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.
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.
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?