Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya is a hybrid theatre piece, combining the soundworld of operatically trained singers, a large orchestra and the technical resources of a big theatre with the language of Indian classical music and Kathak dance.
Based on a story from the Mahābhārata of a princess who disturbs a holy man so deep in meditation that ants move harmlessly over him – but she destroys his sight in the process, marries him and comes to see more in his sightless soul than any rival can create, even by a magical transformation. It’s ultimately a hymn to genuine love.
Shankar didn’t finish the piece, and his long-time collaborator on other western-eastern musical projects, David Murphy, has completed it and orchestrated the score – much of which is played by a (to us) conventional orchestra but with the addition of sitar, shenai, tabla and other Indian percussion.
Visually it’s more lavish than the stills might suggest, as the ‘backcloth’ is a patterned screen on which moving images are projected, and the light and colour they create are an important part of what you see. The orchestra (the London Philharmonic), chorus (BBC Singers) and other musicians are all on stage (with the conductor rather obtrusively, but necessarily, placed front centre), so steps and a platform are really all the set there is, and the actors and dancers move within the limits set, or else on the wide but shallow strip available front of stage.
With costuming, lighting and sound all expertly handled, the impact of Suba Das’s production is still considerable, and in addition there’s the skill and inventiveness embodied in the music. Wisely, the subtle microtonally decorative world of the sitar and shenai are kept audibly insulated from the bigger, heavier sounds of the orchestra – and yet the latter is Indian, too, with its lines built on single scales and long-held drones and its rhythms very cleverly integrated with those of the Indian tradition.
The singers were all effective and some of outstanding quality, including Susanna Hurrell (Sukanya) and Njabulo Madlal (one of the two ‘Aswini Twins’, the slightly sinister clowns of the scenario). The dancers were highly accomplished, especially Rukmini Vijayakumar, and the choreography credit to Aakash Odedra (who also performs) is an indication of pedigree there.
As an attempt at a new kind of music theatre, it has its negative side. The text, by Amit Chaudhuri, occasionally lurches into bathos or crudity. There is no drama, as usually understood, in the slow-moving plot, except the often-repeated mantra, ‘Who can foresee the outcome?’ The music falls into numbers, each anchored in its scale, although there is variety and tension-making inside those frameworks.
One aspect I thought weakened the whole construction was the episode early in the second half when Chyavana, the holy man, tells his bride his story of learning to be a musician when he was young, and explains how Indian and Western music differ. This is accompanied by projection images of Ravi Shankar himself – presumably it’s adapted from his own memoirs and thinking, but it seems an oddly didactic interpolation in a story to which it’s really unrelated.
Maybe it’s there to fill things out a bit. But the show doesn’t drag, and it’s all over inside two hours including an interval, so you couldn’t say it was stretched to Wagnerian proportions. Bravo for that.
Sukanya opening scene
Pictures: Bill Cooper