The locus of this work continues to be the performing woman and the creation of new publics. Dance is the great signifier in this exercise. In the idiom of performance-dance, attempts are made to resolve anxieties about the erotic, to sublimate sexuality, and new dimensions explored in multiple modes of physical culture. Masculinities, whose other need not be femininity, figure prominently in these narratives.
Focusing on the first three decades of the twentieth century, the book evokes an international backdrop – of Europe, Asia and the Americas between the world wars – and movements, revolutionary and reactionary, whose thrust was on putting ‘the people’ centre stage. It takes as a comparative frame cultural fronts emerging in locations as disparate as Russia, Japan and Germany alongside movements in colonial India. Overall, it marks a period when experiments were being made to weave together the hitherto exclusive discourses of education, art and entertainment in self-consciously alternative locales, often with a founding guru at the centre of activities.
The locus of this work continues to be the performing woman and the creation of new publics. Dance is the great signifier in this exiercise. In the idiom of performance-dance, attempts are made to resolve anxieties about the erotic, to sublimate sexuality, and new dimensions explored in multiple modes of physical culture. Masculinities, whose other need not be femininity, figure prominently in these narratives.
Focusing on the first three decades of the twentieth century, the study evokes an international backdrop – of Europe, Asia and the Americas between the two world wars. It begins by glossing movements, revolutionary and reactionary, whose thrust is on putting ‘the people’ centre stage. It takes as a comparative frame cultural fronts emerging in locations as disparate as Russia, Japan and Germany, alongside interlinked or stand-alone movement in colonial India. Overall, the book ranges over a period when experiments were being made to integrate the hitherto exclusive discourses of education, art and entertainment in self-consciously alterna-tive locales, often with a founding guru at the centre of activities.
I have not looked a performance exclusively as finished productions – that is, as the staging of a finished piece and its reception by diverse audiences. Nor have I singled out any one performance for its epoch-making qualities. I have conceptualized performance practices as emerging and evolving in a fairly organic kind of community setting along the educational-artistic with rural reconstruction, hovers as an interrogative mark. An organic community but with an extended circuit – san-tiniketan-Sriniketan, the Jorasanko family home of the Tagores, Calcutta theatres and public spaces, through extended connections in India, including the princely states and the onstant world tours of the founding figure. Listing these itineraries would be tedious since they are already well documented. But what if one were also to bring in dreams, such as the desire late in Rabindranath’s life to travel with his singing-dancing ensemble to Europe, the Middle East and Japan? Fuelled by modest resources – other than the founder’s talent, dedication and charisma – the range and scope seem extraordinarily ambitious, the frustrations understandable, and even the failures significant. Indeed, through decades of correspondence, Rabj-ndranath expressed his exhaustion and disenchantment with the loneliness of his self-chosen ventures outside his orbit as a poet. It was not only about raising funds. Liberating work from its avowed burden of disciplinary and stigmatizing regimes meant infusing the environment with the dialectics of play and leisure in a spirit of service or seva. The word that springs up most frequently in this regard is abasar, a word that may not be straitjacketed to mean only leisure.
Tagore’s search for and engagement with forms and practices was amazingly keen and alive until the end. The first exhibition of his paintings took place in Paris in 1930, his last essay on ‘The Crisis in Civilization’ was read out just before his eightieth birthday, and his final poems were dictated in the last few days of his conscious self. My interest lies primarily in tracking the nature of this search rather than individual trajectories that made up this search were contingent on events being played out within the subcontinent and on the global stage.
Many of my observations emerge from overlaps and contrasts with other ‘searchers’, often contemporaries of Tagore in India and elsewhere. This approach has entailed covering decades and processes neither continuous nor at regular intervals, as one would normally chronicle and evaluate the productions of a school or a professional theatre or a dance company. Tagore’s enormous written oeuvre spanning generations, comprising shape-shifting genres and forms, is a terrain well-ploughed by at least two generations of Bengali scholars. I have merely signalled how a poem or story, or a song, or a fragment of a play found its own performative dimension through experimentation and improvisation, often shaped in the crucible of exigencies.
Tunnelling my way through the scraps of memories, fragments of dreams and desires that lie dormant within the printed lines of memoirs, I have relied on those much cited as well as the relatively obscure, the anecdotal Joining hands with the statistical. I ask the reader to imagine much. To fill in the ellipses between conception of form, notation and words and their metamorphoses over decades before they crystallized as the ‘authoritative’ finished text – and thence to rest between the covers of ‘The Complete Works’ known as Rabindra Rachanavali.
It is in the spirit of ellipses that my narrative pauses on rehearsals with all that they imply about space, mood, duration and location. They seemed to be on all year round, as though one was perennially internalizing, preparing and anticipating the next movement. They are trials in more ways than one, uncovering tensions but also revealing tensile links. I have drawn on Rabindranath’s usually hurried, sometimes wistful references to what he is engaged in at that moment, dreams of travelling with his troupe to other lands, the intense missing of a particular performer or a passing allusion to the performance space awash in the light of the full moon. In the duee of rehearsals fresh entrants are sometimes initiated into a magical but adult world. They discover that the sessions are exciting and demanding, their mentor exacting and amiable. So we read vignettes from singer Sahara Devi (Jhunu) (1897-1990) about the first decades of productions, with many of the rehearsals taking place in the Jorasanko ancestral home. How do we juxtapose Jhunu’s memoirs with those of Gaura, better known to us as the Hindi writer shivani? She came to Santiniketan as a young girl in 1935 and stayed on as a student for almost a decade thereafter. The two girls, who came from very different worlds and went on to live very different lives, overlap in their remembrances of things past, about moments with and around Rabindranath.
Taking on a relevance of space-time that we rarely ascribe to it, rehearsing might enable us to excavate possibilities of achieving a socio-political equilibrium and of de-centering hierarchies; to uncover and emotional field that in enactment defied conventions. In aspiring to unearth such moments, I have focused on Rabin-dranath Tagore’s experiments with movement. Refracted through the aspirations of individuals inhabiting a shared space, movement is apprehended primarily through the prism of the everyday. The sensorium of that waking moment – always financially fragile, if not precarious – every moving and unseen ripple of the past that sends its energy into our times, is what pushes me to write.
Much like the merging of land, sky and water of the river Padma and its environs, of scattered sandbanks thrown up by the river, whose condensed traces we may now scan in the digitized notebooks of the Rabindra-Bhavana archives at Santiniketan, this monograph eschews rigid boundaries of disciplinary turfs and periodizing temporalities. It was conceived in free-flowing sections and sub-sections of unequal length, interspersed with images that seek to evoke connections and trigger unrealized possibilities for the contemporary reader. For, it is concerned above all with generating movements of various kinds, constellated around an assortment of performance practices, with an ear to the discordant rhythms of our present.
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