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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Fictional Address to The New York Opera Society asking them to consider the performance traditions of India


Opera is BIG.  Opera is grand.  The word “opera” entails scale and scope that is rife with sight and sound.  Seeing and hearing are essential components of the opera experience, even when the actual words used are not sung in a common language to the observer.  Being in the presence of the performer encompassed by the production and accompanied by the music is astonishing.  Just like experiencing a grand opera, experiencing many of the artistic endeavors in India are related to the relationship of sight and sound—the observer and the thing observed.
            As a lover of opera, you are aware of its history simply by experiencing the diverse range of performances.  Your ear is attuned to the types of sounds distinctive to the period a particular opera was created.  You are steeped in the history of the pieces whenever you hear the works performed.  Likewise, there are distinctions within music styles throughout India.  And just as opera is in peril of its artists seeking more lucrative careers in other more contemporary musical forms, the ways artists are trained in classical styles of India is changing due to current social structures and economic realities.[1]  Older artists cite younger artists and audiences desire for faster rhythms, fusion with Western sounds, or simply seeking greater variety as reasons for the decline of traditional forms, as classical tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri states in an interview:
All the young tabla players are so concerned with speed.  Nowadays I am concentrating on teaching the old compositions—from one hundred years ago.  I know that it will take students a lot of time and patience to work on them.  But at least this old style will not die, it will not vanish.  In those days, the players did not play that fast like the players are doing today. […] From my judgment, in the older time they were simpler—they were looking for the beauty—and we are not doing that.  The young players, they are into making fun out of it.  But it’s not.  You cannot make fun out of music.  You have to surrender yourself, you have to learn, you have to pay the proper respect.  Then you get the music.  Otherwise you’re playing only the beat—noise—to please the audience—you are nor playing music.  If you get that music, then there is something new, something beautiful, every time.  Balance, clarity, mood…right into your heart.[2]

This master artist, who began his training at the age of five,[3] is commenting not only on the changes associated with the teacher-student relationship, but also the expectations and demands of artist and audience.  In the world of Western arts this could be seen as the difference between opera and musical theater.  The training for an opera singer is much longer, rigorous, and demanding than the musical theater artist, and there is more limited interest in opera.  The dedication required for proper vocal technique is similar to the dedication required for any of the classical music arts in India.  To train as an Indian classical musician an artist must dedicate himself (and in modern times, herself) to a teacher or guru.  In the old system a student would be bound to a guru or teacher.  The student would be financially dependent on the guru, and in return for care and teaching, the student would work for the teacher, living in his house, and attending to affairs on behalf of the teacher.[4]  Lessons were taught by oral or auditory repetition.[5]  The day-to-day practice of the instrument is called raz.[6]  George Ruckert explains the development of raz as a student becomes a guru, “Years and years of raz add up to sadhana, which is “spiritual practice,” and the word carries additional connotations of realization and fulfillment that are worthy of great respect.  A younger musician might be praised for his raz, in that he devotes long hours to honing his skills; but an older musician would be respected for his sadhana, which would include his lifework in music—one who spent many years teaching, performing, and in raz.”[7]  As illustrated by the musician’s concept of sadhana, the devotional aspects of artistic practice in India cannot be underscored enough.  Almost all arts have at their center some aspect of devotion attached to their performance.
            The devotional aspect is not so alien a concept as it may first seem.  Even opera has its roots in devotional performance.  Opera itself grew from a desire to explore the relationship between rediscovered ancient Greek music and its relationship to drama as exemplified by Greek tragedy.[8]  The tragedy itself was a form composed as a devotional offering to the god Dionysos.  By entwining the scope of tragedy with high musical concepts, the heart of opera is the reinvestigation of this devotional form.  In India, this goes a step further, as all aspects of sound contain an element of the divine, and have the potential of evoking the divine aspects of other objects or beings.[9]  There exists a direct relationship between a thing enacted and a thing spoken or sung, “In India language is not something with which you name something; it is something with which you do something.”[10]  Harold Coward and David Goa explore the relationship of sound to devotional practice in their book Mantra:
In India all sound is perceived as being divine in origin, since it all arises from the one sacred source.  Some sounds, however, are more powerful in evoking the divine within and around oneself than are others, sound intrinsically bears the power of the sacred in India. In the Hindu hierarchy of scripture it is the Sruti, the heard text, which is preserved in oral tradition, that is the highest manifestation of the creative word.[11]

Comprehending the words of the thing being sung is not as relevant as being in the presence of—or the recitation of—the sound itself.[12]   While this practice is a devotional one, it can be likened to a person listening to a great opera that is sung in a language not understood by the listener, but fully enjoyed nonetheless because of the beauty and meaning intrinsic to the sound.  Or a performer who learns a libretto by rote, who still is able to perform the richly orchestrated score well because the sound carries meaning. 
            Opulent sets, dynamic voices, full orchestras led by a maestro—opera is a Western art form that has developed over four and a half centuries.  It initially was an experiment to reconnect high theatrical art with the ancient original theater of the Greeks.  The ties to the original Greek theater had been severed by the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian Church in Europe.  The European Church began curtailing Christian participation in theatrical practices as early as the 4th century by forbidding the sacrament to actors and excommunication for anyone attending a performance.[13]  The “rediscovery” during the Italian Renaissance of the plays of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Poetics  gave rise to a reinvestigation of these ancient forms.[14]  
           Now imagine a performative heritage that had not been severed, but had remained intact and practiced since its formalization a millennia-and-a-half ago.  To experience a rich, diverse, and uninterrupted ancient tradition, one needs look no further than the traditional theaters of India.  The Sanskrit dramas, like Kalidasa’s Sakuntala, were performed on a scale similar to modern opera.  Kalidasa is considered a legendary poet and playwright whose six surviving works attributed to him, of which Sakuntala is often considered the masterwork, place the author within the Gupta court of Vakata during the reign of Candragupta II in the late 4th century.[15] 
            Attention to performance craft, stage craft, and playwriting was established for many centuries by the time the classic age flowered during the Gupta Empire from 320 to 550 CE.[16]  Favorite subjects of many of these plays were tales of epic love, as Sakuntala exemplifies.  Barbara Stoler Miller explains the paradigm of heroic romance in her introduction to her translation of Sakuntala in her book Theater of Memory:
Indian heroic romances represent human emotions in a theatrical universe of symbolically charged characters and events in order to lead the audience into a state of extraordinary pleasure and insight.  The goal of Sanskrit drama is to reestablish emotional harmony in the microcosm of the audience by exploring the deeper relations that bind apparent conflicts of existence.  The manifestation of these relations produces the intense experience called rasa.  All Kalidasa’s plays focus on the critical tension between desire and duty that is aesthetically manifest in the relation of the erotic sentiment (srngararasa) to the heroic (virasarasa).[17]

Note the term rasa.  Rasa—which can be translated as mood, sentiment, or literally “taste”[18]—is at the heart of any artistic endeavor in India.  It is a concept that is difficult to translate, but it is the intent of the performance to assemble several parts that combine, like spices combine with food to create a new flavor, so that the parts combine in the observer through the senses and create a new, deeper experience.[19]  That is rasa.  Through the enactment of emotions by an actor, the witness is engaged, and the emotions convey the rasa experience.  That is part of the delight entailed by the performance.
            The tension between the erotic rasa and the heroic rasa drives the action of Sakuntala, when a king, after falling in love with the title character Sakuntala, loses his memory of her due to a curse that can only be broken by return of his ring that has been lost.  The story of the king and Sakuntala falling in love comprises the action of the first four acts, with their separation followed by lasting reunion contained in the final three acts.  For each character, but especially the king, the question of love and duty are placed at odds in the final half of the play until the breaking of the curse followed by recognition brings resolution.  The rasa is not a product of suspense caused by surprising incidents, as the story is an old one and the events predictable.  Instead, the rasa is conveyed by the connection made between the actors portraying the characters, expressing their love, the pain caused by losing the love, and the restoration of their love.  These representations of the various states of love, and of the interplay the varied states have on the characters, compel the viewer by presenting an accumulation of states of emotion, resulting in the experience of rasa.[20]
            This tension between the duty of a king to his subjects conflicting with his personal love for his wife is also at the center of one of India’s greatest epics, the Ramayana.    Prince Rama must fight a war to recover is beloved wife Sita after she is abducted by the ten-headed demon Ravana, king of Lanka.  The story spans many years, from the birth of Rama and his brothers, to his winning of Sita, through the war fought for Sita’s return, to Rama’s long reign as king.  In India there are many diverse versions and traditions that elaborate and often reinvent the story.  The sets of characters, geographies, and basic story elements serve many forms of story-telling, from songs to poems to enactments to film and television depictions.[21]  As an epic that spans the lifetime of its central character and is featured in many reiterations, no one production or telling could ever satisfy all of the forms, but a performance tradition does exist that attempts to incorporate many aspects of the story, which in itself is an epic undertaking.  Called the Ramlila, these performances take place in many parts of North India, usually in September or October, and can performed over the course of several consecutive days or over the course of a month or more.[22]  Essayist and university professor in religious studies Linda Hess describes the experience of attending a month-long Ramlila and the relationship of observer as participant:
To be vigorously and devotedly involved in the Ramlila for one month is to take an excursion out of ordinary space and time.  The Ramcharitmanas, along with mainstream devotional Hinduism, teaches that the universe is lila, or play, which in Sanskrit as in English means both “drama” and “game.”  The idea of lila is closely akin to that of maya, which we may say here refers to the transient and illusory world of forms.  I believe that the Ramlila is constructed in such a way as to produce an actual experience of the world as lila or maya.  The participant not only sees the drama but finds himself acting in it.  […] The large space of the Ramlila is extended to a semblance of infinity by the fact that the “play” is set in the “real world.”  Our stage embraces town, village, field, forest, lake.  Our floor is the earth, our roof is the sky, often awesome during the moments of transition between day and night, in the season of transition between the rains and autumn.[23]

The event being described takes place in many locations, and the audience travels with the characters through the terrain over weeks, following the story to its end.  This is an act of devotion tied to the production of the play.  Later in the account of witnessing the lila, Hess describes many of the participants’ regard for the experience:
Total love for Ram and his lila is a condition of their understanding.  Believing in a personality rather than an abstraction, loving a play rather than an idea, they run the risk of suffering when the forms of person and play are withdrawn.  But with poignancy of both love and suffering drives them to deeper understanding.[24]

Through this artificial construct—this staging of a story, this witnessing of the event, and the conviction that this expression through art matterscomes a deeper understanding of something universal that is larger than the play, the performers, the music, or the audience.
            There is also this potential in the performance of opera.  It is an assemblage of distinctive elements—song, music, performers, musicians, costumes, stage-design, the opera-house itself—that communicates something deeper and more profound than any one component.  The singing of an entire text is completely artificial, unapologetically constructed, and yet it contains truth.  And you, someone who has been moved by opera, who loves being in its presence, who is transported by it—I believe you have experienced rasa.  Somewhere in the communication of the performance on the stage to you in the seats, a mixing of the ingredients occurred, and something profound and delightful was delivered.  And that is why you return, to be in its presence.


[1] G. Ruckert, Music in North India, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 82.
[2] Ibid. pp. 82-83.
[3] The Artistry of Tabla, Swapan Chaudhuri, http://www.swapanchaudhuri.com/ (accessed 5/4/09)
[4] Ruckert, pp. 34-35.
[5] Ibid. p. 35.
[6] Ibid. p. 27.
[7] Ibid. loc. cit.
[8] O. G. Brocket, History of the Theatre, 7th ed., (Boston: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 128.
[9] H. Coward and D. Goa, Mantra: Hearing the Divine in India and America, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 2.
[10] Ibid. p. 35.
[11] Ibid. p. 2.
[12] Ibid. p. 13.
[13] Brockett, p. 71.
[14] Ibid. p. 128.
[15] B. S. Miller, Theater of Memory, The Plays of Kalidasa, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 11.
[16] B. Avari, India: The Ancient Past, (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 155.
[17] Miller, p. 14.
[18] Ibid. loc cit.
[19] Bharata, The Natyasastra, Trans. A. Rangacharya (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996), p. 55.
[20] Ibid. loc. cit.
[21] P.Richman, Ed., Many Ramayanas, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991.), p. 8.
[22] L. Hess, ‘An Open-Air Ramayana: Ramlila, the Audience Experience’, The Life of Hinduism, John Stratton Hawley and Vasuda Narayanan, Eds., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 115.
[23] Ibid. p.125.
[24] Ibid. p. 136.

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