Decoding The Bard
Rabindranath Tagore was all of 63 when he met the vivacious, 34-year-old Argentine scholar, Victoria Ocampo. The year was 1924. ‘Gurudev’ was a much revered figure worldwide, having received the Nobel prize in 1913 for Gitanjali. Victoria had read the French translation of the book and was instantly drawn to him.
Colour Blind, directed by Manav Kaul, recreates this phase of the Nobel Laureate’s life: a brief relationship of a few months that continued through letters and poems after he returned to Santiniketan. But the play is much more than what is commonly perceived as a platonic love affair. Complexly layered, it begins with a young writer struggling to encompass the multi-faceted Tagore’s life into a single book…
Kalki Koechlin, playing the bespectacled, endearing biographer, is an absolute delight as she gently spoofs the Bengalis’ awe of ‘Gurudev’. Decoding the larger-than-life figure, she recounts how he coped with loss and death. She does this not in a sombre tone, but as a young girl who is wonderstruck, and even amused at how copiously the man could write at every turn of his life. Every time he lost a loved one, what did he do? “He wrote and he painted, he wrote and he painted!” she exclaims, unable to believe that anybody could really write so much.
The play then moves on to episodes of the poet’s life with Death intruding at regular intervals, resulting in the spiritual, prayer-like songs of the Gitanjali. Thus, when Tagore meets Victoria (also enacted by Kalki, now in a jacket and stylish hat) he is in the autumn of his life and the attraction the two feel for one another is platonic to begin with. But Colour Blind moves beyond that to the physicality of their relationship. In an explicit scene, Tagore places his hand on Victoria’s breast. It is in this defining moment that Victoria’s awe of the man dissolves. Kalki, who is a co-writer of the play, explains the significance of the scene, “The instant he touches her he regrets it. And the moment she realises the power she has over him, she moves away from the awe she has for him. Touch makes things real and therefore finite. Dreams and poetry, however, last forever.”
Colour Blind explores all these aspects of the bard’s life while de-mythifying many of them. Much of the play is held together by the exotic-looking, Indo-French Kalki, effortlessly alternating between her role as a biographer of Tagore and that of his beloved. In the former, she brings in refreshing humour that takes away the god-like qualities most Bengalis invest him with, and in the latter there is profundity, and even angst.
Speaking English, Hindi and French in a flawless diction, Kalki brings to the stage a refreshing lack of self-consciousness – and it will be to theatre’s immense gain if she takes some time off from films to act in more plays.