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Damascened Filigree of Tagoren Dance
by Utpal K. Banerjee

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PostPost title: Damascened Filigree of Tagoren Dance
Posted: Sun 30 Jan, 2005 5:53 pm
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In a Kathopanishad simile, the evolution of the supreme spirit is compared to an ‘inverted tree’: with its roots seeing many sources and drawing sap from diverse founts, and yet growing skywards with a vertical thrust and single manifestation. The towering genius of Tagore might have derived its vital inspiration from diverse sources for the fostering and flowering of its growing grip on many visual and performing arts, but what always emerged was an unmistakable creativity of Tagore’s very own. This was particularly true for the unique genre of Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore’s music), which began from very early exposures to panchali, baul, folksongs and narrative of epics by the minions, followed by an all-pervading ambience of high-quality dhrupad, khayal, tappa and sundry forms of light classical music. The experienced was also tinged by the western opera, when he was 17 and in England, classical music and popular librettos and even Italian serenades. What came later was a fascinating commingling of the south Indian kritis by maestros, nirgun and sagun bhajans by Indian saint-poets, and many nuggets of folk ditties heard all over the eastern India. But, all this time, the creative acumen was on, -- blossoming into some 2200 of Tagore songs: neatly recorded in his compendium Geeta bitan and almost entirely documented in his book of notation Swara Bitan. They all reveal a unique insight and discernment in music, with inspirations remaining valid but nowhere overwhelming and, above all, showing an unparalleled blend of melody with superb poetry.

Such an ‘inverted tree’ did not come into being for what has been termed Rabindra Nritya (Tagorean dance) by his associate Shantidev Ghosh. This remarkable chronicler of events – himself a gifted singer, dancer, actor, narrator and player of esraj, all rolled into one – spent his entire life-span in Shantiniketan under Tagore’s benign shadows and, like a faithful Boswell, recorded the whole process of the evolution and efflorescence of Tagore’s dance-persona, as seen over three decades of their intimate and mutually enriching interaction. What emerges was that, first, while Tagore’s was a slow beginning that spanned almost a quarter century, it gathered increasing momentum in the twilight years of his life. Second, he did not spare any pains to source teachers as well as talents from the four corners of the country and sent emissaries to, and gathering knowledge from, Manipur, Cochin and Malabar (both in Kerala), and Java, Bali (both in Indonesia), Siam (now Cambodia), China, Japan, Burma (now Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, -- not to exclude Dartington hall of the UK and folk facades of the continental Europe. Third, in all these endeavours, he was remarkably ahead of his time in that he had already motivated his young students to dance en masse in the seasonal festivities in 1919, before formally introducing dance in the study curriculum in 1925, whereas the doyen of Indian dance Uday Shankar materialized in the Indian scene in 1929 and founded his Almora centre only in 1938. It was also in 1929 that Rukmini Devi Arundale, the ‘uncrowned queen of Indian dance’, first saw Anna Pavlova in Australia and took another half a decade to establish her school – later Kalakshetra – in 1934. Even then, both Uday Shankar and Rukmini Devi had aimed at producing trained dancers through their illustrious efforts, while Tagore had situated dance in a holistic education approach at Shantiniketan, in the teeth of reservations like the local reportage: ‘The boys are learning musical gymnastics, to the tune of mridang’!

What Tagore has left for posterity is not a polished grammar unravelling intricacies of his dance oeuvre that can be religiously followed by the uninitiated, but a conscientious process towards it and a few finished products from his last few years that are figured designs: shining like a luminous filigree inlaid with precious gems and jewels.


Adhi penangshi vapate nrituribapornute vaksha usrabe varjahang: thus heralded Ushas, the goddess of the early dawn who bares her bosom like a dancer, by the sages of Rigveda. Down several centuries, Kalidasa described the dancers in the Mahakala temple at Ujjain in his Meghadootam: the women there, / whose girdles have long twinkled, / in answer to dance, / whose hands yet cease, / and wave their fans / with lustrous gems besprinkled… half a millennium later, when Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara paid an ode to the dancing Nataraja as: Angikam bhuvanam yasya vachikam sarva vangmayam /Aharyam chandrataradi tam num sattvikam shivam, the millennium’s other half had to elapse before the poet Tagore would resonate: the rebellious atoms are seized into beauteous adoration under the spell of your dance, the sun and the moon play forth in a dazzling orb around your dual feet, and the pulsating throb of your dance-cadenza nurses arouses the stilled cosmos into consciousness…

The panoply of the improvisation phase of the Tagorean dance-process (up to the mid-twenties) can be visually laid on as follows: the teen-ager expatriate, in his 18-month stay in England, picks up skills of social dances in 1878-9; on return, the adolescent youth choreographs for the song: Come, my friends, let’s join hands and dance round and round: for the play Manmoyee in 1880 and for its revised version Punarbasanta in 1899; the 50-year old poet dances as ‘grandfather’ in his play Raja in 1911 and, at 54, as the blind ‘baul’ in Falguni in 1915; he teaches boys to execute two group-dances: You’ve come, o the beguiling one and we’ve tied the Kaash flowers in 1919; he composes dance for girl-students to the tune of: The two hands play on ceaselessly the cymbals of cosmic time: inspired by the cymbal-wielding dance of a village-girl from Saurashtra in 1923; and he participates himself in a group-dance with the song: O the wayfarer, O the lover: in the musical play Vasanta in 1923. These rhythmic dances merely express the boisterous joy of the dramatis personae. Up to the enactment of Arupratan in 1924-end, it is also the miming time, with facial mimes getting aided by easy and minimal footsteps.

From the mid-twenties begins the evolution phase of his dance-process with the gradual incorporation of both group-dances from the Indian and foreign folk forms and codified classical dances brought in by respective teachers in Shantiniketan. The folk forms have the virility of rhythmic steps and swaying bodies, sans Abhinaya, seen in all rites and festivals with a rare spontaneity by men and women, that is akin to Nritta. The classical dances always need the guided disciplines under the teachers like Buddhimantra Singh 1919-25, then Naba Kumar Singh and brother Vaikuntha Nath Singh, and lastly, Senarik Singh, Mahim Singh and Nilambar Mukherjee for classical Manipuri; rhythmic elements of classical Kathakali (with only the veneers of Mudra Abhinaya) under Shantidev and Kelu Nair; Mohiniattam under Kalyani Amma and later Velayudh Menon; elementary exposition to classical Bharatanatyam under Vasudevan and more fully under Mrinalini Sarabhai; and classical Kathak under Asha Ojha. Besides, the winds of change are coming with circular group-dance ‘Garba’ from Kathiawad; vigorous and masculine Kandyan dance from Sri Lanka (under their visiting group and, later, Ananga Lal); and select elements from ‘Gamelan’-based undulating female dance ‘Shrimpi’ and solo dance (with some 45 Angika Abhinayas) ‘golek’ of Java; serene feminine dance ‘Legong’ and entertaining female dance (with angular Mudras) ‘Kabiyar’ of Bali; Siamese dance –akin to Bharatanatyam -- of Cambodia; and ritual ‘Poye’ dance of Myanmar; all under the peripatetic learner Shantidev, among others. There is now a wonderful medley-taking place among them, with new forms emerging. Some examples are: use of suggestive Manipuri Gamakas and Khol rhythms for group-dances; novel Manipuri compositions (with a tinge of Kathakali and Baul) for the plays Natir Puja and Nataraj in 1926; Vasudevan’s solo and duet dances for the play Rituranga in 1927 (using Javanese costumes and stage décor by Surendranath Kar), especially for: Traversing the lonely furrow; Shantidev’s principal use of Kathakali for: There comes the furious cyclone along with wild gestures of Baul and Manipuri; Srimati Devi’s use of western dance for the recited poem Jhulan and ballet style for the Passion play Shishu Tirtha; use of the folk forms Raibenshe and Jari for: Your call has beckoned us now; and a host of others like Nabeen (1930) and the transient Kaler Yatra (1932). In particular, the large corpus of Tagore songs on nature – complete with planting saplings, ploughing and harvesting (even carrying spades and axes), and celebrating the six seasons – get a tremendous boost in varied footwork and change in group-dance style.

This brings us to the final consolidation phase of the ongoing dance-process, happening in the thirties’ decade and leading to concrete thematic products – in the shape of five complete dance-dramas -- namely, Shapmochan (1931), Taser Desh (1933), Chitrangada (1936), Chandalika (1938) and Shyama (1939). While all five are choreographed from beginning to end, the first two have some spoken words, but the last three are entirely musically woven. Shapmochan (derived from the earlier oeuvre of plays Raja and Arupratan) carries forward the dialogue-music interface into choreography: using Kalasam rhythmic variations of Kathakali for Indra’s wrath (with an African wooden spear in hand) and Manipuri fused with group dance for the other sequences. Taser Desh draws initial inspiration from the ‘modern dance’ of a visiting French dancer and its derivative genre under Srimati Devi, but later, gets coalesced into group dances based on Indian folk forms and solo dances sourced from Manipuri, Kathakali and Kandyan repertoire. Chitrangada, in a completely musical version, takes off, first, from Manipuri and, in between the lyric’s lines, mnemonic group dances based on comparable rhythms in folk forms. Later on, Arjun’s dances are created in Kathakali, -- with eyes, face and hand-gestures suggestive of the songs’ meanings, but without the traditional Abhinaya of Kathakali, and feet-movements using rhythms like Keharba and Chautal from Manipuri beats, Teora and Dadra from the southern beats, and Tagore’s own Jhaptal for the lyrics. Chandalika (derived from its narrative version) leaves out Manipuri and is primarily based on the southern rhythmic styles of Swaram, Kaikuttikali and Kalammuli in group-dance formations, but without Abhinaya. Shyama combines, per excellence, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali for Vajrasen, Manipuri for Shyama, Kathak for Uttiya and Kathakali for Prahari: all in the solo roles.

The increased tempo of well-defined choreography is almost exponential, as visible before, and during, the decade prior to the poet’s demise. There have been further visions of setting the short story Ekti Ashadhe Galpa into mimed dance, and turning the earliest operas Mayar Khela, Kal Mrigaya and Valmiki Pratibha into full-fledged dance-dramas, injecting more rhythms suitable for dancing, -- but they are not to be realised. Even the musically expanded play Dakghar does not see fruition in his lifetime.


The only thing constant in the above panoply of choreographic process, spread over a quarter century, has been change! The dynamic, dazzling chiaroscuros in the Tagorean dance filigree have their foundation in Tagore’s words: Dance is the language of the non-verbalranging from the quivering grass-blades in the winds up to the garland of rhythms grafted in the starsVerbal expressions can only convey this universal resonance, as known to every dancing atomThe flow of rhythm from such cosmic genesis into the body and limbs of the human being can make the creation process manifest.

The great joy of dance has been the fount head of Tagore’s inspiration from nature, since its very inception. Once systematic teaching starts in the early twenties, the learning covers both Abhinaya of the classical traditions as well as the group dances of folk traditions without Abhinaya. What, therefore, comes into vogue are: classical Nritya supported by Abhinaya and non-classical Nritta without Abhinaya, both based on music. The group dances follows mostly the Manipuri approach of Mandala (circular) and Sari (linear), without entering into many, diverse patterns on the stage. This is in remarkable contrast to the group choreography of western ballet – both classical and modern – that executes countless patterns in still and moving forms. The ballet groups on stage can be very large, whereas even Kathakali groups seldom exceed four. The tenets of entry, exit, sitting, standing, beckoning, instructing, etc., here are clearly stylised, but ballet dancers can mix stylisation with natural movements at will on stage. Modern ballet, in particular, has injected very large amount of varieties in their kinesthetics in contradistinction to their classical slow approach, which do not necessarily repeat themselves. This is almost against the spirit of every Indian dance, used by Tagore, where the ‘mirroring’ of each movement remains sacrosanct. Finally, Tagore’s dance-dramas tell stories in full, -- not always needed in the western ballet presentations.

Tagore’s choreography follows Sahitya as an immutable pre-requisite, completely in tune with the Indian classical dance traditions for Abhinaya. This comes in the form of verbalized music, -- again in contrast to western ballet entirely going hand-in-hand with orchestration of instrumental music, and also done by Uday Shankar for his brilliant choreography. Potential of Sahitya is fully used by Tagore in both Nritta for group formations (as per the folk norms) and Nritya in classical solo repertoire. With the enormously rich treasure trove of his music, Vachik aspect of choreography can be endlessly exploited. But, unlike the practice in classical dances (other than Manipuri), each line of the lyric is not expressed in Sthayee Bhava and embellished over and again in Sanchari Bhava. On the contrary, the melody and rhythm of an individual lyric are viewed as a whole, and simple Mudras of hand and Charis of feet express the overall nuances. This is more in keeping with the Indian folk traditions that also play down varied facial expressions and Abhinaya Hastas.

As regards Sattvik and Angik aspects, so essential for solo dance segments, it is an imperative for Tagorean choreography that the singers and dancers get together and analyse the lines of the lyrics – keeping in mind the characters of the dance-drama, if called for – and understand Bhava of the songs; to decide on their final interpretation. Regarding Rasa, Tagore uses: solemn and serene ragas (and their variations), rendered in Vilambit Laya for articulating prayers, devotion and paying tributes; songs in Drut Laya and rapid-fire rhythms to embody happiness and wondrous joy; and Meend-based melodies with Komal notes in Madhya Laya and broken rhythms to express sorrow, disappointment and downright despair; -- also suitably altering the timbre of voice in consonance with the prevailing Rasa. In other words, different moods of the music need precise comprehension and rendered in favourable Tala, such as, an outburst of anger and its cool, measured response between two characters in a dance-drama would take the form of a special song with Laya and rhythm of one kind, and its calm reply with the opposite kind, -- to make the contrary Bhavas complete and comprehensible.

The creativity in Tagore’s choreography is best understood from the route followed by his music. As we saw in the beginning, classical Hindustani music, folk tunes of Bengal, songs from other states, and even western music have formed the staple of his musical oeuvre, after being absorbed and adorned around his own lyrics and melodies. Adopting the same paradigm, an amazing melting pot of dance forms and Abhinaya styles, built upon the foundation of his melodies, lyrics and rhythms have given rise to the edifice of his distinctive choreography. In his later Dance-dramas, this damascened filigree has been even more successfully designed and executed: grafting many approaches to dances according to the nature of the characters and their musical underpinning. Thus, mellowed Manipuri dance hand-in-hand with virile Kathakali dance, Bengal’s Baul dance side-by-side with Sri Lanka’s Kandy dance, south India’s Bharatanatyam cheek-by-jowl with north India’s Kathak dance: all coexist, without any apparent conflict. This is an organic harmony where they are all members of a cohesive choreographic entity, embedded into a thriving support system of music.

Once Tagore’s organic approach to music and dance is appreciated, there can be no difficulty in developing Margams (set repertoire) of dance sequences, outside of his Dance-dramas. Following the lead given by him till the thirties, many parallel Margams can emerge: beginning from the celebration of nature: Fly the victory-flag over the conquered deserts; Let’s get back to till our tempting lands; and O the householders, open your doors to herald the riotous sprinkling of colours, up to the ultimate adoration of humanism: Victory to the emergence of the nascent humanity


Perhaps one needs, at this juncture, a comprehensive compendium on Tagorean dance, on the lines of Geeta Bitan and Swara Bitan. Bringing out systematically the corpus of his thoughts and documenting the same with notations on the lines of Von Laban at his Laban Institute in the UK for the western dance -- one can wistfully look forward to such a Nritya Bitan: to parallel what is already available as ancient texts for our treasures of codified dance styles, such as, Abhinaya Darpana for Bharatanatyam (and now all its 108 Karanas executed by Sandhya Purecha and recorded for posterity by the IGNCA); Abhinaya Chandrika for Odissi also being expanded by Kumkum Mahanty at the Odissi Research Centre); Hasta Lakshana Deepika for Kudiyattam and Kathakali (and also used for ‘modern dance’ by Shashidharan Nair at the SBKK); Hasta Muktanjali for Sattriya dance; and recent amalgamation of Kathak hand-postures by Birju Maharaj in his Ang Kavya, in the absence of any earlier treatise. Uday Shankar’s choreographic work still awaits documentation from the Mohan Khokar archives and as researched by Amita Dutt in collaboration with Shanti Bose, his last Ballet Master. Rukmini Devi’s process of choreography (along with all her pioneering activities in the related domains), too, is yet to be documented for the public by Kalakshetra. Tagore’s Nritya Bitan should also see the light of the day!

Such a tome – containing profitably video illustrations of choreography on an accompanying VCD or DVD -- could also incorporate Tagore’s rather elaborate ideas, developed for his dance-dramas, on: accompanying music (namely, esraj, flute, cymbals and even Japanese ‘kuto’, besides the percussions); costumes (planned often by Pratima Devi and Nandalal Bose, apart from using Tagore’s own suggestions); stage décor (with preference for such colours as indigo, yellow, blue and red for ‘wings’ and ‘skies’, and indigo for ‘back curtain’, as outlined by Nandalal); lighting (with the above four colours and the white behind the wings and the ‘spots’); sets (with imaginative hints from Surendranath). These ideas are, in principle, to help presentation: seldom followed nowadays and are strikingly at par with the thoughts of Uday Shankar and Rukmini Devi Arundale. The final spark of imagination, evinced by Tagore in his rare line drawings on dance in the thirties, adds one more dimension to his conceptualization. Was he thinking in these abstract lines about a hitherto unexplored domain of the mystic of dance? Who can now tell?

(Translation of the first lines of Tagore’s songs by the author)

1. Gayatri Chattopadhyay, Bharatiya Nrityakala. (Bengali), Nabapatra Prakasani, Kolkata. 1964.
2. Shantidev Ghosh, Gurudev Rabindranath O Adhunik Bharatiya Nritya. (Bengali), Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. 1982.
3. Pratima Devi, Nritya. (Bengali), Viswabharati, Kolkata. 1993.
4. Shantidev Ghosh, Nrityakala O Rabindranath, (Bengali), Ananda Publishers, Kolkata. 1999.
5. Manjushree Chaki-Sarkar, Nrityarase Chitta Mama, (Bengali), Miranda, Kolkata. 2000.
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