From Page to Screen: Bangladesh Revisits Tagore’s Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders)
Srideep Mukherjee is Associate Professor of English at Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata. He is a Ph.D in Indian Drama from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, and his dissertation was on representations of marginality in mainstream Indian drama. His areas of interest include Postcolonial Literatures, Nation and Narration, Performance Studies, Cultural Studies, and Literary Theory. He has over two decades of teaching experience at Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels.
In the syncretic culture that has historically been the hallmark of Bangladeshi society; the influence of Rabindranath Tagore has been pervasive, whether in imagining the nation in the pre-independence phase or in its critiques from various subject positions in subsequent times. This paper takes up a denotative reading of the original text of Tagore’s Raktakarabi (1924), and then its connotative rendering by the Bangladeshi director Rubaiyat Hossain in her feature film Under Construction (2015).7 In the extant from, the textualities of Raktakarabi lie in the playwright’s aesthetic rebellion against acquisitive tendencies that he associated with the West; emerging as it does from a colonial perspective. Perceived from a post-postcolonial standpoint however, Tagore’s Yakshapuri as the setting and the characters as decimated individuals, defy boundaries of nation-states or even East-West binaries. Traversing the semiotics of page and screen over spatial-temporal paradigms, both become strikingly oracular in the context of our subject positions within ‘developing’ South Asian societies. Against this milieu, Hossain’s appropriation of the text on celluloid nearly a century later; and her dynamic relocation of the Tagore play to the readymade garment industry of Bangladesh make an important point in cultural representation. For all its potential of women’s empowerment and strategic importance in terms of foreign exchange, she finds in the industry in particular and in the city of Dhaka in general, a draconian modern day equivalent of Tagore’s Yakshapuri. By transposing the original dystopian setting of the play, and through the reinvention of the central figure of Nandini amidst new matrices of class and gender, Under Construction resonates with an urgency that is but emergent in Raktakarabi, and takes us beyond its original aesthetic appeal. In terms of intertextuality, Hossain’s film underscores new meanings for Tagore’s Raktakarabi by calling for reassessments from humanist and eco-critical perspectives that are highly relevant to our times.
Keywords: Post-postcolonial nation, Textuality, Appropriation, Readymade Garment Industry, Feminist, Dystopia, Celluloid.
In Bengal Divided: The Unmaking of a Nation 1905-1971, Nitish Sengupta probes the paradoxical turn in collective Bengali psyche from 1905 when people rejected “the British-directed partition of their land and fought against it” (Sengupta ix), to 1947 when “the same majority asked for a partition of Bengal between Muslim majority and Hindu majority areas” (ibid.). Spanning across seven decades of modern Bengali history, Sengupta’s work, dedicated to the martyrs of the joint forces that liberated Bangladesh in 1971, locates the continuing aspect of syncretic Bengali identity, wherein intermittent communal ruptures can only be attributed to political machinations. The hiatus that has majorly marked the ‘national’ history of Pakistan till 1971 is further proof that masses of East Pakistan/Bangladesh have largely prioritised linguistic/cultural identity over the communal. This paper primarily rests upon such proven intersectionalities, but seeks to re-assess the contemporaneity of cultural text(s) against critical contexts of ‘postcolonialities’ that have evolved in present times.
Why Tagore and why Raktakarabi now?
While Tagore’s influence has been uniformly celebrated in the Indian nationalist movement, his reception in East Bengal/Pakistan (and subsequently Bangladesh) in the tumultuous years from 1930s to the ‘70s has had a complex history. This corresponds to Sengupta’s observations on the reversal of the trends of communal amity observed in passing from Bengal partition of 1905 (annulled in 1911) to the Indian partition of 1947, insofar as the Bengali Muslim mind-set was concerned. The initial dynamics of the departing coloniser’s entrenched purpose of instituting communally divisive politics has been critically analysed by historians like Sengupta. Concurrently, historians like Hasan Zaheer in The Separation of East Pakistan: The Rise and Realization of Bengali Muslim Nationalism have further researched upon the ramifications of neo-colonial repression by West Pakistan upon its Eastern counterpart. The present paper concentrates upon the culturalist manifestations; and in this, Tagore’s position is specifically interesting in the light of a continuing history.
From being branded a Hindu poet by the dissatisfied Muslim community initially misled by parochial and statist designs of West Pakistan, Ghulam Murshid in ‘Poet of the Padma’ traces the internalisation/appropriation of Tagore as a “symbol of secular Bengali nationalism” (Murshid np). The revival of a syncretic culture that became the hallmark of Bangladeshi society recognised Tagore and his contemporaries from both Bengals as cultural icons. In fact, as Saadia Toor shows in ‘Bengal(is) in the House: The Politics of National Culture in Pakistan, 1947-71’, the proximity to Tagore literature in general and Rabindra Sangeet in particular marked out the Bengali in East Bengal as not Muslim enough (and by implication not Pakistani enough) in the eyes of the West Pakistani administration. Along with an abiding interest in all things Bengali, the study and inculcation of Tagore thus remained a rallying cry of resistance in East Bengal/Pakistan, against all forms of state repression leading up to the brutal military action in 1971. Syed Jamil Ahmed in ‘Designs of Living in the Contemporary Theatre of Bangladesh’ specifically points to 1961, the year of Tagore’s birth centenary, as marking the resurfacing of social drama of national identity in Bangladesh, when people of East Pakistan braved the oppressive regime to commemorate the event. He looks upon it as a definitive “breach” (Ahmed 137) that “led to the precipitation of the crisis in 1971, when a civil war in East Pakistan led to a definitive schism and the consequent birth of Bangladesh” (ibid.). Eventually, while all forms of Tagore literature gained renewed currency in the public realm, the widespread performance of his plays assumed additional discursive significance in foregrounding secular nationalism against the backdrop of the renewed rise of Islamism in Bangladesh, post 1975. In this context, Ahmed feels that Tagore “substantiates, authenticates, and validates the urge of (Bangladeshi) urban theatre practitioners to ‘imagine’ the nation not by the marker of religion but language” (141). He is also of the opinion that theatre in Bangladesh has repeatedly turned to Tagore’s plays to retrace “the quintessence of ‘Bengaliness’” (ibid.).
Tagore’s denunciation of chauvinistic nationalism as a soul-less abstraction, “a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age, and eating into its moral vitality” (Tagore, ‘Nationalism’ 16) is well known. Given his resultant problematic cohabitation within the nationalist movement, it is relevant to comprehend the locus of his work in general, and also to place a text like Raktakarabi within the emergent framework of the history of nationalism and Bengali theatre; and thereafter locate its centrality in a newer world order. The beginnings of rudimentary nationalist thought in Bengali theatre date back to the nineteenth century, linked as it is with the European proscenium model largely as a colonial acculturation on the one hand, and to the revival of extant traditions of Sanskrit drama on the other. In ‘Performing (Domi-)Nation: Aspects of Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Bengali Theatre’, Sudipto Chatterjee identifies the paradox of the Bengali Hindu literati revelling in their glorious past that Orientalist research was rediscovering for them; and thereby falling into the trap of shared glory of common ancestry with the colonial masters. Having struck a note of kindredness with the British masters on grounds of racial origins, the Hindu nobility naturally looked upon the Muslims as the ‘Other’, as invaders of their land and the corrupter of a ‘pure’ heritage. This subversion of a cohesive cultural identity suited the colonial ploy of severing the Muslim subject from the mainstream of Hindu culture; a long-drawn common heritage notwithstanding. This initial stage thus becomes akin to the mode of colonial discourse that Bhaba calls ‘mimicry’, whereby one notices in the colonised subject “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhaba 86, Italics original). Sudipto Chatterjee perceives the dramatic output of Michael Madhusudan Datta [Sermista (1859) in particular] as western style Bengali drama that stands out as “the best paradigm of the kind of hybridity that British colonialism in India generated” (Chatterjee n.p.); while he considers Datta’s followers as exhibiting an “ambivalence of colonial discourse” (ibid.) in their plays. Much has been made of works like Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nil Darpan (The Indigo Mirror, 1860) or Mir Mosharaff Hossain’s Jamidar Darpan (The Landowner’s Mirror, 1873) or Dakshinaranjan Chattopadhyay’s Jail Darpan (The Jail Mirror, 1875) as social plays that made political statements by holding up a mirror of subaltern exploitation amidst a section that was however much removed from the scenes of actual affliction. While all these plays addressed the subaltern cause under colonial domination, the fact of their enactment in urban settings and in historical perspectives made them more doctrinaire with potential for seditious content than espousing much of the nationalist ideology in real. Notwithstanding Girish Ghosh’s failure with Macbeth, the trend of adapting Shakespeare’s plays on the nineteenth century stage in Bengal even around the implementation of The Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 (Haralal Roy’s Rudrapal in 1874, and Nagendranath Bose’s Karnabir in 1884/85 being good instances), must largely be seen as another mode of the ambivalent deconstruction of Anglophone culture within the triad of assimilation, adaptation, and contestation that characterizes relations of political subterfuge in colonial milieus. In such a mixed milieu of nationalist theatre in Bengal, Tagore’s thought provoking essay ‘Rangamancha’ (The Stage, 1902) where he advocates a paradigmatic return to indigenous forms like jatra to minimise distances between performer and audience, and to eschew ‘useless’ expenses on the ornateness of British theatricals is very significant in understanding his conception of nationalism as may be evolved from the stage. Tagore’s plays have often been divided into categories like classical, realistic, and symbolic; but from the present point of consideration it is important that they cumulatively harp upon the ideal of nation as “a natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in co-operation with one another” (Tagore, ‘Nationalism’ 10).
To return to the more immediate context at hand, it can be argued that in more recent times of the free flow of global capital, when Bangladesh witnesses the same razzmatazz of cultures that is the universalizing feature of all third world neo-colonial societies, Tagore’s inclusively humanistic view of nationalism that is manifest in Raktakarabi holds even more relevance for this fast developing economy:
In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision. Obviously God made man to be human; but this modern product has such marvellous square-cut finish, savouring of gigantic manufacture, that the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in His own divine image. (Tagore, ‘Nationalism’ 6)
Against such a globalised milieu dotted with dynamically shifting frames of cultural history, this paper will read into more nuanced ways of approaching Tagore by the Bengali intelligentsia.
The specific choice of the play is inspired both by textual history and performative factors. Readers might take interest in the fact that Tagore began the writing of Raktakarabi, which has undergone several change of names before he settled for the present one, when vacationing in Shillong (then undivided Assam) in the summer of 1923. In his ‘Note on the Play’ Ananda Lal mentions Tagore’s conversation with Kshitimohan Sen of an oleander plant supposedly crushed under a heap of discarded iron pieces, eventually sprouting a branch from beneath the debris, and then a single red flower “as if created from the blood of its cruelly pierced breast” (Lal 129).5 Raktakarabi is thus pervaded by the reality of the indefatigable nature of human spirits; and expectedly, its central female character Nandini emerges with much connotative potential. As a text, Raktakarabi lends itself to multiple textualities in emergent spatial-temporal settings, every time accentuating our contextual understanding of its textual relevance.
From conception to its first publication in Pravasi in late 1924, ‘Raktakarabi’ has had a long gestation; in fact Lal feels that “no major play of Tagore had consumed so much creative time between conception and publication” (ibid.). Its staging history too has been long drawn, the first one coming only in 1934 and being perceived largely as a closet drama presumably because of the highly symbolic potential. With Bohurupee’s iconic 1954 production directed by Shambhu Mitra, Raktakarabi first lived up to its manifold dimensions as a postcolonial critique of mammonism1, a vicious proclivity that Tagore felt was engendered by Western civilization. In subsequent performativity however, contextual appreciation of the play in the emergent light of post-postcolonial2 societies has blurred binaries of East and West, or for that matter even national boundaries.
In Bangladesh too, Raktakarabi has had abiding reception in performance, specifically in the context of the dialectics of national politics in recent times. Ahmed particularly mentions Nagorik Natya Sampraday’s 2001 production at a crucial historic juncture when cultural nationalism was threatened anew by the forces of religious nationalism. The high mark of Nagorik’s production is the ending of the symbolic play, which is perceived as a dramatisation of Syed Shamsul Haq’s faith that “this red oleander is the seed of our dream, the mantra of our courage and the wings of our flight” (Ahmed 142). This paper views Tagore’s source text as traversing the divergent semiotics of drama and film through its appropriation by Bangladeshi film director Rubaiyat Hossain in Under Construction (2015). Nearly a century apart, and punctuated by epochal histories that have indelibly altered trajectories of nations, Tagore’s text is subjected to assignations of temporally connotative significations of class-gender matrices in Hossain’s apparently deconstructive practice on celluloid. Before introducing readers to this appropriative rendering, it would be in place to outline the salient features of the source text in brief.
Tagore’s Raktakarabi (1924)
The symbolic potential of the indomitable nature of human life encapsulated in the red oleander plant mentioned earlier is the wellspring of Raktakarabi. To begin with, it is a play where Tagore pits the natural urge for an ecologically harmonised community life against acquisitive tendencies and mammonism, which he perceived as western imports. The West however, is not something physically distant, for Yakshapuri as the setting of the play, and the characters across socio-economic hierarchies are all very Indian, or even Bengali for that matter. This element of self-reflexivity is evident in Tagore’s own words in a talk given in 19243, later transcribed by Leonard K. Elmhirst:
The habit of greed – greed for all things, for power, for facts, with all the ramifications that greed is able to set up between man and man – is arrayed against the explosive force of human sympathy, of neighbourliness, of fellowship and love, the force which we may term good. Good is here arrayed against the dehumanizing force of mammon, of selfishness, of evil: of that which separates us from our fellows against that which cements us together, of that which, because it divides us, is untruth, is a lie. (Tagore, ‘Red Oleanders: An Interpretation’ 208)
Almost a century after these words were spoken, their significance emerges both in retrospect and in an apocalyptic view. In the more immediate context of the Industrial Revolution, the enhancement of economic prowess at the cost of human indices, an obsessive national pride of colonial nations leading to a race for armaments and culminating in the First World War, it is possible to read Tagore’s words as summing up the crisis of ‘civilization’ in Europe that was only contributing to the deracinating of humanity at large from a more settled ecological pattern of life. This validates all the more Tagore’s call for an understanding of nationalism beyond its parochial limits as a religion of global humanity that would synthesize the best of the West and the East. As a postscript however, the excerpt will be seen as apprehensively pointing to a radical redefinition of ‘Empire’ from a territorialised political entity to what Hardt and Negri consider a form of biopower with psycho-physical force which “not only regulates human interactions but also seeks directly to rule over human nature” (Hardt and Negri, Empire xv).4 Thus, notwithstanding the geospatial origins of such acquisitive tendencies, its disruptive transference into and the rupture of our originary assimilative culture, as also the resultant erosion of human values are causes for consternation that are deplored in Raktakarabi.
The metaphoric setting of Yakshapuri is a gold mining township, where men/workers are but numbers, their womenfolk are superfluous in the eyes of the authorities, and there is a dehumanising exploitative state machinery in place where people in positions of power are but generic entities corresponding to the location of each cog in the wheel of social hierarchy. The only permissible endeavour in Yakshapuri is digging into the bowels of the earth for more and more gold, an activity justifiable not by need but as intoxication for “solidified wine” (Tagore Trans. Lal 149)4. Amidst such a Dickensian Coketown like setting that is peopled with faceless facades, Tagore’s protagonist Nandini, though ill at ease, is nevertheless the embodiment of the raktakarabi (red oleander) of the title with her joie de vivre. Predictably therefore, she is a discursive presence that creates commotion of sorts to the body politic of Yakshapuri.
The subaltern characters, all of them associated with digging gold, show varying responses to her presence, which is qualified across gendered identities but difficult to homogenise from the perspective of class consciousness. Thus while the boy excavator Kishor is her infatuated admirer and longs for exclusive rights to fetch red oleanders every morning; Gokul (also an excavator) who cannot quite comprehend the raison d’être of Nandini (who has no ‘work’) amidst the soulless bustle of Yakshapuri perceives her as the ‘Other’ and hence a threat to their status quoist lives. Between the couple Phagulal and Chandra, the former, an excavator who finds solace amidst a debilitating life in getting himself drunk, is avowedly in awe of Nandini; while his wife, herself an ‘encumbrance’ in Yakshapuri, shows explicit signs of jealousy about Nandini. Chandra feels that Nandini “just goes around here being beautiful twenty-four hours a day, which we can’t stand” (146). Her insecurities are manifest when, in order to rationalize this dislike for Nandini, she even seeks ideological alignment with the Sardar, who, as an instrument of statist repression, is a tangible agent of her own oppression:
CHANDRA. All right, fine, maybe we are the idiots, but even the Sardar here can’t bear to see her, you know that?” (ibid.)
With Bishu, for whom the playwright uses the epithet “mad”, and whose exact assignment in Yakshapuri is not specified but is a worker nonetheless, Nandini’s engagement is more complex. They have clearly known each other up and close before Yakshapuri, but had lost track somewhere, and find each other in this veritable hell where Bishu slogs and Nandini remains an enigma. Despite the intervening hiatus of time, he is still her alter-ego in a qualified way in the sense that they share an intuitive understanding which is however not directed towards connubial relations. He sings for her, Nandini calls him her rampart on whose shoulders she “can climb high and see the outside” (153), he even risks his life for her sake in the end and this leaves Nandini aghast. The likes of Chandra find Bishu a bundle of contradictions, for his philosophy of the existence of such sorrows “from which no sorrow can charm you” (ibid.) evades common understanding. Chandra’s words about Bishu must be understood beyond its immediate implications of womanly rivalry, in emergent contexts of the hegemonic sway of absolutism upon the consciousness of the individual, in ways that subvert free will and inadvertently turn subjects into compradors of statist forces:
CHANDRA. He’s possessed by Nandini; she pulls at his heart, at his songs too. (145)
Tagore’s perception of statist forces in Raktakarabi is equally complicated. There is, in order of appearance, first a Professor of Physics, who is clearly a soul in eternal conflict between his bookish materialist spirit that conforms to the statist line, and his subconscious metaphysical self which yearns for liberation but is consciously suppressed. In him we see the interplay of desire against artificial restraint that is manifest in all his interactions with Nandini. The Raja of Raktakarabi, a figure that has endlessly baffled scholars, is initially only a voice who remains behind a maze constituted by “an extremely complex screen” (135). Having set the machinery of gold excavation in motion, he comes across as a figure of self exile – always spoken of in terms of his superhuman strength and potential for cruelty, but really hankering for a natural life of freedom that continues to elude him. The net that confines the Raja for a major part of the play is thus clearly one of his own making, for the steam-roller of neo-colonial aggrandizement, once set in motion can never be halted except by complete destruction. So it is only towards the end of the play, when his own mechanism has revolted against him does the Raja break free of his net and join the masses after he has broken the flagstaff which has so long been the symbol of his authority. But for the major part of Raktakarabi, he remains a figure of confinement, longing to possess Nandini as the living symbol of humanity, naturalness, and liberty – qualities that he cannot embrace in his present predicament. The Sardar, the Deputy Sardar, the Assistant Sardar, and the Headmen, all part of the state machinery of the exploitation both of nature and human life, stride colossus like over the plot of Raktakarabi. While discerning individuals like Bishu and even Kishor dare to provoke them for their moronic qualities, conscientious ones like Phagulal grudgingly acquiesce with their commands, and hegemonised subjects like Chandra and Gokul fail to see through their facades. With Nandini, their interactions are mostly confrontational, for they perceive firsthand the disruptive impact she is spreading upon the subjects of Yakshapuri whom they have internally colonised and domesticated.
These characters know each of the workers by their unique identification numbers and address them as such. Further, as the play progresses, we find that as intermediary levels of wielding state authority, they have internalised a degree of autonomy that finally leads them to oppose the Raja when he breaks out of self-imposed confinement and takes to asserting the just rule of law and egalitarianism in Yakshapuri. If this band of officers are a critical variant of the Althusserian Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), the Gosain or the spiritual teacher in Raktakarabi under whose tutelage the workers as subjects of the state are entrusted, clearly functions as the Ideological counterpart (ISA). As handmaid of the Sardar and his cronies, the Gosain’s task is to do as instructed in administering “peaceful mantras to their ears” (150). There is thus no gainsaying that the intended impact of the Gosain’s presence and his words are tacitly the opposite of that created by Nandini. While he subverts metaphysics by using the little learning and precarious conditions of the masses to indoctrinate them towards accepting their life in Yakshapuri as transitory at best, Nandini’s zest for naturalness perceives earthly life as summum bonum where individuals must have their worth.
It will be clear from the foregoing analysis of the overarching theme and the major characters that Nandini is posited as the vantage point for perceiving the evils of this hazardously acquisitive society. All the same, there arises a differance6 between the authorial conception of Nandini’s character as outlined in the ‘Introduction’ to the play, and reader/audience expectations raised by her presentation in the text:
Sometimes aquatic creatures of the inedible variety accidentally get caught in fishermen’s nets. Not only do they not suit the work of filling stomachs or filling pockets, in the process they tear the nets too. A girl named Nandini has arrived in a similar manner in the story-net of this play. This girl, it seems, will not allow the barrier behind which Makar-raja stays to endure. (132)
The gastronomical image has an initial jarring impact if considered in the context of Nandini who apparently outshines all other characters as much with her physical beauty as with her moral-ethical position. Even if we concede that such imagery is deliberately used to offset the bleakness of mammonism prevalent in Yakshapuri against the sweetness and light that she radiates, the fact that without her beloved Ranjan (of whose magnanimity and dynamism she partakes) she is only one half – a hemisphere as it were, the hopes that she awakens remain unfulfilled. As Raktakarabi stands, Nandini is always seen in waiting for Ranjan to arrive, so that he can take up his naturally ordained task of delivering the oppressed masses from this authoritarian regime; she being his consort in this mission. Her divination of the arrival of Ranjan on the day of the action by aligning it with the blue jay dropping a feather on her bed is a lyrical feat of Tagorean mysticism. The incident gives Nandini hope and strength; and the play derives its title from the laurel of red oleanders that she carries all along to crown Ranjan at the moment of his arrival. This association of the intensely personal with the collective cause is without doubt celebratory, but in reception it also carries the feeling that somewhere Tagore denies his protagonist the autonomy of her much-deserved agency.
This gap between expectation and reality could however be a deliberate authorial strategy. By leaving Nandini as but a harbinger of hope, a mystical personification of the cultural construct of Mother Nature as it were, who envisages completion through union with the sun of her life but fails at the instant, Tagore could be making a deeper point. The dismantling of status quo that Yakshapuri was beset with, much like the political scenario that prevailed in East Pakistan from 1947 to 1971, required ‘civil strife’, which alone could tear down the hegemonic machinery of exploitation and repression. In this, Nandini has been instrumental; for she has enervated the initiated, challenged the high-handed just as she has raised scepticism in some, and she eventually causes the Raja to emerge out of his complex screen. But before the last action becomes a reality and the Raja breaks his symbolic flagstaff to join the masses against the Sardars, Ranjan arrives in Yakshapuri as is reported. Not knowing him in person, and feeling challenged by his insolence, the Raja has ordered his killing, and in much the same manner that he had earlier threatened Nandini with, albeit in a fit of possessiveness:
NANDINI. I’ll sit by your fortress gates.
NANDINI. When Ranjan arrives by that path, he’ll be able to see I’m waiting for him alone.
RAJA. If I crush Ranjan, mix him with the dust, and he can’t be recognised at all? (159)
When the reader/ audience are shown a glimpse of Ranjan, it is as a corpse shrouded in dust amidst the trickling of his life-blood. The knowledge that he has been tricked by his own people on the one hand, and the remorse that he has killed youth with all his power (despite the fact that Ranjan did utter Nandini’s name) on the other, impel the Raja to break his flagstaff and initiate the ‘civil war’ against his own errant and wayward state machinery. But much more significant than that is Nandini’s resolve to become “the vehicle of that journey” (183) on which Ranjan had embarked, and her leading the battle cry from the front as she surges forth on her own destruction. Her last words are suffused with the fervour of lyric intensity:
Nandini: Phagulal, the Sardar ... has opened the path for my victorious journey ... he has hung my garland of jasmine in front of his spear. I’ll go and make that garland the colour of red oleanders with the blood of my breast. – Sardar! He has seen me. Victory, victory to Ranjan. (185)
As spectacle, this is stupendous, and has been presented as such on stage whether by Mitra’s Bohurupee or by Haq’s direction with Nagorik. But in a post-postcolonial materialist milieu and perceived from an ideological standpoint, Nandini seems to have been ahead of her time in her vision of a heterosexual union that can embellish the domestic sphere even as it becomes a champion of the collective cause. It is significant that as long as Ranjan is alive, Nandini depends on him to lead her; but when he is vanquished, she becomes his flag-bearer. It is also noteworthy that Nandini’s march is towards inevitable annihilation, and she believes this is the only way to commemorate Ranjan. With the physical red oleander having been planted on the corpse of Ranjan, she internalises its redness not just as a colour but on its connotative value as her own life-blood. This voluntary subjection of the feminine creative principle to the prototypical invasive power of masculinity by Tagore makes Raktakarabi a problematic text from the (eco)feminist perspective. As such, this paper views Tagore’s Raktakarabi as work in progress, with high symbolic connotations; and it is exactly at this juncture that Rubaiyat Hossain’s film Under Construction is seen to intersect the play.
From Tagore to Hossain
Having identified the ruptures underlying the overwhelmingly mystical in Tagore’s characterisation of Nandini, or the undertones beneath her pervasive lyrical impact, one cannot be oblivious of the humanist appeal and eco-critical potential inhering her symbolic presence. With Nandini as the embodiment of that light which is beauty and love combined; Raktakarabi is destined to be ‘incomplete’, because it is “the measure in which we fail to reach this relationship of love in our relations with our fellow men” (Tagore ‘Red Oleanders: An Interpretation’213). It is therefore utopian to conceive of Nandini in isolation from Yakshapuri; and in a post-postcolonial perspective, the emergent reality of the draconian setting defies boundaries of nation-states or even East-West binaries. India or Bangladesh, East or West Bengal, Tagore’s Yakshapuri is menacingly oracular in the context of our subject positions within ‘developing’ South Asian societies. It is here that Rubaiyat Hossain’s Under Construction interrogates the ‘incomplete’ conceptualising of Nandini as an idyllic Bengali woman - unfazed in her author ordained performativity, and aesthetically distanced even from women’s realities enmeshing her. Hossain’s assertion that she is not inverting Tagore, rather taking his cue in a changed and relevant milieu, finds credence in the poet’s own words in 1924 on the sociology of Raktakarabi:
So it is that, when make use of men … they crush and mutilate not merely their victims but the humanity which is in themselves. They prefer to think in terms of empire, of organization in factory or field or workshop, in politics or church or sport, and to satisfy their craving for power or survival … (ibid. 212)
Hossain adapts the text on celluloid nearly a century later; and relocates the Tagore play to the Readymade Garment (RMG) industry of Bangladesh, thus making an important point in cultural representation. Notwithstanding the potential that RMG holds both in terms of women’s empowerment and foreign exchange; Hossain’s Under Construction ventures beyond economics, into the same sociological concerns that Tagore earlier voiced. She finds the industry in particular, and the city of Dhaka in general, a draconian modern day equivalent of Yakshapuri; it’s here and nowness being an appalling consternation. While the RMG divests individuals of their constructed identities, the real estate peril that has seized Dhaka makes it look like a city under construction as it were. This gives a dual signification to the title of Hossain’s film. By thus transposing the original dystopian setting of the play, and through the reinvention of the central figure of Nandini amidst new matrices of class and gender, Hossain’s film registers an urgency that challenges any complacent aesthetic appeal of Raktakarabi.
Rubaiyat Hossain’s Under Construction (2015)5
Hossain locates Under Construction, her second feature film after Meherjaan, in twenty-first century Dhaka, a city that is eponymously rattling under the construction boom of real estate, as indicated earlier. The film is pervasive with sights and sounds of gargantuan high-rises, and chronicles the anomie of public life marking inegalitarian third world societies. Having thus metamorphosed Yakshapuri into Dhaka, her subject therein is Bangladeshi women in the RMG manufacturing industry - an obfuscated but undeniable fragment of the nation. With WTO statistics showing a second largest global share of 6.5% in 2017 (The Daily Star August 2, 2018), the RMG sector is clearly Bangladesh’s biggest bet to leapfrog on to globalisation. However, the attendant perils of neo-colonial gender exploitation vitiate the industry that employed 80% girls and young women with average monthly wages of US$ 101 during the aforementioned period, compared to China (US$ 518) and Vietnam (US$ 284), to mention the first three countries in this bracket. Hossain’s concerns center around such exploitation of female labour, their alarming working and living conditions in factories and ghettos, poor enforcement of legislation, and skewed gender equality circumscribing the plight of the doubly or even trebly marginalised if one may.
Under Construction is a gynocentric critique of this urban neo-colonial Bangladesh, with Dhaka city and its womenfolk. The latter is essentialised through the emergent perceptiveness of Hossain’s protagonist Roya Hassan, who is also undergoing the construction/ metamorphosis of her dismal identity as a twenty-first century Bangladeshi woman. The dominant visualization of Dhaka is between the binaries of wire nets of opulent high-rises and the subaltern workforce populating the RMG and real estate sectors. This parallels the Raja’s net in Raktakarabi and the condition of the masses in Yakshapuri. Simultaneously, Roya’s individuality evolves from a liminal culture compliant gender role to a dialectical- material pattern through her layered understanding of life as a theatre actress, her trajectory being quite different from that of Tagore’s Nandini. Yet the parallel arises as a meta-theatrical imposition, for Roya has been faithfully enacting Nandini on stage for twelve years now. As the action commences, her career as actress faces a challenge, for her director wants to replace Roya with a younger Nandini who can presumably attract more audiences with youthful charm. Avowedly a keen reader of Tagore herself, Hossain contextualizes the collective and the individual through her appropriation of Raktakarabi, earlier discussed in this paper as a visionary colonial critique of western materialism and dehumanisation.
Nandini’s symbolic lyricism with her mystical rapture is alluring in naturalistic theatre, and might appeal to the taste for spectacle. However, Under Construction veers away from this trope as Roya emerges from naturalistic Tagorean stage presence to her individual subject position. She awakens to interrogate the denial of agency that consigns Nandini’s dismay at the mindless oppression of man and exploitation of nature in Yakshapuri to abortive performativity. Roya’s husband Sameer is no Ranjan incarnate; so once she is initiated on the path of iconoclasm, Roya now comprehends her conjugal life as de facto an Ibsenian doll’s house. She perceives the resemblance between her stage career and marital life, for quantifiable deliverables are the sole yardsticks in both. While Rassel, her director, capitalizes on Roya’s time-tested histrionic skills and abhors any critical engagement with the character she performs; Sameer has hitherto been happy with her housekeeping skills and reproductive obedience. As Yakshapuri becomes a metaphoric locale on Roya’s mind-map thwarting the feminine mystique, Roya/ Nandini comes to challenge Tagore’s reduction of his protagonist to effeteness and eternal waiting for her beaux Ranjan to bring deliverance for the ostracized. Rassel, who does voice-over as the statusquoist King behind the mysterious maze that Nandini tries to dismantle, is equally parochial in his perception of gender roles in life/ theatrical representation.
So, while an ageing Roya is considered unsalable as the regular Nandini, yet Rassel banks upon her proven skills in doing Nandini, when expatriate Bangladeshi curator Imtiaz Ilahi calls for Raktakarabi on a global platform. An awakened Roya however questions the gullibility of Nandini as the poet’s Muse, and expresses her reservations about being commodified as an actress yet again. Besides, Hossain’s Dhaka as a monstrous locale with its grossly jinxed developmental indices is more a tangible threat than the distant symbolism of Yakshapuri. Groomed at New York University, Imtiaz easily deconstructs the difference between the “sensitive, intense, wonderful” stage Nandini and the thinking woman Roya. Even before he and Roya share a mutual comfort level that does evolve into fulfilling physical intimacy that she has never had in conjugal life, Imitiaz finds merit in her questioning of the picture-perfectness of Nandini, for real-life women are seldom so. With an evolving Roya who will turn from actress to director, Imtiaz pitches for a reinterpretation of Raktakarabi with topical relevance. It is significant that with this move, Hossain surges ahead of Tagore in conceptualising co-equal gender participation in the mimetic (re)creation of a projection of the probable, on terms of Aristotelian philosophy.
It is therefore evident that the pivot of Hossain’s narrative rests on her construction of Roya’s identity as a round character; a possibility that Tagore raises for Nandini but does not take to culmination. As a daughter, she invokes her mother’s (Amma) displeasure for preferring a demanding stage career over domesticity. Amma in turn is presented by Hossain with certain baffling dualities that are evidently the result of hegemonic repression imposed by patriarchy under the pretext of adherence to dictates of religion. Then there is Roya’s long-time friend who has compromised her academic career for motherhood, and is actually surprised when Roya, despite being a full-blooded woman, says she is not ready for a child. Across generations thus, women remain hegemonically conditioned to abrogating rights on their bodies and reproductive functions, both of which are systemically perceived in dissociation from their psycho-social frames. It is precisely in this that Roya appears different because she sees motherhood both beyond biology and routine duty; and hence mounts a challenge to patriarchy. Such an ideology takes the female creative principle of Under Construction beyond the paradigms actually realised by Tagore in Raktakarabi.
Hossain’s exploration of Roya’s multidimensional nature is optimal in her protracted encore with Moyna, her domestic, wherein the borders of social class within the gender matrix are transcended in complex ways. On the face of it, Moyna considers Roya’s marriage a worthwhile one, for the husband is not abusive. Roya in turn, for all her aversion to biological motherhood, cares for Moyna with an instinct that is almost maternal. When Moyna, notwithstanding Roya’s counsel, decides to marry the liftman Sabuj, by whom she is pregnant, and finally sets up a living in the slum, a new Roya emerges. Her compassion for Moyna, who, despite her advanced pregnancy, now works in the RMG to make ends meet like most Bangladeshi women of her standing, transforms Roya from an actress to an activist, whose forte is theatre. She does not let go of Raktakarabi, only reorients it from the erstwhile aesthetically distanced performance to one that incorporates her story and other women’s stories – an aggregate of real lives.
The personal truly becomes the political as Hossain contextualizes media footage of the Rana Plaza collapse at Savar near Dhaka on 24th April 2013 which, according to ILO reports, killed at least 1132 people and injured more than 2500. Roya sees the ghastly sight on television, learns that social media is abuzz with reports of a cover-up, and has nightmares of pregnant Moyna trapped on the sewing machine. All of this she puts into her directorial production of Raktakarabi that is designed for international audiences, much to the applause of the curator (now her friend) Imtiaz Ilahi, and the chagrin of her director so long, Rassel. Hossain must be credited for steering clear of any universalizing trope of masculinity, which is often the bane of feminist practices. By resiting Raktakarabi in a RMG unit, culling out her Nandini from an assortment of severally marginalised female subjects, and representing her as a pregnant RMG worker, Roya emerges an organic intellectual. From her erstwhile performative role of Nandini, she comes to encapsulate the essence of being Nandini, as she ably aligns her ideology with the collective cause, employing aesthetic portrayal to speak for the subaltern. The personal-collective coalesce is also evident in her understanding with Imtiaz, who puts his weight behind her. As Rassel grudgingly makes way for Roya to direct the avante garde production of Raktakarabi, Hossain’s text not only allays misconceptions about Roya’s approach to motherhood, but underscores an important point. It also redefines from a third world feminist standpoint8 the biology-only perception of maternity as simply a productive process validating womanhood. Hossain’s/ Roya’s Nandini does not wait in futility for her lover Ranjan to arrive in the RMG unit/transposed Yakshyapuri to bring new hope and wear her chosen garland of red oleanders or the crest feather. Neither does she languish in the theatricality of ‘suicide’ to commemorate her Ranjan. Rather, she resiliently strives to give birth to her offspring Ranjan who, being the product of her consciously chosen motherhood/authorship will usher in a better world order. Moyna as Nandini and Roya as the director thus redo Raktakarabi as a physico-aesthetic manifesto of feminism.
In doing this, Hossain uses meta-theatre to its best advantage. She weaves individual women’s narratives – Amma’s, Moyna’s, her friend’s whom she comes across after ages at the beauty parlour; with the collective where women are either seen doing menial jobs at construction sites or walking in a file to their respective RMG units. In all of these, it is Roya’s constant stream of thoughts leading to her acquiring a better understanding of herself at every moment, that works as the binding thread. So by the time Roya comes to direct her version of Raktakarabi on a stage where the backdrop is formed with bits and pieces of cloth, she has internalised this idea of multiple Nandinis as opposed to Tagore’s ideal woman. The spectacle of the march of the dead in Tagore’s text, whom the Sardar derisively calls “the Raja’s leftovers” (166) becomes in Hossain a march of emaciated and livid RMG workers. Unlike Tagore’s Nandini who only shrinks at the paleness of faces she once knew and expresses dismay as to why such a thing happened, Roya actually has full awareness of the situation that she depicts on the stage. Hossain’s Nandini rather finds the justification of her existence in becoming a champion for the cause of the female subaltern, rather than giving herself up to despair or mindless sacrifice. In doing so, she might no longer remain the charming woman of Tagore’s play who invokes various degrees of longing among several characters each in their own ways; but Hossain’s Roya as Nandini definitely conveys the urgency of a situation that is common knowledge in developing economies of the Global South.
Under Construction thus evolves a new discourse of syncretic Bengaliness from an urgent third world feminist standpoint. It holds culturalist relevance in our societies in present neo-colonial times. Hossain achieves this by taking up what she considers Tagore’s work in progress, and invests Nandini with a ‘completeness’ that she rightly envisages as the desirable voice of a large section of the female Bangladeshi workforce. The reorientation of the biological axis of femininity by perceiving motherhood as a psycho-social construct is a good beginning towards this end. It facilitates radical realignment of a portent text of soft power like Raktakarabi from humanist and eco-critical perspectives that mainstream societies must acknowledge, if globalisation is to attain its full potential. In concluding, this paper holds that such efforts constitute hope for the future of new-wave feminist cinema in Bangladesh, as a means of stirring the collective unconscious.
1 In a Biblical understanding, Mammon is broadly associated with greed; and the basic understanding is that it does not square with the pursuit of the Divine. Given the symbolic potential of Raktakarabi as a play, Divinity and Mammonism are perceived by Tagore as opposite polarities of the human psyche, manifest in characters with opposed sets of motivations. This becomes clear in his own words, quoted later in the text, as transcribed by Leonard K. Elmhirst. With its exploitative bureaucratic machinery exerting panoptical surveillance in Yakshapuri where the primary activity is gold mining, the play assumes apocalyptic potential in the sense that the setting can almost be equated with the neo-colonial space of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) where profit and productivity are the only parameters of economic development, to the utter disregard of human potential. In the context of the early twentieth century when the play was written, the same idea could well explain the imperial greed of the coloniser that led to the exploitation of resources and manpower in the colonies of Asia and Africa.
2 Postcolonial literature and theory largely studies the terms of transactions between once colonised subjects and their European masters, and to this effect peruses divergent histories of former colonies. The coinage post-postcolonial, rather than signifying any break to the postcolonial, is used to take this further in terms of newer internal dynamics of centre and margin among hitherto colonised societies. In that sense the two are overlapping categories where the postcolonial flows into the post-postcolonial, much in the same way as there are no definable boundaries between modernism and postmodernism. In centering newer margins, post-postcolonialism hopes to implicate newer oppressors springing out of the once oppressed. As Eyoh Etim puts it, “Such a re-Othering and re-Centering is based on the deconstructable self-posturing of the previous binary structures which, from all indications, can no longer sustain our postcolonial realities” (5). In the context of the present paper, the term post-postcolonialism is a realisation of Tagore’s critique of nationalism in more than one way. The history of East Bengal/Pakistan before its liberation as Bangladesh in 1971 has been one of such internal colonisation after the departure of the British, and as mentioned earlier, in this phase of history, Tagore literature has been a sustaining influence to the Bengali nation. Subsequently, against the milieu in which Raktakarabi is adapted by Rubaiyat Hossain, this aspect of post-postcolonialism is rabidly present in Bangladeshi society. While economic markers of prosperity show upward mobility, the human index, whether in Tagore or in Hossain, is always naturally on the wane.
3 Tagore delivered this talk in Argentina. Evidently, his purpose was to set at rest the bafflement of critics, both at home and abroad, regarding the symbolic potential of Raktakarabi.
4 In their ‘Preface’ to Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri succinctly define the theoretical proposition of ‘Empire’ as it stands in a post-colonial global order. It is first and foremost not bound by physical boundaries of nations; but exists autonomously over the entire globe. Consequently it follows that the idea of Empire effectively suspends history and fixes the existing state of affairs on ahistorical time frames. Being liberated from both space and time, Empire creates the world that it inhabits. Finally, and paradoxically, though the concept works against the grain of national societies, it is perforce a perpetual and universalist ‘peaceful’ formation that inscribes its own finite limits on the basis of its pervasive strengths. In the present context of semiotic transference of Tagore’s Raktakarabi to Hossain’s Under Construction, it is possible to understand the sociological implications of both the source and the derived text against the framework of this neo-colonial global order of Empire. It is in this expansive understanding that Tagore’s play retains its relevance and becomes valid as a cultural text almost a century after its composition.
5 All textual references to Raktakarabi are from Rabindranath Tagore: Three Plays, translated with an ‘Introduction’ by Ananda Lal. All subsequent in-text citations are indicated directly in parentheses.
6 Derrida’s first use of the term with a suave change of spelling from ‘e’ to ‘a’, a play on the dual meanings of the root French word ‘differer’ as both ‘defer’ and ‘differ’, became central to his critique of logocentricism as a deconstructive process. In the present paper, both senses of difference and deferral are implied with regard to the conception of Nandini, first by Tagore and then by Hossain; and the subsequent reception of the character by audiences across two genres of performance. There is, as has been pointed, a difference of perception with regard to her character as outlined by Tagore in gross gastronomical terms, vis-a-vis audience expectations of her being invested with greater agency than she actually has by the end of the play. The idea of deferral establishes continuity from Tagore to Hossain; the latter’s conception of Roya Hassan/Nandini in meta-theatre may not have the romanticism of Nandini of Raktakarabi, but is much more oriented to the needs of the time. In that sense, the feminist standpoint gives Hossain’s protagonist a deferred agency that is absent in Tagore.
7 Under Construction had a poor run in theatres in Bangladesh, where it faced inhospitable responses. It was Hossain’s second full length directorial venture after Meherjaan (2011), which, despite international acclaim, faces a virtual ban in Bangladesh. The present author has secured exclusive viewing rights of Under Construction from the director. As such, Hossain must be thanked for sharing her work towards purposes of research.
8 Taking from Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”, the critique of Western feminism that arbitrarily sets up homogenizing narratives for non-Western feminist articulations, Rubaiyat Hossain’s Roya/Nandini is represented as an individual with a mind of her own. This brings her severally into conflict with others who subscribe to gender-ordained roles for women. So the husband, the mother, the director, the friend, and even the subaltern Moyna find that Roya does not conform to their comprehended stereotypes; each of which has been adequately discussed in the paper. In her ability to imbibe the spirit of motherhood through her activist zeal, Roya simultaneously transcends the imperative limitations of mothering a child in a barren marriage; as also gives birth to protest through what she does best – aesthetic portrayal of the subaltern. From this renewed understanding of feminism as a vibrant force beyond doctrinaire philosophy, Hossain’s film gives a contemporaneous conclusion to Tagore’s text by locating it amidst realistic settings.
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