Sunday 26 March 2017

The Courtesan Extraordinaire - The Eastern Eye: Column by Dr.Utpal K Banerjee

The early Buddhist literature, beginning with the ancient Jatakas, is replete with a surprising number of parables and legends. One such treasure trove is  Mahavastu Avadhan which, among others, narrates the didactic tale of the  court dancer Shyama and her sudden passion for the handsome stranger Vajrasen – caught on a false charge of theft – for whom she does not hesitate to sacrifice her young lover Uttiyo at the gallows. On the felony being revealed, she is summarily discarded by her ‘new’ lover Vajrasen. The two main protagonists, Shyama and Vajrasen, are surrounded by the king’s minions – headed by a crafty Kotwal -- entirely prompted by the power of lucre and the royal dancer’s companions acting as a ‘voice of conscience,’ a well-known ploy inherited by the Bengali folk theatre Jatra essayed by Vivek, literally meaning ‘conscience’. 

Shyama, Rabindranath Tagore’s delectable dance drama – presented recently in Kolkata by Jahnavi and Sutradhar – was based on the above story line. The 1938 play (preceded by an 1899 long poem by Tagore on the same theme) was set first in a public avenue, moving to Shyama’s private chambers, to the solitary prison cell, to the luxury yacht carrying the lover duo, to the forests on the river bank, and finally to the point of no return. The plot had amour propreplayed out between the lovers: now infatuated, now querulous and then desperately estranged. The point of view was entirely Shyama’s: besotted with passion and eager to elope, the admission of her felony, and her eventual desertion. The mood was of the urgency of the lovers’ union, only to fall apart. The tone was, for both lovers, psychologically resonated. The primary beauty of Shyama was the heaving rise and fall of its conflicts and their Spencerian tempo, almost like Western music’s overture, leading to the waxing and waning of the passage of ardour between the two principal contenders.

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