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Nikhil Sardana: Tell us about the Kunqu Chinese Opera. Why did you take on the initiative to bring this to Indian audiences in December 2014?

Swati Bhise: Nothing makes one’s heart flutter quite like a good love story. Romeo and Juliet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known and most performed play. This couple has become a synonym for love itself. Less known is The Peony Pavilion, an equally passionate play that bears remarkable similarities to the imagination of Shakespeare. Penned by Tang Xianzu, a retired court official of the Ming Dynasty, who died the same year as Shakespeare, his masterpiece has been translated into English and performed in the West several times. The Peony Pavilion is a Chinese musical drama about love, death and resurrection, and arguably, the most famous of all Kunqu operas. What you should know first and foremost about Kunqu is that it is one of the oldest extant forms of Chinese opera and dominated the country’s cultural landscape from the 16th to 18th century

Known as the mother of a hundred opera forms, Kunqu was recognised as one of the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. Only art can bridge the cultural gap in a better understanding of two great powers. It is culturally one of the most beautiful, musical, visual, poetic and historically rich operas. It has love, which is as universal as an emotion, and transcends all cultural boundaries. Passion is its currency, and when expressed through sophisticated theatrical art form that fuses poetry, dance and a refined woodwind ensemble, including the fabulous costumes and make-up, its performances literally stopped a few hearts in the audience during the late Ming Dynasty. Therefore, I brought this art form to India in 2014. 

Also, it is not difficult to understand and has many similarities to Indian art forms. For example, the usage of hand gestures that are stylised to express a story like in Bharatanatyam or Koodiyattam are similar to Kunqu. The Peony Pavilion was written in an era when China was going through a rigid, repressive style of neo-Confucianism known as daoxue. It emphasised proper outward displays of behaviour and rituals. The Peony Pavilion is an enthralling love story of Du Liniang, the young daughter of a high official, who meets a young scholar named Liu Mengmei in a dream. The lyrical prose of weaves a fabric of nuances and metaphors that elegantly transgresses the divide between the beauty of nature and man’s inner cosmos of emotions and desires. It also drives forth the persistent tone of youthful optimism.

I took on this initiative as I enjoy challenges and when I realised that Chinese Opera had never before been presented in India, I was surprised. I also heard comments where people said Chinese art forms like music and dance were tedious and since Indo-China relations have very often been tested, I felt an understanding of each others culture is the only way to go forward. Art is the only form that allows people to embrace each other’s culture more than any language. That said, one has to start somewhere in showcasing this opera (that I had witnessed 20 years ago in its maiden performance at the Lincoln Centre in New York City) and it became a passion project for me. The opera made an impression on me and it was something I wanted to share with my country.


NS: What was the audience perception towards this art form?

SB: It was heartening to see the final response as this was not an art form that has mass appeal. We showcased it at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai to an audience of a thousand people with a lot of fan fair and word of mouth. We gave 200 free seats to schools like Whistling Woods and other performing arts schools from the suburbs of Mumbai. The YPO group and the Asia Society in Mumbai were many such organisations that had participated in sharing the Kunqu Opera with their members.


© Sadir Theatre Festival

Having created a buzz in the art circle towards this gracious art form, it was a win win from that point. We had a similar reaction in New Delhi at the Siri fort auditorium. In both cities, the demographics of the audiences ranged from celebrities from film, theatre, opera, government officials, teachers, students, art patrons, journalists and young professionals. In Delhi we also had many embassies including the Chinese embassy who attended the event in very large groups.

NS: What challenges do you face as the Artistic Director of the Bravia Sadir Theatre Festival?

SB: Our biggest challenge is getting the venue in Goa as we use the Kala Academy – a 1000 seater auditorium. Since the arts and culture ministry are working with them, we do not get dates for our plays approved till only two months prior to the show. For quality productions and leading playwrights to be brought to Goa audiences, contracts are signed at least 9-12 months prior, especially to revive classics and plays by the greats like Vijay Tendulkar, G. Karnad and the Marathi musicals of Vasant Rao Deshpande. If you can’t get a space on the fixed date, we lose credibility with audiences and money deposits of 50% with theatre companies. The audiences in the meantime want “FREE” entry, so we on the other hand insist on token ticket holder prices as the artists must be respected and the profession cannot thrive if we as an audience won’t buy a Rs. 50 ticket. Sadir festival always gives away free passes for the education faculty, senior citizens, students, handicapped and special rates for armed forces. We as a society must learn to respect and support the arts.


NS: What are your thoughts towards the arts appreciation sector in India? Are the numbers increasing year on year?

SB: There is a tremendous love for the arts in India especially in South India, Benaras, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi andKolkata. However, only government bodies cannot be held accountable for art support and patronage.

We all must promote the arts by being patrons, sponsors and paid ticket holders for continued sustainability of the arts. Promoting youngsters and giving a strong foundation to society is a key for success towards art appreciation of a community. We have a long way to go but I am always optimistic.


NS: Tell us about your upcoming projects. What changes do you hope for in India and what can we learn from the US where you are currently based?

SB: I am currently involved in script writing for a film as I want to share my knowledge of the Indian classical dance form, its heritage and mythology of India to convert and share with the West through the powerful medium of “Hollywood films”.

I just finished working on “The Man Who Knew Infinity” as the executive and associate producer and shared the life of Ramanujan with the world. These are meaningful projects as I see my knowledge of the two countries as a great way to bridge the two cultures.

To learn positive trends from other cultures is crucial. I deeply appreciate the awareness of the arts in NYC where audiences always respect time, silence during shows, discipline all around and accessibility to all economical stratum of society as well as handicapped accessibility. Artists too are protected with guild union rules so there are parameters for all to follow.