Introduction to Chandalika
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a major voice of awakening in the Indian Renaissance. Besides being a prolific poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, musician, and mystic, Tagore was an innovative educator. He founded "Shantiniketan" - 'Abode of Peace' an educational institution modeled on the ancient Indian hermitage but relevant to India of his time. The school developed into Visva Bharati, a university of Global Consciousness, drawing stalwart minds--philosophers, thinkers, artists--from Europe and Asia. Tagore was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his book of poems, Gitanjali, translated by him from Bengali into English. Two of his Bengali poems have become national anthems of India and Bangladesh.
In Chandalika, Tagore interfaces Love's manifold forms creating a conflict verging on violence. The characters' names - Prakriti, Mother and Ananda - are unmistakable symbols unraveling the action of the play. Prakriti (lit. 'Nature,' 'innate human nature') catalyzes the conflict. In Vedic cosmology Prakriti is the female principle (Purusha being the male), one of the two elements of life. Mother, with her power of casting spell, is the primordial Earth. Appropriately, she is called Maya ('Illusion') in the Bengali version of the play. She is "matter" overpowering the "spirit" personified by monk Ananda ('Bliss,' 'Joy') who was also a close disciple of the historical Buddha. Ananda is also a component of the Vedic cosmic principle, Satchitananda (the Absolute): Sat (Truth) Chit (Consciousness), Ananda (Bliss). The conflict between the two spells - material and spiritual--and Prakriti's resultant remorse at the end of the play aptly underscores the literal meaning of the title "Chandalika" (lit. 'The wretched,' also a term for the lowly untouchables.)
Yet the play is not merely an allegory rooted in abstract concepts. The original play is even celebratory with effusion of songs and dances, most of which are omitted from the English translation. Tagore posits the action in multiple polarities of the 20th century India--religion, gender, caste, spirit and matter--capturing a universal human search for love and peace.
Ananda's request, "Give me water," besides indicating his physical need symbolizes water's regenerative image common in many religious traditions. In the Indian context, a holy man asking for water from an untouchable violates a social as well as a religious norm. To receive and to give food or water were sacrilegious for both. The monk's extraordinarily radical request awakens Prakriti's awareness of her own innate Self. The words underline a shift of Buddhist divergence from Hindu orthodoxy in the 6th century B.C.E. India, the time of play's action. Through the universal image of water, Tagore intertwines the ideological revolution reflected in the social, religious, and political scene of his own time. In our times, when religious strife and discrimination have become a source of global conflict, the central theme of the play becomes even more poignant.
Prakriti's self-assertion imbued in desire (the root cause of pain in Buddhist tradition) is manifested in her love for the young monk. Infused by eros, Prakriti's love ascends to agape through dedication and repentance to liberation (a kind of divine union familiar in Hindu tradition). She catalyzes the sacrifice both of her Mother and the monk (paralleling redemption through sacrifice in Christian tradition). The pivotal struggle of varied forms of loves -Prakriti's rooted in desire, Mother's in attachment, and Ananda's in compassion--intensifies the action. The play evokes Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian notions of creative, renunciatory, and sacrificial Love. And yet the end of this human drama, like all subtle art forms, remains enigmatic. One wonders who or what wins.
ACT 1 (The setting can be in front of a village house, in a courtyard, or on a path. When the play opens the mother is on stage.)
MOTHER: Prakriti! Prakriti! (There is no answer). Where could she have gone? She is never to be found at home!
PRAKRITI (from a distance): Here I am, Mother, I am here.
PRAKRITI: Here, at the well.
MOTHER (calling) : Come here. I must talk with you. (To herself) At the well at this time of the day when the earth is burning like a furnace, and water for the day is already brought from the well! (Prakriti enters) All the other girls of the village have gotten on with their work, and you sit and melt in the sun for no reason - unless you wish to repeat Uma's penance. Is that why you sit there?
PRAKRITI: Yes, Mother.
MOTHER: Good Heavens! And for whom?
PRAKRITI: He who has called me.
MOTHER: Who has called you?
PRAKRITI: His words are ringing in my mind: "Give me water."
MOTHER: "Give me water!" God grant it was not some one outside our caste!
PRAKRITI: He said he was one of us.
MOTHER: Did you tell him you are a chandalini?
PRAKRTI: Yes, but he said, "Do not deceive yourself with names. If you call the black cloud a chandal, does it cease to be what it is? Does the water it carries lose its value for our earth? Do not degrade yourself, for selfdegradation is a greater sin than suicide." I can remember every word he spoke to me. He spoke so beautifully to me.
MOTHER: What nonsense are you saying? Or are you remembering a story from some former birth?
PRAKRITI: I AM TELLING YOU THE STORY OF MY NEW BIRTH.
MOTHER: Your new birth? You...