The magic of the Peony Pavilion

There was a buzz at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre of the NCPA in South Mumbai when I arrived there shortly before 7 pm on Tuesday, earlier this week.

There was the swish of silks, satins and chiffons, the aroma of different perfumes, the glint of pearls and diamonds… There were celebrities, socialites, office-goers, aficionados, students, first-timers, regulars, critics, cynics, the-eager-for-a-new-experience… There were air kisses, handshakes, shoulder hugs, backslaps and some tinkling laughter too.

And then there was anticipation in the air. An anticipation of attending my very first Chinese Opera, which also happened to be the Indian première of the legendary Kunqu Opera, The Peony Pavilion, staged by the Beijing-based Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre. This was an anticipation that had built up and grown from the moment I received an invitation, along with some background information and some photographs, to attend the Opera from Sadir Theater Festival, two weeks ago.

The Peony Pavilion, Chinese Kunqu Opera, Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei, Zhang Yuanyuan as Du Liniang

(L) Zhang Yuanyuan as Du Liniang and (R) Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei, the principal characters in “The Peony Pavilion”

It was a good that I received the background information as my knowledge about Chinese Opera could be summed up in one word: Zilch! Accepting the invitation and beginning the countdown to the actual event was the first step towards remedying that ! :)
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A Sufiana experience for the mind, body and soul

Sufism is neither a religion nor a cult. Any person who has knowledge of both inner and outer life is a sufi.

(Hazrat Inayat Khan, Sufi philosopher and practitioner)

It is Thursday evening and I am at the NCPA Mumbai’s Tata Theatre to attend an evening of Sufi music. The above words by Inayat Khan leap out of the beautifully produced and informative programme brochure on “Sama’a The Mystic Ecstasy: Festival of Sufi Music” as I read it to familiarise myself with the programme. Though I have listened to some Sufi music over the years, I have never attended a live performance. I also do not know anything about the  history of Sufism or Sufi music, for that matter, except for the fact that music is central to the core experience of Sufism. The programme brochure states that

… music is regarded as a means for the believer to get closer to the Divine. Sufi music therefore is music of the ‘soul’ by the ‘soul’ and for the ‘soul’.

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Love and poetry through the ages: A bharatanatyam performance by Alarmel Valli

Last Saturday, I attended a dance performance after many years—”Only Until the Light Fades: Love in Dance and Poetry”, a bharatanatyam performance by noted danseuse Alarmel Valli at the Tata Theatre of the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) in Mumbai. This performance, which was part of the NCPA’s ongoing Nakshatra Dance Festival, was conceptualised in collaboration with the noted poet, Arundhati Subramaniam.

When I set out for the NCPA that evening, all I knew was that I was going for Alarmel Valli’s bharatanatyam performance at my favourite theatre in Mumbai and unaware that I was attending the premiere of a special production. I was also unaware of the fact that this was the first time that Alarmel Valli would be performing to an English poem, or even the fact that the theme of the dance performance was love and poetry!

“Only Until the Light Fades…” explored love through poetry in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and English from the Sangam Period to the medieval period to contemporary times and through the narration of a teenager, the feelings of a woman desolate in love, the actions of a jealous lover, and through the questioning thoughts of a contemporary Indian poet writing in English.

The dance programme was quite unusual in that there was no bhakti element at all. Alarmel Valli’s opening dance item was an invocation to love, instead of the conventional invocation to Ganesha or Saraswati. And yet it also followed the conventional pattern of a bharatanatyam performance by beginning with an invocation and ending with a tillana.

Alarmel Valli : Screenshot from http://www.alarmelvalli.org

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