Rabindranath Tagore’s Mukta-dhara (Translated by Marjorie Sykes) is a play with an interesting, futuristic theme. The King of Uttarkut, Ranajit, employs an engineer, Bibhuti, to build a dam to stall the waters of Mukta-dhara which were flowing into the neighbouring country, Shiv-tarai, in order to make them starve and submit.
The play, written in 1922, can be viewed as a critique on nationalism and the use of science for destruction. There is also a small scene from the play in which Tagore launches a scathing satirical attack on the schooling system, relevant today more than ever. Tagore’s play precedes Noam Chomsky’s description of formal education as ‘a deep level of indoctrination that takes place in our schools’ and a schooled person ‘is one who is conditioned to obey power and structure’.
The Bairagi, Dhananjaya, a character in the play, reminds us of Gandhi and speaks his language of non-violence. Some critics cite the character of Sandip, the antagonist in Ghare Baire, to be a veiled attack on Gandhi. But Ghare Baire was actually written in 1916, much before the phenomenal rise of Gandhi in India and his khadi movement on a national scale, and has to be seen more as a criticism on the swadeshi movement of the previous decade. Tagore, though, did employ some of those arguments in his later debates with Gandhi on khadi. However, it was an ideological debate and not an attack on his personal integrity, which was the case with Sandip. Dhananjaya is a far more representative portrayal of the voice of Gandhi than Sandip. But even Dhananjaya, Marjorie Sykes points out in the introduction, had already appeared in an earlier play of Tagore, Prayaschitta (Atonement), published in 1909.
[Here is the scene where a schoolmaster and his students meet the King.]
The schoolmaster of Uttarakut enters with his boys.
MASTER. You’ll be getting a taste of the cane, I can see.
Loudly now, shout, Jai Rajarajeswar!
BOYS. Jai, Rajara . . .
MASTER [slapping a boy or two within his reach] . . .
BOYS. Jeswar !
RANAJIT. Where are you all going?
MASTER. Sire, your Majesty is to confer honour on our royal engineer Bibhuti, so I am taking the boys to share the rejoicings. They have learned from childhood to honour everything that is to the glory of Uttarakut. I don’t want them to miss any opportunity.
RANAJIT. They all know, I suppose, what Bibhuti has done?
BOYS [jumping and clapping their hands]. Yes, yes, he has stopped up Shiv-tarai’s drinking water.
RANAJIT. Why did he do that?
BOYS. To make them smart!
RANAJIT. And why should he make them smart?
BOYS. Because they are bad men.
RANAjiT. How bad?
BOYS. Everybody knows it, they are very bad, awfully bad.
RANAjtT. But you don’t know why they are bad?
MASTER. Of course they know, Maharaja. Now, you, didn’t you read? Didn’t you read in your book?
[Whispering] Their religion is very bad,
BOYS. Yes, yes, their religion is very bad.
MASTER. And besides, they are not like us. Come now, speak up! [He points to his nose.]
BOYS. They haven’t got high-ridged noses.
MASTER. Right, now what has our professor proved? What does a high-ridged nose show?
BOYS. The greatness of our race!
MASTER. Good. And what will that great race do?
Come, speak up! … they’ll conquer , . . out with it. do! … they’ll conquer everyone else in the world, won’t they?
BOYS. Yes, everyone.
MASTER. Were the men of Uttarakut ever defeated in war?
BOYS. Never, never!
MASTER, Didn’t our former king Pragjil, with two hundred and ninety-three men, drive back an army of thirty-one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three southern barbarians?
BOYS. Yes, yes!
MASTER. Rest assured, your Majesty, all these boys will be a terror one day to all wretched foreigners. If not, I am no true teacher. Not for a moment do I forget what a great responsibility is ours. It’s, we schoolmasters who mould men — your ministers have merely to use them. Yet think what a salary they get, compared with ours!
MINISTER. But these boys themselves are your reward.
MASTER. Well spoken, sir, the boys themselves are Our reward. Alas, but food is dear. Just think; cow’s ghee, which used to be . . .
MINISTER. All right, all Tight, I’ll see about your ghee. Now go, it’s nearly time for worship.
The Schoolmaster goes out with his boys.
RanajiT. This schoolmaster of yours has nothing in his head but ghee, cow’s ghee.
MINISTER. There is certainly a good deal of the cow about him. But, Maharaja, fellows of this kind have their uses. Day after day they repeat, mechanically, exactly what they have been told. Things wouldn’t run so smoothly if they had more sense.
[A scene with Dhananjaya:]
GANESH. Master, only say the word, and I’ll get hold of that bully Chandapal’s stick and show him what beating is.
DHANANJAYA. Can’t you show him what not-beating is?
That needs too much strength, I suppose? Beating the waves won’t stop the storm. But hold your rudder steady, and you win.
FOURTH SHIV What do you tell us to do, then?
DHANANJAYA. Strike at the root of violence itself.
THIRD SHIV. How can that be done, Master?
DHANANJAYA. .As soon as you can hold up your head and say that it does not hurt, the roots of violence will be cut.
SECOND SHIV. It is not so easy to say that it doesn’t hurt.
DHANANjAYA. Nothing can hurt your real manhood, for that is a flame of- fire. The animal, that is the flesh, feels the blow, and whines. But you stand there gaping — don’t you understand ?
SECOND SHIV. We understand you, but your words we don’t understand.
DHANANJAYA. Then you are done for.
GANtSH. Time presses. Master, and your words take so long to understand. But we understand you, and so we shall have an early crossing.
DHANANjAYA. Early? But what of the evening time?
When you find your boat sinking within sight of shore?
If you can’t make my words your own, you will be drowned.
GANESH. Don’t say that. Master. We have found shelter at your feet, so we must have understood somehow.
DHANANjAYA. It is only too plain that you have not understood. Your eyes still see red, and there is no song on your lips. Shall I give you a tune?