Is it time people stopped seeing Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards) as a children’s play? “Oh yes,” chuckles Q. “We’ve f****d it!”
The pride in the ‘achievement’ is unmistakable. It is no different from that of a child who has just broken the glass panes in his classroom to protest being thrown out for not getting his pronunciations right. Well, actually, it is almost like that. “I used to be pulled up by teachers and elders for not singing Tagore in their way, the ‘right way’, which they said was the only way. Even when you mentioned his name it had to be done in a certain way, the whole body language changed,” Q says. The rigid Tagoreana of self-appointed Tagore custodians put him off.
Qaushiq Mukherjee, who named himself Q more than a decade ago when he began a career in filmmaking, is now the creator of his own version of Tasher Desh, a cinematic adaptation of the musical drama penned by Rabindranath Tagore in 1933 drawing inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Internationally known as a poet and a mystic, Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature 100 years ago for his collection of poems Gitanjali.
This is the first time that a Tagore play has been adapted into a feature film. Film directors in the past, including Satyajit Ray, have put novels and short stories on celluloid. On its website, Q’s production company Overdose Joint describes Tasher Desh as “a psychedelic musical adventure of a storyteller, encountering catharsis, an oracle, a widow and fascists [sic] cards before finding love. The story of reincarnation in real time unfolds inside the darkness of his mind, a kaleidoscope of fantasy, taking him on a journey to the regimented land of cards.”
The film begins with a storyteller (played by Joyraj Bhattacharya), a copy of Tagore’s Tasher Desh in hand, wandering about in a possessed delirium, speaking to himself and passers-by, telling them the story of the Prince (Soumyak Kanti De Biswas) and his merchant friend (Anubrata Basu), and looking for Horotoni, the Ace of Hearts. In the precincts of a dilapidated palace the storyteller encounters a widow who appears to him as Horotoni (Rii).
The restless Prince of the story is desperate to escape the ennui of his ‘perfect’ life: the humdrum of monotonous ping-pong games, the numbness of routine intoxication, unexciting seductiveness of courtesans and the grief-stricken drunkenness of his mother, the abandoned Queen (Tilottama Shome). “I want to want, to have what I can’t,” he scribbles with his mother’s lipstick before foraying into the unknown after the Oracle (Tinu Verghese) whispers a secret mantra to him. Following a shipwreck, the Prince and his friend land in the kingdom of gun-toting card-people where everything is in perfect order: no one laughs, no one loves and everyone moves in straight lines. Rules, it’s all about rules there, rules of class, caste, community and nationality. Behaving like humans, a crime.
“We have come to give what you do not have,” says the Prince. “And what is that?” asks the King of Cards. “Trouble!” He whispers the Oracle’s mantra into the ears of Horotoni, the Ace of Hearts, and what follows in the card country is mayhem. The Original Sin is committed. Following a love-struck Horotoni, the card-people unshackle themselves, one by one, into an explosion of emotions and sexuality. They become human. Even the Queen of Cards (Audrey Miras) is uncontrollable and declares that women of the card country will not put up with the oppression of rigid rules anymore. They laugh, jump with joy, make love and writhe in the pleasure and pain of creation, discovery and ecstasy in a brilliant phantasmagoria of images that are surreal and unapologetically maverick. In the parallel, black-and-white ‘reality’ of the film, the storyteller’s catharsis is over, and he is redeemed through the love of Horotoni the widow.
“Tasher Desh has generally been classified as children’s literature, or read by critics as a comment on India under colonial rule. Q has done radical interpretation along gender lines,” Delhi University professor and Tagore expert Radha Chakravarty said in an interview. She translated Tasher Desh as The Land of Cards for Penguin in 2010. She also co-edited The Essential Tagore, the largest anthology of Tagore’s works available in English, published by Visva-Bharati in India and Harvard University Press in the US in 2011 to celebrate the poet’s 150th birth anniversary. “The play was dedicated to (Indian freedom fighter) Subhas Chandra Bose, because Tagore felt he could bring the winds of change into a moribund India,” Chakravarty added.
In 1933, Tagore, at age 72, was deeply moved by political developments at home and elsewhere in the world. It was the year that Gandhi launched a three-week hunger strike against the mistreatment of the lower castes and was imprisoned twice. In Germany, it was the year of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to the position of a dictator and his infamous ‘Proclamation to the German Nation’. A deeply troubled Tagore wrote the dance-drama before Durga Puja, building on his 1892 short story Ekti Ashare Golpo that had first appeared in the Sadhana magazine.
The musical was staged thrice between 12 and 15 September 1933 at the Madan Theatre in Calcutta and later in Bombay in November of the same year. One of the aims was to raise funds for Visva-Bharati University, which Tagore had founded with the award money of his Nobel Prize, and the poet was personally present at the Bombay show. That Tagore was constantly troubled by the politically charged atmosphere of the times is evident from the fact that he kept coming back to Tasher Desh, rewriting it in 1938 and adding eight new songs and removing one from the earlier count of 23.
It’s not really clear when and how the musical came to be known as a ‘children’s play’ though Tagore himself is not known to have willed it so. Biswajit Ray, assistant professor of Bengali at Visva-Bharati University, thinks it is a “misconception” among people not aware of Tagore’s works. According to Ray, Tagore believed in imbibing political consciousness among children early on and Tasher Desh was one of the plays that aimed to do so. Drama was a main subject taught in Visva-Bharati, and Tagore would produce the plays with his students in Santiniketan. So, while the children were an integral part of the theatrical production, the plays were not intended for them in the same way as general children’s literature.
Even as Q seeks to deconstruct Tagore, he retains the original dialogues of the drama. Likewise, in music too, the change is not in the tunes or lyrics, but in the rendition. “It’s difficult to play around with Tagore’s compositions, be it lyrics or music,” says Neel Adhikari. “The lyrics and tunes are so organically linked that doing away with either of them would be disastrous. So the challenge for us was how to contemporise the songs keeping the lyrics and tunes intact.” Of the 18 songs recorded, 15 have been used in the film. A plethora of genres, from western classical, traditional Indian, fusion and even rap, have been used, alongside experimenting with musical instruments like the cello, the harp or the acoustic guitar. Singers chosen were deliberately “unconventional names” and not the traditionally famous Rabindra Sangeet artists.
Musicians from the world over were included in the team. Romain Favre of the Berlin-based electronic music band Moog Conspiracy, London-based guitarist and music-producer Sam Mills, British electronic band Asian Dub Foundation and Kolkata-based percussionist Tanmoy Bose were brought in as were singers such as Susheela Raman and Sahana Bajpaie from London and Anusheh Anadil from Dhaka. Q himself performed as a playback singer for the Prince. “Sing as if you are making love for the first time,” was the brief given by Q to Anadil for the song ‘Ghorete Bhromor Elo’, she said in an interview to The Telegraph.
Tasher Desh is Q’s second film to commercially release in India after Bishh in 2009. Q, who tasted success with his documentary film Love in India (2009), became truly controversial with his feature film Gandu (2010). The film on a “loser who wanted to become a rapper” did the rounds of several international film festivals including Berlinale and Seattle, where it bagged the jury award in 2011, but was not passed by the censor board in India because of its nudity and graphic sexual content. Thanks to the precedent that he had set, Tasher Desh began generating controversy even before its release. ‘How can a Gandu-maker do justice to the greatness of Tagore?’ was the topic of animated discussion in addas.
However, even though Tasher Desh has not been a box-office success, it received some very good reviews. Outlook magazine credited Q with “extricating the definition of freedom from its literary boundaries and unshackling it from its conventional meanings”. A commentary in Firstpost said “Tasher Desh suddenly appears vastly topical all over again at India’s distinct prospect of soon getting a political dispensation that rules with an iron fist and does not care for diversity,” hinting at the possibility of right-wing politician Narendra Modi becoming the next Prime Minister.
Not all reviewers were as kind. Ashis Pathak in the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika accused Q of demeaning classical literature by interpreting Tasher Desh within the confines of sexuality. Dismissing the film as a spicy entertainment, he argues that unabashed sexuality and blatant depiction of homosexual or heterosexual love is a narrow way of viewing Tagore.
Q, who was glad when some audience members walked out during a private screening of Gandu in Kolkata in 2010, feels the same this time too. “My objective is met,” he says. That provocation served as the main idea behind his film is very clear, apart from being a mutiny against Tagore worship that makes it difficult for people to get too experimental.
History of interpretation
As early as 1936, Sisir Bhaduri produced on stage Tagore’s 1929 novel Jogajog. While Tagore liked it, the play was not popular among ordinary theatregoers.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s cinematic adaptations such as Teen Kanya (1961), Charulata (1964), and Ghare Baire (1984), among others, were immensely successful. Ninety percent of Ray’s filmography is considered to be Tagore adaptations. Tapan Sinha (Kabuliwala, 1957 and Kshudito Pashan, 1960), Purnendu Patri (Strir Patra, 1972) and Rituparno Ghosh (Chokher Bali, 2003, and Noukadubi, 2010) are other filmmakers who have adapted Tagore’s novels and short stories into films. Not to be ignored are the adaptations churned out every now and then by commercial Bengali filmmakers of Tollywood, the Kolkata film industry.
Bengali audiences are not known for showing much kindness to those who have challenged the institutionalised view of Tagore’s works. Filmmakers have had their share of criticism for not remaining faithful to the original texts. Soon after Charulata released in 1964, Ray got embroiled in an intense debate regarding the liberties he had taken with the original text of the 1901 story Nastanirh (The Broken Nest).
Earlier in 2011, the Dhaka-based Shadhona Cultural Circle, an organisation that calls itself “a centre for advancement of South Asian culture,” staged an experimental Tasher Desh. The experimentation was mostly with music and choreography, adding contemporary western moves and modern instrumentation, but not so much with the narrative itself. Director-choreographer Warda Rihab brought together western contemporary and folk in collaboration with Rachel Krische from Leeds University, and Chhou dancers from the Purulia district in West Bengal. Kolkata-based percussionist Tanmoy Bose, who played the tabla for Q’s film too, recreated the music for Shadhona’s stage adaptation.
Bose, however, exercised restraint in dealing with Tagore’s music. “Tagore’s songs do not leave you with much to do,” he says, adding that he only tried to give a “contemporary feel” to them. That is because he considered it would not be proper to play around with Tagore’s heritage and legacy. Not just Bose, many musicians would not think of any acrobatics on Tagore and the explanation is almost invariably the same as his: “It requires a very high level of understanding to be able to adapt Tagore. He created Rabindra Sangeet through the process of amalgamation of the classical, folk and international forms. It has evolved organically over the years. One cannot just deconstruct without understanding the process of assimilation and evolution.”
Although the Shadhona production was received very well across India and Bangladesh, the cultural organisation has faced its share of hurdles. Chhayanaut, the Bangladeshi bastion of Rabindra Sangeet, did not allow Shadhona to use their auditorium to stage its Tagore productions because the dance practice “seemed…to militate against Tagorean aesthetics,” says Lubna Marium, creative director of Shadhona. Marium was also responsible for the artistic direction of Tasher Desh, the dance drama. The time has come to “free him from our emotional apron strings” and allow experimentations of all kinds, says Marium, also a Rabindra Nritya danseuse and researcher.
International Tagore experts have spoken about the possibility of “radical and creative innovations” that lie at the core of Tagore’s works. “I am quite convinced that if Rabindranath lived today, he would not shy away from using video clips and special sound effects, animation and computer art in order to evoke his inner visions,” wrote Martin Kämpchen, a Tagore expert who has translated several of the poet’s works into German, in an article for The Island. He pointed out how Tagore, who had scant regard for genres, fused them into a “Gesamtkunstwerk” – a ‘total work of art’ in which as many art forms as possible complemented each other. Tagore was a polymath, dabbling in everything from poetry, different forms of prose, music and painting, apart from setting up his own school and later a university.
The 100th anniversary of Tagore winning the Nobel Prize just passed, and for Q and others, that is a hundred years spent in the clutches of self-appointed Tagore custodians. “Time has come, bandh bhenge dao,” says Q, humming the title song of the film that means “break the barrier”.
~ Anuradha Sharma is a Calcutta-based freelance journalist and writer. She covers politics and culture in South Asia. She recently completed a term as a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. She tweets here: @NuraSharma.