Thursday, October 14, 2021


The Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore is often remembered as the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (unless you count Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India, but was of British descent).

Tagore wrote in both Bengali and English. When he published his play Chitra in English in 1914 (the year after he received the Nobel Prize), Tagore wrote in the preface that it had been written "about twenty-five years ago" and been performed in India without any scenery, and with the actors surrounded by the audience.

The story of Chitra is taken from the Mahabharata. Chitra, the daughter of the King of Manipur, is an only child and has been raised by her father as a boy, wielding a bow and arrow and knowing very little about feminine beauty. When she comes across a young prince names Arjuna, she falls in love, but has no idea how to gain the attention of the man she desires.

Aided by Madana, the Hindu god of love and desire, and Vasanta, the personification of spring, Chitra gains the gift of supreme beauty for a period of one year. Arjuna naturally falls in love with her, not realizing that she is the same tomboy he once spurned. He describes her as "the perfect form of a woman" and is surprised she does not "melt in ecstasy into air." She warns him that her beauty is only an illusion, but he persists, and Chitra later tells Madana and Vasanta that the two spent a passionate night together.

Returning to Arjuna, Chitra warns him that their love cannot last, but they should enjoy their moments together while they still have them. On the last night she has of still being beautiful, Chitra prays to the gods that her beauty will burn brightest as it is dying. The gods grant this wish, but then we hear from villagers that robbers are attacking, and they are frightened since their usual protectress Chitra is nowhere to be found. Arjuna is fascinated by the tales of this female warrior, but the beautiful woman with him (Chitra herself, of course) invites him to forget the robbers and return to lovemaking.

In the final scene, Chitra returns to Arjuna wrapped in a cloak. When she drops the cloak, she is again dressed in male attire. "I am not beautifully perfect," she says, but instead has "many flaws and blemishes." Still, she possesses the heart of a woman who has known both pain and joy. Arjuna, being no fool, accepts her, and finds in her not only a companion but the mother of his future son.

Chitra doesn't get too many productions these days, but the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada will be producing it as a lunchtime show next summer under the direction of Kimberley Rampersad.