You know when people are drinking coffee at intermission that something is wrong. The audience that attended the April 19 presentation of “SatyaGraha” sincerely wanted to understand and be attentive to this opera but, like me, they found themselves fighting off sleep while desperately trying to follow along with few and poor tools to do so.
While I was impressed and initially attracted to the idea of the libretto sung entirely in Sanskrit, (and I do credit the cast for executing this amazing feat over a four hour period), I, like the Indian couple sitting next to me concurred that it was extremely frustrating to not be able to hear and understand clearly what was being recited. This occurred for two reasons: The first was that there was a lack of alliteration that made the text impossible to understand. There is something to be said for traditional forms in this respect. The only words audible, and I credit my understanding of them to the fact that I have been reading and hearing Sanskrit for the past twenty five years, were “Sri Bhagavanuvaca” or “The Blessed Lord said” but as to what He said is anybody’s guess. And to think that the entire Bhagavad – Gita was sung on the battlefield of Kuruksetra with no help from microphones and was heard by every soldier assembled there made me wonder how much we have really progressed since ancient times.
The second reason that it proved impossible to understand, which perhaps was more important in this context, was that the technology to follow along by the written word was not exploited to the fullest extent. The projections on the backdrop were hard to see once I realized that they were there. I tried scanning them with my opera glasses but the text was too high up to read in its entirety. The minimal translations we were handed in the program could not be read in the darkness and, even if they could have been, the type was small. The mini marquee that lights up on teh back of each seat were not utilized for the translations.
The mature audience, especially those who had paid upwards of US$295.00 per ticket could not have been pleased. What a shame that this eloquent poem on life and mortality that was sung and heard by thousands on a battlefield could not be audibly heard or understood by an audience a fraction of the size. Was it not the point to enlighten us with the same message that gave Gandhi the strength and inspiration to pursue his civil rights movement? I think for Phillip Glass it was.
Divine or Mundane?
I found that the directors could not seem to make up their minds as to whether or not the opera was going to be mundane or divine. Devotion is always seen to be inferior coupled with an infuriating assumption that the people telling their own history cannot possibly be right but must be suffering from some kind of delusion.
Someone should tell the creators that the battlefield of Kuruksetra dubbed “mythical” in the opera is a very real place. Situated 160 kilometers north of Delhi in the state of Harayana, Kuruksetra is famous as the place where the great Mahabharata war was fought between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and the place where Sri Krsna spoke the Bhagavad-gita to His devotee, prince Arjuna. It is no more mythical than the Hudson river or London.
I was excited about the prospect of Krisna and Arjuna appearing on the stage to view the armies before the great war. How daring for the Western mind! While I did find the construction of Krsna’s visvarupa or Universal Form as revealed to Arjuna inventive, being made entirely out of paper and long reeds held by several cast members, what was the point if the actual proclaimed Source of all “satya” or goodness and “graha” or power as revealed in the eleventh chapter – is made to look and feel mundane?
Power and Truth remained theoretical and for these directors, incapable of being embodied in One Person. God apparently cannot afford to wear anything better than an ill fitting three piece suit with no shoes and not even a silk suit at that. His hair was wild and completely unkempt. Krsna was depicted as a person I would definitely try to avoid on the subway. I am not sure that the way Gandhi understood Him was presented. He did after all say “He Rama” upon his assassination.
To make matters more paradoxical, what should have been presented in a more everyday fashion was presented with mind numbing reverence or should I say slowness. While being in the position of translating a culture that is not your own can be daunting, what I witnessed made me wonder how much of an effort was made to reach out to the living resources surrounding McDermott and Crouch on their home turf. Surely, being based in the UK, they have been exposed to the color and movement of Indian dance and culture or perhaps had even seen Louis Malles series on the BBC “Phantom India”? The UK has one of the largest, if not the largest population of Indian immigrants in the world. Why none of this energy and information was used to liven 1up Satya Graha I don’t know.
The directors relied more on large imagery. The role of sets and majestic big pictures with little content rather than the actual vitality of Mahatma Gandhi and the pure sound of the Bhagavad Gita predominated. They could have done so much more to uncover the message and make it come alive but instead succeeded in creating a behemoth. Even traditional opera like the Barber of Seville has movement, color and humor in it.
The greatest “action” occurred when hangers descended from the ceiling upon which the historical figure of Tagore and the rest of the cast, hung their British made cloth. The action is continually in slow motion taking ten minutes or more for someone to cross the stage. No doubt that was a choice to give emphasis to the gravitas of the dramatic events of Gandhi’s life as they unfolded but even the most serious topics need some real action to make the drama seem more dramatic, when it does occur, by drawing us close to the characters.
Here characters moved across the stage at a snail’s pace. Life, and art, are fueled by contrasts. Indeed, the swirling sounds of the music could have easily supported some swirling or even balletic movements. We saw extras shuffling newspapers, sometimes creating words or collecting them tediously from what I could only guess was the ruling class in one scene. In the program notes, the newspaper was mentioned as being a metaphor since Gandhi was perceived to be one of the first to use modern media as a vehicle for social change. Alright but surely another metaphor could have been employed over four hours.
Legendary personalities passed through this piece. Tall boots needed to be filled. Martin Luther King Jr. made only a cameoappearance. Poor Leo Tolstoy whom Gandhi corresponded with until Tolstoy’s death in 1910 sat ,as if in effigy, in a window for half an hour at a stretch not once but twice. Was he meant to be a watchful eye? Was he asleep? Great pains were taken to create the Tolstoy farm with moveable set pieces . The anticipation that rose that the action between the characters would be as equally inventive was dashed when nothing happened except for the set pieces to leave the stage in the same manner in which they had arrived. It was like watching a beautiful woman impeccably dressed who had nothing much to say.
While the opera continues to sell out it that fact serves as a testament as to just how spiritually hungry our neighbors are.
Jun 25, 2022
Radhapriya Chawla, ISKCON Toronto Communications