A feast for eyes and ears: Ravi Shankar’s dance-opera, Sukanya

Curve, Leicester
May 12, 2017

David Mead

Sukanya, the only opera by Ravi Shankar, virtuoso sitar player and one of the first truly global music stars is certainly a lavish treat for the eyes and ears. Amongst the music and singing is plenty of excellent dance by Aakash Odedra, another artist who bridges Eastern and Western traditions with such ease.

Or perhaps one should say ‘mostly by Shankar’. Although he worked on Sukanya up to his death in 2012, he left it incomplete. Bringing it to the stage has been the work of British conductor and violinist David Murphy (a regular collaborator with Shankar) and Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka, who have ‘filled in the gaps’, as she put it in a recent interview.

The action mostly takes place on a symmetrically arranged steps and platforms, on which are also perched four performers on Indian instruments. In front of them and in full view are the players of the London Philharmonic. The chorus of BBC singers stand on more steps at the back.

Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya and Alok Kumar as ChyavanaPhoto ROH/Bill Cooper
Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya and Alok Kumar as Chyavana
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

The story is taken from the Sanskrit texts of the Mahabharata. Having accidentally blinded the revered and aged sage Chyavana, the princess Sukanya is offered to him as a bride by her father, King Sharyaati, to make amends. It’s a fate she accepts with remarkable dignity as she sings of her destiny. Rather less happy are the Aswini Twins, a couple of onlooking jealous and meddling gods who want Sukanya for themselves. As the union blossoms, the twins decide to test her, to restore the ancient Chyavana’s youth and sight, and make themselves appear as he does, forcing her to choose between them.

Sukanya is not just an opera, even a dance-opera, though. It’s very much a meeting of contemporary British and South Asian culture that celebrates Shankar himself, his music, love and humanity, as telling the story. Indeed, the story from the Mahabharata and real life become truly blurred in Act 2, when the sage appears to turn into Shankar and action shifts from the forest to what looks like his home, a place adorned with photos of him, and that make it all a little too shrine-like for my liking.

Rukmini Vijayakumar in SukanyaPhoto ROH/Bill Cooper
Rukmini Vijayakumar in Sukanya
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

The links and parallels between story and real life become even more obvious when the sage starts singing to Sukanya about Indian music and his life, and when one realises that, by chance, Sukanya also happens to be the name of Shankar’s widow (and mother of Anoushka), some 34 years his junior.

Odedra’s dance tends towards the traditional, although there is sometimes a contemporary edge to things. Given the severe restrictions on space, that the choreography looks so good speaks volumes. Standing out is the lithe Indian film actor and bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, a temple dancer in gorgeously coloured silks. Everything about her sparkled: her rhythmic footwork, poses, facial expressions and super-clear hand movements. I also enjoyed a duet between Odedra and Sanjukta Sinha, in identical white costumes, that was full of spins and turns.

Choreographer Aakash Odedra and Sanjukta Sinha in SukanyaPhoto ROH/Bill Cooper
Choreographer Aakash Odedra and Sanjukta Sinha in Sukanya
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

The atmosphere throughout is light and innocent, although every now and again there’s an explosion of excitement, one in Act 2 matched by a terrifically exciting dance by all five dancers.

The music is loaded with gorgeously listenable to melodies, Murphy’s orchestration combining the Eastern and Western instruments beautifully; no easy task given that Indian music uses scales based on the harmonic series, which introduces microtonal notes that are mostly not used in Western music. The different Indian and Western operatic traditions add further complexity. In Sukanya, the singers sing Indian ragas, the opera also including konnakol, a voiced percussion.

In amongst in all is the soft yet gin clear voice of The Royal Opera soprano Susannah Hurrell as Sukanya, whose husband was played by tenor Alok Kumar. I also enjoyed the sweet sounding Eleanor Minney as Sukanya’s friend, and Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza as the bumbling Aswini Twins, who you just knew were going to finish up losing out. Keel Watson is the well-rounded King.

Transporting everyone between locations is cleverly done using projections by Akhila Krishnan and the team at 59 Productions, who show just how effective such an approach can be.

All round an evening of pure delight. Sukanya may not be opera as usually known in the West but it’s a massively colourful, entertaining, total integration of music, dance, drama and modern visuals. Above all, perhaps, an evening of driving energy that shows just how well different traditions can come together in the right hands.

Running time: approx. 1 hour 50 minutes including an interval.

Sukanya continues to Symphony Hall, Birmingham (May 15) and the Southbank Centre, London (May 19). Visit www.lpo.org.uk/events/sukanya for more details.