Kala Utsav at the Rabindranath Tagore Institute: A Breakthrough

“A Festival is more than a Festival…”

— Jean Duvignaud, ‘Festivals: A Sociological Approach’

Kala Utsav: The festival of visual and performing arts held on Friday last at the Rabindranath Tagore Institute was a veritable ode to the artists of Mauritius. By opening the portals of the RTI, to the various art forms, both print and fusion of Hindustani semi-classical, folk, African and Western electronic music, Mrs Mala Chummun Ramyead, Officer-in-Charge has set a new trend, a new concept that will establish in the years to come a worthy tradition , and a tribute to the name of the Institute.

Some sixteen established and new budding artists of Mauritius including Fabien Cango, Jacques Yves David, Ombika Arvin, Deepa Bauhadoor showcased their works in this Print Exhibition after having followed a 4-day intensive workshop in printmaking under the guidance of Mrs Neermala Luckheenarain, resource person in print making and former Senior Lecturer of Fine Arts Department, MGI.

Print Exhibition and Performing Arts

The performing arts that followed the opening of the Print Exhibition was an exquisite blend of Hindustani, Carnatic, African, Sufi music (Yaswant Joorun) as well as Bollywood music and dance conceptualised and choreographed by Varsha Rani Bissessur Doolooa. The Kathak Dance was a superb moment of grace and intensity of the Lucknow Gharana executed with tremendous elegance by Swayamprabha Bauhadoor Beechook. Musical accompaniment by Ashwin Jodhun on electric guitar, Nilay Jodhun on keyboard, Vicky Muneesamy on Electronic Pad, Sandy Muneesamy on Bass Guitar, Neriyen Virlapin on Tabla and Manish Sacrapanee on Dholak and Side Rhythm brought a new dimension to our appreciation of a blend modern and classical music.

A festival is a collective manifestation, a celebration of life itself. As Roger Caillois and Mircea Eliade have observed in ‘The Myth of the Eternal Return’ (Pantheon Books) “all commemorations are a return to the source, to the origins.” The artists through their palettes and prints, voices and instruments only interpret the cosmology of space and sound as it echoes down to us from the void and the music of the spheres.

Just as landscape has changed drastically with the industrial revolution and today with post- modernism, globalisation and E-music system, likewise our soundscape too is changing rapidly. Modern man is now inhabiting a world with “an acoustical environment” different from what he has ever been accustomed to. There are new sounds now that bring a difference to those of the past both in quality and intensity, but we must be careful however to make the difference between noise pollution and good music.

If electronic music has brought a revolution to the perception of aural patterns, the Nada Yoga of ancient times on the other hand celebrates the interiorization of sound or vibration which has given Indian music its raison d’être.

Rabindranath Tagore, the genius of our time in all types of literary genres and art forms and the initiator of a new form of music – the Rabindra Sangeet – should be happy that in post-slavery and post-indenture cultural scape of Mauritius, such a concept of celebration of art forms is taking place. Tagore himself was inspired to put forward his concept of Utsav to raise the masses from the humdrum and make them celebrate based on their cultural heritage, feasts and seasonal festivals. He added his own vision to this heritage by creating a new ensemble.

As Mala Chummun Ramyead said in her speech: “We wanted to create a celebratory space bringing together both the visual and the performing artists.” Drawing upon Tagore’s idea of the Festivals of Shantiniketan, she has taken the initiative of the Kala Utsav, converting the corridor entrance to the auditorium of the RTI into a permanent gallery – “which aims at promoting the talents that we have… it will give opportunities to professional artists and people who share a love for arts without being professional in the domain,” added Mala Ramyead, herself a world- renowned sculptor, trained at Tagore’s Shantiniketan and former Head of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute.

Deve Gowda’s Gift

The north of the country needed such an institution as the RTI. One would recall that the Rabindranath Tagore Institute was mooted out of a proposal by Harish Boodhoo to the former Prime Minister of India Shri Deve Gowda who was in Mauritius for a short visit on 4th February 1997. Some 7000 people had gathered around at Ilot village to give an overwhelming reception to the Indian dignitary. Highly impressed on that occasion with that warm welcome, he spontaneously communicated with the veteran politician through the Secretary to the Indian Cabinet about what gift would the people of Ilot like to have? Harish Boodhoo was prompt to propose the creation of a cultural complex for the north of Mauritius, as we already had the Mahatma Gandhi Institute at Moka. Later on in the evening at the civic reception at the MGI, Shri Deve Gowda announced the gift of the Government of India of a cultural complex at Ilot, Pamplemousses.

The negotiations went on between the Governments of Mauritius and India. Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chief Guest at the 32nd Independence Day Celebrations of Mauritius on March 12, 2000, laid the foundation stone of the end product: the Rabrindranath Tagore Institute. Established with the assistance of the Government of India as a Centre of Studies on Indian Culture and Traditions, the Institute functions under the Governing Council of the MGI – RTI of which the High Commissioner of India is represented as the ex-officio Vice-Chairperson. The Director of the RTI is the main executive who reports to the Director General of the MGI – RTI. An imposing bronze bust of Rabindranath Tagore was gifted by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) and was installed in the premises of the Institute on May 31, 2007. Coincidentally May 31 was the date on which the 90-year-old Indian Labour Indentureship came to an end.

A Rabindranath Tagore University

The Rabindranath Tagore Institute has for long been slated to function as a proper University. Instead of having some doubtful tertiary institutions operating here, the RTI could well deserve to have such an autonomous academic status with links to Shantiniketan’s Visva Bharati University. It could well be made to operate independently from the parent institution, which itself has nothing to envy, to hold a tertiary status in its own right. The RTI can be a hub for formal and non-formal teaching of art, music, languages, targeting the rural population of the north and east. It could be such a centre of excellence for the Indian Diaspora with windows upon South Africa, Reunion, Madagascar and Seychelles. It could offer specialised courses in Madhubani Art of which it has become a hub now. It could consider say Bengali language, literature and culture with a focus on Rabindra Sangeet. We in fact underestimate the number of immigrants who hailed from different districts of Bengal such as 24 Parganas and the vicinity of Kolkata. According to a recent survey, in fact some 25,000 people in Mauritius do claim their Bengali origin. Once Bengali was even introduced in the school curriculum. Bengal and Eastern Bihar such as Purnea have great blood, cultural and linguistic affinities. Moreover studies in Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Maithili, Bengali and Oria could be developed as the immigrants came from a broader zone of the former Presidency of Oudh, Bihar and Orissa. These may seem distant. But they are dreams that can materialize through a special structured model and specialised faculties.

Mrs Sooryakanti Nirsimloo-Gayan Director General of MGI/RTI in her address at the Kala Utsav at RTI encouraged the hotels of the north to buy the works of the artists and encourage cultural tourism by arranging for tourists to visit this imposing jewel of an architecture with a permanent gallery on the life and works of Tagore and as from now on a new gallery with modern art of local artists.

Inaugurated by the Deputy Permanent Secretary, Dr. Nalini Luckheenarain of the Ministry of Arts and Culture who represented the Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr. Santaram Baboo, the exhibition will remain open to the public till September.

It is a well-known fact that that Rabindranath Tagore abhorred the closed circuit of educational institutions like most children do and therefore created the unique Visva Bharati University in the open nature and under the trees at Shantiniketan after visiting Santa Barbara in 1917. He despised classroom schooling. In his poem “The Parrot’s Training” “a bird is caged and force-fed textbook pages -to death.” He intended “to make Shantiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world and a world centre for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.” He wanted a freedom of the mind, where the head is held high without fear.

Similarly, the RTI with its verdoyant sprawling landscape at Ilot, Pamplemousses, can inspire students and artists likewise towards more creative thinking and producing works of creativity, in terms of performing and visual arts as well as creative writing and new ideas.

This new beginning of Kala Utsav will set the tone for the burgeoning of good music and art forms in the north of the country as well as the whole country in due course not only along the concept of art for art’s sake but also to meet the demands of the growing culture industry and market economies in line with the aspirations of the Government. For the artists need to live also.


*  Published in print edition on 3 July 2015

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