Unsung Provenance

ON Stage brings you edited excerpts from the NCPA Quarterly Journal, an unsurpassed literary archive that ran from 1972 to 1988 and featured authoritative and wide-ranging articles. In the concluding part, scholar, curator and Indophile Robert J. Del Bonta discusses the influence of Indian myths and legends on European cultural icons, including Wagner and Goethe.

The Indian concept of history is sketchy at best and Indian historians have embroidered most of their accounts, lacing them with mythology and chronological inconsistencies. The story of Padmini is known in a number of versions, but basic elements are present in each of the many accounts which I have found in written and oral traditions. I believe that the first published Western version is that found in Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan of 1829. French composer Albert Roussel actually visited the site of Chittor, presumably hearing the story told there, and together with his librettist, Louis Laloy, based their version on a French retelling of the tale by Théodore Pavie. The basic story line is that ’Ala-ud-din heard of the great beauty of the wife of Ratan Singh and managed to see her, at which point he demanded her for his own. She was promised to him and a·great entourage of ladies were to be sent to his camp. Instead of the ladies, the litters contained the bravest warriors of Chittor. A battle ensued and after a long siege the Hindu defenders of Chittor were beaten. ’Ala-ud-din entered the city to find that many virtuous ladies, including Padmini, had burnt themselves to death rather than fall into the hands of the invaders.

Truth and honour

In the French version, Padmavati has to murder her husband to ensure her own suttee, her death on his funeral pyres. At Chittor, during the heat of the battle, noblewomen in thousands are said to have gone to their fiery deaths. They certainly did not have to resort to murder. Ratan Singh’s honour would not allow Padmini to be taken and the idea that he would suggest that she lose her honour, and consequently his own, is beyond belief. An important factor is that this whole predicament with a man ready to defile the honour of the heroine does make for good opera; but, I doubt whether a librettist would be ready to set this story of betrayal in Europe with tales of Arthurs and Guineveres while he was willing to make the barbaric Easterner act in such a manner.

There are a number of minor details in the opera that appear to relate to the actual story itself. The most interesting is when the priests tell Padmavati that more than one victim is necessary; hence, in the opera at least, the god condones the murder. In the most common legend, Ratan Singh has a vision of the goddess of the city who informs him that his sons must each meet their deaths for her to be fully satiated. Perhaps this goddess appears in the opera as one of the six female manifestations of the god Shiva who come to test Padmavati’s virtue prior to her ritual of suttee.

The final outcome of a study of Western operas about India is that they owe most of their message to the West. Where the philosophy of India (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) had so much influence on the intellectual development of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, there was little interest in the dramatic possibilities found in Indian literature. Such obvious things as the mysticism of Wagner owes much to the early German Sanskritists who moulded an entire era of European thought. Wagner’s interest in Indian philosophy, primarily an interest in Buddhism, is well attested to and his Buddhist opera Die Sieger remained uncomposed at his death.

Indian origins

The importance of his studies of Indian literature and philosophy is seen in many of his operas including Parsifal, so often considered the ultimate Christian opera. In fact, in the opening scene of Parsifal a swan is killed, an incident that must be based on the opening of the Ramayana. His famous Ring cycle ends with Brunnhilde’s immolation which must relate to the rite of suttee. The point is that Wagner was the product of his age and German intellectual and religious thought of the period was drawn from a wide range of sources, in particular, Indo-European ones. Another German who was even closer to the mainstream of Indian philosophy was the great Goethe, whose many works owe much to his Indian studies. These works in turn have been so important as sources of opera libretti. The fact that India lies behind the psychological drama of a Faust or a Werther is rarely, if ever, considered. At the end of Saito’s operatic version of Goethe’s Faust legend, the hero says “Si…ma il Real fu dolore e l’Ideal fu sogno” (Yes…but reality was suffering and the ideal was a dream). What could be more obviously Indian!

Indian thought lies behind much which we do not recognise as Indian, while the operas about India almost completely ignore India’s contribution to European thought. India is used solely for its exotic connotations and presumably to allow for some pretty outrageous costumes and sets, including the common mistake in the theatre of draping the sari over the wrong shoulder. For anyone who knows India well, it is in many ways unforgivable to see these obvious errors. So often sets and costumes refer to another ethnic area—Thai dancers set in Indonesian ruins, for instance. Granted, a designer may wish for an exotic setting for his opera, but they could open the right books for a change and do it correctly. For a designer who wishes to set Lucia di Lameromoor in Roman ruins or as a sequel to Star Wars, the usual approach to these operas is legitimate.

All in all, India has fared pretty well with its treatment in the theatre. From at least the period of Gluck, the Arab world has been used for a similar exotic purpose, but the treatment of the Islamic characters has been far from fair. These operas comprise a rich subject for a future study. Where many of the “Arab” operas have been comedies peopled with buffo characters with titles like Beg and Sultan, the “Indian” operas are usually peopled with heroines who are handled in compassionate and melodramatic tragedies.

When Sadko asked the Indian merchant to sing of his native homeland, the merchant should have laced his ‘Song of India’ with descriptions of these great beauties—Leila, Selika, Sita, Lakmé and the rest. If Sadko could not be enticed by promises of great wealth, these alluring beauties may have done the trick. Better still, the merchant could have sung Felix Mendelssohn’s musical setting of Heinrich Heine’s Indian vision:

On wings of song

beloved, I shall bear you away

away to the banks of the Ganges;

there I know the loveliest spot…

There will we lie

beneath the palm-tree

and drink deep of love and peace

and dream a blissful dream,

– ‘On Wings of Song’

This article was originally published from the Archives section by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.