Asian Music and Dance

Sukanya – The Opera

‘Myth, music and dance meet in Ravi Shankar’s operatic love story’ ran the Southbank Centre’s May Listings brochure. The London performance of Sukanya – The Opera was the fourth of four stagings. Its world première had taken place on 12 May at the Curve in Leicester – understandable as its director is Curve associate director Suba Das. There followed ones at the Lowry in Salford and the Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Its London debut happened as part of the eighth Alchemy Festival at the Royal Festival Hall. In a neat symmetrical turn Ravi Shankar had given his ‘Only London Appearance’ and first major British recital at the venue on 4 October 1958 with Ustad Alla Rakha as billed accompanist on tabla. Parenthetically, the Bob Dylan- and Paul Simon-influencing, genre-changing English folksinger-titan-but-then-schoolboy Martin Carthy, his curiosity piqued by a sir’s absent-minded tāl finger-drumming in class, attended the recital.

So much has changed in six decades. In 1989, the year Panditji married the real-life Sukanya, his Ghanashyam (‘A Broken Branch’) dance drama needed more than one pass to evaluate it objectively. Its storyline reeled around an individual’s decline into narcotics. Good politics or intentions do not automatically make good art, goes the time-tested truism. Time pronounced that Ghanashyam to be too simplistic to be a great work of art. 

Thankfully, Sukanya already packs a substantially greater punch. Given some tweaking and road-testing, it could deliver far more. Pulse pretty much quartered its concept and conception in the last issue. But here goes… Chyayana (Alok Kumar) goes into centuries of meditation. An ant nest forms around him. A princess, Sukanya (Susanna Hurrell) passes by, spots two jewels – his eyes – and pokes them with her fan, blinding the meditating sage. To make amends, King Sharyaati (Keel Watson) offers his daughter’s hand in marriage. Meanwhile, overlooking this whole Midsummer Night’s Nightmare are the Ashwini Twins (Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza), who, mesmerised by Sukanya, decide to test this beauteous maiden’s love for a crinkly sage. Chaudhuri’s libretto departs inspirationally from the Mahabharata episode – his tanpura-tuning scene lifted from his own writings is the best example. The Ashwini demi-gods transform Chyayana as a third look-alike twin. Chaudhuri sly-winks to the in-on-the-gag audience who can see the (multi-racial cast) ‘twin trio’ aren’t identical. Sukanya sees through the subterfuge and Love with a capital l triumphs, though with this small dash of end-of-pier pantomime or music hall humour to leaven the operatic dish.

David Murphy’s musical settings and orchestrations for Western classical and mixed Indian instrumentation and voicings work very well. The Hindustani shehnai (shawm), played by Ashwani Shankar, is deployed in scene-welcoming guises, much like in temples and ceremonies. A tarana piece enables choreographer Aakash Odedra to let the kathak dancers shine, perhaps (dare I say?) in a transferred kathakali story play kind of way since M. Balachandar added konnakol (South India’s counterpart of the Hindustani bols recited rhythmically). Representing the presiding spirit of his guru, Parimal Sadaphal played sitar.

My appreciation of theatrical set design was radicalised through the British theatre designer William Dudley and, in a specific RFH context, the staging of Tod Browning’s 1931 talkie Dracula, with live music by Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet, in 1999. During Part I (‘Present-day India, the temple of the Goddess of Love’) of Sukanya, the lighting and backcloths advanced, augmented and added to the narrative. Two examples… Lighting designer Matt Haskins created ants out of moving lights darting across the Chyayana anthill. The production design team, 59 Productions, used backcloths to depict the passage of centuries as the sage meditated. Saplings turned into mature trees behind him. Haskins and 59 should have been given their head in Part II (location unspecified). Maybe, for reasons of the heart, images of Ravi Shankar dominated the stage for far too long. Their going from monochrome to colour hardly consolidated or advanced anything. Instead, images of Panditji should have been the valedictory projections.

Sukanya is truly too big a work to take in on first or one pass. It deserves and demands a more retrievable opportunity, the better to appreciate it more fully and the better for it to be analysed and dissected (certainly than in this review). Talking directly afterwards to Amit Chaudhuri (incidentally, attending Sukanya for the first time), its librettist was little the wiser about next steps. Cross fingers, let’s hope this multi-media work gets preserved properly.



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