Aug 152012
 

Sayan performing at the Rabindra-Okakura Bhavan, Kolkata, 10 September 2011

Oops! While translating the subtitles of the penultimate scene of Chitrangada last night, I missed my turn to give you an update on our daily progress. So here it is – better late than never.

I realise that my introduction to Sayan Bandyopadhyay in my post about gathering the team for The Story of Gitanjali was quite brief. Now I have the opportunity to provide more detail.

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.

This reminded me to see if we could make contact with the team which has been translating Tagore’s works into Chinese. In doing so, I noticed that the first Chinese collection of Tagore’s songs was released recently and that Chitrangada was staged at the Lanzhou University.

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.

Aug 132012
 

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.

Jul 282012
 

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 Gitanjali was widely translated, especially after Tagore won the Nobel Prize. So far, I have found the following translations of the Gitanjali online: english español ελληνικά français हिंदी magyar nederlands română. I would be happy to hear about other translations.

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.

Feb 122012
 

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?

Feb 062012
 

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.

Jan 292012
 

The ‘Shyama in Egypt’ team at the Giza pyramids          Photo: Enrique Nicanor

I know already that I will need more than one post to do justice to the experience of presenting Rabindranath Tagore’s last dance-drama, Shyama, on tour in Egypt. The tour by Kaberi and a team from Santiniketan was organised by the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo, together with the Indian Embassy there, to celebrate Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. It was sponsored by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations as part of a cultural exchange programme between Egypt and India, in association with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

Kaberi and the dancers in the team were performing to an adapted version of the soundtrack from our film version of Shyama , with Arabic and English subtitles projected above the stage. The English subtitles came from our film version of Shyama, as translated by Jayanta Chatterjee (my father), Kaberi and myself. The Arabic subtitles were kindly provided by translators at the Indian Embassy and reviewed with the help of Essam A of the Maulana Azad Centre. The lighting design and control was provided by Debanshu Majumder, who had also done the lighting for our film version.

The performance schedule was quite intense:

– 15 Jan: Cairo Opera House

– 16 Jan: Ismailia Cultural Palace

– 18 Jan: Alexandria Opera House

– 20 Jan: Academy of Fine Arts, Giza

– 21 Jan: Beni Suef Cultural Palace

Bojroshen (Sourav Chatterjee) escapes from Kotal (Basanta Mukherjee)

The inaugural performance at the Cairo Opera House was attended by the Egyptian Culture Minister and other VIP guests. Before each performance of Shyama, there was a short performance by Padmashree Sumitra Guha and her team illustrating the way Tagore based the tunes of some of his songs on Indian classical ragas.

The ‘Shyama in Egypt’ team, led by Kaberi and supported by local technicians at each venue, comprised:

Principal dancers

– Kaberi Chatterjee (Shyama, a court dancer)

– Sourav Chatterjee (Bojroshen, a foreign merchant)

– Ambika Bhandary (Uttiyo, an admirer of Shyama who has never expressed his love for her)

– Basanta Mukherjee (Kotal, a member of the King’s Guard)

Dancers in the roles of Friend / Shyama’s companions

Sunipa Chakraborty, Tamalika Dey, Puja Gupta, Tuli Mukherjee & Trina Ruj

[Unfortunately, shortly before the team set off for Egypt, Sharmistha Mukhopadhyay, who was supposed to be one of the six dancers in this group, fell ill and had to miss the tour.]

Dance director

Kaberi Chatterjee

Additional choreography for Uttiyo and Bojroshen

Shubhra Tagore

Technicians

– Debanshu Majumder (Lighting designer)

– Ambika Bhandary (Make-up)

– Enrique Nicanor (Digital projection/’Making of’ documentary)

– Obhi Chatterjee (Director/Subtitling/Soundtrack)

With thanks to Sangeet Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan for the use of the Sangeet Bhavana stage for rehearsals, as well as for the participation of Asst Professor Basanta Mukherjee and Sangeet Bhavana students.

Uttiyo (Ambika Bhandary) and Shyama’s companions (Sunipa Chakraborty, Puja Gupta, Tamalika Dey, Trina Ruj & Tuli Mukherjee)

The recorded soundtrack for the performances was an adapted version of the soundtrack from our film version of Shyama, which was performed by:

Principal singers

Manini Mukhopadhyay (Shyama)

Jayanta Chatterjee (Bojroshen)

Prasanta Kumar Ghosh (Uttiyo)

Ashok Kumar Ganguly (Kotal)

Friend – singer

Priyam Mukherjee

Shyama’s companions – singers

Ritapa Bhattacharya, Sikha Chatterjee Chakroborty & Manini Mukhopadhyay

Musicians

Sunil Kabiraj (Esraj)

Dipak Das (Sitar)

Animesh Chandra (Synthesiser & esraj)

Debasis Hazra (Pakhwaj, tabla, khol & dhol)

Ch Bocha Singh (Manipuri pung)

Dilip Birbonshi (Mandira)

Music director

Ashok Kumar Ganguly

Music arrangers

Animesh Chandra

Debasis Hazra

 

The performances were very well-received. In Part 2, I’ll describe how the tour went.

The team on stage during the presentations after the Giza performance   Photo: Enrique Nicanor

Kaberi Chatterjee preparing to present an uttoriyo to the representative of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture on behalf of the team. On the right is Mrs Suchitra Durai, Director of the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture.   Photo: Enrique Nicanor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 112011
 

Inner Eye’s Tagore dance film trilogy with Kaberi Chatterjee in the title roles

Five years after starting to prepare filming Shyama, we are now close to completing Chitrangada, the third and final feature film in our trilogy of authentic versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas (the other two being Chandalika and Shyama). As a result of making these films and translating Tagore’s texts for their subtitles, I have now had the opportunity to explore all three dance-dramas intensively and from a western perspective. This has made me realise that they are no less worthy of the international stage than classical western ballet or opera. Perhaps it’s time for a new dawn in the world of ballet and opera to come from the East … .

Up to now, few outside the Bengali diaspora have been aware of Tagore’s dance-dramas, even though they attract large Bengali audiences whenever they are staged and most of their songs are well-known to Bengalis. This is perhaps because the dance-dramas have not been translated before and their performances outside India and Bangladesh tend to be one-off events aimed at Bengali-speaking communities. As a result, even among those around the world who are aware of Tagore’s literary genius but who do not understand Bengali (and perhaps the children of Bengali parents brought up in non-Bengali environments), Tagore’s dance-dramas might appear to be little more than a quaint experiment in his later years.

In reality, the dance-dramas are probably the most accomplished works created by Tagore, combining his poetry with music, drama and the semi-classical dance form he created. The plots of all three were based on legends which Tagore adapted to express his humanist message about powerful, timeless and universal themes: the hurt inflicted on people by social prejudice, the difficulties of reconciling public image with private life and the sacrifices people are prepared to make for love. Kaberi’s forthcoming book ‘Tagore Dance’, based on her PhD research, reveals the original creation of the Tagore dance form. Kaberi has made the introduction to her book available as a free download from her website.

In the case of Chitrangada, which is based on an episode from the epic Mahabharata, Tagore had written a play based on the same episode almost 50 years earlier. It was called Chitra, which you can read in the Internet archive. It’s not clear exactly when Tagore wrote Chitra: there are online versions with the dates 1892 and 1896 but, according to the preface of the 1913 edition printed in English by the India Society, it was written ‘about twenty five years ago’, ie, in about 1888.

Incidentally, thanks to Dr Asok Chaudhuri, I learned that the Tagore notebook from autumn 1928 which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on Tuesday includes the lyrics of two songs which were later included by Tagore in Chitrangada.

In recent years, opera houses around the world have been equipped to show subtitles of operas being performed in their original language, whether above the stage or on the backs of seats. We will be using the subtitles from our film version of Shyama (in English and, we hope, Arabic) when Kaberi and her team from Santiniketan perform Shyama live next month in Egypt, including at the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses.

Through the Tagore dance film trilogy and its subtitles, apart from preserving Tagore’s original concept, we would like to ensure that Tagore’s dance-dramas join Western operas and ballet on the world stage. We have decided to postpone the release of Chitrangada until around 7 May 2012, the end of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary year. This is to allow more time to arrange its gala charity world première in a way which brings Tagore and his dance-dramas to the attention of dance and opera lovers around the world.

If you would like to help us, please comment below or post on the wall of the Facebook page of the Tagore dance film trilogy. Your help could take one or more of a variety of forms:

  • telling your friends about Tagore, the dance-dramas and the films;
  • downloading the introduction to Kaberi’s book Tagore Dance and joining the mailing list for news about it (see button below);
  • hosting a screening of one or more of the films; translating the subtitles into more languages;
  • helping out at the gala charity world première of Chitrangada;
  • persuading a local hall with a digital projector to join a global première by screening the (live) introduction from the main gala charity event followed by Chitrangada subtitled in the local language;
  • recommending potential sponsors for the première, including the online global promotion and distribution of the films;
  • moral support by liking this post and/or the Facebook pages of the trilogy and each of the films;
  • any other help or advice you would like to offer.
Aug 152011
 

In advance of India’s Independence day today, India’s Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, unveiled this 10-minute version of the Indian national anthem, Jana Gana Mana on Friday. It includes all five verses written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911, rather than just the first one.

Tagore translated the poem into English and set it to music in 1919 while staying at the Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. He had been invited there by its principal, the Irish poet James H Cousins. On the evening of February 28, 1919, at Cousins’ request, Tagore sang Jana Gana Mana. Cousins’ wife, Margaret, was an expert in Western music and, with her help, Tagore set down the notation and harmonisation which is followed to this day. [Note that the photograph of the notation in the article is upside down.] The song was used by the College as its prayer song carried beyond the borders of India by the college students and was known as the Morning Song of India.

Now, it is sometimes suggested that the song was written by Tagore in praise of King George V because he wrote it for the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress on the occasion of the visit by King George V and Queen Mary to India. He recited the poem to the gathering on December 26, 1911. The source of the controversy appears to be that a different song welcoming the King was performed in Hindi by a group of schoolchildren at the same event, except that this was not how it was reported in the English press: “The Bengali poet Babu Rabindranath Tagore sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor.” (Statesman, Dec. 28, 1911).

The complete lyrics however reveal that the ‘You’ to whom the song is addressed is the goddess of India’s destiny. Tagore explained the background to Jana Gana Mana in a letter to Pulin Bihari Sen on 10 November 1937:

“A certain high official in His Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Vidhata of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”

The myth about Tagore’s supposed praise of George V was revived more recently by some who attempted to suggest that Vande Mataram would be a more appropriate national anthem for India. Its lyrics were written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and set to music by Tagore. Although Vande Mataram had been a rallying cry for India’s anti-imperial struggle against the British, Tagore pointed out in a letter to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1937 that “The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram – proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate.”

In a statement made in Parliament on 25th August, 1948, Prime Minister Nehru said: ‘‘It is unfortunate that some kind of argument has arisen between Vande Mataram and Jana Gana ManaVande Mataram is obviously and indisputably the premier national song of India with a great historical tradition; it was intimately connected with our struggle for freedom. That position it is bound to retain and no other song can displace it. It represents the passion and poignancy of that struggle, but perhaps not so much the culmination of it.’’

Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana was chosen as the National Anthem of the 1947 Republic of India. Vande Mataram was rejected on the grounds that Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Arya Samajis and others who opposed idol worship felt offended by its depiction of the nation as “Mother Durga”, a Hindu goddess. Muslims also felt that its origin as part of Anandamatha, a novel they felt had an anti-Muslim message, was inappropriate.

Rajendra Prasad, who was presiding the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950, made the following statement which was also adopted as the final decision on the issue: “The composition consisting of words and music known as Jana Gana Mana is the National Anthem of India, subject to such alterations as the Government may authorise as occasion arises, and the song Vande Mataram, which has played a historic part in the struggle for Indian freedom, shall be honored equally with Jana Gana Mana and shall have equal status with it.”

The official, instrumental version of India’s national anthem lasts just under 1 minute and is evidently performed at twice the speed of the latest version.

This is the full-length version of the AR Rahman arrangement made for the 50th anniversary of India’s Constitution in 2000. There is a shorter version of this which has had almost 1.8 million views.

Finally, this is Tagore himself reciting (not singing, as the title of the video claims) the lyrics of Jana Gana Mana.

Jul 172011
 

Rabindranath Tagore

For his 80th birthday in 1941, Tagore wrote what was to be his last speech. It was entitled Civilisation’s crisis. As Western countries struggle to deal with an economic crisis, the speech is in some ways as relevant today as when he wrote it.

An English version of the speech was featured by rediff.com in a special series of Great speeches of modern India to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule. They have divided it into five parts. Part 1 – Introduction; Part 2 – What is civilisation?; Part 3 – An intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism; Part 4 – The social fabric is being rent to shreds; Part 5 – Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East . To read the speech in Bengali, see সভ্যতার সংকট.

Some sources suggest that the speech was delivered in Santiniketan in Tagore’s presence to mark the Bengali New Year on 14 April 1941. However, as the speech begins literally “Today, my age has completed eighty years”, it seems more likely that it was delivered during the celebrations of his 80th birthday on 7 May 1941.

At the time the speech was made, Tagore was reflecting on a Europe embroiled in the second World War. As we approach the 70th anniversary of Tagore’s death on 7 August 1941, many Western countries find themselves struggling to recover from an economic crisis. At the same time, an international media organisation finds itself at the centre of attention over an apparent lack of scruples at one of its most popular publications when obtaining information for its news reports.

Introduction

Tagore begins by observing that, in the late 19th century, the English were viewed by Indian political leaders as a generous race since “England at the time provided a shelter to all those who had to flee from persecution in their own country. Political martyrs who had suffered for the honour of their people were accorded unreserved welcome at the hands of the English. … This generosity in their national character had not yet been vitiated by imperialist pride.”

What is civilisation?

After initially holding the English concept of ‘civilisation’ in high esteem as representing ‘proper conduct’, Tagore refers to “a painful feeling of disillusion when I began increasingly to discover how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilization disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved. … As I emerged into the stark light of bare facts, the sight of the dire poverty of the Indian masses rent my heart. Rudely shaken out of my dreams, I began to realize that perhaps in no other modern state was there such hopeless dearth of the most elementary needs of existence. And yet it was this country whose resources had fed for so long the wealth and magnificence of the British people.”

An intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism

Tagore contrasts the efforts of Russia to fight disease and illiteracy with the approach in India: “when I look about my own country and see a very highly evolved and intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism, I cannot help contrasting the two systems of governments, one based on co-operation, the other on exploitation, which have made such contrary conditions possible.”

The social fabric is being rent to shreds

Tagore’s references to Iran and Afghanistan appear odd today as countries which “were marching ahead, [while] India, smothered under the dead weight of British administration, lay static in her utter helplessness. Another great and ancient civilization for whose recent tragic history the British cannot disclaim responsibility, is China.” Of course, it is India and China which are now considered to be among the economic superpowers while the recent histories of Iran and Afghanistan are less fortunate.

“If in its place [the British] have established, with baton in hand, a reign of ‘law and order’, in other words a policeman’s rule, such mockery of civilization can claim no respect from us. It is the mission of civilization to bring unity among people and establish peace and harmony. But in unfortunate India the social fabric is being rent into shreds by unseemly outbursts of hooliganism daily growing in intensity, right under the very aegis of ‘law and order’.” Perhaps this image is now more closely associated with countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East

Tagore notes that he has been fortunate to meet “really large-hearted Englishmen”, particularly referring to C F Andrews, considering them to be “friends of the whole human race”.  However, he is concerned about what kind of India would be left after the British granted it independence. “When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!”

Nonetheless, he looks forward to a period “after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises.” From references earlier in the speech, he may have had Japan in mind. However, the economic crisis appears to have affected Asia far less than it has Western countries.

Tagore’s closing remark seems from the perspective of 2011 to be remarkably prescient:

“Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: ‘By unrighteousness, man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.'”

70 years on, as people in various countries have come together with the help of social media to demand collectively a more honest and less brutal regime, and as the economies of countries once referred to as “Third World” prepare to overtake those of their former rulers, Tagore seems to have been proved right.

Jun 082010
 

Poster for My Name is Khan

Kaberi and I went to see this film last weekend. It’s quite a remarkable film in several ways and I’d recommend you to see it.

My name is Khan is an Indian film. To many in the West, this may bring to mind a 3-hour romantic film with a good-guy-falls-in-love-with-nice-girl-who-falls-for-bad-guy-but-is-rescued-by-good-guy-and-falls-in-love-and-they-live-happily-ever-after plot in which the main characters burst spontaneously into song on the slightest pretext and dozens of dancers appear from nowhere to join them in a series of dazzling song-and-dance routines.

At 2 hours 41 minutes, My name is Khan certainly has the right dimensions. Its main stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol are also a classic ‘Bollywood’ pair. But that’s where the stereotype ends because this is a very topical story about love, prejudice, tragedy and basic humanity with no singing (well, there is some) and no dancing.

Rizvan Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) is the older of two brothers who grows up in a middle-class household in Mumbai. He can repair anything but he is clearly different from other children and suffers their taunts. Only his mother makes the effort to understand him, to the envy of his younger brother, who leaves home at the earliest opportunity and goes to the US to find his fortune.

After his mother’s death, Rizvan travels to the US, where his sister-in-law notices his aversion to physical contact and eye contact, as well as his sensitivity to noise, the colour yellow and his tendency to repeat the actions he sees others doing. She realises that these characteristics and his social awkwardness are symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

After this, the film takes us through his romantic pursuit of single-mother hairdresser Mandira (played by Kajol). A more conventional film would have ended there, with them getting married and enjoying life with Mandira’s son Sam. Here, though, My name is Khan moves into the next phase of the story, which is triggered by the 9/11 attacks.

From this point on, the film takes a more serious turn, showing the hostility shown by Americans towards Muslims after these attacks and the reason behind Rizvan’s mission to tell the US President that ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist’.  [You can read a more complete review of My name is Khan here .]

For me, although the style is very different from that of Tagore and Shyama, I recognised the underlying message of compassion and humanism triumphing over hatred and revenge. In this respect, the film shares Tagore’s vision. Unfortunately, the release of My name is Khan in India was marred by violent protests, with over 1,800 people arrested in Mumbai for vandalising cinemas advertising the film even before its release and the head of the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena group telling Shah Rukh Khan to move to Pakistan, or face ‘dire consequences’.

Now, my name is Chatterjee and I am not a Muslim but I do find it deeply disturbing that the intolerance which the film complained of in the US is also very present in India. Long before the partition of India in 1947 as part of its independence from Britain, Tagore, who was a Brahmo (a branch of Hinduism), was extremely concerned by the growing tension between Hindus and Muslims – India had long been a secular society. This was part of the historical context which led him to create Shyama in 1939.

In any case, I think My name is Khan is remarkable for having tackled the issue of intolerance in such a moving way. It is also remarkable for being very well made, out-doing many Hollywood films on style, acting, direction, music, photography and plot. The performances particularly by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol are very convincing and could have led to Oscar nominations … except that there is a certain intolerance among the Academy Awards which leads to all the non-English speaking films released in the US to be obliged to compete for only the ‘Best Foreign language film’ Oscar. Achieving a successful release in cinemas in several countries around the world is impressive too (thanks to Fox Searchlight, which also released Slumdog Millionaire).

Finally, a friend of ours pointed out a review which dismissed My name is Khan as ‘a US-set Bollywood film with a post-9-11 message and a disturbing similarity to “Forrest Gump”‘ and concluded that ‘While lacking big musical numbers, it still has Bollywood’s broad sentimentality and a cavalier attitude to reality. Bizarre but different.’ Those comments could have been written just by reading the synopsis … but perhaps they reveal a certain prejudice?

International trailer for My name is Khan

%d bloggers like this: