In our interactive oral, we discussed the cultural and contextual considerations of Red Oleanders, a play written by Rabindranath Tagore—an eminent Bengali poet, playwright, and painter who was notably the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. During our discussion, we considered how this work was influenced by the author’s perspectives and the socio-political and economic events leading up to and including the time period wherein it was written in.
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Our interactive oral focused on how the Tagore’s works were often characterized by his own life experiences and by social movements in the late 19th century to the early 20th century. This time period saw the rising evolution of agrarian societies to industrial societies (post-Industrial Revolution), the rise of capitalism worldwide, and the Independence Movement of India of 1857-1947. Although growing up in a rich family, Tagore empathized with issues that concerned the disadvantaged, including how the Industrial Revolution increased disparity between the rich and the poor. In fact, Tagore was particularly against the Hindu Caste system, British colonialism in India, and sectarianism. Having this background knowledge allowed me to understand the Marxist approach of this play, and his intention of giving a voice to marginalized groups who are subjected to the corruption of classism and the exploitation from dominating groups under the status quo. For example, the protagonist, Nandini, is the archetypal Femme Fatale character who metaphorically awakens the diggers of the Yaksha mining town who are imprisoned by their own insatiable greed for wealth. It is for this greed that their subjugation to dig for gold underground is even more undeviating. In essence, Tagore’s criticism for the hierarchy of power in a capitalist society and his admiration of equality in an egalitarian society were further illuminated in this play.
From our discussion of the use of historical allusions in this play, we also concluded that Tagore draws attention to his perceived epidemic of the “greed for gold” around the world. Specifically, the hoarding of wealth initiated an interesting conversation on how gold represents the materialism and avarice that the authors believes to be the ultimate “downfall” of society.
Furthermore, we agreed that the author does an impeccable job at conveying his political perspectives. By extension, Tagore, perhaps, fulfilled his social responsibility of being a writer: to question, challenge, and guide his readers in a society full of truths and mistruths.
Rabindranath Tagore: a champion for social justice
In different time periods and across civilizations around the world, there has always been the dominating issue of inequality within societies. History has proven that discrimination against race, gender, age, and wealth instigates unequal access to opportunity and the infringement of rights and freedoms for disenfranchised groups. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai are some of the most notable activists who have been at the forefront of bringing about change. Similarly, in Red Oleanders, Rabindranath Tagore, an illustrious Bengali poet, brings awareness to issues of social injustice through the perspective of the protagonist, Nandini, in Yaksha Town. Through a Marxist critical lens, it can be seen that Tagore’s ultimate goal is to give a strong voice to marginalized groups who are silenced by dominant groups in society. With this purpose in mind, Tagore vividly portrays the hierarchy of power that exists in Yaksha Town through the use of symbolism. To illustrate the effects of industrial development on lower-class citizens, Tagore also employs contrasting imagery of the natural landscapes of urban and rural civilizations. Furthermore, Tagore’s characterization of Nandini epitomizes his affinity and admiration for communist ideologies.
Throughout the play, various symbols and metaphors serve to convey Tagore’s criticism of capitalism and classism. Yaksha Town is a mining town ruled by the King and his generals. In this town, miners,“diggers”, live under the oppression of the regime and are subjugated to amass gold. On pages 5 and 6, Tagore introduces the idea of gold as a metaphor for the corruption of the regime’s despotism and what he perceives to be an epidemic in Yaksha Town—materialism. Tagore draws comparisons between “[…] diggers in the bowels of the earth” to professors “[who] burrow day and night in a mass of yellow pages]” and “insects in a hole in […] solid toil” (6). By using these analogies, Tagore effectively comments on the avarice, the hamartia, of both the diggers and the regime that compels them to suffer from “tunnel vision” of accumulating gold or “dead wealth” (5). The oxymoron, “dead wealth”, perfectly encapsulates the idea that gold, although a sought-after commodity, is not “wealth” because it is a drug that satiates greed. Alternatively, this term alludes the mining of gold to the “raping of land” that results from pleonexia. It is also evident that gold is representative of the exploitation of proletariats in the town; as Tagore wrote in his epigraph of the play, “men are men no longer but numbers” that are part of a “centralized bureaucracy [that add] to [the King’s] wealth” (V). Thereby, emphasis is placed on the fact that the diggers are being taken advantage of for their labour; they are all but the “cogs in the wheel” or the tools of a wealth-generating machine that belongs to the King.
Perhaps the most obvious use of symbolism is used to illustrate the absolute power that the antagonist—the Governor—and the King have over Yaksha Town and its citizens. The Governor and the King have complete authority in their hands and are the sole beneficiaries of the direful situation. However, it is the Governor who is “[…] nice and polished, like the crocodile’s teeth, which fit into one another with so thorough a bite that the King himself can’t unlock the jaw, even if he wants to.” (Tagore 34). It can, then, be seen that the Governor is the ultimate “puppet master” of the play who appears to be kind, but is manipulative and cunning in nature. The Governor emulates a crocodile who clasps its teeth together in a smile before it captures its prey; he is a “boa-constrictor […] who remains in hiding and swallows [and suffocates] men” (Tagore 105). In the play, other kinsmen are also obsequious to the Governor and try to gain power through nepotism. In the grand scheme of things, Tagore is excoriating the British Raj that colonized the Indian subcontinent in the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. As such, he is mirroring the regime’s rule over Yaksha Town to the Hindu Caste System, sectarianism, and the British Empire’s conquest of India. Throughout his life, Tagore, albeit raised in a wealthy family, saw the disparity between the lower class and higher class members of society; he especially empathized with the proletarians—the “Untouchables”—in India. Red Oleanders is one of many of Tagore’s works where he devotes himself to speaking up for alienated groups. Therefore, through the means of animal symbolism, Tagore effectively highlights the ways in which the groups in power capitalize on the powerless.
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Likewise, Tagore also presents the juxtaposition between urban and rural life, which insinuates the social, political, and economic effects of industrial development on lower-class citizens. “Yaksha Town is a city under eclipse” that “[a]ll creatures fear […]” (Tagore 10). The urban town is described as a hellish demonic trap whose “[…] jaws shut fast, and the one road that remains open leads withinwards” (Tagore 31). Everyone, including Nandini, is cautioned by how the town imprisons all who enter it. As Nandini explains, “every[one] […] [in Yaksha] is either angry, suspicious, or afraid” (Tagore 15). Here, Tagore paints the urban landscape to be a dark, bleak gutter, where workers are literally and metaphorically fixated underground. On the other hand, Tagore depicts the rural landscape as a scenic place with lush vegetation and crops. These two contrasting places represent the opposing forces of the work: the Governor and Nandini. The Governor represents urban life and its associations with enslavement and tyranny; whereas, Nandini represents rural life and it’s associations with innocence, freedom, and happiness. Once someone leaves his rural ways of life and enters Yaksha Town, there is no way to escape out. Moreover, the leave from agrarian society for urban society is an allegory to the exile from the metaphorical place of innocence—that is, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Industrialization and urbanization are, in Tagore’s belief, movements that widen “the gap” between the wealthy and the destitute; he expresses his concern that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in an industrial society. Thus, as shown in the main themes of the play, Tagore saw the rise of capitalism (and self-interest) aggravate the segregation between the “haves” and “have-nots”.
Tagore further establishes the imbalance of power in Yaksha Town through the symbolism of the “Network” that separates the King and his subjects. In the beginning of the play, the King is only referred to under the pseudonym “Voice”, which shows how distant the King actually is from his citizens. When Nandini, a dignified woman who is the archetypal Femme Fatale character, enters Yaksha Town, she is the driving force of breaking down this system. In a patriarchal society, it is Nandini’s provocative carefree nature that is admired yet feared by all who encounter her. The red oleanders that Nandini carriers around with her wherever she goes are symbolic of her function as the outcast in Yaksha Town. Like how red oleanders are toxic, Nandini is the pariah in the town that demolishes the network system; like how red oleanders are durable, drought-resistant flowers, Nandini has the tenacity and mental strength to confront the regime. As Tagore wrote in the epigraph of the play, Nandini is “[…] [the] touch of life, the spirit of joy in life” that awakens the diggers from their metaphorical blindness (VI). She plays a significant role in igniting the fire in the diggers that ultimately enabled them to emancipate themselves from the “tyranny of safety” (Tagore 108). To liberate oneself from the “tyranny of safety”, although a confusing paradox at first, holds some truth in actuality. When the diggers submitted to the orders of the King and the Governor, they lived in safety, but did not have freedom. Nandini brings to the diggers is what makes them realize that they were living a purposeless, pleasureless “existence”—not “life”. Ultimately, she shows the diggers that the purpose of life is not “[t]o extract the essential from the diluted […]” or to live according to the theories of utilitarianism, but rather to take the scenic route and enjoy the journey of life (Tagore 74). Thus, we can conclude that Nandini’s characterization as a freedom fighter for the diggers in Yaksha Town mimics Tagore’s personal lifelong mission to fight for isolated groups in society.
Therefore, through the close analysis of the literary choices made by Tagore in Red Oleanders, it is evident that the purpose of this play is to advocate for the rights of underprivileged groups. This play is a masterful piece in that it allows us, as readers, to not only gain a deepened understanding of the underlying meaning of this play, but also gain perspective of our own lives. We may have all means to support ourselves, but Tagore reminds us to be grateful and stay humble, for there will always be people who are less fortunate than us. Despite the fact that Tagore published this play nearly a century ago, the themes and motifs used express a timeless universal truth that resonates with people from all backgrounds and all walks of life.
- Tagore, R. (2012). Red Oleanders. New Delhi: Niyogi.
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