While researching the different translations of Tagore’s English Gitanjali for our performance of The Story of Gitanjali on 23 September, I came across this talk by Deepak Chopra about Tagore’s relevance for the future of spirituality and humanity. He gave the talk at the Tagore Festival last year at Dartington College of Arts, Devon – the UK college founded by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst according to Tagore’s educational philosophy.
As so often happens when I settle down to find out more information online about Tagore, this led me to start exploring what others have suggested about Tagore’s relevance to modern society. After all, in our world of 2012, why should people be interested in the ideas of someone who spent half of his life in the 19th century?
Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and former student at the university founded by Tagore, had this to say.
A few years ago, Uma Das Gupta and Anandarup Ray contributed this article on Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporary relevance. They concluded “Like Tagore, we also live in the age of science and internationalism. Today we call it globalisation, and our education is still similar to Western-style colonialist education. Given how troubled our world is becoming, there is a growing awareness of the need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’, a conviction that Tagore pioneered not only in thought but also in his life of action.”
On Thursday, we received the posters and ‘visiting cards’ for the premiere from the printers. Kaberi and I were both excited to see the results. Between this and travelling, I am again running over a day behind schedule with my blog post. To catch up, I include an update for yesterday’s developments as well.
One of these was the confirmation that our friend Adriana Opromolla, who translated the subtitles of Shyama into Italian, will be in Brussels to recite a poem in Italian during The Story of Gitanjali at the premiere of Chitrangada. While looking for the Italian translations of the poems in The Story of Gitanjali for her, I discovered that there have been around 12 Italian editions of the Gitanjali over the years.
Adriana had also kindly provided the Italian voiceover of one of our first audiovisual efforts: a trailer for Kaberi’s Manipuri dance performances.
I had mentioned in my previous post that Tagore’s works are being translated into Chinese. Yesterday morning, I heard that Chitrangada has been translated into Chinese by Professor Mao Shichang of Lanzhou University. In March 2012, at his initiative, students at Lanzhou University staged a Chinese language production of Chitrangada for the first time.
According to an article in China Daily reporting on the performance of Chitrangada in March, when Tagore visited China in 1924, an English adaptation of his play Chitra was performed to celebrate his birthday. Tagore had originally written Chitra in 1892 and returned to it over four decades later to develop it into the dance-drama Chitrangada in 1936.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Professor Shichang revealed that his association with Tagore began in his childhood, when he had read Tagore’s poems, “which refreshed and warmed my thirsty soul like spring wind”. It was his dream to study Tagore in India, as he did from 2002. The performance of Chitrangada in Chinese with 60 students from eight departments of Lanzhou University became a tribute that he had never imagined he would be able to give to Tagore.
According to Professor Shichang, “Chinese people like the natural and fresh style of [Tagore’s] writing. His spiritualism echoes in people’s hearts. … [Chinese people], no matter whether they believe in religion or not, feel some supernatural power through his works. …Modern people can seek peace and sobriety, and avoid the hustle and bustle of their lives, through Tagore.”
Ambassador Jaishankar, the Indian Ambassador to China, added that “There is a sense of Tagore as an intellectual bridge between India and China, and as a person who stood up for China during difficult days. There is also a much greater appreciation of Tagore today, and of the things he said back in the 1920s. … there isn’t a single Chinese university where they do not know Tagore.”
I hope some day Kaberi and I have the opportunity to meet Professor Shichang.
Sayan’s solo performance at the Rabindra-Okakura Bhavan, Kolkata, September 2011
Kaberi and I began yesterday by exploring Sayan’s page on ReverbNation. We ended up listening to all 12 of his songs published there, which included 8 from his solo performance at the Rabindra-Okakura Bhavan in Kolkata on 10 September 2011. If you are one of the many millions of fans of Rabindrasangeet (Tagore songs) around the world, you will be impressed. We are very pleased and honoured that Sayan has agreed to join us in Brussels for The Story of Gitanjali on 23 September.
Later in the day, I spoke to flamenco teacher and dancer Luisa Castellanos about reciting one of the Gitanjali poems in Spanish for The Story of Gitanjali. Meanwhile, Kaberi continued to explore online ticketing options.
I also started to prepare the sequence which will be projected above the performers during The Story of Gitanjali. It’s quite a challenge to include live subtitling but I now know how we’ll be doing it.
I also realised that the Wikipedia article on the Gitanjali hardly did justice to its subject. At least I think I’ve managed to resolve the long-running conflict between authors disputing how to reflect the distinction between the Bengali Gitanjali and the English Gitanjali. It still needs further fixing – perhaps someone else would like to do so?
A friend mentioned that Pankaj Mishra refers to Tagore in his new book, From the ruins of empire. This article about A Poet Unwelcome is an adapted extract from the book about Tagore’s ‘unkind reception in China’ in 1924.
The day ended with going back to translating Chitrangada … and my missing my blogging cue!
Finally, as today is the 65th anniversary of Indian independence, a ‘happy birthday’ to Indians around the world. A reminder of my blog post exactly a year ago about Tagore and the Indian national anthem.
Publicity photo for the Gold Hall, Square Brussels
The Story of Gitanjali may not be as elaborate as the opening ceremony of the Olympics. However, it does need careful preparation and planning. Apart from the audience in the Gold Hall of the Square Brussels, where we will be on stage, we also need to keep in mind those who will be watching it on screens elsewhere.
On Thursday, I visited the Gold Hall with the team which will be filming the show. It’s quite a large auditorium which is part of a complex which was built in 1957, at the same time as the iconic Brussels Atomium. The complex used to be known as the Palais des Congrés but was extensively renovated a few years ago. It reopened in 2009, since when it has been called the Square Brussels. The annual Magritte Awards ceremony (the Belgian equivalent of the French César Awards and the American Academy Awards) is held in the same hall.
The foyers we will be using for the charity gala premiere have original murals by the Belgian surrealist painters Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Brussels, we should have two exhibitions in the foyers, one on Tagore and the Romance of Travel and the other of digital prints of some of Tagore’s paintings.
The Story of Gitanjali begins with the above poem. I haven’t yet decided which language it will be recited in – that will depend on the actors. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been looking for actors in Brussels who could each recite one of the 13 poems in a different European language. Several actors have come forward, particularly thanks to our friend Lilian Eilers and the English language theatre groups in Brussels, as well as my colleagues Béla Dajka and Stephanie Mitchell.
The languages and actors confirmed so far are French (Arlette Schreiber, a leading actress with the Belgian National Theatre for many years) and English (Prajna Paramita, who recently performed as Cleopatra in a production of Anthony & Cleopatra). Both already knew Tagore’s poems. I’ve also heard from/about Czech, Danish, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Spanish actors.
The 11 songs in The Story of Gitanjali will be performed by a small team of singers and musicians. The singers will be Manini Mukhopadhyay, Sayan Bandopadhyay and Kaberi.
Manini is one of the top Bengali female vocalists in this style (known as Rabindrasangeet). She sang the title roles in all three of our film versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas, including Chitrangada. You can hear her singing in the clip from Shyama on the right of this page.
Sayan is a rising male vocalist in this style. Has will be singing at a concert on 22 August at the 1,100-seat Rabindra Sadan hall in Kolkata. He is also the grandson of Professor Somendranath Bandopadhyay, the internationally recognised authority on Tagore who has been our mentor throughout the Tagore dance film trilogy project.
In parallel with this, I will need to prepare what will be projected on the screen above the singers and musicians, including the English and French subtitles of whatever is happening on stage. This draws on our experience of using a screen to provide a virtual set at London’s Purcell Room when Kaberi was giving a solo Manipuri performance there, as well as the technique we used to project English and Arabic subtitles for the tour of Shyama in Egypt with Kaberi and her team.
Poster for the premiere of Chitrangada & The Story of Gitanjali
This is my delight, thus to wait and watch at the wayside where shadow chases light and the rain comes in the wake of the summer.
Messengers, with tidings from unknown skies, greet me and speed along the road. My heart is glad within, and the breath of the passing breeze is sweet.
From dawn till dusk I sit here before my door, and I know that of a sudden the happy moment will arrive when I shall see.
In the meanwhile I smile and I sing all alone. In the meanwhile the air is filling with the perfume of promise.
Gitanjali poem 44 by Rabindranath Tagore
With the Olympics drawing to a close this evening, we are six weeks from the global premiere of Chitrangada, including a live, multilingual performance of The Story of Gitanjali. At the end of each day, Kaberi and I will be giving ‘behind the scenes’ updates about our progress in the run up to the evening of Sunday, 23 September.
The Story of Gitanjali begins with the above poem. All our planning and preparation for the global premiere of Chitrangada will need to have been completed by the time the audience hears this poem that evening!
Performing ‘The Story of Gitanjali’ in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace
As I mentioned in a recent post, to celebrate Rabindranath Tagore’s 151st birth anniversary in May, a few of us performed The Story of Gitanjali in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the English Gitanjali, the collection of poetry which led to Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
In particular, September 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Tagore completing the proof of the English Gitanjali, which was first published by the India Society of London in November 1912. The collection was Tagore’s own translation of 103 poems he had written originally in Bengali and included a preface by W B Yeats.
The global premiere of our film version of Tagore’s dance-drama Chitrangada on September 23 will be centred on a charity gala event in Brussels in aid of Sishutirtha children’s home and school in Santiniketan, India. Kaberi explained the connection between our film and Sishutirtha in her blog recently. We will be restaging The Story of Gitanjali before the film especially for the event, both as an introduction to Tagore and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his completion of the English Gitanjali.
Since the charity gala event will be in the capital of Europe, I thought it would be nice if each of the 13 poems in the 1-hour show could be presented in a different European language. We are still looking for actors in some languages, so please let me know if you are or if you know an actor based in Brussels who would like to take part.
A small team of singers and musicians from India will be performing the corresponding Bengali songs. As at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I’ll be narrating and directing the performance. The Story of Gitanjali will be relayed live to audiences in other venues participating in the global premiere. English and French subtitles will be projected on a screen behind the performers.
A couple of weeks ago, Kaberi and I invited a select audience to watch a private preview of Chitrangada, the third film in our Tagore dance film trilogy, at the place where we stay during the Cannes Film Festival. Even though we showed a work-in-progress version of Chitrangada, the very positive feedback we received was reassuring.
As you may remember, we had filmed Chitrangada in Tagore’s home town of Santiniketan in January 2011. It has taken a while to bring the film to its current, near-complete state both because of other personal commitments and because we were waiting for a suitable opportunity to give Chitrangada a high profile première.
We now seem set for a charity gala première of Chitrangada in late September 2012 at a major concert hall in Europe, where Kaberi and I will take part in a live show before the film. The première will mark the 100th anniversary of the completion of the English Gitanjali by Tagore in September 1912. The English Gitanjali was the collection of Tagore’s poetry which led to him becoming the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The 32 nominees that year included Thomas Hardy, who had been nominated by 97 members of the Royal Society for Literature, while Tagore had been nominated by the English poet, author and artist Thomas Sturge Moore.
The live show before the film will be a more elaborate stage version of TheStory of Gitanjali, which we performed in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate Tagore’s 151st birth anniversary on 7 May 2012. On that occasion, we performed with my father Jayanta Chatterjee, our friends Chhaya Biswas, Tirthankar Roy, Mousumi & Supratik Basu, and Shakespeare Aloud actors Charlotte Ellen and Richard Bunn.
Tickets for the charity gala première will go on sale from Kaberi’s website in the coming weeks. In addition, we are hoping that the live show and Chitrangada will be shown more or less simultaneously in various venues around the world so as to create a global première. This should offer an opportunity for people around the world to discover Tagore and Chitrangada, which will be presented for the first time ever with subtitles in at least English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, as well as possibly other languages.
We have started to prepare a wiki for the Tagore dance film trilogy which will provide study guides for all three dance-dramas (Chandalika, Chitrangada & Shyama). The wiki study guides follow a format similar to the study guides for Western operas developed by the Manitoba Opera, which seem to be the most comprehensive available. In the wiki, we will be summarising the research we have done to prepare the Tagore dance film trilogy. We hope other Tagore enthusiasts will help to improve the study guides, which should be multilingual eventually. This is intended to encourage teachers worldwide to introduce their students to the Tagore dance-dramas and possibly to present Chitrangada at their schools or colleges as part of the global première, and maybe even Chandalika and Shyama as well.
Through the Tagore dance film trilogy, which presents Tagore’s dance-dramas in their authentic form, we have already created a permanent record of these classic examples of Tagore’s original dance concept. Modern technology allows the trilogy to make these works accessible to international audiences across cultural and linguistic frontiers – as Tagore had intended.
Of course, as I’d mentioned in a previous post, the overall objective of the project is to provide a convincing case for Tagore’s dance-dramas to be added to the international circuit of operas and ballets. We know from the reactions to the first two films in the trilogy that we have already stimulated fresh interest in Tagore’s immense cultural legacy among people who were previously unfamiliar with it.
So, just as we look back in wonder at the past few years, we look ahead with alacrity to what the future will bring.
A couple of weeks ago, Kaberi and I were celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary. I was going to post a photo from the wedding on Facebook to mark the occasion when I realised that we didn’t have any of the wedding photos uploaded. In fact, we didn’t have any digital photos from the wedding.
It then came back to me that we only had a small memory stick in the video camera at the time of the wedding on which we could take a handful of low resolution digital photos. We got our first digital camera at the end of 2002, almost a year after the wedding: a 2 megapixel Sony Cybershot DSC U20. Our next one came the following year, a 3.2 megapixel digital SLR – the Minolta Dimage Z1 . This took over from the 35mm Minolta X-700 SLR camera I’d been using since my father gave it to me as a birthday present in 1985.
Since then, we have only taken digital photos. We now use an 8 megapixel Sony Cybershot T200 and a 10 megapixel Samsung GX10, which I used, for example, for the still photographs I took while we were filming Chandalika and Chitrangada. Of course, now we’re using both less often than before as we usually have our iPhones with us, which can film high definition video as well.
Nowadays, if you go to a wedding or any other event, there are people all around snapping away or taking video, often on their mobile phones. Some weddings have even become international phenomena as a result of people sharing the images online, such as the JV Wedding Entrance video.
Nine years ago, a lot of things did not exist which we and hundreds of millions of people around the world take for granted today, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Skype. Combined with the falling cost of taking, editing and storing digital photos and videos, these sharing platforms have transformed the world we live in.
In our case, Kaberi and I first started to explore the possibilities of digital filmmaking using our home computer in 2005, when Kaberi was completing her PhD thesis on the dance influences of Rabindranath Tagore. One of her supervisors suggested that, since the topic was dance, it would be useful to include some kind of video in the thesis to illustrate this.
This led us to put together a 40-minute documentary incorporating material from videos of her own past performances and performances from other dance styles, linked with a narrative based on her thesis. A DVD with the documentary, edited in iMovie and authored using iDVD, was included in her final PhD submission.
At about the same time, we realised that few international arts centres were aware of the dance styles in which Kaberi has specialised: Manipuri and Tagore dance. Kaberi would need a similar DVD to persuade them both about the styles themselves and about her dance skills.
First, we used our video camera and my father’s one to film a Manipuri dance performance she gave at the Durga Puja in Bremen. I thought a short, film-style trailer would be useful both to introduce Manipuri dance to people who had not come across it and to encourage people to watch the 15-minute video of the performance on the DVD. In parallel, we would need to improve Kaberi’s website, to which the trailer and DVD would refer people.
After preparing a script for a 1-minute trailer, we hired some stage lights and used a roll of black paper to create a “studio” in the living room of our apartment. Within limited space and without a very versatile tripod, we filmed some sequences and also shot some still photographs, which were to be added to the home page of Kaberi’s website.
Here is the English version of the trailer, for which some friends helped us to create French, German, Italian and Spanish versions.
The promotional DVD led to higher profile performances in Europe (at London’s Nehru Centre in January 2006, the Museum of Asian Arts in Nice in May 2006 and London’s Purcell Room in June 2006). While Kaberi was performing at the Nehru Centre, I noticed a poster about a short film competition organised by the Satyajit Ray Foundation. The theme was ‘the experience of Asians’ and the maximum duration was 25 minutes.
It occurred to me that many Asians migrate to the West and I was curious to see how easy it would be to use iMovie to put together such a film. Kaberi’s experience, which I had been watching at first hand for the previous three years, was perhaps a more extreme example than most: after our marriage, she had left behind a promising dance career in India to join me in Europe, where she was once more unknown.
Kaberi and I were also often being asked how we met. So I decided to make a short film called Adapting which focused on Kaberi’s experience and used video material we had been shooting since we first met. I reviewed the material we had, which included a sequence which Kaberi had filmed to try to explain to her parents what a supermarket is, and developed a script with a voiceover linking a selection of clips from the material.
We filmed some additional sequences, such as showing Kaberi shopping in London for Indian food ingredients, and so on. We also filmed a sequence with three European friends who had travelled to India for our wedding: Beatriz, Gemma and Vincent.
Originally, I had invited them so that we could film a sequence where Kaberi and I were telling them the story of how we met. However, by the time they arrived, I had realised that this would not look very interesting and persuaded them to do some role playing instead. You can see the result towards the end of this 8-minute excerpt from Adapting.
As you can imagine, we all had a lot of fun filming the sequence with Beatriz, Gemma and Vincent. I had given them two alternative scenarios, both of which we filmed. The first was where Vincent, the prospective groom, and Beatriz, the prospective bride, fell immediately in love at first sight and Gemma, the chaperone, was left to keep them apart. The second was where Vincent and Beatriz took an instant dislike to each other, so that they asked each other the most aggressive questions.
The latter version was the one which I kept in the film. I should mention that, in reality, Vincent and Beatriz are husband and wife. At the time, Beatriz was in the early stages of expecting their first baby, which added a certain relevance to the discussion about children. The dialogue was completely improvised, based on my outline of how each of their characters should behave.
Towards the end of the editing process, our then iMac was struggling to cope with all the processing involved and we had to buy a new, faster iMac. Adapting didn’t win anything in the competition but it was a good way of exploring what we could do on our computers.
I’d intended to finish Adapting in time for our third wedding anniversary, so that it could be my anniversary present to Kaberi. However, I had to find another present as it took me a lot longer to edit than I had imagined! Still, when we showed it to about forty of our friends the following month, several were quite moved by it.
Kaberi’s performance as part of the Bahar Festival in London in June 2006 was originally supposed to be on the 30m-wide stage of the Queen Elisabeth Hall. It was going to be a challenge for Kaberi to fill such a wide stage on her own. So I used Keynote to create a dynamic virtual set for her.
We hired a high definition camera to film some sequences and used them as part of an introduction to Manipuri dance which I presented while she was off-stage doing a dress change. The festival eventually took place in the Purcell Room since the competition from the World Cup was quite intense! We put the iMac on a corner of the stage so that I could see its presenter disply and control it using its remote control. The output from the iMac allowed us to project the virtual set onto a screen at the back of the stage.
For the rest of that summer, I was composing and recording the music for Kaberi’s Indian dance workout. The idea of making such a workout DVD came to Kaberi after a friend recommended that she could keep fit using fitness videos. She realised that a lot of the movements were similar to exercises and movements she knew from Indian dance.
The workout DVD has probably been the most technically demanding project we have done up to now because we wanted to create a fully interactive project. Kaberi first had to design the overall workout and break it down into sections. We studied a range of different workout DVDs to see how they had been structured and presented.
The music had to fit the sections and also had to be the right pace for the movements. This was why the easiest solution was for me to compose and perform the instrumental music specially for the workout, based on Indian classical themes and on songs by Tagore. Our living room became a recording studio.
We arranged to film the workout DVD over a weekend with six of Kaberi’s dance students. We cleared all the furniture from our living room and they came for rehearsals every evening for the five days before we filmed it. Since it would otherwise be quite late by the time everyone got home, each evening, Kaberi prepared an Indian dinner for all of us. After the others left, we still had to record Kaberi’s commentary over the music.
We were very lucky with the weather for the two days we were filming the workout. It was an intense schedule but the really nice people in the team helped to create a great atmosphere. Again, we hired a high definition camera over that weekend.
This trailer for the workout gives you an idea of the end result.
In preparing to edit the workout, I realised that I had outgrown iMovie and needed to upgrade to Final Cut Studio to achieve such a technically complex project. At about the same time, Kaberi went to India to collect her PhD. Meanwhile, YouTube was rising in popularity, having been founded in February 2005, and Google bought it in October 2006.
By the time Kaberi returned to Europe, she had had another idea. Initially, it had been to stage a performance of Tagore’s dance-drama Shyama in London with a team of dancers, singers and musicians from Santinketan. However, having grown up with my parents organising shows like this, I knew that this was going to take several months to prepare and, if it was to be a large team from India, would probably need to be part of a European tour.
It seemed to me less risky to make a film version of Shyama instead and use it both to create a permanent record and then use the internet and subtitling to allow people all over the world to see it. In any case, the first step was to film it.
We finally decided to go ahead with the project in November 2006. It was clear that we would not finish the workout before travelling to India to film Shyama. The plan was for Kaberi and the team to rehearse for it in Santiniketan in January 2007 and we would record and film it during seven days in early February 2007 at the main theatre there.
We looked into the costs of hiring two high definition cameras in India but discovered that each camera would come with a minder, a cameraman, a sound recordist and a sound man with a boom microphone. They would have to travel from Kolkata the day before filming began and return the day after filming ended. We didn’t need the sound to be recorded live since we were recording the music first. Since this team would have to stay in a hotel for four nights, and we would then need to hire another camera back in Europe to edit the material.
In the end, we bought two, small high definition cameras from the US (so that they were filming in NTSC, which is easier to convert to the film frame rate of 24 frames per second than using the European and Indian PAL standard). These were portable enough for us to carry with us to and from India, together with a laptop, on which we did the sound recording.
By the time we came back to Europe, I had all the material from Shyama and all the material from Kaberi’s Indian dance workout to edit, in between my daily work, which was and is quite demanding. As a result, the process of editing both projects took over a year.
A test screening of the workout in autumn 2007 revealed that people would need a slower explanation of the movements as they were too difficult to grasp at the normal speed of the workout. So we used our own video cameras to film some additional sequences in which Kaberi explained each movement in slow motion. Putting this onto a DVD so that it was fully interactive meant I had to learn how to program a DVD using DVD Studio Pro.
Meanwhile, I realised that we would have to translate Shyama from scratch as it hadn’t been translated before. My father did the initial translation, which Kaberi and I refined to match the on-screen movements of the dancers.
Test screenings of Shyama led to the addition of explanations of the characters at the beginning and captions during the film to explain where the action is taking place. They also led to a number of friends volunteering to translate our English subtitles into their own languages.
Kaberi’s Indian dance workout was finally launched on DVD in July 2008, with the double soundtrack album being released online. Shyama had its world première at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in May 2009.
We added the various language versions to the DVD of Shyama by September 2009. In parallel, we filmed two episodes of what should ultimately be an 8-part podcast series about Shyama and Tagore. Each episode requires a lot of background research, which is the main reason why we haven’t gone beyond part 2 yet.
Over summer 2010, at fairly short notice, we filmed three episodes of Kaberi’s Indian cooking – a web series published on Facebook. Only the first of these has been published so far. The other two are still in the pipeline!
In October 2010, we accompanied Shyama to the Ourense Film Festival for its Spanish première. This was about the time when I started this blog. It was also when we started thinking about making film versions of Tagore’s other two dance-dramas, Chandalika and Chitrangada, to complete the Tagore dance film trilogy to mark Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary.
The première of Chandalika was in May 2011 in Stratford-upon-Avon, courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The tour of Shyama in Egypt in January 2012 with Kaberi and her team from Santiniketan perhaps marks the start of the next phase of our adventure. Of course, we still have to launch Chitrangada (probably in September 2012) before this phase is complete. Nonetheless, we do hope to be able to get back to our friends, who haven’t really seen us for the past five years thanks to all of these projects!
While our ideas and projects have become more and more ambitious, the possibilities offered by the digital revolution have accelerated. These projects have brought us many new friends around the world, especially through Facebook and Twitter.
Looking back over the past nine years reminds us how much the world has evolved. A whole generation has been growing up without knowing what the world was like before the internet, a feeling eloquently presented by Piotr Czerski in his article ‘We, the web kids‘. Even Kaberi and I have forgotten what that world was like, that we couldn’t speak to friends and relatives around the world for free and that we didn’t always avoid staying at hotels without wifi. As our friend Sheri Candler says, people are having to find their digital mindset.
Our creative projects have allowed Kaberi and me to work together very closely on a subject in which we have a passionate interest: Rabindranath Tagore and particularly the dance form he created. None of it would have been worth the effort if Kaberi hadn’t been the amazing, gentle, loving, modest but extremely talented person she is.
It has been a wonderful nine years … and there seems to be even better to come!
Kotal (Basanta Mukherjee), an agent of the King’s Guard
In Part 1, I explained the background to the tour and in part 2, I described the reaction to Shyama in Egypt.
The performances of Shyama in Egypt took place the week before the first anniversary of the popular revolution which made Tahrir Square the focus of international attention, deposed President Hosni Mubarak and launched the “Arab Spring” last year. It was an exciting time to be there.
The story of Shyama, which is based on a Buddhist legend, is primarily one of love and sacrifice. It is as much of a romantic tragedy as Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
In the programme of its first performance in 1939, Tagore wrote:
“Let me confess that the story is immaterial. I ask my audience not to distract their attention by searching for meaning which belongs to the alien kingdom of language but to keep their minds passive in order to be able to receive an immediate impression of the whole, to capture the spirit of art which reveals itself in the rhythm of movements, in the lyric of colour, form and sound and refuses to be denied or described by words.”
The cause of the tragedy in Shyama is set out in its seemingly innocuous opening scene. Bojroshen, a foreign merchant, is examining his acquisitions when a Friend approaches. The Friend warns him that the Queen has heard of the emerald necklace he is carrying and has sent guards to look for him. Soon after the Friend urges Bojroshen to leave, an agent of the King’s Guard duly arrives.
As we heard while we were in Egypt, this idea of a “Queen” wanting a necklace may have reminded people watching Shyama there of another necklace which was the focus of news attention there last year. Allegedly, Suzane Mubarak, wife of former President Mubarak, had visited the jewellery museum in Alexandria and noticed that a gold necklace which had belonged to Princess Samiha Mohamed Ali had the initials ‘S M’ engraved on it and had asked whether the initials could stand for Suzane Mubarak. Allegedly, the following morning, the necklace was delivered to her. The Supreme Public Funds Prosecutor looked into the allegations but decided to hold back investigations after finding the necklace in its original display in the museum and asserted that the allegations were unfounded. An official apology was submitted to the prosecutor by the person making the allegations and the insult or libel lawsuits filed against him were dropped.
Returning to Shyama, we are next introduced to Uttiyo, who meets Shyama’s companions in her audience chamber at the palace. He is a regular visitor and has admired Shyama from a distance but has never expressed his feelings to her.
The character of Uttiyo, who is dressed in white to underline the purity of his thoughts, probably represents Tagore. Tagore too had been unlucky in love throughout his life.
After Shyama sees Bojroshen being chased and caught by the Guard on the pretext that Bojroshen is a thief, she falls in love with Bojroshen and resolves to help him. The Guard, who may also be in love with Shyama, tells her that there has been a theft from the Royal Treasury and they need to find a thief to save their honour – and who better than a foreigner?
With Bojroshen facing execution, Uttiyo answers Shyama’s call for someone to save him. Uttiyo offers to sacrifice his life to save Bojroshen. This then leads to a tragic moral dilemma for both Shyama and Bojroshen.
Uttiyo (Ambika Bhandary) offers Shyama (Kaberi Chatterjee) his life
Although the Guard appears on stage as the villain of Shyama, he is simply fulfilling the orders of his masters, the King and Queen, whom we never see. Of course, the Guard does seem to relish his unpleasant task.
Just over a year ago, a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said” highlighted the case of a young man who had apparently committed no crime but was pulled out of a cybercafé by Egyptian police and beaten to death, inspiring the revolution which started on 25 January 2011. During the protests which followed, centred on Tahrir Square in Cairo, snipers on the rooftops appeared to aim for the heads and hearts of protesters, leaving more than 800 dead. The question of who ordered them to do so has been a key aspect of the Mubarak trial.
Since our return from Egypt, the country has sadly seen further tragedy. Although Tagore created Shyama in 1939, at a difficult time in both pre-Independence India and Europe, Shyama is timeless and universal.
Our tour of Shyama in Egypt has illustrated that the dance concept he developed to express the meaning of his Bengali lyrics does cross linguistic and cultural boundaries as Tagore had intended, even today, because of its focus on the whole body language of the dancers. At the same time, Tagore’s humanist values expressed in the following song from Shyama are as appropriate for 1939 as they are for last year’s ‘Arab Spring’ and other current situations.
Shyama’s companions ‘The locking up of the good at the hands of the cruel – who will stop it?’
The locking up of the good at the hands of the cruel – who will stop it? Who?
The flow of tears from helpless, distressed eyes – who will wipe them away? Who?
The cries of distressed people sadden Mother Earth.
The attacks of injustice are poisoned arrows –
Under persecution from the strong, who will save the weak?
Whose generosity will call those who have been insulted into his embrace?
Article in Egyptair in-flight magazine about Shyama
Kaberi Chatterjee dressed as Shyama, in lift at Alexandria’s Metropole Hotel Photo: Obhi Chatterjee
In Part 1, I explained the background to the Shyama in Egypt tour.
Enrique Nicanor and I had decided to join the team at our own expense. We reached Cairo from Europe a day ahead of the team. Enrique had noticed that there was an article about the performances of Shyama at the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses in the Egyptair in-flight magazine, Horus. The article was the same size as one about the performances of Aida at the Cairo Opera House at the end of January! The performances were also included in the magazine’s events calendar for January.
Unfortunately, the last leg of the team’s journey to Cairo – a flight from Jeddah – was cancelled. This meant that they had to catch the next flight from Jeddah and arrived in Cairo in the early hours of the day of their first performance. This was not only at the Cairo Opera House but would be attended by the Egyptian Culture Minister and other VIPs. The team was so tired when they arrived that we had to abandon the stage rehearsal we had intended.
As became our routine on all the performance days, Mithuda (Debanshu Majumder), Enrique and I went to the theatre first to supervise the technical setup, including lighting, sound and projection of the subtitles. Essam A helped us to communicate with the theatre technicians.
Egyptair in-flight magazine’s January 2012 events calendar
Although we tested the projection of the subtitles at the Cairo Opera House with the first part of the sequence, as time moved on, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to finish adding all the Arabic subtitles, together with all the necessary video processing, in time for the start of the performance that evening. So, rather than showing the subtitles for part of the show and then leaving the audience without them for the rest, we decided to present the show that evening without the subtitles.
We knew that we had a receptive audience at the Cairo Opera House when there was a round of applause each time I introduced a new character and they appeared on stage one-by-one. As the show went on, there was applause after each scene. Naturally, this spurred the team on.
In our film version, we had deliberately kept the timing on the soundtrack very tight to avoid giving any opportunity for the attention of the audience to wander. The team had to be very focused to match this timing on stage, including costume changes. It would have been obvious to anyone watching the show the team had been rehearsing for weeks before the tour.
Soon, the show was over and the Egyptian Culture Minister, the Indian Ambassador and Mrs Durai, Director of the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture, came on stage to presented flowers to all the performers. We all returned from the Opera House exhausted but happy that it had been so well-received.
The next morning, we travelled to Ismailia. Unfortunately, once we arrived, we realised that there was a fault with some of the technical equipment at the hall, which limited our ability to adjust the lighting and set up the backdrop. We also thought it would be too difficult to add the problem of projecting the subtitles to these technical challenges.
So it was the performance at the beautiful Alexandria Opera House which became the world’s first subtitled, live performance of Shyama. The technicians from the Cairo Opera House very kindly came to Alexandria with their digital projector especially to make this possible. I cannot describe the thrill of seeing the subtitles appear as the show began – the audience could experience the combination of my novel, digital technique with the dancing! Finally, after all the preparations, they had the option of referring to the Arabic and English subtitles during the performance.
I should take a moment to pay tribute to all the technicians at each of the theatres in which we presented Shyama. Without their help, it would not have been possible to present such a technically demanding show.
Ambassador R Swaminathan and Mrs Durai very kindly attended almost all the performances. After each performance, there were often people from the audience coming up to the dancers, asking to be photographed with them. Especially at the the Giza performance, though, several people, particularly Egyptian women and children, came onto the stage seeking autographs, photographs, and so on. It was clear that Shyama had struck a chord with them.
Kaberi and Ohoud Al Shuaibi at the Safir Hotel, Cairo Photo: Obhi Chatterjee
The day after the final performance at Beni Suef, where Mahmoud helped us to communicate with the technicians, it was time for the team to return to India. As Kaberi was having her last lunch at the Safir Hotel, where the team had been staying, their guest relations Director, Ohoud Al Shuaibi, came up to her.
She explained that she and her husband loved Indian films and had become very fond of the team during their stay at the hotel. They were always smiling, polite, and never apart, as well as being very popular with the hotel staff. She and her husband had hesitated before taking up the invitation of staff at the Indian Embassy and Cultural Centre to attend the Giza performance: they hadn’t been sure if she would enjoy a performance in a language she wouldn’t understand.
However, she had been very impressed by the show and particularly by Kaberi’s performance as Shyama. She told Kaberi that her dancing had been so expressive and her body language so clear that they had understood everything. Kaberi was very moved by her comments – it is the highest praise a dancer can receive is to hear from someone in the audience that they were so touched by the performance.
The video below is an excerpt from the interview Enrique filmed with her shortly afterwards, after Kaberi and the rest of the team had set off for the airport. I think it illustrates how deeply moving and memorable our Egyptian audiences found Shyama and the team’s performances.