On my recent trip to China (in October this year), among the many must do things was “attending a Chinese Opera show”. But time and expected language limitations made me drop this one off my to-do list. So just imagine my excitement and surprise when I heard that one of the oldest forms of Chinese Opera was coming to India and that too, in Mumbai. And finally on Tuesday, my sister and I joined other theatre and cultural enthusiasts at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre of the NCPA to witness the Indian premiere of the legendary Kunqu Opera, The Peony Pavilion performed by the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre. This was my first show at the Jamshed Bhabha theatre and I must say it is one of the best halls in Mumbai. The entire lobby is beautifully done with intricately carved marble staircases, chandeliers and pictures with background information on the opera all along the walls.
As a quick background, Kunqu (pronounced “kwin chu”) is one of the oldest and the most refined forms of traditional Chinese opera and dominated the country’s cultural landscape from 16th to 18th century. Known as the “mother” of a hundred opera forms (including Peking opera), Kunqu was recognized as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. It is a synthesis of drama, opera, ballet, poetry recital, and musical recital, which also draws on earlier forms of Chinese theatrical performances such as mime, farce, acrobatics, ballad recital, and medley, some of which go back to the third century B.C. Founded in 1957, the Beijing-based China Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre specializes in the northern style of Kun opera, researching and preserving traditional classics. This show was brought to India by Ms. Swati Bhise, Artistic Director, Bravia Sadir Theater.
We took our seats in a fully booked hall and started reading the background information provided on entry. Like majority of things in India, the play too didn’t begin on time and started with introductory speeches wherein Swati said that this play was originally of 20 hours but for the Indian audience it had been crystalized to 90 minutes. The artists had flown in from Beijing (including the live musicians) and they had the traditional Chinese instruments of wind, string and percussion. Swati also said that there are quite a few similarities in hand gestures of this art form with our own Indian dances and in Delhi they were going to perform them side by side for better understanding. And since the show was in mandarin, there was a screen with English translations, which was essential. And then the show began.
The Peony Pavilion is a play written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming Dynasty and first performed in 1598 at the Pavilion of Prince Teng. One of Tang’s ‘Four Dreams’, it has traditionally been performed as a Kunqu opera, but Chuan and Gan opera versions also exist.
It’s a classic love story that transcends time and space – with comedy, romance and tragedy that traces the last days of the Southern Song Dynasty. A maid, a perky and mischievous character, persuades her 16-year-old mistress, Du Liniang (daughter of an important official) to take a walk in the garden and experience the spring. Du Liniang has never been outside in the garden and there are quite a few beautiful verses admiring the beauty of the spring and the gardens. Once back home she falls asleep , and in her dream encounters a young scholar, Liu Mengmei. A flaming romance flourishes between the two but the dream is interrupted by her mother. She however becomes preoccupied with her dream affair and her lovesickness quickly consumes her. Unable to recover from her fixation, she wastes away and dies. On the other side, Liu Mengmei has also had a similar dream and commences his journey of trying to find her. In the underworld Liniang is still restless and seeing her in this state the judge, the most colourful character in the show, decides that a marriage between her and the scholar is pre-destined. She then returns to the earthly world and is reunited with Liu for their happily ever after.
Though it was my first opera and I am not any authority on such art forms, but what I liked about it was –
- The beautiful hand gestures and the graceful movements. Was a lot like some of the mudras in Indian classical music. The first few scenes where Du and the maid describe the spring with these gestures was amazing. The costumes also had long sleeves (longer than their hands) and they used them also in a very unique way.
- The set was minimalistic so it was on the actors and their acting to actually show what they were trying to project. And they were able to do just that with such ease that I never felt that I didn’t understand the language or what the actors were trying to say. In one scene, Liu is walking in the garden amidst slippery stones, trying to not fall. It was done with such finesse and beauty that I actually imagined that there was a brook and slippery stones where he was walking.
- The music from the Chinese instruments was beautiful and helped the opera attain a different level altogether with their changing melodies of soothing, fun, haunting, crescendos and many other sounds. And, in centuries-old kunqu style, both men and women sing in high falsetto voices.
- The beautiful and intricate costumes that the actors wore. It was colourful, majestic and extremely detailed. They also changed clothes and the colors were well-coordinated with the mood of the act.
- The highlight of the show was the dance of the judge. Despite the heavy costume, he did some amazing tricks and was dancing with his hands, legs, face and even his long beard.
Overall a beautiful performance and a great introduction to this beautiful art form. For your own sneak peak you can watch this video on Youtube.
I am really happy that such different art forms (also from across the globe) are now making their way into India. Like travel, these kind of performances help us learn more about other cultures and also understand and appreciate their nuances. I am now quite intrigued and looking forward to reading and attending more such performances everywhere I travel and hopefully in Mumbai too 🙂
P.S I had received complimentary tickets for The Peony Pavilion but the views and opinions in this article are my own.