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Mainstream, VOL L, No 20, May 5, 2012

Muktadhara’s Relevance

Sunday 13 May 2012, by Amiya Dev

A Tagore play that has a lot of relevance today is Muktadhara (‘The Waterfall’ in his own translation, both dated 1922). It is set in the open—in fact its original title was Path or ‘Way’—on the road to Lord Bhairava’s temple in a hilly country, with a quick shift of actors. The occasion is the completion of a dam, a marvel of engineering. People have come to celebrate it and felicitate its builder, Bibhuti, or have come out of curiosity in it or to bemoan their loss in its construction—especially a mother still waiting for her son not knowing that he has been washed away. They go in circles, with a chorus punctuating them, that of the Bhairava worshippers. There is also a choric song at one point in contrast as it were, in adulation of the Machine.

Not only does the dam’s spire set up a chall-enge to that of the Bhairava temple, but it also cuts the water to an indomitable people down-stream that have not been paying rent due to a severe draught. Prince Abhijit who has been their governor has condoned them their lapse of rent. He has been called back. He was the apple of everybody’s eye. The King still loves him, but must now protect him from his people’s wrath for unbarring a crucial pass in the hills lifting the curb on those unruly people’s commerce with the outside world and jeopardising their monopoly on the latter’s wool.

Those people too are here today in a group to claim Abhijit back though, being aware of the politics of the dam, his immediate concern is how to give them back their water. Their leader is a baul by the name of Dhananjay Bairagi, a character from an earlier play (Prayaschitta or Expiation, 1909), a rabble-rouser in the eye of authority, but in truth, an awakener. Much of this awakening is carried out through songs whose words are often riddling being a surer way to truth. His path is that of peaceful resistance which he teaches his followers, but as a true hegemon he would have them answer their own consciousness and not his dictates. In him some see an incidental overlap with Gandhi. He keeps singing and goes to jail.

The play hinges on Abhijit, the Prince, and yet not the prince for he was a foundling by the waterfall. That knowledge has accorded him a special tie with that water whose flow he cannot bear to see ceased. Not only has it been life to him but it has also been life to the people down-stream. Every flow of water is life to all. No Bibhuti, however masterful an engineer, can deny it. Abhijit has come to know of a breach in the dam. Bibhuti is also aware of it, but he is secure in the knowledge that anyone who touches that breach will be swept away. A tragedy is in the offing. But it is a tragedy that will free the water. That is what ‘Mukta-dhara’ literally means: the freed current of water.

THE Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has completed its twentyfive years and this play, written nearly ninety years ago, seems to have been prophetic. In today’s fast growing economies a special power is attached to the word ‘development’. By all means must we have it, even by doing violence to both natural and human geo-graphy but condoning that as ‘collateral damage’. The compulsion of capital too is irresistible, and perhaps it has been proved by now that if anything is undying in human society, it is the primitive accumulation. Not only does the state have its rhetoric of rationalisation but complicity—the recent history of Tagore’s Bharatbarsha is littered with such complicity.

The baul Dhananjay Bairagi’s entry song is symbolic of all nonviolent resistance. The opening words are: ‘I shall cross the ocean of beatings buffeted by storms/in this fear-routing boat of mine.’ He doesn’t run away from authority—he is ever there to apprehend, but never ever to break. He is such stuff as morals are made on. Tagore is fond of such figures that go about in people’s company and are yet ahead of them. It is them that people turn to when anything puzzles them: they know or hold the key to a mystery. Besides, they have such faith in an order of things beyond material power as makes them unassailable. Incarceration or torture cannot make a dent on their spirit. Indeed they have the makings of saints.
As far as we know, Rabindranath never pro-duced the play Muktadhara himself. If he had, he would surely have acted in it. It doesn’t take much of a guess to say in which role he would have acted. Dhananjay of course. Who else could have spoken such riddles believably as the one that concludes the play, to be followed only by the Bhairava worshippers’ chorus? When the word is brought that ‘the freed current had picked up his (Prince Abhijit’s) wounded body in its mother’s lap and carried it away’, one of Dhananjay’s followers says: ‘But we came looking for him, aren’t we going to get him then?’ Dhananjay’s reply to that is: ‘Now you’ve got him for ever.’ We are not far from Gaffer’s ‘Silence, unbeliever’ in The Post Office or Dakghar. That Dhananjay doesn’t riddle for its own sake, but for the sake of the truth is quite obvious in his firm answer to the King earlier in the play when he has been spotted as the rabble-rouser to which he says:

Of course, I do rouse them. I too am roused.
(Sings a song to that effect.)
You shall not wriggle out by riddles. Answer straight: are you going to pay rent or not?
No, King, we shall not.
You won’t pay? What audacity?
We can’t pay what is not yours.
Not mine?
My surplus crop is yours, not my hunger’s crop.

Indeed the play is as much Dhananjay’s as Abhijit’s. If the Bhairava worshippers’ invocation to Samkara—being variations on the same theme their two choric texts are integrated at the end—is an attestation to universal good, attained through such exemplary sacrifice as Abhijit’s, then that perception is borne by Dhananjay. He is not only the hegemon but also the choregos of the tragedy.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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