This week, we have been musing on Indian storytelling traditions, discovering how ancient Indian mythology is being revived through modern-day puppetry in the US, and the awarding of the 2013 Nobel Literature Prize.
Naturally, all of this brings us to a weekend poem that fits in with most of the above themes. So, we have an excerpt of a lyrical drama by another Nobel Literature Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. One that is based on the adventurous, magical and rambling ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata. [If you happen to be of Indian origin, reader, Tagore may make you want to sigh or roll your eyes and click away. But, do read on – it will be worth it, I promise.]
Tagore is India’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature and 1 of a total of 7 Indians of Indian origin winners (this math gets very confusing because of India’s diaspora). He won in 1913 “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”. He was also the first non-European to win the Nobel Literature Prize.
Many Indians, both in India as well as around the world, have a rather indifferent relationship with Tagore these days. Even non-Indians, who once had strong (positive and negative both) reactions, are mostly unenthusiastic. He is less accessible, perhaps, for three reasons. First is his early-20th century idiom, whether in translation from the original Bengali or in Victorian English. Second is the common, though mis-informed, perception that he was mostly political in his creative works due to his nationalism and pacific anti-colonialism. And, the third reason is that quite a lot of his verse has a sentimentality that, at its worst, is mawkish and clumsy, and at its best, is earnest and idealistic. Of course, Indian poetry has also moved on considerably since then, as mentioned earlier.
Yet, there is so much to Tagore’s oeuvre beyond sentimental verse – drama, visual art, fictional prose, essays, educational and philosophical treatises and music. And, no translation of his original Bengali verse has truly been able to do adequate justice. Bengali is a luscious, lyrical, soft-toned language with its own script and many dialects. It has been around since 1000-1200 CE and has its origins in both classical Sanskrit as well as the ancient Middle Indo-Aryan languages. Also, Tagore wrote in the literary dialect, with its intricate grammar and dense vocabulary, rather than the colloquial one. This has made translations problematic to this day. Critics of his verse overlook and overshadow much of his other admirable works. So, let’s cut him some slack, shall we?
While not strictly a poem, Chitra is close enough to the lyrical form of Tagore’s poems that we may enjoy it as such. It is a one-act play and a love story based on one of the many stories in the Mahabharata (see below). When it first came out in English in 1914, it met with positive reviews as Tagore’s take on modern feminism, as this New York Times archive article described then. Even today, it remains one of his more well-known dramatic works. The feminist aspects may not seem so ground-breaking today, but, a hundred years ago, the idea of a woman who both chooses and actively pursues her desired mate was not just radical – it was taboo.
Here’s how this story goes. Arjuna, the main hero of the Mahabharata epic and one of the five Pandava brothers, has to undertake a 12-year worldwide pilgrimage as penance for accidentally invading the privacy of his oldest brother, Yudhistira and Draupadi (the wife that all 5 brothers shared – and that’s another story for another time). His penance also includes a vow of celibacy, unfortunately.
During his wandering, he arrives at a place called Manipur. Chitra, a warrior princess, is the daughter of the King of that land. As an only child, she was raised like a boy to be the royal heir. While out hunting, she notices Arjuna and falls in love. Thinking that her lack of traditional feminine wiles and beauty might not make her appear attractive to him, she goes to the God of Love, Madana, and the God of the Seasons (and Eternal Youth), Vasanta. She asks them to make her irresistibly beautiful so that she can win Arjuna over, vows and celibacy notwithstanding.
Had I but the time needed, I could win his heart by slow degrees, and ask no help of the gods. I would stand by his side as a comrade, drive the fierce horses of his war-chariot, attend him in the pleasures of the chase, keep guard at night at the entrance of his tent, and help him in all the great duties of a Kshatriya, rescuing the weak, and meting out justice where it is due. Surely, at last, the day would have come for him to look at me and wonder, “What boy is this? Has one of my slaves in a former life followed me like my good deeds into this?” I am not the woman who nourishes her despair in lonely silence, feeding it with nightly tears and covering it with the daily patient smile, a widow from her birth. The flower of my desire shall never drop into the dust before it has ripened to fruit. But, it is the labor of a lifetime to make one’s true self known and honored. Therefore, I have come to thy door, thou world-vanquishing Love and thou, Vasanta, youthful Lord of the Seasons, take from my young body this primal injustice, an unattractive plainness. For a single day, make me superbly beautiful, even as beautiful as was the sudden blooming of love in my heart. Give me but one brief day of perfect beauty, and I will answer for the days that follow.
She is so good at this plea-making that, instead of giving her the one night with Arjuna that she seeks, the Gods grant her an entire year. Of course, Arjuna falls for her blessed beauty and is willing to give up his celibacy vows. This is very conflicting for Chitra because she knows that he wants this external and other being which is not her true self. She is also disheartened to hear that he will give up his vows so easily.
[Aside: If you ever get a chance to watch a live performance of this play, these particular early scenes with the Gods and then with Arjuna can be depicted very differently, depending on the director’s interpretation. So, you might find a choreographed song-and-dance routine set to lovely music in some performances or you might find elaborate monologues in others. Both versions, however, will portray a woman’s search for identity and self-definition as Tagore, in his ground-breaking manner, had intended to convey.]
The Gods intervene again and advise her to spend the granted year with Arjuna and let him get to know her, after which he is sure to love her for who she really is. She takes their advice.
However, as the year passes, beyond their physical intimacy, even as they live as equals (her own skills and knowledge of war, hunting, leadership, etc., allowing her to discuss these matters with Arjuna and offer him advice) they seem to get no closer. Arjuna is frustrated with how she evades all questions about her past and feels he cannot love her fully till he knows her better. He also hears glowing accounts about the warrior princess and royal heir of the land and finds himself drawn to that elusive mystery as well. [If you know the Mahabharata, you will know that Arjuna is a very complex individual – but, more on that another time.]
As the magical year comes to an end, Chitra begs the Gods to make her appear her most alluring and captivating ever. And that last night together – it is heartbreakingly beautiful.
Yet, when morning comes, Arjuna is again distracted by thoughts of the warrior princess. There is also some village chatter that the kingdom is under attack and Arjuna feels he must go to their aid. They argue eloquently back and forth on both these issues. Chitra holds her own extremely well.
In the last scene, she reveals herself as the warrior princess. And, yes, there is somewhat of a happy ending.
I am not beautifully perfect as the flowers with which I worshipped. I have many flaws and blemishes. I am a traveler in the great world-path, my garments are dirty, and my feet are bleeding with thorns. Where should I achieve flower-beauty, the unsullied loveliness of a moment’s life? The gift that I proudly bring you is the heart of a woman. Here have all the pains and joys gathered, the hopes and fears and shame of a daughter of the dust; here love springs up struggling toward immortal life. Herein lies an imperfection which yet is noble and grand. If the flower-service is finished, my master, accept this as your servant for the days to come!
I am Chitra, the King’s daughter. Perhaps you will remember the day when a woman came to you in the temple of Shiva, her body loaded with ornaments and finery. That shameless woman came to court you as though she were a man. You rejected her; you did well. My Lord, I am that woman. She was my disguise. Then, by the boon of the Gods, I obtained, for a year, the most radiant form that a mortal ever wore, and wearied my hero’s heart with the burden of that deceit. Most surely I am not that woman.
I am Chitra. No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside like a moth with indifference. If you deign to keep me by your side in the path of danger and daring, if you allow me to share the great duties of your life, then you will know my true self. If your babe, whom I am nourishing in my womb, be born a son, I shall myself teach him to be the second Arjuna, and send him to you when the time comes, and then, at last, you will truly know me. Today, I can only offer you Chitra, the daughter of a King.
While the play ends with Arjuna accepting Chitra and promising to love her completely, in the overall story in Mahabharata, he resumes his travels after 3 years, leaving her with their young son. This is due to another twist in the tale where the King, Chitra’s father, having no male heir, must continue his descendant line through Chitra and, therefore, lays claim to the grandson as heir to the throne.
We’ve only touched on a few themes of the play here as it would take several thousand more words to describe the rest. A lot of these themes about gender equality, relationships, identity, self-definition, beauty, power, shame, sexual freedom, etc. resonate even today – and not just in present-day India, but also in Western cultures. So, do get your hands on a decent translation for the entire thing. There are stunning passages that still take my breath away after so many re-readings. My source is this edition: Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology
Some other interesting links:
— Selected poems online (be warned, though, of the sentimentality I mentioned earlier)
— Selected works at Project Gutenberg (try the prose and plays – much better in translation than the poems)