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Raves for Bhansali's Bollyopera and Glass's Satyagraha

May 2008
Raves for Bhansali's Bollyopera and Glass's Satyagraha

Padmavati, as directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is not a film like his widely seen Devdas. Instead, call it a Bollyopera. It’s based on a French ballet-turned-opera composed by Albert Roussel. Bhansali’s well-received stage adaptation of Padmavati had its premiere in March at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Roussel’s work, inspired by a visit he made to India in 1909, was composed 85 years ago. That’s not old for opera buffs, but it would be considered prehistoric for film fans. The plot could have come out of a Bollywood potboiler: it revolves around Queen Padmavati, who stabs her husband to save her honor and ends up paying a steep price. Though Roussel’s opera has a ‘high culture’ tag, Bhansali, unsurprisingly, gives a populist spin to this tale of passion, intrigue and tragedy. There are singers and dancers, colorful costumes, Hindu gods and goddesses, acrobats, even real animals. Is Bollywood the next stop for this Padmavati?

A different kind of opera, also with an Indian connection, was performed in New York last month. Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent struggle in South Africa, had its debut in 1980. Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, was a guest of honor at this revival, which had novel touches such as puppets carried by acrobats on stilts. Made from newspapers, fiberglass and cloth, these puppets represented the South African officials opposed to Gandhi and his allies. The Sanskrit libretto was drawn entirely from the Bhagavad Gita, although no translation was provided to the audience. Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King, Jr. were three 20th-century giants who either influenced Gandhi or were influenced by him. Each of the opera’s three acts had one of these iconic characters in a non-singing role, watchfully presiding over the action on the stage. This long opera, though enthusiastically received in New York and London, did not please all critics. “Gandhi displayed remarkable patience in his life,” noted one. “Patience is required to sit through Satyagraha.”

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