Chitrangada and Chandalika – Sexual Awakenings of Two of Tagore’s Most Popular Heroines
~By, Baisali Chatterjee Dutt
For Language Day celebrations in our school in Bangalore, my Bengali-speaking friends and I, decided to present highlights from Tagore’s celebrated dance drama, “Chitrangada.” One of the girls in the group, who studied Bangla as a Second Language and was therefore, much more at ease with the literary lilt of the language, clicked her tongue while interpreting one of the songs and remarked what a sexually-aware man Tagore was. At home, while poring over the text, I asked my mother to explain a few lines from another section of the dramatic movement, and I remember clearly how my normally vocal and never-at-a-loss-for-words matriarch blushed and haltingly explained the song in as innocent and simple a manner as possible, stripping the piece of most of its raw, sexual content. The essence of the meaning was not lost, however.
It’s been close to twenty years since that fledgling, albeit exhilarating performance in school, and since then, not only have my language skills greatly improved, not only has my love for Tagore’s oeuvre grown in leaps and bounds, but my two little sons have also taken fledgling steps into the bright and beautiful world of Tagorean performance.
Being a Bengali, there is just no escaping the mammoth influence of this man. An entire industry thrives thanks to the Bard of Bengal. Had there been no Tagore, the Bengali would have been a much poorer version of his present self...culturally, musically, artistically, academically and yes, in the literal sense of the word, financially.
More than a hundred years later, we are still obsessed with the man, his work and his life. This year being the sesquicentennial year of India’s first Nobel Laureate, there is a frenzy of Tagore-related activities the world over. We create and recreate his works; we discuss, dissect, analyse and philosophise. We study his words in a contemporary context and research his vast oeuvre to find new meanings, to see things with a new eye, to listen through another’s ears and to feel from our own experiences, all the while wondering if there’s any aspect that remains untouched or glossed over.
Well, one such aspect is the erotic aspect of the literary giant’s work. A theme not openly discussed, and I wonder why, since it is agreed that Tagore understood the psyche of women so well; that so many of his heroines are strong and ready to claim their sexuality; that so many of his novels were considered ‘bold’ and ‘daring’.
It’s quite a travesty to the man and his work, to keep this facet of his literary compositions under wraps, considering so many of his love songs and dance dramas were ripe with the themes of desire, longing and the union of not only two souls, but two bodies. What makes Tagore so great is that he did it classily, poetically, taking help from Mother Nature’s bounty and splendour, thus not having to resort to innuendos and titillation. It was always done artistically, using music and metaphor, to create those sensations of urgent longing, naked desire and bodily fulfilment.
This discussion is an attempt to highlight some of the erotic elements of two of Tagore’s sexually-charged masterpieces where we are introduced to two of his most well-known heroines from his celebrated Nrityo Nattyos, or dance dramas, Chitrangada and Chandalika.
Tagore’s work is a take-off on an incident from the “Mahabharata”, where the third Pandav brother, the illustrious warrior prince, Arjuna, meets the warrior princess Chitrangada, during his wanderings while on a 13 year self-imposed exile, while practicing, again self-imposed, celibacy.
We are introduced to Kurupa Chitrangada, or Chitrangada the Unattractive, in the first scene of the musical, where she and her friends have gone hunting in the forest. It is here that she literally stumbles upon a saffron-robed Arjuna, her idol, her hero, who mistakes her and her group of companions to be a band of young boys. Kurupa calls out after him, challenging him to a fight so that she may die a brave and noble death at the hands of the legend she has worshipped for so long.
Losing all interest in the hunt, her friend, perplexed, asks her how it is possible for her to lose her sense of identity in the space of just one glance. And thus, Kurupa, for the first time in her life, feels the stirrings of a strange new emotion – passion. Passion for a man, passion for a warrior, passion for her idol. Passion for the soul-mate for whom she has waited since eternity. She acknowledges these hitherto unknown and unfelt emotions in the beautiful song, “Bodhu Kon Aalo Laaglo Chokhe.”
Instinctively knowing that she will never get Arjun to give her a second glance dressed as a warrior, she entreats her friends to make her presentable. She then goes in search of Arjun and offers herself to him, but he spurns her saying he is on a vow of celibacy.
Humiliated at this rejection she laments all those years spent in perfecting her archery and building her strength. She sends out a heartfelt plea to Lord Madan, aka Kamadev, the God of love and sex, begging to be morphed into a stunning beauty with seductive charms. That she wants to captivate Arjun with Apsara-like physical charms is no secret as she prays,
“Shudhu ek borosher jonne
Mor deho paak tobo shorgero mullyo
Hearing her prayers, Madan agrees to change her from her warrior-princess self, to a woman of breath-taking beauty. One who inspires instant lust in a man; one, who even Arjun of the self-imposed celibacy vow, will be helplessly attracted to. Our new heroine, Surupa Chitrangada, or Chitrangada the Beautiful, upon catching a glimpse of herself, is taken aback by her newly acquired beauty. In a moving soliloquy, she realises the transitory nature of her newly-acquired loveliness. She laments that while as Kurupa, she had a history, a background, a lineage, as Surupa, she is nothing more than an exotic flower, whose fragrance once exhausted, will be languishing in the dust. However, she also acknowledges the stirrings of a desire so deep and it finds expression in Tagore’s magnificently worded, “Aamaar Onge Onge Ke.”
Arjuna sees the stunningly beautiful Surupa and forgetting all vows of celibacy, promptly proposes “dushahoshi prem”, in other words, a passionate love affair. Before accepting, Surupa tells him that the affair will be ephemeral, like a dew-drop.
The affair is indeed passionate, explosive even, yet, as Surupa always knew, it is transient. After all, lust does fade. For by this time, Arjuna has heard tales of the brave warrior-princess – “Sneho boley tini maataa, bahu boley tini raajaa” (Her compassion makes her a mother; her strength, a king). She decides to test him and tells Arjuna of Chitragaga’s manly appearance and lack of feminine charms, but that does not douse his resolve to meet this fascinating hero. The shallow nature of their relationship is revealed.
Finally realising the opportunity she has to meet her idol as an equal, Chitrangada once again entreats Madan to change her form...this time from the beautiful, nymph-like Surupa to the plain, almost manly Kurupa. When she meets him in her true form, she breaks into the incredibly moving and thought-provoking aria, “Aami Chitrangada.” In this paean, she tells Arjuna that she is neither goddess, nor ordinary woman. She asks only that he treat her as an equal, to keep her by his side even when danger lurks near-by. She asks only that he treat her as Chitrangada, daughter of a king. This particular song, has long been regarded as an ode to feminism; here, in this one incredible song, Chitrangada rejects the notion that she is the weaker sex and thus an object of pity, rather, she is on the same footing as him, an equal partner at every level.
“Aami Chitrangada, aami rajendronandini,
Nohi debi, nohi shamanyo naari.
Pujo kori morey raakhibey urdhhey shey nohi, nohi,
Helaa kori morey raakhibey peechhey shey nohi nohi...
Aaj shudhu kori nibedon –
Aami Chitrangada, raajendronandini.”
The triumph of intellect over body is indeed a joyful celebration.
This sums up, the bare bones of Tagore’s masterpiece. However, it is interesting to note that in the original Bengali, the Surupa-Arjuna passion play, while tremendously evident, is couched in metaphorical poetics, yet his own English trans-creation, which reads beautifully, seems more sexually charged and explicit. However, Kobiguru never resorts to improper language and yet he leaves nothing to the imagination. Take, for example, the following passage where Surupa recounts to Madana, her passionate tryst with Arjuna:
“The southern breeze caressed me to sleep. From the flowering Malati bower overhead silent kisses dropped over my body. On my hair, my breast, my feet, each flower chose a bed to die on. I slept. And, suddenly in the depth of my sleep, I felt as if some intense eager look, like tapering fingers of flame, touched my slumbering body. I started up and saw the Hermit standing before me... It seemed to me that I had, on opening my eyes, died to all realities of life and undergone a dream birth into a shadow land. Shame slipped to my feet like loosened clothes. I heard his call-"Beloved, my most beloved!" And all my forgotten lives united as one and responded to it. I said, "Take me, take all I am!" And I stretched out my arms to him. The moon set behind the trees. One curtain of darkness covered all. Heaven and earth, time and space, pleasure and pain, death and life merged together in an unbearable ecstasy...”
As in-your-face as sexual desire can probably get without resorting to coarse language and four-letter words. Perhaps, because the original is set to music, Tagore did not need to resort to more explicit language and imagery. After all, the Bengali nritya-natya is an auditory and visual delight, with much of its beauty coming from the music compositions and dance performances. With the English work, “Chitra”, one is left with the sensation that it is better left read than performed.
Gurudev’s “Chandalika” is about a low-caste girl, a ‘chandalin’ named Prokriti, and her desire for a Buddhist monk named Anondo.
Spurned, shunned and humiliated by the entire village because of her low birth, Prokriti is found by her mother sitting near a well, cursing her birth and her life. Her mother, Maya, tells her to snap out of it and to get back to work, but Prokriti, still hurting from the taunts and jibes, is still too depressed and angry. Her mother leaves her there to wallow in her self-pity. It is at this moment that Anondo, a Buddhist monk approaches Prokriti and asks for water to quench his thirst. She recoils in shame and horror and brokenly informs him that she is a chandalini and therefore not ‘fit’ to give him water, more so as the water from her well is tainted. Anondo kindly informs her that they are all the same, human beings.
For a girl who has never been treated well or spoken kindly to in her entire life, it is easy to see why she would mistake kindness for attraction, why she would see her own feelings of gratitude as love.
What could have been an innocent infatuation turns into a morbid obsession where Prokriti exclaims that Anondo chose her well over all others because of her. She starts to fantasise that maybe there was an attraction that drew him to her. That the obsession is one of a sheer, physical need can be felt in Prokriti’s intense, longing-filled ballad, “Chokkhe Aamaar Trishna, Ogo Trishna Aamaar Bokhho Jure.” In the song, she likens herself to a “brishtibihin boiskakhi din” – a rainless day in a monsoon month. How beautifully Tagore once again explains a young girl’s budding sexual desire and yearning, while once again taking recourse to imagery from nature.
Another interesting, startling even, observation to be made, is Maya’s willingness to help her daughter reach sexual fulfilment. In a country where the mere mention of the words ‘sex’, ‘lust’ and ‘boyfriend’ are taboo in the living room; where daughters still look at their toes when they confess that they’re in love and want to get married (and thus have ‘legal’ sex), it is definitely a bold overture for a young girl to cry out to her mother that she wants someone, that she really, REALLY wants someone in every which way, and with an intensity and desire so strong, she is willing to drag him, herself and her mother down to whatever level it takes.
Prokriti’s longing soon turns to desperation and like a man-mad virago, she exhorts her mother who is well-versed in sorcery and witchcraft, to bring Anondo to her, wherever he may be. She wants to leave her imprint on him so deeply, so that she will be the face that he sees, the one that he thinks about, wherever he goes and she is willing to resort to depravity if need be as she pushes her mother to use her most powerful, her most cruel incantations.
“Por tui shob cheye nishtur montro –
Paake paake daag diye joraaje dhoruk or monke.
Jekhaanei jaak, kokhono eraate aamaake
Paarbe na, paarbe naa.”
Of course, we are initially shown how a spiritually pure soul can easily rise above the base temptations of the flesh. But, as the incantations become more powerful, Anondo is dragged through fire to meet Prokriti’s mating call. Maya, by now exhausted and spent begins to feel sorry for the monk as she senses his spiritual suffering and turmoil and entreats Prokriti to stop. Prokriti, however, is now drunk with power and on a sexual-high, so she refuses and only pressurises Maya to keep going and to use every spell in the book. Her wild urging is almost climactic in its intensity.
“Oi dekh, oi elo jhor, elo jhor,
Taar agomonir oi jhor –
Prithibi kaanpchhey thorothoro thorothoro,
Guruguru kory mor bokho.”
It is only when Prokriti sees the effects of the spell on Anondo that she finally understands the sheer torture that he is facing and the gravity of her sin; gone is the peaceful countenance that radiated purity that she fell in love with. Instead, his face is a mask of grave pain and self-loathing and so she begs her mother to break the spell, but by then it is too late. Anondo, as if dragged in by chains, stands face to face with her and Prokriti falls at his feet, begging for mercy.
And Anondo, in the true spirit of a monk who has risen above all worldly emotions and passions, readily does so.
I had an enlightening chat with well-known Odissi danseuse and social worker, Alokananda Roy, about the fascinating aspects of these two female protagonists and she asked me to think about their social backgrounds and upbringing. Chitrangada is a royal and thus her desire, no matter how deep, is restrained, refined and couched in flowery language and poetic innuendo. Prokriti hails from the lower echelons of society; her background is that of a tribal girl with no education or sense of refinement and that is why her passion is raw, primal and very in-your-face. While Kobiguru doesn’t use base, improper, ‘unflowery’ language to express Prokriti’s desire, he composes her songs and sets them to a fantastic tempo, almost wild in its growing intensity, just like her increasing passion.
Tagore’s heroines, like their creator, are passionate people. Their desire so real, you can touch it, feel it, almost breathe it. And yet, the beauty of the master’s word play leaves you as in awe with their musical and prosaic enchantments, as do the strength and power of the protagonists’ emotions and ‘realness’.