Saturday, May 19, 2012

Phoolan Devi Opera: East of Eden, West of Peiking

Phoolan Devi Opera — The World Premier

A stunning and exotic extravaganza
played with energy and conviction.

Playwright and composer GAYATHRI KHEMADASA
Producer and librettist JEFF HUSH and Darren Large
Music director JOSEPH GETTER
Sets and costumes DESIRÉE ALVAREZ 
Sound artist and bird sound virtuoso MICHAEL PESTEL
Directorial consultant DIC WHEELER
Support and consulting NEELY BRUCE and JOSEPH GETTER
and many others.

Bass and Balinese drums thrum to a lush and complex fusion of flute, Indonesian kendang, piano, and a clinging of small bells. Incense wafts. A chorus-quartet intones intermittent chant, and dancers sway exotic in their part. 

Phoolan Devi contemplates these sights, sounds, and scents evoking the ambiance of a Hindu temple, against a backdrop of three long white panels. A red-lined lotus (purity) at center is flanked by multicolored drawings--Phoolan Devi's image on the left rides a tiger (or is it a lion?), her rifle bandolier-style sketched across her chest. A lofty likeness of Durga prances on the right, wild-haired and unabashed

The scene intimates the progression of Phoolan Devi's story from abused child bride to Bandit Queen to revered cultural icon. 

A Woman's Fight 

for Social Justice

CD cover art from phoolandeviopera website.
Phoolan Devi was born in India in 1962 or '63. When she was a young girl of 10 or 11 years, her low-caste family's land was usurped and she began to speak out vehemently against injustice. This is the gist of her saga. 

Phoolan Devi is forced to marry, runs away from her husband, is disowned by her family, joins with dacoits (bandits—all men), and stages attacks and raids on wealthy villages and landowners. She leads a rebellion against caste and gender suppression and injustice. Then in declining health, she arranges to surrender on her own terms and is tried and jailed. After some time released from jail, she is assassinated. But her name and deeds live on in India and beyond. 

The lifting up of India's women goes on, and Durga Devi dances à gogo.     

While her story may be fairly straightforward, the opera's many scenes, song and dance sequences, and layers of cultural and social content are kaleidoscopic and complex. After viewing last Saturday night's production of Phoolan Devi Opera, I was puzzled and struggled to compare the work with Western opera or theater. But the sheer variety, scope, and complexity of Phoolan Devi—its richness, its music, its dance, its diversity—defy easy comparison. 

Then I remembered Peiking Opera. Yes! I thought, that's more like it—or rather, it's more like that. But it's impossible to sum up the performance in that way without knowing the context and the intent of the creators of Phoolan Devi Opera. While t
he moods and modes of the music and dance, the costuming, and the actors played on many levels, the sequence of events continues to perplex.

Evoking this far-away culture and making us feel for Phoolan Devi's plight, the opera represents the stirring power of the story and the creative power of all who are involved in the production. No doubt they will continue to refine this work for presentation in other venues. Kudos! to all who participated in recreating this contemporary myth. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An idea to clarify narrative flow: A series of "tableaux," as in other Eastern art-drama forms. This would be a static pose that illustrates a milestone in PD's story.

For example: The teasing incident. The PD challenge. The bad response from village. The wedding. The runaway. The family disowns her. She meets up with bandits. etc.

These tableaux be staged as narrator describes each significant scene (perhaps with background sounds/music that unifies them all).

She (and others) would go into the pose for the description. And then the rhythm of the drama could resume.