Words: Ambica Gulati
Love is in the air tonight, the stars are bright, the dreams are silver, the world is a shining sight–such was the dreamy, lovely world of The Peony Pavilion. Heer-Ranjha, Romeo-Juliet, Anthony-Cleopatra, Shiri-Farhad, Laila-Majnu, Dola-Maaru, their love and stories flashed in my head. And now I can add the awesome Du Liniag and Liu Mengmei to this list, even though I have difficulty pronouncing their names. Unlike a lot of famous star-crossed lovers, this love story had a happy ending, planned by the divine in its own mystical soulful way.
Performed across the world as traditional Chinese Kunqu opera—the story of Du Liniag and Liu Mengmei, a rich maiden and penniless scholar—is a story of divine blessing mingled with drama, demons, ghosts and enchanting hypnotic music.
This opera is about 470 years old; it was written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming dynasty and first performed in 1598. Kunqu pronounced as Kunju is the oldest extant form of Chinese opera and evolved from the Kunshan melody. This opera, titled as the mother of 100 operas, has been listed as one of the masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. The China Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre was formed in 1957 and has won many national and international awards.
In fact the woman who brought this to India, Artistic Director of BraviaSadir Theatre Festival and Bharatnatyam dancer Swati Bhise, had seen it at the Kennedy Centre and it comprised 55 acts and took 20 long hours. We were in a trance during the entire 90 minutes. The opera had 18 stage performers from Mainland China and was translated by Joanna Lee.
Even though, the credentials of the opera were long, there was still the issue of the language but the dialogues were all visible on a LED. The music soft, probably one of the best Chinese flutes I had heard, touched the soul and left me longing for such as love to come my way. It made me sway and enraptured I watched the beautifully dressed people on the stage. The costumes took us back to tales of ancient China—beautiful embroidery, traditional robes, vibrant colours and one of the most amazing gem-studded headgear. The men had shoes much akin to our platforms, so I got an idea where the shoes in trend today were inspired from.
The story, a fairy tale, the young rich lady is taken to a garden by her companion. And there she falls asleep and the gardener sends a dream of her true love. The lover makes bold advances in the dream and she falls in love. And this lovesickness is the cause of her death. The celestial judge decides that this love is predestined to meet and gives her he gift of life. She finds her lover though still a ghost, who comes at the destined hour to bring her back to life and there are wedding bells.
Artistic endeavours are great educationists. You can learn all about cultures from the clothing to the music to the way people live. The songs, interspersed with mention of a Moon Festival, Goddess Guanyin were openers to the prevalent beliefs. And plums seem to be a well liked fruit as the young lady is buried under a plum tree. Spring is the eternal festival of love. And then there were a lot of truisms—beautiful women are ill-fated in love; if trapped in fame, fortune, rites and rituals, you can’t be as carefree as a flower. Love will beget love with sincerity. People lament when in no-man’s land caught between the living and the dead. Ghosts and celestial spirits reign the Chinese philosophical world. But none deviate from the path of divine plan. The Peony Pavilion is a soft, treasured memory that instills my faith in true love.