The Peony Pavilion

Interview: Swati Bhise, Artistic Director, Bravia Sadir Theatre Festival /  Sushma Sabnis :

While it is a matter of honour to belong to a country with a rich cultural heritage, it requires quite an embracing vision to promote cultural traditions from the world over. Swati Bhise, Artistic Director of the Bravia Sadir Theatre Festival is one such visionary and she presents the exquisite China Northern Kunqu Opera. An interview with Sushma Sabnis

Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei

Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei

Sushma Sabnis: Please tell us about the Bravia Sadir Theatre Festival?

Swati Bhise: It is an annual three-day festival hosted at the Kala Academy in Goa. In the past, we have brought in some of the best theatre and musical performances from around India. This is the first time that we are bringing in an international performance.

SS: How long has this festival been taking place?

SB: We debuted in February 2012 with a full house auditorium.

SS: How do you see dance as a medium to promote art education for youngsters of today?

SB: For me, dancing has always been a universal language that can transcend cultural, language and social barriers. I believe dance plays an essential role in educating people, not just young people, about the world beyond the one they know.

SS: Tell us about the Kunqu Opera:

SB : Kunqu Opera is the most refined of all Chinese opera. It is also one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera and is known as the “mother” of a hundred opera forms. Kunqu was recognized as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

Zhang Yuanyuan as Du Liniang

Zhang Yuanyuan as Du Liniang

SS: Tell us about the China Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre?

SB: The China Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre was founded in 1957 and is based in Beijing. It specializes in the northern style of Kun opera, researching and preserving traditional classics such as The Peony Pavilion, Romance of the Western Chamber, The Palace of Eternal Youth and Peach Blossom Fan.

To date, the China Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre has received 24 national awards for new productions and more than 75 awards for the company’s individual artists, among them numerous Meihua (Plum Blossom) Awards, the highest recognition for Chinese traditional opera, as well as Baiyulan (Magnolia) Awards, honouring all forms of theatrical arts.

Internationally, it has received critical acclaim in its appearances at the Holland Festival (2011), Kennedy Center (2011) and the Sydney Opera House as guest artists at the Sydney Festival (2013).

The group has also toured extensively in Japan, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Italy and Denmark, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

SS: Tell us about The Peony Pavilion?

SB: The Peony Pavilion, or Mudan Ting in Mandarin, is one of the most beautiful, musical, visual, poetic and historically rich operas that I have seen. It has love (SRINGARA RASA AS THE DOMINANT MOOD of the opera), which is a universal emotion transcending all cultural boundaries.

I first saw the Peony Pavilion at Lincoln Centre in 1999. It was the first time in 200 years that it had been seen. In its original form, it is a 19-hour opera. But of course I saw an abridged version. It was magical.

SwatiBhise -  Artistic Director of Bravia Sadir theatre Festival

SwatiBhise – Artistic Director of Bravia Sadir theatre Festival

SS: Tell us more about this show and your role in it?

SB: I have wanted to share this opera for some time. When I saw it for the first time, it inspired me and I depicted certain scenes from the Peony Pavilion in some of my Bharatnatyam choreographies.

When I spoke to other senior artists and scholars in New York, we realized that this could be a very interesting concert in and unto itself in New York.

From there it evolved and I began to focus on my desire to take a troupe of 18 top performers from Beijing and Shanghai and interpreters from New York who had translated at Lincoln Centre and the Kennedy Centre, to India so that we in India could get to know and enjoy the culture of one of our neighbours.

I   like to bring in unique plays and performances that have never been seen before in a country. For example, we presented the first ever concert by Kapila Venu and Venuji in Kudiyatham in New York and at Johns Hopkins University; and we presented Shakuntalam, a Sanskrit play last year at the Asia Society in New York.

It was so very gratifying and I was proud to see the standing ovation and review of The New York Times we received.

Again Kudiyatham is like Kunqu in many ways and requires an educated audience. But presenting the best artist I know in the medium and in the best possible way makes it more accessible. When we think outside the box, we can enjoy the great arts of the world and reach towards greater cross-cultural understanding.

SS: Tell us more about yourself as a dancer and as an Indian ambassador of the arts in different countries?

SB: I am a dancer, yes, and also a fellow artist and art lover. As such, I see my role as more of an educator and ambassador of all heritage art forms, not just Indian.

SS: Do you see art as a language to dissolve differences and boundaries between nations for a peaceful world?

SB: I’ve always promoted arts in India and for the past two years, I have promoted it through the Bravia Sadir Theatre festival in Goa.

I feel that art is a universal language that can bridge chasms between countries and help us understand different cultures and peoples that clearly lead to greater understanding and hence peace.

When we spend time with good theatre we understand the political, social and economic conditions and the thought process of an entire ethnic group. What better way to become global and continue own personal growth and understanding?

As the artistic director of the Festival, I personally have learnt so much researching plays and operas and other performances that I feel would strike a chord with our own audiences here in INDIA. Promotion of the highest caliber of art has always been my passion and I want to share this art with India. And that is why I am bringing Kunqu opera to India. I think most people have seen a more basic style of Chinese opera, but not many people are aware of Kunqu.

Kunqu, during its heyday, dominated the cultural landscape of China for 200 years, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was viewed by the Emperors of China, and the elite and educated society in much the same way as Shakespeare was in London during the 16th century.

The theme and stories of Kunqu opera are simple yet visual and poetic. There is a wonderful quote in Sanskrit from the Natyashastra, which says the audience required to view and sustain these glorious traditions must be like “Vidvat Bhramara Sanyuktaha” intelligent to suck the honey like the bees do from the flowers (pushpa).

SS: Do tell us the details of the dates and venue of the show?

SB: The details of the show are:

Date and Venue: Dec 9, 2014 at NCPA, Mumbai

Dec 12,2014 at Siri Fort, Delhi

Time: 7:00pm – 9:00pm

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