When I first saw a performance of Raktakarabi by Bohurupi, at the Brabourne Stadium, Bombay in 1961, I was 15 and did not understand anything. But I loved Nandini and admired the red flowers in her hair parting, hanging from her ears, dangling from her neck and tied round her slender wrists. I was mystified by the king who remained trapped in his dark chamber away from public eye. I remember Ranjan’s dead body brought on the proscenium and Nandini’s fiery outburst. But the philosophical, sociological, Marxist and ideological leanings underwritten by Tagore were completely beyond the understanding of a 15-year-old..

Decades later, I ‘heard’ Raktakarabi in an orally recited version. It re-introduced me to Tagore’s finest protest against totalitarianism at its worst where material greed of a king who is afraid to come out of his enclosure reduces human beings to cogs in a larger wheel of exploitation through the symbolic use of mining for gold. The fact that Tagore wrote this play way back in 1923 much before World War II which heralded the dictatorial regime of Adolf Hitler is fascinating in the way, as we read it today, it foretold the future.

This topicality makes Sandarbha’s Raktakarabi directed and edited by Gautam Halder extremely relevant, especially at a time when the unending debate between terms like ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ has taken a heavy toll on individual and collective freedoms in the world’s largest democracy. Here is where Raktakarabi triumphs – the time and the setting making it more relevant than it was when Tagore first wrote it.

Through the character of Nandini who symbolises the universal woman born free and sustains her freedom with her sole ornament being her jewels crafted out of red oleanders (Raktakarabi) she wears as a tribute to Ranjan, the man she loves, Tagore reveals layers of the constant repression of the weak by the powerful, of the captive by the captor, of the exploited by the exploiter and of labour by the capitalist. Nandini is also a metaphor for freedom of the individual and with her versatility in the depiction of Nandini through body language, fluid dance movements, voice, tone, pitch and dialogue delivery, Chaiti Ghoshal brings Nandini alive as if she has walked out of the Tagore manuscript published in book form in 1926 on the proscenium stage at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata on a Saturday evening in 2016!

Nandini is Nature unfettered, unspoilt, like a river in full flow, who chastises the King for hiding behind his enclosure, unwittingly captive through the diabolic manipulations of his Sardar who makes capital of the King’s visible absence. The King is a strange entity, intrigued by the world outside which, he feels is within his grasp but knows that this is perhaps a deception he has taught himself to believe in. Nandini brings this home to him. Soumya Majumder as the dignified, dictatorial and full-of-attitude Sardar offers a perfect counterfoil to the free-flowing, forever dancing rhythm of Nandini. His fierce persona is richly complemented by his goon in fancy dress and other ‘yes’ men ready to kill at his bidding.

The musical score (Goutam Shome) begins with the magic of Ustad Rashid Khan’s haunting alaap that sets the tone of the play to expand and evolve and fit into the shifting moods theme. The synchronization of the actors beginning with Bishu Pagol (Shovon Chakraborty) belting out tomaye gaan shonabo sustains the natural rhythm Nandini brings in. Add to this the two brilliantly choreographed (Sadhana Hazra) group dance performances of poush toder daak diyeche to herald the coming of harvest somewhere in the middle of the play and then in the end when everything is rounded up. The multi-functional set design exudes a sense of mobility as the actors explore the several tiers and sections of the proscenium, playing out the fluidity of the characters, their actions and interactions with ideal poetic impact and expression.

The lighting (Uttiyo Jana), with a predominance of red underscores the red of the oleander flowers. Tagore’s choice of ‘red oleanders’ is completely out-of-the-box because it contradicts the poetic popularity of romantic flowers like the red rose, or the white lily or white sticks of the night queen (rajanigandha).. This ‘red’ stands for youth, for freedom, for love, for danger, for death, for the blood of the workers slowly and surely dying in the tunnel of the gold mine with their blood draining out. Red is the colour of blood that stains the body of Ranjan when he is brought in and later, Nandini finds her final place beside him. Red is the colour of their revolt triggered by the free spirit and revolutionary zeal that Nandini both presents and represents.

The Professor (Ashoke Mahumder) asks Nandini to give him a red oleander from her wrist because he finds himself pulled by “the mystique of fear within that aura of red.” Note that Nandini offers a garland of kunda flowers to the King which is white and not red. She brings it wrapped in the leaves of a lotus plant much like the King veiled behind his self-captive cage. White stands for purity, which Nandini wishes to vest the King with. The red oleanders she keeps in reserve for Ranjan who personifies revolt with his very being and is prepared to die for his cause – freedom through revolt, even if it means death.

The two glaring anomalies within this entire performance that jar are, one, the sudden intrusion of a group of Y-generation people with headphones attached alongside artistes impersonating cell phones dancing into the play and two, the over-theatricality of the King’s performance by Debashis Moitra whose vocal tremor in the end is just too overdone to blend into the essential stylization of the play. Sayantan Maitra’s Kishor has been somewhat left in the lurch.

Raktakarabi is one of the more than sixty plays, dance dramas and dramatic sketches by Tagore. The play, written in 1923-24, began during Tagore’s stay in Shillong, Assam. He was motivated by the image of a red oleander plant crushed by pieces of discarded iron that Tagore had come across while walking. A short time later, an oleander branch with a single red flower protruded through the debris, as if, he noted, “created from the blood of its cruelly pierced breast.”

Halder as director and editor has intentionally designed the play as a highly stylised performance with the sole exception of Nandini shaped to be much more aggressive than Tagore’s original Nandini. The intention is read as a motivation to drill the point home to a mixed audience, a section of which might be watching the play for the first time while a small section might never have heard of the story or the play itself. Besides, the shifts in characterisation might also have been considered necessary by the director for a Tagore play published in 1926 being performed on the stage by a bunch of committed theatre workers in 2016.