Tagore’s “Red Oleander”: the Relevance

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By: Dr. Buddhadeb Chattopadhyay



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The Great Poet Rabindranath Tagore commented after playing his drama in England, “There was a time when, in human world, most of our important dealings with our fellow-beings were personal dealings, and a professional element in society was never hugely disproportionate to the normal constitution of its life.

Today another factor has made itself immensely evident in shaping and guiding human destiny. It is the spirit of the organisation, which is not social in character, but utilitarian. But the personal man is not dead, only dominated by organised man. The view that today we see a titanic power with endless curiosity to analyse and know, but without sympathy to understand;with numberless arms to coerce and acquire, but no serenity of soul to realize and enjoy.

It is an organised passion of greed that is stalking, does not represent the whole truth as to its character. Such an objective passion lacks the true majesty of human nature; it only assumes a terrifying bigness, its physiognomy blurred through its cover of an intricate network – the scientific system. It barricades itself against all direct human touch with barriers of race pride and prestige of power. Now we have an organised avarice – frightfully simple in its purpose,mechanically complicated in its process.” William Shakespeare also commented,

“The patient dies while physician sleeps;
orphan pines while oppressor feeds;
justice is feasting while widow weep;
avarice is sporting while infection breeds”.

Has the world changed a bit from 1923 to 2012?

The world war-II has contributed to dramatic changes in the society, its prevalent ethical guidance & value system as well as the intricate nature of human being both internally and externally. It is really amazing to gesticulate now, what a great visionary Rabindranath was, who lived far, far ahead of his time.

Beyond the space-time coordinates each day, in each moment mankind combats the challenges of life, enriching experience from the conflicts, perturbations in various strata, which simultaneously create a tragedy that inculcates in him strong desire of his soul for transition to serenity & salvation. This is the focal theme of the epic drama, The Red Oleander(Raktakarabee), which Rabindranath wrote in 1923, just at the time when Adolf Hitler was gaining ground (third Reich 1933-1945). Love and only love is the laurel of salvation. Evolution of an individual to international, achieving internationality besides relief of one from all mental agony and anguish from inner coordinates has been passionately & neatly weaved in this drama. In this backdrop the poet very carefully placed Nandini of Ishanipara, as an icon of enormous vitality and symbol of love.

In contrast to that character, Tagore portrayed a mighty & brute king, who is the owner of gold mines. He has a complex machinery of administration which has a simple and sole purpose of acquisition of wealth by the way of oppression. The fascist machinery does not even hesitate to kill the disobedient labour. The king never appears in front. He cherish that his subjects should scare him for his enormous power. To him the philosophy is simple as Bernard Shaw once stated,

“when I prevent you from doing what you want to do that is law & order; when you prevent me from doing what I want to do that is persecution”.

Nandini once met him and advised to be one amongst other rather than one above other. She told that it is love and only love that the man cherish but unable to communicate because of possible mismatch of wavelengths. Both Nandini & Ranjan had to pay their prices.

The poet also mentioned, “Nandini is the heroine of this play, has definite features of an individual person. She is not an abstraction, but persuaded by an abstraction, like one tormented by a ghost. And this is the drama. Nandini is a real woman who knows that wealth and power are maya, and that the highest expression of life is in love, which manifests in this play in her love for Ranjan. But love-ties are ruthlessly molested by megalomaniac ambition,while an acquisitive intellect plies its psychological curiosity, probing into the elusive mystery of love through vivisection.

I (the poet) have a strong faith in the simple personality of man than its prolific brood of machinery that wants to crowd it out. This personality – the divine essence of the infinite in the vessel of finite – has its last treasure-house in woman’s heart. Her pervading influence will someday restore the human to the desolated world of man”.

Is there any drama, which explores the conquest in such span, depth, yet relevant today? Rabindranath himself said,

“My drama is simultaneously of individual human being and human belonging to the mass.”

He has embedded simultaneously the inner and outer coordinates,reality and abstraction by crafting through meticulous choice & placement of words, style of presentation and the elements of composition to such accuracy yet divided in so many layers that to communicate it effectively on the stage through verbal, physical language to such an accuracy & precision such that it appears to be real to the audience, is a real lifetime challenge to any creative mind. The ambitious challenge propelled astonishments in us time and again, whenever we have read the play or seen the play on stage! But who would disagree that it is the love, and love only makes a person insane? Kishore felt that he would consider himself rather rewarded, even if, he had to sacrifice his life to search and present the red oleander to Nandini.

What ultimately the poet wanted to communicate through his master piece? The Poet himself stated that he has a strong faith for simple personality and utilitarian philosophy. His political vision was sharp & straight forward, which we see many times in several articles compiled in the “Kalantar” and also in another epic drama “Ghare Baire”. He has strongly opposed the obtrusiveness. He has questioned there the pseudo-right in the name of democracy (consider the rise & fall of the third Riech), which has a hidden interest of satisfying ill-directed collective objective along with personal gratification; which actually weakens the very foundation of the Institution. It is in his version, “The woman will one day prove that meek in soul, through the sure power of love; will rescue this world from the dominance of the unholy spirit of rapacity.The joy of this faith has inspired me (the poet himself) to pour all my heart in painting against the back ground of black shadows – the nightmare of a devil’s temptation – the portrait of Nandini as the bearer of message of reality, the saviour through death”.

Nandini leaves us forlorn on stage. But her soul is like a philosopher’s stone that touches our soft & sensitive heart; the vacuum is sharply felt with a remnant of hope that it is there surrection of the pink human bondage and that possibility is only illuminated behind the dropped screen.

As we have only one sky; so we have only one Rabindranath Tagore; who could so passionately weave the intricate, yet diverse human fabric in varied dimensions; which one has to realize from heart and not merely from mind or intellect.

We pay our most humble tribute to the apostle of our pride & prestige and the icon of a fulfilling & inspiring life.

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