Red Oleanders (Raktakarabi) is one of the more than sixty plays, dance dramas and dramatic sketches by Asia’s first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The play, written in 1923-24, was begun during a visit to Shillong, Assam, and inspired by the image of a red oleander plant crushed by pieces of discarded iron that Tagore had come across while walking. A short time later, an oleander branch with a single red flower protruded through the debris, as if, he noted, “created from the blood of its cruelly pierced breast.” It has been suggested that the play’s title might appropriately be translated as Blood-Red Oleanders to indicate the beautiful but toxic nature of the flower and its association with beauty and death in the play. The writing process was not a straightforward one and involved some ten drafts and various titles such as Yakshapuri (a mythical city of unparalleled wealth) and Nandini (after the heroine who seeks to tear down the barrier behind which the king is secluded). Curiously, the Bengali version of the play was staged only once in the Poet’s lifetime by his family in their Jorasanko residence, and it was only in 1954 that a successful staging was accomplished under the direction of Sombhu Mitra’s Bohurupee Company.
Though widely appreciated by Bengali audiences, its reception in English translation has been uneven. The first English version Red Oleanders was done by Tagore himself (with perhaps some assistance from Kshitish Chandra Sen) and published by Macmillan, London, in 1925. The reviews that followed were less than enthusiastic with criticism of obscurantism . Tagore argued that the play’s theme involving unscrupulous capitalism, environmental exploitation and the importance of human relationships was not an obscure one. “It is not for me to discuss the literary qualities of this book, which being a mere translation, can have no pretension to a permanent place as literature in a language not the author’s own,” he wrote, “but I think, in justice to myself, I should make it clear that it has a definite meaning which can legitimately claim literary expression.”
In 1987, Ananda Lal published a translation of three plays by Tagore, including Red Oleanders, which was a welcome addition to making Tagore’s works accessible in English. Lal’s work represented a faithful recreation of the original work, and it also included pertinent scholarship on the history and context of the plays. His translation of Red Oleanders was finally staged in 2006 at Camden Peoples Theatre in England. Again, the reception was less than enthusiastic with charges that the play was too heavily symbolic, the production too long, and the language not modern enough.
Now, in 2008, comes an innovative translation by Nupur Lahiri dedicated to “all readers of Rabindranath Tagore.” Lahiri, who has lived in North America for over three decades, wears many hats to qualify her in the difficult task of translating Tagore for a contemporary audience. As well as being a writer-translator, she is an M.D. and Professor of Psychiatry and has been active in a foundation that promotes cross-cultural exchange. Arguing that translations have to be updated, renewed and adapted periodically, Lahiri points out that in the Bengali original, Tagore’s poetic diction does not appear old-fashioned and odd, but rather is lyrical and free flowing. It is only in his English translations that his language seems dated and out of touch with its audience. “My long standing wish, and a bit of an obsession,” she writes, “has been to bring Tagore’s Red Oleanders to the western world in a form that is free and comprehensible while maintaining the original message of the play.”
Her translation, which has transformed and streamlined the versions that preceded it, comes to us in fresh, lucid and comprehensible English. In some cases, she has eliminated characters and aspects of the plot, compressing songs and dialogues to make the play more contemporary and directly accessible to the audience. Nupur Lahiri’s translation has received endorsement from noted writers such as Sahitya Akademi President Sunil Gangopadhyay, and it is hoped that her efforts to recast this important play into a stage worthy English translation will generate a fresh production of Red Oleanders in a contemporary setting.
A new translation of the renowned Tagore drama Red Oleanders by Nupur Lahiri is welcome for its simplicity of language and expression. This is a point worthy of note because this is one of those plays in Tagore’s genre which is considered allegorical in character and therefore somewhat mystifying. Nupur Lahiri’s translation breaks through this mystique appreciably and hopes to reach out to a wide readership.
Tagore’s own English translation of the play did not achieve this even though that was intended. Tagore wanted the play to be an expression of that truth “to which we are so accustomed that we have forgotten all about it”. He did not construe it to be a sermon or a moral. Simply put, it is a play about evil and good, working side by side, about greed and human sympathy, about that which separates fellow beings and that which keeps us together. All this is surely not so different from great works of art and literature, and touches upon the core of life itself. A similar literary work is Michail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita.
The play Red Oleanders is based upon the principle that each must legitimately fight the other, the oppressor and the oppressed. The play’s central character of a Raja or king cruelly exploits nature as well as all possible human resources, of mind, of science, in order to develop a highly centralised bureaucracy and add to his wealth. He sits fascinated as he watches how his entire retinue continued mechanically to guard his fortress and his ever growing wealth.
Into this lifeless fortress enters the other central character of the play, Nandini, summoned from her village by the ruthless king who operates always from behind a screen. Undaunted by the king, Nandini walks in with her touch of life and joy and love symbolising the highest truth in the human world. A truth for which men and women, in all times and countries, have been willing and eager to make the supreme sacrifice from a conviction that behind this spirit in man is God. To them God was love.
Even if we do not believe in this God, or in any God, our experience in the home or in the family or in the community shows that love is truth. Until Nandini appeared on the scene, the king’s workers could not have imagined that there was an alternative to the way they lived. They lived and worked like machines driven by the king and his hierarchy among whom were the governor, the priest and the professor. The community mindlessly accepted the domination of the strong and the oppression of the weak.
Likewise Nandini had been ordered from her village home, and taken away from her lover Ranjan, only to be made useful in adding to the king’s wealth. But she defeated all such machinations by spreading an atmosphere of love wherever she went, ranging from the study of the ‘dry-as-dust’ professor, the office of the ‘file-grinding governor’, the temple of the sinister priest, to the guards room where the attendance register was kept.
The problem and the cure are simple. Like the blossoming of a flower (red oleander is a common flower in Bengal), happiness too had to be a product of love and of labour that is civil and honest and made of human sympathy and consideration.
I sincerely hope Nupur Lahiri’s translation of this significant play will draw out the class tensions that are embedded in all societies and help in being both recuperative and literary. Tagore had a penetrating pen along with an analytical approach to life at the base of which was his unfailing faith in mankind. It will be worthwhile if this translation finds its way among play-reading groups who can read, discuss, and find an insight into its contents.
 See Ananda Lal, Rabindranath Tagore Three Plays (Kolkata:M.P. Birla Foundation: 1987), pp. 129-32
Published in Parabaas December, 2008.