ON February 26, 1881, a 19-year-old Rabindranath Tagore, recently back from England, presented before a select audience at the Tagore residence at Jorasanko a unique stage production, the likes of which Bengal had never seen. It was an opera titled Valmiki Pratibha based on the legend of the transformation of Valmiki from a dreaded bandit to a sage-poet. The young poet had incorporated European influences in Indian classical and folk traditions in the music, and the audience, which included such luminaries as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Hara Prasad Shastri, were enthralled.
Tagore played the lead role of Valmiki. More than 140 years later, on February 26, 2022, Valmiki Pratibha was given a novel and socially relevant interpretation when it was presented for the first time as a solo performance in the form of a short film titled Jyotirgomaya by Debashish Raychaudhuri, eminent Rabindra Sangeet exponent and scholar of Tagore songs.
Raychaudhuri told Frontline : “Nobody had attempted a solo performance of an opera before, but that was not the reason why I did it. What I wanted to highlight, with the present social and world situation in the background, was how a man like Ratnakara, who is so full of pride, greed and violence, could elevate himself to an almost sage-like stature. Ratnakara starts with destruction and ends with creation—he becomes the poet Valmiki. It is a journey from darkness to light; that is why I have called it Jyotirgamaya , a transcendence from darkness to light. I also wanted to reiterate Tagore’s ideas of non-violence, piety and creativity through music and poetry. I designed this solo act in such a manner that it could be presented cinematically.” Incidentally, Satyajit Ray was interested in doing a cinematic presentation of Valmiki Pratibha , but he never got around to doing it.
From Ratnakara to Valmiki
The action of Valmiki Pratibha begins with the murderous bandit Ratnakara preparing to behead a young girl as a sacrifice to the goddess Kali, but suddenly, he is moved by her pleas for mercy. From this point the transformation of Ratnakara to Valmiki begins. Perceiving a change coming over their leader, the band of robbers interprets it as a sign of weakness and cowardice and leaves him to wander alone in the forest. As Ratnakara gets more and more detached from the world of violence, his sympathy extends not just to the human race but towards all of creation. He sees a hunter gratuitously killing a pair of birds who were in the act of making love, and he curses the hunter. To his surprise, the curse comes out in Sanskrit, a language unknown to Ratnakara. After chancing upon forest nymphs worshipping Saraswati, the goddess of learning, Ratnakara renounces Kali to become a devotee of Saraswati. On the way, he faces temptation, as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, tries to lure him away, but Ratnakara is not to be swayed.
Finally, after years of meditation he transforms himself from Ratnakara to Valmiki, and Saraswati appears before him and presents him with her veena (a musical instrument). It is also revealed that the young girl at the beginning of the drama, who is spared by Ratnakara, was none other than Saraswati. She had appeared before him as an innocent victim to transform him.
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What is remarkable about Raychaudhuri’s film is that he manages to condense a one-and-a-half hour opera to 39 minutes without losing the flow and continuity of the narrative and without diluting the central message of love and enlightenment. “As an opera, Valmiki Pratibha has a number of characters and there are diverse emotions—there is a combination of seriousness and humour. However, in the present scenario, I thought of highlighting those aspects that would have got obfuscated if I did the whole opera,” Raychaudhuri said.
During 40 minutes of the solo show, he brilliantly conveys the transformation of the dreaded Ratnakara to sage Valmiki. The venomous, frightening look of one long associated with a life of depravity, beautifully, almost imperceptibly, changes into an expression of serenity and bliss as the dreaded forest bandit finds his way to light from darkness, to peace from violence.
“I have been playing the role of Valmiki since my teens, and in many ways, I have been living with this character for a long time. While playing [the role] in the opera, I would use body movements to depict the violence in Ratnakara, but in the solo act, I decided to use eye movements only,” Raychaudhuri said. The other characters in the drama are only heard; their presence can be sensed through the actions of Valmiki.
Through the subtle use of light and shade, Raychaudhuri in a nuanced and delicate manner conveys the protagonist’s inner struggles. In the film, Ratnakara wrestles with his inner demons as he is drawn irresistibly towards enlightenment. His baser instincts constantly fight against his elevation to a higher state of being. The scene darkens almost imperceptibly as he wants to indulge in revelry and violence once again, and the shade is lifted gently as he utters the words:
“Cease. Desist. Drop the bow;
Don’t release the arrow.
The fawns are running for their lives
Looking back with pleading eyes
Cease. Desist. Discard these murderous games.” (translation)
Apart from the central message of peace and enlightenment, the film also highlights Tagore’s conception of the “ideal human being”. “The world has not changed much since Tagore’s time. He had witnessed the two World Wars, and today, we are living in the same greedy, power-loving world, with reincarnations of the same wicked leaders. The world is heading towards destruction, and that is why Valmiki Pratibha and Tagore’s vision of humanity are relevant today. Tagore had always talked about the ideal man and tried to show how it is possible for a common individual to elevate himself. When he composed the opera, he was still in his teens, and in the transformation of Ratnakar, we find the first expression of his philosophy,” said Raychaudhuri.
With effective editing and imagery, Raychaudhuri has tried to take the story out of the realm of Hindu mythology and make the message more universal. Although in the opera the goddesses (Saraswati and Lakshmi) are depicted by actors, Raychaudhuri presents them in different shades and colours and light.
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“I am only showing Ratnakara’s reaction to their presence. The goddesses are nothing but symbols—Lakshmi represents the materialistic aspirations of man, Saraswati the light of all creation. I think you can interpret a classic according to the requirements of a particular age. I have also used subtitles so that everyone can understand the underlying message. We are living in a very violent world and peace is possible if we truly want it,” said Raychaudhuri.
The film is available for viewing on YouTube.