Pratidhwani, a South Asian cultural and performing organization, presents a myth-based music-and-dance performance about gender roles and attraction by one of India’s most famous writers. It’s at ACT April 28-May 20.
A renaissance man of music, letters and drama, a free thinker and political philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore may not be a familiar figure to most Americans.
But to many of South Asian descent, he is a towering figure in Indian culture — a Bengali poet and playwright, composer, painter, essayist and educator whose words are enshrined in three national anthems (of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), and whose artistic efforts and humanitarian spiritual and anti-colonial political views led him, in 1913, to become the first non-European recipient of a Nobel Prize in literature.
Those well-versed in Tagore’s oeuvre, and those entirely new to it, can take advantage of a rare opportunity to see one of his theatrical works presented in Seattle. A new, large-cast version of “Chitrangada, the Warrior Princess,” a mythological dance-drama with feminist overtones, opens April 28 at ACT Theatre.
‘Chitrangada, the Warrior Princess’
by Rabindranath Tagore, April 28-May 20, ACT, Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
“Chitrangada” can also serve as an introduction to Pratidhwani, an active but somewhat under-the-radar nonprofit arts organization that four South Asian friends living in the Seattle area created in 2003.
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Designed as a platform for the rich traditions of their native cultures as well as new expressions, the organization has hosted numerous workshops in classical and modern Indian dance and music, improv comedy and acting.
In all, Pratidhwani has presented some 90 events — from Bollywood extravaganzas, to evenings of classical Indian dance and music, to contemporary plays, including the well-received family drama “Dance Like a Man” in 2015.
All have featured locally based artists with roots in India and nearby nations, says Moumita Bhattacharya, the president of Pratidhwani’s board and the adaptor-director of “Chitrangada.”
South Asians continue to arrive in King County to work in the booming tech industry. According to census figures, more than 35,000 people from the Indian subcontinent currently reside here.
Bhattacharya, originally from India, is one. A graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, she is currently a product-development consultant for major Seattle companies and her husband works for Microsoft.
But talk with this classically trained dancer and all-around theater hand over tea at a Capitol Hill cafe, and it is clear that her artistic work with Pratidhwani is a consuming, vital part of her life.
Trained from age 4 in Khattak, a folkloric Indian dance form, Bhattacharya moved to Seattle a decade ago and has been involved with Pratidhwani since 2009. “There is a very inherent need for us to be in touch with and stay connected to our culture,” says Bhattacharya, who like Tagore is of Bengali ancestry.
In the 10 events the group produces each year, “There are two strands of art,” she explains. “One is modern, Bollywood and Indian cinema. The other is classically inspired. We have a lot of discussion about which way to go. The Bollywood brings in more people, but what I want to do with my shows is make the classical art understandable.”
Several years ago she began exploring “Chitrangada,” a poetic dance drama that Tagore penned in 1892. The story expressed the writer’s then-unorthodox championing of female equality.
“What is really interesting about Tagore is how liberated his thinking and writing were,” says Bhattacharya. She notes that he took the leading character of Chitrangada from the Hindu epic “Mahabharata,” which mentions Chitrangada as one of the wives of the heroic protagonist Arjuna. But in his hourlong verse drama, he expanded and transformed this reference into a fable of women’s liberation.
Bhattacharya: “He wrote about a princess brought up to be manly and strong. She is desired by Arjuna only after the God of Love transforms her into a beautiful, traditionally feminine woman. But Chitrangada can’t deny her strength or who she really is, and she comes back to herself to be an equal partner to Arjuna.”
Bhattacharya’s dual-language adaptation of the work (which was tried out in a small-scale outing in 2010) kept “parts of the poem in Bengali, but I also introduced two characters who are narrators, storytellers who go from village to village, and they explain everything you need to know. And we have two performers playing the two different identities of Chitrangada.”
Dance — classical, folk and contemporary — is a major component of the two-hour show, which features recorded and live music, and a cast of 40 wearing vivid, classical Indian-style costumes designed by Bhattacharya. (“I’m OCD about everything that goes onstage.”)
As for the challenges of staging the piece in the round, in ACT’s Allen Theatre, this director embraces them: “When he staged his dance dramas, Tagore always did them on a 360-degree stage.”
Bhattacharya hopes that people of many backgrounds will attend. But she acknowledges the current stigma that immigrants of color feel, as anti-immigration political rhetoric and policies have ratcheted up since President Donald Trump’s campaign and election.
“We’ve been asked about how being mainly an immigration population affects this culture,” she says. “We can’t get around the fact that we are immigrants. But what we’re saying is, we exist and we’re an important part of the fabric of this society. We have something to contribute, and communicate.”