Introducing Sacrifice: An Overlooked Play And The Great Poet Who Wrote It

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This Saturday, the 18th, Undermain will be at the Dallas Museum Of Art, presenting a reading of Sacrifice, by Rabindranath Tagore (directed by Ariana Cook).  We first read this play nearly two years ago, and we’re very excited to finally have the chance to show it off to Dallas audiences.

Tagore was a world-renowned poet, but neither he nor his work are quite as well known in the U.S. today, where poetry has seen a precipitous decline in public interest.  His marvelous play, Sacrifice, has fallen into even greater obscurity.  My research has turned up only one professional production of the play in the United States.  That’s a real shame.

I’ve made the following notes to introduce readers to the celebrated poet and his wonderful, overlooked play.

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Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a poet, musician, painter, playwright, storyteller, and essayist.  He was born in Calcutta, the premiere city of the Bengal region, located in the northeast corner of the Indian subcontinent and now divided into Indian West Bengal and Bangladesh.  The Bengali people, who have their own language (Bengali), occupy the most densely populated region on earth.  At the time of Tagore’s writing, India was under British colonial occupation.

Bengal itself was partitioned in 1905 between the West Bengal and East Bengal regions.  West Bengal Hindus, like Tagore, largely opposed this move, which they suspected was made to weaken a growing anti-imperial movement.  The new East Bengal also had a far larger Muslim population, adding to Bengali Hindu suspicion towards the partition.

Tagore wrote the song “Amar Shonar Bangla” as a political cry against partition.  The song would later become the national anthem of Bangladesh (Bangladesh itself grew out of the 1947 partition and then the 1971 war between West and East Pakistan, but it is still roughly the same territory described by East Bengal).

In 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He was the first non-European to have that honor.  His travels before and after the award helped introduce him to Western audiences.  Volumes of his poetry gained glowing recommendations from Yeats and Pound.  Today he is doubtless the most famous and beloved poet of the Indian subcontinent.

Tagore is considered a cornerstone figure of the Bengal Renaissance, which was a social, artistic, and intellectual movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The movement tended to pursue Enlightenment principles in government, religion, and science, though the precise beliefs of the groups and people within the broader movement were diverse.  Tagore’s family contributed a vast amount to the literary component of the renaissance, and they also took a particular interest in educational reform.  The Bengal Renaissance coincided with (and interacted with) a growing nationalist movement that led (as mentioned above) to political protest and partition.

Tagore’s relationship to the Indian Independence movement was complex.  On one hand, he was fervently anti-imperial.  On the other, he was also fervently anti-nationalist.  He criticized Gandhi and his movement on multiple occasions, but also wrote songs promoting the independence movement as a whole (one of his compositions, “Jana Gana Mana”, went on to become the national anthem of India).  He went so far as to repudiate his knighthood from the British, in protest of brutal killings carried out by the colonial forces.

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Sacrifice takes up a theme as old as theatre itself, the contest between religious and secular power.  As in the story of Antigone, most famously dramatized by Sophocles, a king has declared a new law preventing the observation of a sacred rite.  Antigone is not allowed to bury her brother.  The Maharaja of Tripura, Govinda, moved by pity for a peasant girl, bans the ritual sacrifice of animals to the Goddess Kali.  What follows in each case is rebellion.

In Tagore’s play, the High Priest, Raghupati, denounces Govinda’s decision and conspires with his Brahmins and other members of the court, including officers of the military, to engineer a coup.  He has on his side Gunavati, the Queen, who believes the sacrifice will give her the child she has long awaited.

“That which has the sanction of ages, do you have the right to remove it?” asks the King’s General.  Govinda responds, “It is not the Brahmin’s right to violate the eternal good…It is within the rights of the King and the peasant alike to maintain truth and righteousness.”

Torn between these sides is Jaising, the Priest’s son, who befriends the poor girl and strives to understand the capricious nature of the Goddess he worships.  And here the architecture of Sophocles’ story is inverted: where Antigone’s heroism is in following the fundamental law of the Gods, in defiance of Father and State, Tagore’s drama favors the mercy of the King and explicitly attacks the cruelty and superstition of the old religion.  Jaising turns against his father and embraces mankind.  The Goddess Kali is repeatedly referred to as a block of stone, a burden.

The highly symbolic ending is suggestive of Tagore’s view of the divine in relationship between beings.  “You are my Goddess,” Jaising says to the beggar girl, near the climax of the play, “Do you know how I know it?  You bring to me your sacrifice every moment, as a mother does to her child.”  This refrain is picked up by his father in the devastating final lines of the play.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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