The Park’s THE OTHER FESTIVAL - 2003
Music. Dance. Drama. Art. You.
December 1-7, 2003, 7pm
Chinmaya Heritage Centre, Harrington Road, Chennai

Tuesday, Dec 2, 2003

‘The Woman Who Went Mad Upon Losing A Son’
by Taipei Li Yuan Chinese Opera Theatre

by Nadaka (Auroville)

An Evening of Water Sleeves and Scatted Swaras
by Ranjith Bhaskar
Photos: Lalitha Venkat

December 3, 2003
The singing sounded like a wail, the wailing sounded like a screamy yawn. In between producing these sounds, Huang Yu Lin and Chang Hsue Hong glided around on the stage so effortlessly that they seemed almost weightless.

Taipei Li Yuan Chinese Opera Theatre’s ‘The Woman Who Went Mad Upon Losing A Son’ was a short 30-minute production about, well, a woman who loses it when her baby boy goes missing. Lady Hu is a county officer’s concubine and gives birth to his son when on the run from enemies. She is captured by a robber. The robber’s wife releases her later. Lady Hu finds her baby missing and runs wildy all over in the forest and finally, goes over the edge.

The music for this excerpt was out of a CD; the singing was live and in perfect sync. Both the actresses sang and spoke in a musical high-sigh; hitting the high Cs and upper octaves seemed no problem to either of them.
Understanding the theme, as it was broken down on stage through the various scenes, was difficult, as it is a completely unfamiliar theatrical style and language. The actresses’ faces were made up elaborately in light pink that progressed darkly in shade up the face. The silk mandarin gowns, in bright pastels, would’ve looked good in a certain light arrangement; but here, the lighting was mostly flat. The lead player’s dress had 36-inch sleeves, which she used in circular movements to emphasise stylistically.

After the performance, answering questions through an interpreter who travelled with them, the two actresses explained techniques and cleared doubts. Explaining their flexibility (and demonstrating), they said that their training started when they were 8 years old. Props, it seems, are used profusely in Chinese theatre, but didn’t form part of their baggage on the journey here. Apart from the ancient themes and stories, they also perform contemporary ideas.

I didn’t enjoy the performance much as I couldn’t relate to it. I heard a lot of wows around me; so I guess I was the odd one there. Anyway, I cached away 3 things from the performance: the actresses were undeniably graceful; the fisted palm, with just the forefinger extended, reminded me of a Kathakali mudra; and lastly, I felt more comfortable after hearing that the Chinese themselves have a problem deciphering / understanding the lyrics used in this style of theatre. I have a similar problem listening to many classical singers in India who have made classic the art of incoherence.

The second part of the evening, in contrast, was silent. Well, almost. Nadaka, the guitarist from Auroville in Pondicherry, along with Somnath on the tabla, picked soft music from Carnatic chords. Nadaka was born in Quebec, and settled in India during the 70s.

Nadaka plays a customised guitar. He talked about how his search for a guitar that could be manipulated to play the rather different Indian scales took him to California where he found his special guitar. He has re-fretted the neck with movable high frets that seem to render a slightly subdued scalloped tone. He’s also added extra strings below the usual six to give a cascading strum sound. He uses strings that don’t follow the usual six-string gauge patterns; his strings are of different thicknesses (for example, he uses a very thick bass E to a normally thin top E).
The music was not particularly impressive. There was nothing wrong with Nadaka’s guitar-playing nor with Somnath’s percussion. But it was not the type of the proverbial ‘incendiary’ guitar performance that the world expects each time somebody picks up a guitar. Especially in a genre where the benchmark was set by John McLaughlin and his ‘shakti’ guitar.

The effort was there. Or so it seemed. But again, it looked like wanton playing; no music-possessing-man effect here. Then again, the crowd waltzed away after the first half. The people who remained looked listless. Inspiration from the audience was not very forthcoming.

One thing got me though. Nadaka scatted quick swaras to accompany a particularly fast movement across the frets. Scatting is a term used to describe vocal syllables that mimic and accompany a musical progression and is widely used in jazz guitaring. He later said that he was exploring this technique and its usage in Carnatic music.

A man seemingly committed to his music, devoted to his instrument; Nadaka comes across as a simple man. Maybe a little flamboyance would have retained the crowds…but then again, maybe.

Ranjith Bhaskar lives and works in Chennai and can be reached at

‘The Woman Who Went Mad Upon Losing A Son’

Music by Nadaka
The Other Festival,
Dec 1-7, 2003-Daily coverage