Archive for the 'Music' Category

Ram Vijaya: Monks at Play

A performance of the Rāmāyaṇa by Vaishnavite monks from Assam might be expected to be a fairly solemn affair. Ram Vijaya opened with a drum-beaten dance by suitably serious-looking white-cotton-clad men.  The sūtradhāra followed with a ceremonial unveiling of the manuscript from which he would later read, seated at the back of the stage surrounded by the musicians.


The shock of colour that Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa brought was the first hint of things to come but it wasn’t until Viśvamitra – terrifying sage of ancient India – started to scamper about the stage, his large false top knot wobbling as a podgy rakṣasa gave chase, that the audience dared a chuckle.


It soon became clear that humour was a large part of this performance, which portrayed the first part of the epic, culminating in Sītā’s svayaṃvara. The kings competing for Sītā’s hand showed these actor-monks at their best.  After bombastic, rhythmic, stomping entrances by each, the princess herself appeared (slim, fine-featured, with an appropriately bashful smile – it was only the voice that gave it away), garland at the ready for the lucky winner.  Two equally feminine handmaids warded off the premature advances of the portly bulging-eyed kings with a definitive tapping stamp.  Each then tried his luck with the bow, treating the audience to an elaborate show of muscle flexing and limb stretching. Rāma’s humble attempt and success at lifting and stringing the bow was almost anti-climactic by comparison.


The multicoloured costumes, with their spectacular wigs and weapons worthy of Ramanan Sagar’s battle scenes, added to the exuberance.  Janaka himself, better known for his yogic skills and Upanisadic appearances, could have passed for Father Christmas in the pre-Coca Cola days.  But it was the monks who made it such fun.


Sattriya is now recognised as one of the eight classical dance forms in India, dating back to the 15th century when it was invented by the Assamese Vaishnavite saint, Shrimanta Shankaradeva.  Up until very recently, it was the preserve of the sattras (Assamese monasteries) enjoyed only by the monks themselves and ultimately God.  Although it has now moved into mainstream theatre, it is still something of a rarity to watch a performance by monks, rather than professional dancer-actors.  Just as you might be surprised to find that a rendering of Christ’s birth practised for hundreds of years by a Benedictine order was in fact not far removed from the Christmas village pantomime, so Ram Vijaya was something of a shock – although a thoroughly enjoyable one.  This is religious devotion as celebration; Vishnu would surely approve.



Ram Vijaya, performed by the Sattriya Monks of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra and directed by Muhikant Barbayan was the first of a series of folk and traditional dance and theatre performances at Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore.  The rich programme includes Kattaikuttu from Tamil Nadu, Gondhal from Maharasthra, Dastangoi, Pandavani, Phou-oibi from Manipur and Theyyam and Kuttiyattam from Kerala and Yakshagana.  Sanskrit fans will particularly enjoy a Kuttiyattam performance of Shakuntala, in Sanskrit, by Gopal Venu of Natanakairali.


For more details click here.


As photography is not permitted in the theatre, the photos in this article are taken from the Ranga Shankara website.  If there are any objections to their being used here, please let me know and I will take them down.


Satyagraha – An Opera in Sanskrit


A Review of Satyagraha

Elena Jessup – March 2010, London

In January of this year, a friend told me that the English National Opera was reviving its performance of Philip Glass’ Sanskrit opera Satyagraha in London.  Since my husband and I missed the first performance in 2007, a huge surprise hit, we decided to buy tickets for one of the shows in March.

Although both of us are Sanskrit teachers and have degrees in the language, we were rather nervous about investing a precious Saturday night on a work with which we felt we had no connection.  We were vaguely familiar with Gandhi’s life story and completely unfamiliar with Philip Glass’ music.  Would it be strange? Boring?  The running time of the performance was three hours, which made me nervous.  In the end, we opted for the cheapest tickets, consoled by the fact that we could leave after the first act. When we went for our chocolate ice creams in the interval, we were so impressed that we did not want to leave. 

Satyagraha is not a ‘normal’ opera like Carmen or The Marriage of Figaro.  Composed in 1980 by Philip Glass, it uses the text of the the Bhagavad Gita as a contemplation of Gandhi’s concept of non-violence.  Like a meditation, the work is non-linear and cyclical; as my husband put it, ‘Don’t expect to be entertained.  This is about becoming still.’  In spite of this, the ENO’s performance was amazingly enjoyable due to two factors.  First, the music is moving and powerful, and the orchestra and performers, especially Alan Oke (Gandhi), conveyed it so brilliantly.  Second, the staging was done by Improbable, a UK-based company known for its fresh approach to theatre.  Puppets, masks, and other novelties provided the audience with surprises and insights.  Another original innovation was the integration of the surtitles (i.e., the translation of the Gita verses) into the production, which was accomplished by projecting the words onto different locations on the stage.

However, there were two flaws in the performance, both of which relate to how Sanskrit was used in the work.  The first is that the Sanskrit text was garbled and indistinct.  It would be useful next time for the producers to employ a Sanskritist to help to clarify the performers’ pronunciation.  The second was that the surtitles were so cleverly integrated into the staging that most of the audience members could not see them clearly, unless they were sitting in the most expensive seats.  This was distressing for many people because the meaning of the Sanskrit was so important to the spiritual effect of the opera.

Nevertheless, Satyagraha had replaced The Magic Flute as my favourite opera and I was keen to go again.  Two weeks later we brought some Sanskrit A-level students.  I asked them what they thought.  They said they mostly liked it – not bad coming from a group of 18 year old Londoners.  Hats off to Philip Glass and Improbable for pulling in the punters for a contemplative opera with a Sanskrit libretto; it was great to see so many people experiencing the power of the Bhagavad Gita.

Elena Jessup teaches Sanskrit at St James’ School in central London

Satyagraha’s run at the ENO has now finished, but you can listen to and follow part of the score – and the libretto – on a special site the ENO have set up here. 

Music and Kavya – An Interview with Dr TS Sathyavathi

Dr TS Satyavathi, a Sanskrit scholar and renowned Carnatic musician, is currently directing an ambitious – and popular – AIR programme which sets selected Sanskrit poetry to music.  She talks to Venetia Ansell about the programme, illustrating each point with snatches of beautifully lilting Sanskrit verse in a voice which fully justifies the cabinet behind her that bulges with awards and trophies.

12th May 2009

Mahalakshmi Layout, Bangalore

What was the impetus behind this programme?

Sampath Kumaran [who runs the Sri Tirunarayana Trust which is sponsoring the programme] was very keen to showcase Sanskrit literature and we decided that the best way to do this would be to present it through music as an audio experience.  A visual presentation might have proved a distraction to the actual kavya (poetry).   Music relates itself very quickly to people and there is no language, caste or any other type of barrier.  It heightens our ability to appreciate such poetry.  But we must be careful not to get so carried away by the music that we don’t listen to the actual kavya, just as we shouldn’t focus exclusively on the words alone. 


How do you set the poetry to music? 

I use a mixture of styles.  I set some of the shlokas with tala (the structured and repetitive musical units which are shown in notation) and for other parts I use improvisation, what you call gamakam (variations in a note’s pitch) or kavya-vacana (poetry recitation) style, which has no tala. 

All Sanskrit verse has a particular chandas, a metre, so it lends itself easily to music patterns.  You can set the same metre to different talas but you must do so without distorting the meaning or breaking words.  I have to match the melody to the rasa, the mood or emotion; I have to make the meaning felt through the rasa.  The tempo must also match the rasa – for the karuna (pitiful) rasa we need a slow tempo, a faster one for the vira (heroic) rasa and so on. 

I also select a raga for each section and this too must fit with the meaning of the kavya and its rasa.  Sometimes a kavi (poet) will tell us which raga should be used, such as Jayadeva does for his Gita Govinda, but even where this is the case we only have a name – there is no way of knowing what the vasanta (spring) raga for instance actually sounded like.

I direct a group of young musicians who sing the kavyas – both men and women who sing at times in a group, at times in pairs or solo.  I teach them the meaning of each and every word because they cannot sing the poem until they understand it, but there are still the occasional problems with pronounciation, for example the wrong stress on the word ‘nupura’ (anklet) can make it sound as if the second two syllables are actually a separate word – ‘pura’ (town).  The meaning must not get lost in the melody. 


Is this how these poems would originally have been performed?


Kavyas were not designed to be set to music but they were certainly never just read – they were always recited.  Recitation itself involves music and has an inherent rhythm.  In an oral tradition, recitation is an aide to memory – we can remember long texts because of the rhythm, the laya which is something different to the tala.  The laya is the natural rhythm of a text, you can’t show or denote it but only feel it – it runs between the tala. 


What kind of a response have you had to the programme?  Does it matter that most people are unable to understand high flown classical Sanskrit?


Indians have a great affinity and respect for Sanskrit – the language has endeared itself to them over so many thousands of years.  They may not understand every word but they can get a feel for the poetry.

The Ramayana certainly and to a lesser extent Kalidasa’s works are so familiar that people have no real trouble understanding them, but people are much less familiar with the other poets whose work we are presenting.

We have got fantastic feedback so far.  People eagerly await the next show.  AIR (All India Radio which is broadcasting the programme) tells us that they have had a very good response from both scholars and lay people. 


How can kavya be made relevant to today’s MTV generation in India? 


I think that people should at least be aware of their roots and then decide what path they want to follow.  We also have a responsibility to preserve these great traditions of ours.  They say that one birth isn’t enough to fully understand the great wealth of Sanskrit knowledge and literature.  Sanskrit is an amara-vani, an immortal language.  It is no longer a mass language of communication – replaced by regional languages all of which owe their strength to Sanskrit – but it will not die out.


Samskrita Kavya Sangita presents poetry from Valmiki, Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhana, Bhartrhari, Jayadeva, Adi Shankarcharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya.  The 13th episode will be broadcast tomorrow (14th May) at 7:30am on FM 1001.1, the Amrithavarshini Classical Music Channel, AIR (All India Radio).  There will then be a hiatus for a couple of months before the remaining 13 episodes are broadcast.  In the meantime, the 13 broadcast episodes will be repeated.  The Sri Tirunarayana Trust is hoping to bring out CDs of the programme, particularly the Ramayana ones.   


For more information on the Sri Tirunarayana Trust, please click here for their website.

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