Celebrating Warrior Women and Seattle’s South Asian Diaspora: Chitrangada

This is the voice of a warrior princess, describing her first, open-air, sexual encounter:

Shame slipped to my feet like loosened clothes…. Heaven
and earth, time and space, pleasure and pain, death and life
merged together in an unbearable ecstasy. . . . With the first
gleam of light, the first twitter of birds, I rose up and sat
leaning on my left arm. He lay asleep with a vague smile about
his lips like the crescent moon in the morning. The rosy red
glow of the dawn fell upon his noble forehead. I sighed and
stood up… I remembered what I used to be, and ran and ran like
a deer afraid of her own shadow, through the forest path strewn
with shephali flowers. I found a lonely nook, and sitting down
covered my face with both hands, and tried to weep and cry. But
no tears came to my eyes.

(Scene III, Rabindranath Tagore, Chitra. A Play in One Act)

For some readers it may be the lyrical language that stands out here; for some, the sexual frankness; for some, the psychological detail. It’s a striking yet representative passage from an extraordinary work, written in 1892. As scholar Sharmila Mukherjee explains, ‘Chitrangada is a dance drama, a story told through songs and dance. .. the main charm of the work is in the mellifluous tunes and Tagore's mastery of the Bengali language. The effect of the work is somewhat like Keats's ‘To Autumn’--it involves all the senses in an immersive experience. Paradoxically, the message of the work is the limitation of sense perceptions. True love, the work suggests, begins where the eye matures into the eye of the mind. The work is an exploration of an idea: the psychology of love. The characters do not have any great psychological depth to them and the lead male character is a positive wimp. The text works along and against Enlightenment ideals of rationality. Chitrangada's depiction is refreshingly different from the idealized, mute beloved of the Petrarchan tradition. In this respect, she is reminiscent of Shakespeare's plucky heroines like Viola. ButChitrangada has none of Viola's asceticism. She burns with sexual longing and talks of a dip in the sea to cool her desire. Here is a voice that seems surprisingly modern. Surprising because it comes not from Freud’s turn-of-the-century Vienna but India, so often associated with a land of spirituality and asceticism. Tagore took a minor, casually sexist story from the epic Mahabharata, and transformed it into a pro-feminist exploration that highlights the social construction of gender. Tagore acknowledges the positivity of women’s erotic desires, and criticizes men for reducing women’s value to physical appearance. He also celebrates women’s capacity for ‘masculine’ warfare and civic government, demonstrated through Chitrangada’s mastery of martial arts and of ruling a country. What Chitrangada (Tanvee Kale) can’t do is persuade the handsome warrior Arjun (Jerald Peter) to forsake his spiritual path—involving a period of celibacy—and engage in a relationship with her. After the god of love Madan (Biplab Panda) grants her wish to be transformed into a ‘beautiful’, feminine woman (Anwesha Das), Arjun immediately propositions her, and the pair develop a bumpy relationship.

This production takes the story and spirit of Tagore’s one-act work, using these as the springboard for a full-length performance featuring a huge, talented cast, gorgeous costumes and impressive dancing. It does not adhere to Tagore’s beautiful script and music, but keeps his progressive sexual politics, his aesthetic immersiveness, his staging, and his blend of folk/popular and classical/’high’ culture. Chitrangada plays to its performers’ strengths in movement, with acting taking a secondary role. The theatre in the round turns the audience into a local community that watches as if seated in a village center. The director Moumita Bhattacharya adds two narrators—played by Suchitra Mohan and Pushkara Chaganti—to tell and comment on the story, and directly interact with the audience. While they provide additional comic entertainment, the narrators are not essential, and at times can distract the audience from the central activities. Music is integral to the production: it almost demands to be performed live, on stage, but instead the show uses recordings, with some abrupt switches within and between numbers. Should Pratidhwani re-stage this, I hope that they will have the resources to have live music on stage.

One of the exciting innovations of this performance is its multi-generational cast, used to trace the warrior Chitrangada’s growth from childhood. Ten-year old Diya Modi plays Little Chitrangada with extraordinary grace, precision and enthusiasm, holding her own as a performer against the adults who surround her. This casting decision also allows for a very timely message to emerge: in our present ugly moment, where misogyny, racism and xenophobia run rampant, it’s important for girls, as well as adults, to learn how to defend themselves both physically and emotionally! The first half of the show, in particular, inspires viewers to take this message to heart, with its emphasis on an all-female army and Chitrangada’s intensive training in martial arts. The second half dwells more on Chitrangada’s identity struggles and her romantic relationship with Arjun. The one-dimensional characterization of Arjun contrasts sharply with the more nuanced representation of women provided throughout the show.

There’s huge diversity in the choreographic selections and costume designs, in keeping with the company’s mission to promote and cultivate ‘the vast and varied number of styles, genres and traditions’ of the South Asian continent’ (programme statement). How far what we see confines itself to the specific traditions of India’s North East Bengal region (where Tagore sets his play) is impossible for non-specialists like myself to gauge—and arguably, beside the point in this Seattle locale. More to the point, perhaps, is the role of Chitrangada as an important expression of a Pacific Northwest South Asian diaspora that is heterogeneous and that is creating musical theatre primarily for its own community. This production does not dilute its mission’s priorities in order to become more consumable for those outside its primary constituency. ACTLab is to be commended for supporting this mission and hosting an event that allows the full flow of Pratidhwani’s integrity. This production is an enormous labour of love, eight months in the making and involving 80 volunteers. The labour is rewarded by this lively, engaging show.

Chitrangada. The Warrior Princess

  • Directed by Moumita Bhattacharya
  • Presented by ACTLab and Pratidhwani
  • Dates: April 28 – May 20, 2017
  • Venue: The Allen Theatre, ACT
  • Review Lead: Laura Chrisman / Review Team: Steph Hankinson and Emily George
  • Consultant: Sharmila Mukherjee