In Kolkata the image of Tagore is ubiquitous. And unlike the face of Shakespeare in the UK (the figure to which Tagore’s significance is most casually compared for the myopic understanding of Westerners) Tagore’s presence in Bengali public spaces is almost entirely held with reverence, rather than mercilessly marketed on t-shirts and mugs as with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. So it is not unusual to see his image at the Rabindra Tirtha in Newtown (itself a part of Kolkata erected with a certain Garden City coldness the rest of the metropolis thankfully lacks). At the entrance, the famous photograph of Tagore in theatrical attire, dressed up for one of his family productions when he was a strapping young man (long before he was the bearded be-robed sage who became an international literary star, and Asia’s first Nobel laureate). The choice of that image is not an accident. Rabindra Tirtha is a creative oasis – I hear several frequenters who introduce us to the geography as well as the concept of the place refer to it with this word – in Newtown’s high-rise ghostliness. It is a natural choice for the third iteration of the Tantidhatri International Women’s Performance Festival, and was here in isolation long before the developers spread to the area.
Through the archway entrance, and through a green central square that includes the theatre building, is a substantial manmade lake, the focal point of which, rising from the water like a deity, is a towering bronze statue of Tagore. He looks over the place that echoes his own forename, Rabindra Tirtha. He is nowadays dwarfed by the tower blocks and plazas that are going up around him, but he shines a great deal brighter than them. Tagore, despite some predictable conservative opinions about the role of women in the home that were not out of step for his era, wrote some of the most powerful and progressive female characters in all of Bengali literature (traditionally the most progressive and liberal area of Indian arts); so it is not too disarming for this festival dedicated to female creativity, showcasing performers of music, theatre and visual arts from California to South Korea, to have such a man watching over them.
This is not a commune, but feels like one, has the aura (for want of a better word) of people getting away from the asphyxiations of the modern world and its demands. What Jill Greenhalgh’s Daughter has done, is force the performers to look out, as well as in, in their evocations of personal discovery. Daughter was devised under Greenhalgh’s direction during the festival (although the concept for this practice is much older, and versions of Daughter have blossomed all around the world since 2011 under Greenhalgh’s stewardship), and presented mid-afternoon on the penultimate day – an international cast displaying the fruits of the development period for an international audience.
Greenhalgh, Artistic Director of the Magdalena Project since 1986, is an old hand at bringing together a cacophony of international voices, pushing under-represented female voices to the front of the stage. Inside the dimly lit theatre at Rabindra Tirtha the feeling that this is an international space, rather that one rooted in India, or Bengal, is strongly felt, and the approving gaze of the omnipresent Tagore could not be more respectfully irrelevant. Outside he feels more like the past than he has ever done.
The audience are guided on to the stage, where women sit at tables awaiting guests to sit opposite and hear their stories. Each has a display of props, artfully spread in front of them, some of which will be used in the stories they tell, some of which hold more oblique symbolisms. In the centre of the stage, with as much presence as Tagore in his lake, a baby grand is played with haunting, lilting, Gymnopaedic aloofness. The stories begin, people gather, and there is more than a hint of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present. The proximity of the stories – personal, emotive, searching – certainly gives them extra power; and it is worth noting also that the invitation implicit in this kind of theatre for the audience to also become performers is irresistible. There are tears – one woman is sobbing at one point – whereas others are notably aloof, polite, and earnest in their reactions. No reaction can be unconsidered, because the audience is on display, and the reactions to the stories are as much a part of the performative oxygen of Daughter as the pre-prepared elements are. Some, of course, are more performed than others, and some are unconscious overreactions, or even under-reactions, coming to the surface in light of the watchful eye. This is one of several interesting side-effects of a far-reaching and rich experience.
The stories are untied in their typical-ness, as well as their uniqueness. We could all tell stories like these if given over to the same processes that ended up in Daughter. And that is the point. The Indian woman who was inspired to become a poet, her mother being the only person in a conservative family who encouraged her to write; the Serbian woman who discovered the strength of her grandmother through the uncovering Daughter forced to her do; the American who investigated her mother’s adoption – these are the simple and complex stories of lives lived and relationships taken down to their barest structure. In the dimness of that stage, with the Satie-esque atmospherics, and the firm, sympathetic eye contact of each performer as they reveal a part of themselves through their story, Daughter is a singularly powerful piece of theatre.