Visva-Bharati
    Anindita Chongdar : Anecdotes of Santiniketan
    Debmalya Das : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly
    Subodh Gopal Nandi : The Visva-Bharati Library

Creative Responses

    Sanjukta Dasgupta : Remembering Rabindranath

    Frank Joussen : Tagore and Walt Whitman
    Nuggehalli Pankaja : The Voice of Tagore
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : To Rabindranath
    Shambhobi Ghosh : Yet

  Ahmed A H S : Birthday and other poems
  Anup Maharatna : From ‘The Last Writings’
  Ashoka Sen : Africa
  Barnali Saha : The Vacation (Fiction)
  Naina Dey : Chance Meeting
  Parantap Chakraborty : The Son of Man
  Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey
  Swapna Dutta : The Editor

  Amrit Sen:Behind the Veil & Tagore and Modernity
  Kumaran S : Pathos in the Short Stories of Tagore

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