RABINDRA NRITYA-NEW INITIATIVES AT VISVA BHARATI

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Visva Bharati has formed a new course at Sangit Bhavana, namely ‘Rabindra Nritya’, which is in its second year now. Historically speaking, Rabindranath assimilated dance forms basically from Manipuri & Kathakali style to suit the desired dancing expressions he envisaged. Initially Manipuri Gurus of that era, mostly from Tripura, tried to interpret Rabindra Sangeet in their own way, and taught dance sporadically. The students further developed the form, new Manipuri and later Kathakali Gurus came and the style developed further. At some point of time Candy dance from Sri Lanka was also incorporated, ultimately to arrive at a distinct ‘Santiniketan style’ of dance. That dance form was very elegantly supplemented by the dress code developed by the stalwarts of the art world of Santiniketan, chiefly Nandalal Bose & Suren Kar. It due course of time, from 1930s onwards, Santiniketan dance forms acquired a distinctive style. Yet Santiniketan style of dancing never had any specific grammar, and generally remained fluid in nature, changing with time. So, purely theoretically, Santiniketan style of Dance remains an undefined style, ever dynamic and hence prone to change along with time. Presently Visva Bharati is trying to conceptualize kind of a structure for Rabindra Nritya in Santiniketan to make the style distinct from other forms of dance. There can be scope for some genuine debate over creating a structural format of Rabindra Nritya, or whether it will ever be possible to create such a structure, or whether the structure would have enough scope for innovation so on and so forth. But at the same time it is for sure that the dancing style in Santiniketan has gradually lost its uniqueness over time, and has now become more an assembly of Manipuri & Kathakali steps. The moot point is an attempt has been initiated to define Rabindra Nritya at Santiniketan by Visva Bharati, perhaps a belated but very relevant initiative indeed.
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The focus of this article is not exactly Rabindra Nritya, but more about the Bratachari dance forms, or local folk form of dancing, that has found a place in the syllabi of Rabindra Nritya. I was genuine startled to find Sangit Bhavana girls practicing ‘bratachari’ drills, ultimately to transcribe them into dance forms, in the open air right in front of Kalobari. It appeared something distinctly new in Santiniketan, and I was genuinely impressed by the spunky ladies in acrobatic forms. Eventually, I had to meet the visiting faculty Sri Naresh Banerjee, Bratachari instructor and life member of Bratachari Society of India and Bangladesh presently on assignment at Sangit Bhavana Visva Bharati.
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Around 1930s, when Sri Gurusaday Datta was posted as District Magistrate of Birbhum, on invitation to a local fair, he was first introduced to Bratachari Dance forms performed by tribals, the dance form was christened as ‘Rai- Bishi’ then. Ghaghra clad men danced with rigorous movements, ultimately to take off the ladies clothes and to perform the acrobatics as powerful males as the finale. On enquiry, Sri Datta was made to understand that the dance form was called ‘Rai Beshe’, because it had something to do with ‘Rai’ or Sri Radhika of the Lord Krishna myth. But Sri Gurusaday Datta was piqued by the robust moves of the dance forms, which appeared more like a war dance, rather than a rendition of love. After a lot of painstaking search into history, he was able to locate a warrior ‘Raibasha’, who was a leader of a group of highly skilled warriors of the Rarh region of Bengal. So efficient was these warriors with bows and arrows on foot and with spears on horseback, that they were hired by the likes of kings of Kalinga and the Rajput kings to fight wars for them. These warriors used to perform a dance after attaining victory, and according to Sri Gurusaday Datta, that dance form is what we today know as ‘Rai Beshe’ dance. Sri Datta then became seriously interested to preserve and propagate the particular dance form.
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Around the same time, in early 1930s, Sri Santidev Ghosh along with a few others of Santiniketan, attended one similar fair in Suri and saw a ‘Rai Beshe’ performance. A few movements of that dance form was incorporated in a drama ‘Nabin’ that was staged in Santiniketan soon after. Rabindranath then enquired about the new dance moves, and asked Sri Gurusaday Datta to semd some experts to Santiniketan to teach Rai Beshe to his students. Not much is known about where the dance forms were subsequently pursued in Santiniketan, but dedicated Bratachari groups were certainly set up in Sriniketan. Gradually from Sriniketan the Bratachari form, that is mainly the acrobatic forms, were spread to villages and schools around Sriniketan area. Gradually that effort to spread Bratachari movement fizzled out in Visva Bharati. In last few years sporadic attempts have been made to revive that effort, but not with much visible impact.
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In this back drop, incorporation of Rai Beshe dance forms, as a part of indigenous folk dance form, in the syllabi of Rabindra Nritya is actually a big fillip to the dance form, with a very interesting scope of assimilation of such concepts into the fold of Rabindra Nritya. I, personally, really loved this effort and laud Visva Bharati for taking such a brilliant initiative. Visva Bharati has traditionally remained absolutely criminally callous about its own heritage and art & culture around Santiniketan and Sriniketan. For example, Visva Bharati does not have the expertise to conserve its own brilliant frescoes, the heritage of water colour painting is almost lost in Santiniketan of all things due to lack of competent teachers, never made any attempt to conserve the terracotta temples all around Santiniketan, never set up a dedicated Baul research unit, do not feel any need to work with the Dokra artists few kilometers off Santiniketan, never really was focused on conserving the bio-diversity around the campus, so on and so forth. So, inspite of creating huge hypes on Rabindranath Tagore, his ideals and traditions of Santiniketan, Visva Bharati, I repeat, remained criminally insensitive to its own heritage and about the art & culture around Santiniketan, an unpardonable sin according to my own humble understanding. It is a wonder really how Visva Bharati aspires to be a global education hub, while turning a blind eye to its own surroundings! Such duplicity in standards does not sustain, and it did not sustain for Visva Bharati, and it will not sustain in future too!
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Naturally by being seriously interested in Rai Beshe dance forms Visva Bharati has bucked its own trend so far, and has now become sensitive to its surroundings. It is a very welcome and very important gesture, and I sincerely hope the effort will continue at Sangit Bhavana. Since, Rai Beshe is essentially a male dance form; I was surprised to find so many first and second year girls interested, which must have been a tad difficult for them to acclimatize with. But, the energy of the ladies, naturally, as so far only girls have enrolled for Rabindra Nritya, is something really to cherish. When in 4rth year, the girls would be asked to compose dances ,the real effect of such a rigorous training will unfold. If Manipuri & Kathakali teachers of Sangit Bhavana interact with Sri Naresh Banerjee, which I think is already in process, we may come across new dancing expressions from Sangit Bhavana right from this year. I reckon the innovations will be interesting; in fact I am already pretty intrigued about the possibility of such innovations.
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As an Indian, it was very warming to find that Visva Bharati, one of our numerous educational institutes, has not really forgotten our own traditions of art, culture and music; and is not blindly mimicking the western concepts en masse. As an ex-student of Visva Bharati, I express my sincere appreciation for such a move, earnestly wish that the effort is continued, and would like to appeal to Visva Bharati to consider conserving frescoes & terracotta temples, to promote water colour painting, to focus more on Bauls & Fakirs at the institutional level, and to spare a few soulful thoughts on the dying Dokra art form few villages away from Santiniketan, to make us really very proud about Visva Bharati.

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With very special regard to Sri Naresh Banerjee, and loads of best wishes for his team of lovely Sangit Bhavana girls,thanks,Shubhashis.

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