The Park’s THE OTHER FESTIVAL
Dance. Drama. Art. You.
1-7, 2003, 7pm
Heritage Centre, Harrington Road, Chennai
Dec 2, 2003
‘The Woman Who Went Mad Upon
Losing A Son’
by Taipei Li Yuan Chinese Opera
by Nadaka (Auroville)
of Water Sleeves and Scatted Swaras
by Ranjith Bhaskar
Photos: Lalitha Venkat
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Who Went Mad Upon Losing A Son’
Music by Nadaka