(Note: this is an opera review, not a film review. the outline and the ending are available in the program)
Padmvati is a 15th century play by Seyyd Alol a court poet of Sher Shah Suri,The Afghan conqueror of Delhi , about Allaudin Khilji a 13th century invader of Northern India and Padmavati, a married princess of Chittor , who was the object of Allaudin’s obsession.
Padmavati is a two part Musical Opera Ballet by Albert Roussel (1869-1937) a mathematician sailor wanderer composer , commissioned by Jacques Rouche, premiered in 1923 and includes Orchestral passages that show a distinct Indian music influence. Albert Roussel is known for the succinctness of his works and the rarely performed Padmavati is one of his longest. Roussel himself is a just pre modern French composer from the early 20th century who
uses coloring and moods to illustrate his pieces .
Debussy and Berloitz come to mind as comparable composers.
Padmavati is the name of an Opera-Ballet production in limited release at the Chatelet Theater in Paris, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Devdas, Saawariya) and includes dancers from Tanushree Shankar(Ananda Shankar)’s dance company.
The first part of the opera, which establishes the setting is light and playful, and the second dark and portentous. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is more at home in portraying heavy grief than in describing joy( his version of which is sometimes hysterical/maniac eg: Saawariya and Devdas ), in a mature thesis in his work that joy is merely latent misery.
The second half of Padmavati works better for all its gireving. Tanushree Shankar’s dancers take over. They dance silently, with dignified grace (without scatting or yodelling) throwing their dancing-costumed bodies in silent relief against the magnificent sets and primal lights, each one an Esmeralda the romani gypsy from India in a Victor Hugo novel.
While it is a rare treat to watch a film director (esp. Sanjay Leela Bhansali) direct a musical opera, one wishes he picked a libretto with more dramatic meat for his first production. Often during the performance, one is left asking for more operatic red meat. Arias and Solos from its leading players (Sylvie Brunet : Padmavati, Finnar Bjarnason: the prince of Chittor, Alain Foundry : Allauddin Khilji).Sadly we get unclearly defined Solos and Duets. The classic moments you see in Puccini or Bizet that bring out elemental emotions from the characters, is lacking in this opera- musical, though Padmavati has very riveting choruses and orchestral interludes in shivaranjani that give it the gravitas of a fully fledged theatrical production.
Working with thus limited material Bhansali uses his brand of visual hyperbole well.(primarily using basic colors and simple Indian motifs – the line of dancing girls each with a diya, ganesha, the baby elephant and durga with a little live white tiger) that satisfies the senses and leaves one craving for more simultaneously. The visual imagery (Omang Kumar Bandula, Sets) and the lighting (Somak Mukharjee) are otherworldly right from curtain call.
A row of silent Ghagra clad dancers are silhouetted by their diyas, walking through the aisles and climb the stage to do a (silent) Ganesh Vandana to a humongous psychedelic glowing stenciled Ganesha on a large white screen. The Audience holds its breath as the magic moment extends and the diyas go up and down silently in the low light. Then an actor in a lemon yellow ganesh mask is dropped diagonally by wire to the middle of the stage and he stretches and dances like a jatra perfomer. The whole opera follows this pattern. God is a street performer. Everytime someone prays to a god (Durga, Shiva…) the god promptly appears in all his foreign grotesquerie and does a little dance sequence for the gratification of the audience.
The Brahmin (Yann Beuron as Allaudin’s collaborator) is appropriately a cariciature and a threatening presence. The holy men of Shiva and the cult of worship of death is the centerpiece of the second half. Indian deities of death , in modern France are Egyptian. The Nandhi is the sphinx. Durga and Lakshmi are like Isis and Amaunet. Padmavati’s plaintive and useless invocations to the Shiva Linga are evocative of Yul brunner’s invocation to the false gods of Egypt to smite down Moses ,after he loses his first born to a plague cused by Moses’ god, in the Ten Commandments.
Tanushree Shankar’s company does a dance of the Shaktas/ Vultures and then a dance of the goddesses before (glorifying and) immolating Padmavati with the body of her husband, (She kills for asking her to go to Allaudin Khilji.) The couple are united in death , in the heavens even as Allaudin breaks into the Chittor fort to find the pyres.
The opera, thus, takes liberties with the play.(in which Padmavati’s Husband, the Rana is Killed by Khilji, who rushes to chittor to claim his prize , only to find the whole royal harem has jumped into the pyre) . Here it is a Sutee presented almost as if it is a tolerable foreign custom. I spoke to a couple of hard-boiled opera goers from Paris during the interlude, who thought I was being too harsh on it. Madame Butterfly, they said , was full of factual inaccuracies about Meiji Japan, Yet the Puccini opera is a classic, (I was tempted to remark Sir, I know Mme butterfly, and this Albert Roussel work is no Mme Butterfly,but ..). the play works like that. People that want to see a rare performance with different exoticism, love the musical as a triumph of an east-west artistic confluence. The third performance of five limited engagement performances was packed with Paris (Thursday evening) operagoers.
I must admit the costumes, sets and direction represent the very best aesthetic of the 21st century east, even as the
choral and orchestral arrangements are palatably of the western opera tradition. (the chorus is dressed in pastel colored Ghagras and Tanushree’s dancers in earth – folk colored ones) .
One wishes there was more exposition of BOTH sides though. By now we know Bollywood can talk an acceptable language to a western audience(Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bollywood films are testament) and there are people in the east very familiar with the western operatic tradition. Isn’t it time someone took a serious bite into making the fusion work with dramatic solos and/ or well choreographed complex dances (even a random dance from devdas(Bhansali) has more classical weight than the twirly shake the Ghagra dances by Tanushree Shankar’s group) and proper Bollywood frissions framed within Classical western opera?
Padmavati A for effort, A- for the fusion, A for emotional intelligence B- for Operatic merit, C+ for Intellectual intelligence. Overall grade B.