By Thulasi Muttulingam
From time to time, crop up great masters whose artistic legacy is so strong that it will continue to perpetuate and re -perpetuate itself rather than dissolving with their deaths. Good artistes are common, great artistes are rarer but artistes whose work and skills are lauded for generations, spanning into centuries are only a handful.
There are only a few such masters who were able to impress themselves upon the world that strongly; and one such illuminary from our own part of the hemisphere is Rabindranath Tagore.
Known affectionately as Gurudev in his own country, the artistic maestro was multi-talented in his skills and multi-faceted in his personality. He was what is known as a polymath, a person whose expertise and skills ranged over many diverse fields.
In India’s recorded history, he has earned a place for himself on various fronts: as a freedom fighter, as a poet (he has the added distinction of being known as the only person to have penned two different national anthems; India and Bangladesh’s) as well as, as a writer, a dramatist, musician and teacher.
Few people go down in recorded history for being teachers no matter how good they are but Rabindranath Tagore is one of the very few who has achieved that feat. He was an experimental teacher who didn’t believe in the regimental mode of teaching, imparted by the colonial British, which many in the Commonwealth, including Sri Lanka still follow today.
So he started an experimental school in a plot of land he owned called Shantiniketan (abode of peace), where he tried to give a more holistic education to students, in natural surroundings. Today, Shantiniketan is a famous town not only because of its historic association with Tagore but also because of Visva-Bharathi, the University that developed from the school he founded, which attracts artistic students from all over the globe.
Sri Lanka has its own alumni of the Viswa Bharathi University, who in order to stay in touch with, as well collaborate with each other have grouped together as a troupe of artistes calling themselves ‘Shantiniketan Friends.’
For the first time in Sri Lanka, Shantiniketan Friends performed in a festival they christened Char Adhyaya (meaning four chapters in Bengali, Tagore’s native language), over the last week. The festival , supported by the India-Sri Lanka Foundation is the first one of its kind in Sri Lanka but Shantiniketan Friends hope to make it an annual feature in the country’s artistic calendar.
Performances of four art forms
The four chapters they celebrated of the Gurudev’s life was art in the form of painting, singing, dancing and instrumentals, all of which he had himself excelled at. And so, though they had not learnt from the maestro himself, they, who have studied at his University and learnt from his legacy of inherent creativity seek to keep that legacy alive and perpetuating in Sri Lanka as well.
The festival, which took place from October 15 – 18, started with an unveiling of over 40 paintings from Shantiniketan alumni across the world, at the National Art Gallery. Rabindranath Tagore was a famously out-of-the-box thinker and so clearly are his students. The paintings were all ‘expressionist’ in its genre; abstract shapes, colours and ideas that would make perfect sense to the artist but not to the viewer.
In that sense, one could wish that there had been some explanation under each painting to guide the viewer on what they were viewing. Each individual painting would have meant something profound to the artist and had the viewer understood the inspiration and the vision behind the artwork, it would have made for more meaningful viewing instead of just puzzling over abstract, if interesting and colourful shapes.
The art exhibition was free of charge to the public and was on at the gallery from October 15 – 17. On October 16, they hosted the other three components of Char Adhyaya at the John de Silva Memorial Theatre. The opening sequence celebrated all four chapters on stage by having a painter as well as singers, dancers and musicians on stage to perform together.
Thereafter, followed a versatile series of performances from both Indian and Sri Lankan alumni of Shantiniketan in dance, music and instrumentals. The instrumental Carnatic music – the sarod played by Sougata Roy Chowdhury and esraj, played by Sri Buddhadev Das, was very popular with the crowds. The instruments seemed to take an inordinately long time to tune up, but once they did, they had the crowd grooving.
Sri Lankan dancer and choreographer, Chandana Wickramasinghe, the current president of Shantiniketan Friends, also had his troupe perform energetic dances on stage, portraying styles which had effectively combined Sri Lankan as well as Indian influences.
Several Sri Lankan and Indian artistes also sang Rabindra Sangeets (Songs of Rabindranath). Tagore had written so many poems which were later set to music, as well as penning song lyrics that he set to music himself, that they have become a whole genre of songs called Rabindra Sangeet. The artistes rendered the songs both in Bengali, as well as in translated Sinhala versions.
As they translated the song before each rendition, it became clear how versatile and profound a thinker Rabindranath Tagore was, able to pen lyrics on light subjects as well as deep, with clarity and vision.
A successful visual affirmation
A much appreciated sequence was that of Manipuri dancer, Sri Yaikhom Hemant Kumar who performed the Arjuna – Draupadi marriage of the Mahabharatha in dance, with his Sri Lankan student Ruwini.
He had mastered the dance as well as the story and made it his own so much that the elaborate dance tale he enacted on stage seemed a natural phenomenon rather than an enactment. It was almost like seeing how the Pandava prince would have behaved under the circumstances of his marriage, 5,000 years ago. The archery competition to win his bride, the subsequent meeting and romancing of Draupadi and finally having to defend him and her from the angry rivals who had lost, were all enacted with elaborate dance steps – that were performed so fluidly and naturally that they didn’t seem elaborate at all. That is something that speaks of the skill of the performer; making something over-the-top in histrionics seem natural and unartificial.
The art exhibition and this opening night of Char Adhyaya was free of charge to the public. On the two subsequent nights, at the Musaeus College Auditorium, Chandana Wickremashinghe and his dancers’ guild performed a mix of traditional and fusion dances, along with a few of the Indian artistes.
On both days, performances were enacted by students of Chandana as well as members of his troupe. The dances, especially the children’s were quite innovative and interesting. A range of styles resulting from the fusion of Kandyan and Indian traditions as well as new and old traditions including from Bollywood and the Sri Lankan movie industry were portrayed, making for some very animated viewing.
It was a successful visual affirmation that Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy still lives; not because they performed anything he had done himself or even knew of –but because they showcased themselves to be creative. The maestro had founded his little school in Shantiniketan to enable his students to think for themselves and express their own inherent talents creatively. Had he seen Char Adhyaya, he would have been satisfied that he had been successful in his endeavour. courtesy: Ceylon Today