Turns, twists, twirls...
Surprisingly, the Peking Opera, had many commonalities with the forms of our own culture such as the Yakshagana
Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.
SPECTACULAR The imagery of beautiful flowers created by the creative use of scarves was outstanding
The Orient and most arts coming from this part of the globe have long fascinated the rest of the world. Fuelled primarily by successful films of the region, especially its martial arts, has captured the imagination of millions. The Peking Opera by the members of the Shenyang Normal University, the inaugural performance at the All-India Theatre Festival on January 4, was evidence to this.
With an over 200-year history, the Peking Opera, or Beijing Opera as it is sometimes called, is a blend of song, dance, drama and acrobatic combat sequences. The tapestry of stories told through this form is martial, mythological, and folk. T hough, for this particular performance they chose mainly martial, drawing heavily from the history of political and military struggles of the region, along with one love story.
At first glance, it was obvious to see the similarities the form bears to our own traditional forms. The brightly painted faces; the vibrantly coloured, traditional and grandiose costumes particularly the elaborate headgear; the use of gestures that resembled mudras; angular movements, and turning on one's knee; all seemed comparable to Indian arts such as the Yakshagana, Kathakali and so on. Even the treble dominated and strong percussion accompanied music, also bore resemblances to Indian musical forms. One must admit that for an untrained ear, the music did sound loud and grating, but personally, I felt, it was easily relatable. The gong that features prominently in the music, for example, sounds almost identical to our own jagate. (If you closed your eyes, the constant jagate in the background made it seem like you were in Rayara Matha!) The two-stringed bowed instrument that dominates the melody sounds much like the ektara. The unusual vocal patterns were perhaps the only strong deviation from other traditions. It was high-pitched, nasal, and the dialogues were delivered in a sing-song fashion, comprising of distinctly elongated syllable forms.
In content, the difference was most obvious in the strength of the female characters. In almost every piece, the women characters displayed extraordinary will, often fighting and winning battles single-handedly. This is what clearly distinguished the opera from Indian forms, even as it made extensive use of martial arts and acrobatic sequences. The performers showed a great degree of lithe flexibility that was almost impossible to believe. Whether the pieces dealt with the nobility and bravery of generals in war or the coyness of young lovers in spring, movement told the whole story. The beauty of the performance lay in the fluidity of the actors, even when they moved rapidly. The precision displayed by the actors and the confidence and purpose built into every movement solidified the performance, carrying it beyond simple showmanship into a highly developed art. Throughout the performance, not a step was out of place or mistimed.
A number of high points dotted the performance. The imagery of beautiful flowers created by the creative use of scarves in the second piece, the hilarious cat and mouse battle in the third piece and the grand battle sequences of the last piece were incredible visual treats. Perhaps the only low point of the performance was the fifth piece, a love story between two commoners. Lacking in the physicality that the other pieces showcased, it tended to drag in parts, although it had certain remarkable moments such as the excellent voice modulation of the male lover.
Overall, the performance was a mixed blessing. While the more physical aspects of the performance worked perfectly, wowing the audience, the performance as a whole failed to connect. Lacking a contemporary cultural context, the performance remained mostly distant and aloof, watched mostly as a spectacle. Though it gave audiences here a once-in-a-lifetime peek into a culture that we have long been curious about, the Peking Opera, like most traditional art forms, perhaps works best in the environment that it grew out of.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu