Tasher Desh details
Tasher Desh is one of Tagore’s most famous dance operas, a unique genre he developed that was influenced by Western opera. It is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and is a satire on the rigidity of the class systems of the British Raj and India. Tagore wrote the script and composed the melodies of the piece which was first performed in Kolkata in 1923. FIPA will be producing the third and final version of the work shown in 1938. Tasher Desh is expanded from a short story Tagore wrote in 1898.
Tagore was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Western opera when he wrote the dance opera Tasher Desh – a satirical portrayal of a society ruled by strict conventions and a veiled criticism of the British Raj.
Tagore had a profound faith in the potent power of childhood innocence. He was an eternal optimist and believed in the capacity of travel to cultivate the innermost spirit. These philosophies are clearly delineated in Tasher Desh where Tagoreís conviction of the arts as a dynamic instrument for education is exemplified. Here the battle between freshness and orthodoxy progresses through a dance-opera narrative that is a dramatic combination of dialogue, dance, music and song.
Set in a seemingly naive context, a heroic stereotype, embodied by a Prince, thirsts for adventure and the challenge of the unknown. He is flung into a land of childlike imagination. That Lewis Carrollís Alice in Wonderland inspired the characters in the Land of Cards, is no coincidence. Here the rigid metaphor of the cards beautifully encapsulates the sterility of caste, class and regulation. And only the wild, unfettered chaotic nature of the Prince can demolish this arthritic rigidity and compel effective change.
The music of Tasher Desh is a stylistic blend of Indian classical music ragas and Western opera and unique to Tagore known as Rabindra Sangeet. Written in Bengali, our production has the dramatic dialogue performed in English but the original language for the songs. Tagore wrote the script and lyrics. He also composed the melodies of the songs and, in keeping with Indian tradition, musicians improvise round the songs during live performances. The lyrics are poetically penned and are rendered in a span of songs from the emotively soulful to spirited and uplifting. His songs are the most established genre of Indian music apart from Indian film songs that have been influenced by Western music.
Tasher Desh was written in Santiniketan. Shantidev Ghosh, the premier musician, who was personally trained by Tagore, remembers that in August 1933, Pratima Devi, Tagoreís daughter-in-law, a trained dance exponent, had an idea for a dance opera. She asked Ghosh to show her brief outline to Tagore whom she hoped he would correct. Three days later, Tagore produced a new script that was the first manuscript of Tasher Desh.
At the first performances in 1933 at the Madane Theatre (now Elite Cinema) in Kolkata, Tasher Desh was only 75 minutes long in two scenes. By the second set of performances in Mumbai, more dances had been added. Tagore himself wrote in a letter. Tasher Desh was better than Shapmochan (another dance opera), and that was I think because there was a marvellous parallelism of romance and realism in Tasher Desh.
In the performances in 1938 during the birthday celebrations of Tagore in Santiniketan, swingeing changes were made with new dialogue, songs and characters expanded into four scenes with eight new songs. There were no more changes after the performances in Kolkata in 1939.
Tasher Desh was a combination of Deviís concept, and Tagoreís 1898 short story Ekti Ashare Golpa (One Absurd Story) and his poem Banijye Boshoti Lakshmi (The Goddess of Wealth Dwells in Business Deals), lyrics which were used in the Princeís first three songs.
Tagore was so enthusiastic about the work that he set aside another new piece he was working on, Chandalika, to concentrate on Tasher Desh. He ensured that men would play the male characters and women the female characters, a challenging idea as women were hardly allowed to participate in such events in those days. Tagoreís Queen of Cards was the character that led the changes in the lifeless society.
Tagore was adaptive in the creative process. He rewrote parts of the production during the different sets of performances in response to the availability of cast members who were a changing mix of actors and dancers. When he found that the performers were unable to keep a lethargic state and tended to become regimented instead, he changed the script to accommodate them.
Pratima Devi was responsible for the choreography of much of the dances in the first production. She was a pioneer in female performance and her wide experience in European modern dance, Indian classical and folk dance was instrumental in the fusion style of the piece. Initially Manipuri (Bengal) style was combined with folk dance forms and Western Dance. Later Kathakali (Kerela) and Kandy (Sri Lanka) forms were included in the mix with European dancing for the cards before they turned into humans. The more experimental elements were only used in solos and not in the group dances on such styles as the choreography was still difficult to assimilate.
Pramita Devi designed the costumes of the female characters for the first performance when she used Balinese and Javanese costumes for the girls. As these proved to be difficult for the dancers to perform in, they were later modified into more typical Santiniketan sari style with batik drapes and cardboard card attires.
Rama Devi, Head of Music at the Sangeet Bhavan, led the musical team. Singers accompanied the dancers such as Nandita Devi as Miss Ace, although some characters like Miss Heart was performed by Amala Devi, a singer taught by Tagore. Dinendranath Tagore (Tagoreís brother wrote the music notation as Tagore himself was unable).
Nandalal Bose was Head of the Art Department at Viswa Bharati and he was the first Indian artist to explore graphics for creative purposes rather than for decorative value. He was responsible for the props and sets, using an inspired mix of batik, leather and coloured cloth. His combinations of bold colours worked well in the poor stage lighting conditions of the time.
Shantidev Ghosh always played the Prince in Tagoreís lifetime. He came to Santiniketan when he was one and lived there for the rest of his 89 years. He dedicated his life to Tagore and was considered the greatest exponent of Tagoreís music and dance. Sent to train in South India for Kathakali and Sri Lanka for Kandy dance, his choreography of his role in Tasher Desh was shaped by these styles. In 1930 he was appointed a music teacher in Vishva Bharati, becoming Director of the Sangeet Bhavan in 1939 and Principal in 1945. He received many awards and has left a legacy of numerous books on dance, music and Tagore.
“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”
Indiaís foremost literary figure, Tagore was born in Kolkata, India, into a wealthy and artistic Brahmon family. A pioneer, radical visionary and inspirational renaissance man, Tagore was not only a great poet. He was also a celebrated short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, composer and painter. He wrote, amongst other things, about literature, politics, culture, social change, religion, philosophy and international relations. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 he became Asia’s first Nobel laureate, achieving international fame as an artist of world stature. The respect South Asians have of Tagore lie in the legacy of the national anthems of India and Bangladesh which are two of his songs.
Deeply steeped in Hindu and Islamic traditions, Tagoreís family financed the introduction of Western education in India, including colleges for science and medicine. This “confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British” was instrumental in forging Tagoreís creative genius.
Tagore first came to England in 1878 when he went to public school in Brighton. The following year, he enrolled at University College London to study law but returned home in 1980 before he finished his course possibly because his letters home all indicated his attraction (which was mutual) to English girls. Tagore heard John Bright and W.E.Gladstone speak and was impressed and inspired by their ‘large-hearted, radical liberalism’.
When he returned in 1912, his own English translations of his poems, Gitanjali, bowled over poets Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, who was a great champion of his poems. He became an instant sensation in London literary circles who, with his flowing beard and Indian robes, perceived him as a great mystic of the East. Tagore began his world lecture tours to promote inter-cultural harmony and understanding. By 1935, the British adoration had turned to sharp criticism, but not before he was knighted by King George V in 1915.
Living during the time of the British Raj, Tagore was critical of European imperialism and supported the Indian Independence Movement.After the Amritsar massacre of 400 Indian demonstrators by British troops he renounced his knighthood in 1919.
In 1890, Tagore had begun to manage his family’s vast estates in Shilaidaha, now in Bangladesh. He was overwhelmed by the social, economic and political deprivations in the villages. His thoughts turned to the problems of education and he started his first teaching experiments in the area.
He was a great believer in self-help and intellectual advancement of the masses as “there can be no question of blind revolution, but of steady and purposeful education”. In 1918, he laid the foundation stone of Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal ìwhere the world becomes one nestî. This was later renamed Santiniketan a centre for rural reconstruction, and an international university, to “free village(s) from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance” by “vitalis(ing) knowledge”. He pioneered the global village concept that integrated music, dance, drama, arts, physical exercise and academic studies to provide a well rounded education for children. Much of his income was diverted into funding the school he established.
He abhorred India’s “abnormal caste consciousness”, and lectured on its evils, writing poems and dramas with ëuntouchableí leading characters. His works were what he called “the play of feeling and not of action” and he wrote about a wide range of Bengali lifestyles, particularly village life.
His incessant travels took him to over thirty countries in all five continents where he met with many artists, philosophers, scientists and political leaders.
Tagore, Education and Dartington
Tagore felt that education should be an aesthetic development of the senses, not just of the intellect.
In 1921, he dedicated Visva-Bharati to the Indian people. It was built on an atmosphere that was an extension of his own family environment. Tagore wrote that in his adolescence, a ‘cascade of musical emotion’ gushed forth daily. ‘We felt we would try to test everything,’ he writes, ‘and no achievement seemed impossible… We wrote, we sang, we acted, we poured ourselves out on every side.’ Visva-Bharati was a centre of the arts, a place of subconscious learning with little in the way of formal instruction. In Tagore’s philosophy of education, the aesthetic development of the senses was as important as the intellect and music, literature, art, dance and drama were given great prominence in the daily life of the school.
Students became involved in what was being created by Tagore and other resident artists in an organic way, learning in an environment that was close to nature. They were encouraged to create their own publications, perform and produce Tagoreís dramas, most of which were written there. Tagore revived folk dances and music, and was one of the first to support the bringing together of different forms of Indian dance such as Manipuri, Kathak and Kathakali.
Opposed to nationalism and militarism, Tagore tirelessly promoted spiritual values and the creation of a new world culture founded in multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance. combining the best of traditional Hindu education with Western ideals in Visva Bharati as an alternative to the British system of education. Tagore was an inspiration to many, including Count Hermann Keyserling of Estonia who founded his School of Wisdom in 1920 patterned upon Tagore’s school.
In 1922, Tagore met the son of a Yorkshire parson in New York, an architect and agricultural economist Lenoard Elmhirst.Elmhirst became Tagoreís agricultural adviser, helping him set up Santiniketan and traveling the world with him. Tagoreís progressive vision for a new world culture had a profound impact on Elmhirst. His experiences in India and the influence of Tagore shaped his ideas for his Dartington experience. In 1925. Elmhirst founded Dartington Hall and the Dartington Hall School, an educational experiment that sought to integrate art and culture with science and agriculture and in so doing, to regenerate the rural economy. A beacon of internationalism to this day, it is indebted to Tagoreís philosophy.
During Tagoreís life, India was under British rule. The British managed to agree trading rights with India in 1717. As part of their political ambition to acquire India the British East Indian Company gained control of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 when they defeated Siraj Ud Daulah, the last independent Nawab in Bengal. This battle was a crucial point in the collapse of India leading to the expansion of British rule in India. A hundred years later in 1857, a period of Indian uprisings in the First War of Indian Independence led to the transfer of power of in India from the British East Indian Company to the British Crown in 1858. Queen Victoria became known as the Empress of India. Till Indiaís Independence in 1847 this period is referred to as the British Raj.
Tagore lived in an environment where the British imposed their education systems to drive economic development and technology advancements (India had the fourth largest rail network in the world), whilst ignoring the values of Indian cultures and faiths. The relationship between ruler and subject was an ambivalent one. With their legal and political system, the British laid the foundations that would effect changes in a country that was divided by religion, caste and five hundred or so minor states. The British were aided and supported by the old Indian aristocracy and landowners with whom they had good dealings but both the British and Indians adhered to their rigid class divisions.Even though India was an engine for economic growth, the social conditions of the poor classes were never dealt with which led to widespread poverty and unrest. And whether the Indians themselves benefited from economic growth is debatable. Indians fought for the British army in both World Wars and countries Britain battled with. The Indian civil service was established.
Key opposition of the British came about when the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 as an all India, secular political party. It was organised by elite intellectual middle-class Indians. Although not a founding member, Tagore inspired the INC with his poem and composition, Jana Gana Mana, which was first sung in 1911 at the INCís Kolkata Session and in 1950 was adopted as Indiaís national anthem.
In 1905, the British made the decision to partition Bengal. This was so unsuccessful that it was annulled in 1911. In 1906, Tagore wrote Amar Shonar Bangla as a rallying cry for advocators of annulment of Partition and this became the national anthem of Bangladesh in 1972.
FIPA’s production is the full version of the work, never before performed in its entirety anywhere in the world. The narration will be performed in English and sung in Bengali, the language Tasher Desh was originally written in. A cast of around 10 dancers are accompanied by 4 narrators and 6 musicians on a special pre-recorded backing track. A Prince (Chaos) striking in his costume of dazzling colours accompanied by the Merchant contrast vividly against the cool grey silken robes of the Cards (Regulation) punctuated with brilliant card symbols.
The narrators partner the dancers closely to create an innovative tapestry exciting in its rhythm of movement, vocal and physical sounds, every bit as complex as the songs that anchor the piece.
Tasher Desh has been developed with Tagore academics and performers who have gathered information about the rich Bengali heritage of Tasher Desh. The historical material has been made available in a booklet to accompany a DVD of a recording of the production. There are lecture demonstrations, performances and an online archive (under construction) in partnership with SOAS AHRC Research Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance.
A Prince, tired of suffocating in his palace, goes in search of adventure. Accompanied by a far more conventional travelling companion, a Merchant, the mismatched pair get shipwrecked in the Land of Cards. Here the inhabitants are playing cards, well regulated and devoid of emotions. With the wild force of his personality, the Prince starts to effect change in the Cards and gradually their human qualities begin to emergeÖ
Scene 1 – The Palace
The opening song describes gusty winds and a terrible impeding storm. The fearless must march on with the wind of change across a sea of despair. We are transported to a palace. A Prince, exasperated by the tedium of his surroundings, longs to go in search of adventure. The Merchant tries to dissuade him against this and asks Patrolekha, a foreign captive princess, to fathom the Princeís Heart. The Royal Mother appears and implores him not to go but to no avail. Realising she will lose him if she restrains him, she gives her son her blessing. With joy, he departs with the Merchant. But misfortune strikes and they are soon shipwrecked.
Scene 2 – The Land of Cards
The Prince and Merchant find themselves in a strange land where the inhabitants are playing cards. Ruled by the King and Queen with a superior class of Jack the Keeper and Mr. 10 the Teacher, they live highly regulated lives. Mr. 5 and Mr. 6 challenge the new arrivals. The bemused Prince has stumbled upon his mission – to inject chaos into a lifeless society. When the Court arrives, the Prince and Merchant perform a mocking dance of praise causing much anger. But before long, the Prince has completely enchanted the Queen and other women, sparking them into a sudden burst of revolt. In fear and consternation, the King dismisses the Court.
Scene 3 – Inner Chambers of the Card Princesses
Inspired by the Prince, Ms. Ace and Ms. Spade are confiding in each other about the odd feelings they are experiencing. All of a sudden, Ms. Clubs appears, catching them unawares. Ms. Ace and Ms. Spade try to conceal their emotions but to their amazement, it transpires that Ms. Clubs has already taken the decision to renounce her life as a card.
Scene 4 – The Garden
In the garden, Ms. Heart is plucking flowers whilst the Prince is teaching her to dance. Tears fill her eyes for the first time. She is accosted by Mr. Diamond who informs her that she is being summoned by the Court. But willfulness and disobedience overcomes her and she shares sensitive feelings with Mr. Diamond instead. They recall previous lives, rich and full in comparison with their present meaningless existence. All around the Prince has triggered change. The card Princesses are transforming. Mr. 5 and Mr. 6 are humming. Stirred to action, Ms. Heart and Mr. Diamond pledge that they will become free.
Scene 5 – The River Bank
Feeling far from settled, Mr. 5 and Mr. 6 question the regulations of their land and are confused. They are apprehended by Mr. 10. He reproaches them and reinforces the rules. Ms. Heart enters and to the despair of Mr. 10 incites rebellion.
Scene 6 – Inner Chambers of the Card Princesses
Ms. 10 confesses to Ms. Ace and Ms. Spades her secret desire to become human. They realise that they have been imprisoned by their society and to humanise themselves is far more pleasant. But in order for that to happen, they will also have to experience sorrow. Tears begin to roll down their cheeks.
Scene 7 – The Royal Court
The Court assembles under the Neem tree. The King is disturbed. He smells strange flowers and unfamiliar birds. The Queen will not stay indoors and the courtiers, having removed their regulation attire, are unrecognisable. The Rule of the Whim is manifest. The King, exasperated, banishes the Queen. As she complies, he caves in. The collapse of the card kingdom is complete. In a final ode to freedom and liberation, all celebrate the Princeís successful mission.
Cast – In order of appearance
Prince: Cid Shaha
Merchant: Anuj Mishra
Patrolekha / Miss Diamond: Indrani Datta
Royal Mother / Queen: Marcina Arnold
Mr. 6: Hugh Rathbone
Mr. 5: Yuval Cohen
King: Hi Ching
Jack: Shrikant Subramaniam
Miss Spade: Ni Made Pujawati
Miss Ace: Lucia Tong
Miss Clubs: Maria Rijo
Mr. Diamond: Jose Campos
Mr. 10: Ananda Gupta
Miss 10: Senjuti Das
Hi Ching: Prince, Mr. 10
Phil Hurdwood: Merchant, Mr. 6, King, Mr. Diamond
Michelle Lee: Royal Mother, Queen, Ms. Clubs, Ms. Hearts, Ms. 10
Ananda Gupta: Mr. 5, Jack
Tanusree Guha: Ms. Spades
Senjuti Das: Ms. Ace
Ananda Gupta: Prince, Mr. Diamond
Shahadat Hossain: Merchant
Bithi Purkayastha: Patrolekha, Ms. Heart
Tanusree Guha: Ms. Ace, Ms. 10
Satarupa Das, Tania Sohana: Royal Ensemble
Tabla: Pandit Biplab Mondal
Sitar: Mehboob Nadeem
Violin: Aritra Bhattacharya
Guitar: Rizwan Kayani
Keyboard: Hi Ching
Brass Cymbals: Bishan Mazumdar
Pandit Biplab Mondal, Dr. Ananda Gupta, Hi Ching
Director of Photography
Bing Guang Guo
Srovonti Bondopadhyaya and Arindam Bondopadhyaya
Dr. Ananda Gupta
Hi Ching, Cid Shaha and Indrani Datta with improvisations by dancers
Pramita Mallick, Tapan Roychowdhury, Sudeb Guha Thakurta, with Dr Ananda Gupta
Music recorded at
SOAS, University of London
Video filmed at
Watermans Arts Centre
Heritage Lottery Fund
Watermans Arts Centre
SOAS, University of London
AHRC, Arts and Humanities Research Council
The Nehru Centre, Cultural Wing in the Indian High Commission
River Cultures Festival
London Durga Puja Dusserah Community
Rayat TV ñ DD India
Chai Pani Restaurant
King Fisher Beer
Cobra Beer Foundation
Astron Printing Services (NHS)
Life Insurance Corporation of India
Canada Bank (UK)
ICICI Bank (UK)
Citibank NRI Services (UK)
FIPA, Foundation for Indian Performing Arts, November 2007