True Artistic Force – Review: Satyagraha, ENO

Bengalis don’t tend to like Gandhi all that much. Feminists aren’t particularly on board with him either1. More than that, the current surge in Right-Wing, conservative Hindu nationalism in India has seen a rise in overt and systematic oppression of minorities. Anybody who is different – Muslim, queer, transgender, you name it – historically and presently they have all been scarred by discourses of Indian (read: Hindu) nationalism, and it’s very difficult to strike a balance between celebrating the freedom and independence of the country we love and reinforcing these essentially violent ways of thinking the Nation. In brief, as a Bengali Feminist whose work is dedicated to queer, intersectional feminist movements in India, I was extremely nervous about going to see an Opera about Gandhi. I left overwhelmed, and proud, both of my favourite art form and my heritage. This is not (thankfully, in my view) an opera glorifying Gandhi. It is an opera about an idea, about philosophy, and about the will to truth and social justice.

The focus of Glass’s work is on the message of satyagraha, a sanskritic term Gandhi coined to describe his ideology of ‘non-violent’ resistance to the oppressions of the colonial Raj. The costuming was sensitive, both honouring Indian tradition and resisting the temptation to essentialise and exoticise the Indian subjects. I particularly appreciated the imaginative and powerful representation of Krishna, with long dark hair in a blue suit, marked on his forehead but entirely focussed on delivering his message, undistracted by temptingly glamorous peacock feathers, gold and conches that are usually part of his symbolism, at least in India religious art. The set and production design reflected and augmented Glass’s music, without stereotyping either India’s history or present reality, as is more often than not seen in representations of one of the west’s favourite oriental subjects.

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Image Source: English National Opera

Phelim McDermott (director) has an unfathomable gift for translating the abstract auditory to the (sometimes no less abstract) visual. I can never forget the stunning juggling work in his production of Glass’s Akhnaten, which mirrored and enhanced that work’s rhythmic drive. Here was a different approach entirely. There was such confidence in the stillness and slowness of the blocking, allowing the music and core ideas of the work just to be, without requiring the actors to move for the sake of movement. Newspapers featured throughout as a design motif, used in many ways as props, projection backgrounds and puppets, reflecting both the motivic nature of the music and acknowledging the huge historical and political significance of newspapers in the Indian Independence movement2.

Perhaps most astounding were the enormous puppets that rose up throughout the work. Filling the entire width and height of the Coliseum’s stage, crocodiles, cows and battling Pandavas appeared almost inexplicably out of baskets, brooms and papier maché (more newspaper), dramatising background themes but also putting me to mind of the Indian folk tradition of travelling puppet theatre. The fantastical foe to Arjuna in act one was instantly recognisable to my inner Indian child, evoking and reimagining Indian artistic representations of demons that are both physical and ideological. I gasped when the likeness of Rabindranath Tagore appeared on stage. It was moving and terrifying, seeing such a major cultural and identity icon seemingly incarnated before me.

Satyagraha Gscene
Image Source: English National Opera

Satyagraha stirred me as an opera-lover and as an Indian. This is unfortunately almost never my experience of operatic representations of Indianness, be that culture, clothing or romance. In fact usually I find myself stifling feelings of offence. This sensitive and honest production has much to be proud for, with cultural sensitivity being up there with its artistic excellence.

Satyagraha does not feel the need to explain itself too much. It is a viscerally meditative experience, an opportunity to be overwhelmed by the music, the visuals, but most of all by an idea, rather than a structured narrative. Thank you, Glass, Improbable, ENO. I can’t wait for Einstein on the Beach.

 


1 Here’s a good introductory summary why. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jan/27/mohandas-gandhi-women-india

2 Cf http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/2015-03-12/Role-of-the-press-in-freedom-struggle-136832

https://www.slideshare.net/Amaljithravi/role-of-newspaper-in-indian-freedom-movement

3 Featured Image Source: GScene.com

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Sukanya : A Review of Ravi Shankar’s only Opera

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Opera is one of the great loves of my life, and yet it is an art from which I feel sometimes helplessly absent. It is, by its nature as a Western European art form, largely written by white ‘Western’ composers using the languages and symbolisms of these cultures. Symbols like white weddings and black funerals, symbols that are so hegemonically ingrained that most of the world don’t perceive them as symbols, systems of meaning, iconographic worlds that stir some folk more deeply than others. Other folk have different ways of loving, of being, of making meaning of out life.

Though born in Yorkshire, in many ways I am and I feel myself one of those ‘others’. Of course what I love most about Opera is that, through music, it transcends these worldly differences and aims (often) to tackle the heart of something that is above all divisions, to explore those things that are universally human – love, death, hate, dilemma, identity. Yet  the anthropologist in me wants to remind you that all human experience, even these universals, are expressed in culturally specific, meaningful ways. In this sense, in opera, I am (as a young British South Asian woman of mixed heritage) utterly unrepresented.

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Image Source : The Guardian

There was a lot riding on Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya for me. After seeing Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at ENO last year I was so set back by the sense of disenfranchisement I felt from two hours of inaccurate, reductionist and (to me) frankly offensive Orientalism was so acute that I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it. I’ve dreamed for myself about what an opera bringing the two parts of me together would look like. I was simultaneously afraid and excited to experience Sukanya. If anybody could achieve a sure representation of Indianness through Opera, surely it would be Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ten minutes into the opera I was weeping like I wept at the end of Der Rosenkavalier – I felt real. I was seeing something of myself, something true about my life, in operatic art for the first time.

Sukanya will touch and stir people from diverse backgrounds (as it did last night), if through nothing other than the unspeakable beauty and elegance of its music. The music is, in its own right, thrilling. Between the vision of Ravi Shankar and the dedication of arranger and conductor David Murphy there is an imaginative fusion of Indian and Western Classical styles, forms and principles that is simultaneously true and authentic to both traditions in their vast complexity, without reducing or compromising either one. Indian instruments play alongside Western Orchestra. The arias and choruses make use of konnakol (spoken Indian rhythmic patterns) and improvisations on ragas, and the libretto travels through English story-telling to the words of Hindi prayers and shamelessly Bengali declarations of love.

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Image Source : The Guardian

The expression and Anglicised pronunciations of the Indian elements is curiously insignificant, even adding to the charm and the sense of art rising above divisions. The two traditions were full, supple, and unified, complementing one another, even elevating one another in new and jarringly peculiar ways. The singers were every one of them exceptional, and their bravery and skill in working between Western art music and raga-based improvisation effective and impressive. It was a joy also to see such an ethnically diverse cast – I have never seen so many different backgrounds represented on an ‘opera’ stage.

Akash Odedra’s company of dancers punctuated and enhanced the story through a fantastical fusion of Indian classical dance styles (which lend themselves to story-telling) and contemporary interpretation. Although semi-staged, this production was fully absorbing, and the dancers can take a large degree of credit for generating and cementing this effect.

 

For me personally this Opera was the most tender, affirming and terrifying work I’ve seen. After a lifetime of craving a way to bring together the two inseparable sides of myself – British and Indian, always neither, always both – now there is an Opera that communicates what that is like, what it looks like and sounds like and sings like, to the world. I wondered whether my response might be biased – but I know that if after all this time somebody had staged something so intimate as an operatic love scene in Bengali and missed the mark even a little it would have hurt me ten times more than the Orientalism of The Pearl Fishers and its ilk. This is a very special piece of work, musically groundbreaking and wonderfully crafted, and I look forward to its staging in a long-term run sometime soon.