Sanskrit and western opera don’t readily come together in one’s mind, but in fact the two have been closely connected for close to two centuries. The inspiration for this investigation began with an ethereal operatic piece known as the “Flower Duet” that was used as the background music for a Ghirardelli chocolate commercial. In it, rich, luscious, heaven-sent chocolate swirls across the screen, a sophisticated San Francisco woman savours tantalising bites while celestial voices sing in the distance and a tagline appears: “Moments of Timeless Pleasure.” Earlier in the late 1980s, the same piece was used by British Airways as their official boarding music, making one feel safe and comfortable as the airplane took off into the heavens. Last, but certainly not least, this poignant piece was used to good effect in the 1993 film Carlito’s Way when Al Pacino goes in search of his sexy dancer girlfriend, an “artistic ballet type…” In fact a quick glance at IMDB reveals that the piece was utilised more than fifty times in various movies and TV serials from the early ‘80s onward.
This short but emotionally charged piece evokes a range of sentiments, from the beautiful to the serene, and from the cosmopolitan to the other-worldly. In a word, it is exotic, but what exactly is this “Flower Duet”? The famous excerpt is from the fairly obscure opera Lakmé, written by the nineteenth-century French composer Léo Delibes. First performed in Paris in 1883, the duet appears in Act I of the three-act opera wherein Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahman priest, along with her servant Mallika, set out to gather flowers by an idyllic riverbank. This opera, along with several others that take up Indian themes and characters, represent just one of the many ways in which the romantic fascination with the distant East played out in the creative imagination of Western artists. Delibes and other composers were part of the greater Romantic Movement that had spread across Europe in the preceding decades, fueled in no small part by the translation of Sanskrit literary works such as Sakuntalam, Meghadutam and others.
Lakmé is not directly linked to one of these Sanskrit texts, but it was certainly inspired by Indian literary motifs. The story traces the ill-fated love between Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahman named Nilakanta, and Gerard, an officer in the British army. This theme of a star-crossed, interracial love affair seems to have been a popular Romantic-era trope. The libretto written by Philippe Gille and Edmond Gondinet was once believed to have been taken from the semi-autobiographical French novel Le Mariage de Loti by Pierre Loti, in which the author describes his real-life, albeit short-lived, marriage to a native Tahitian woman named Rarahu. The cross-cultural resemblance with the Lakmé story is probably why many have attributed it as the source material for the opera, but the 1996 study by Cronin et. al. convincingly argues that the librettists were in fact inspired by the unrecognized French orientalist Théodore Marie Pavie.
Pavie is one of many free-spirited Europeans who had a genuine and sustained interest in Indian culture. From 1835 to 1839 he studied Sanskrit at the Collège de France under the noted French Indologist Eugene Bournouf. Afterwards he embarked on a long adventure that took him to Egypt and later India where he visited Madras, Bombay, Calcutta and Pondicherry. He remained in India for two years and gathered first-hand experiences that would inspire his later writings. After his return to France, Pavie published a story entitled Les Babouches du Brahmane (The Brahman’s Slippers), in the appropriately named Revue des deux Mondes, The Two Worlds Review. This story, along with a few others from Pavie, seems to have been the source material for Delibes’ Lakmé. In 1853 Pavie published several of these Indian tales in a collection of short stories entitled Sce`nes et re´cits des pays d'outre-mer (Scenes and stories of overseas countries). This was the same year in which he became a lecturer of Sanskrit at his alma mater, succeeding his mentor Bournouf.
The librettists Gille and Gondinet seem to have had access to this collection as the Lakmé text appears to be an amalgamation of various names, characters and scenes from Pavie’s Indian stories. The name of Delibes’ heroine Lakmé is particularly fascinating. It is derived from the Sanskrit lak?mi, not the goddess of wealth and auspiciousness as one might assume, but from Pavie’s text in which “lakshmis” or “brides of Vishnu” seem to represent the temple courtesans whom Pavie encountered in Pondicherry. In this context Lakmé came to connote a youthful, attractive and unmarried woman of the east. Later, in a not so uncommon reappropriation of terms, the Tata company chose this fancy French word for their new line of beauty products. And thus modern Indian notions of cosmetic beauty are derived in part from the goddess Lakshmi via a peculiar European perception of Indian devadasis, and ultimately, a French opera.
Yet another one of Pavie’s stories, La légende de Padmanî, reine de Tchitor (The Legend of Padmani, Queen of Chittor), served as the basis for French composer Albert Roussel’s two-act opera Padmâvatî (1923). Although Pavie’s text is not based on Sanskrit sources, his subtitle “d'après les textes hindis et hindouis” indicates that he based his version on Hindi and Hindu texts, presumably Malik Muhammad Jayasi's famous 1540 poem Padmavat written in Awadhi. Other operas from Pavie’s time, namely Jules Massenet's Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (1865), were also popular in Paris, and though they incorporated exotic Indian settings and characters, neither was directly based on an Indian text.
The works of Kalidasa, particularly Sakuntalam and Meghadutam, have more directly inspired Western works of art music than any other Indian literary source. Robert Del Bonta summarises as follows: “Both Louis Coerne (1904) and Felix Weingartner (1884) offered operatic versions of the playwright Kalidasa's Shakuntala, presumably based on the early translation by Sir William Jones of 1789 (translated from the English into German by Georg Forster in 1791 and into French by A Bruguiere in 1803), which was widely known in the intellectual circles of Europe. Even Franz Schubert began an opera based on the play as early as 1820, but he never completed it.” (Bonta 7) Later in 1921, Italian composer Franco Alfano premiered his three-act opera La leggenda di Sakùntala with a self-composed libretto based on Kalidasa’s play. Alfano seems also to have been inspired by the maha-kavi’s Meghadutam for in Act II Shakuntala entreats a cloud to send a message to King Dushyanta. Alfano’s original score was sadly believed to have been destroyed during the World War II bombing raids in Italy, prompting the composer to reconstruct the work from memory. The new opera, with the simplified title Sakùntala, opened in Rome in 1952. Later in 2006 a copy of the original 1921 score was unearthed and several modern revivals have followed, including the most recent 2013 production by Teatro Grattacielo in New York.
The musician most deeply influenced by Indian culture is arguably the turn-of-the-century English composer Gustav Holst. After reading some of Max Müller’s translations of Indian scriptures, Holst developed a keen in interest in Indian philosophy and literature, particularly the mythological hymns of the ?g Veda. Apparently Holst found the available English translations of Sanskrit works to be uninspiring and so, with a hope to read the original texts and produce fresh translations, he enrolled himself in Sanskrit classes at University College in 1909. This background eventually led to a series of works based on Sanskrit texts, often known as Holst’s Indian, or Sanskrit, period. These include Sita, a three-act opera based on the Ramayana, Savitri, a chamber opera based on the story told in the Mahabharata, and a four-part cycle of choral hymns exploring multiple ?g Vedic deities, a series of compositions that the musicologist Alan Dickinson believes "touched vital springs in the composer's imagination”. Finally, two of Holst’s later works were directly based on works by Kalidasa, namely Two Eastern Pictures with verses culled from ?tusamharam and The Cloud Messenger based on Meghadautam, both using song-texts from Holst’s own translation of the Sanskrit originals (Head 1987).
From Lakmé to Savitri we see a clear evolution with regard to the level of a composer’s engagement with Sanskrit texts. With Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha (1980) about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, we move even one step further. While librettist Constance De Jong was inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, taking verses directly from the Sanskrit text, Glass resolved that the slokas should remain untranslated, and that the singers should actually sing in Sanskrit! Glass’s words taken from the Metropolitan Opera liner notes are revealing: “My choices were therefore to translate the text…or leave it in the original language. After much wrestling with the problem, I chose the original language, Sanskrit. At first the decision troubled me, but more and more, I found it appealing…Sanskrit could serve as a kind of international language for this opera.”
From an exotic tongue from a faraway land, to a rich Indo-European language for serious philological research, Sanskrit has now also come to symbolise a global mode of communication. Perhaps this is in some part still due to its foreignness in both time and space, but perhaps this also signals a shift in how culture is perceived, understood and appreciated in our globablised world. There were, and still are, many forms of ‘orientalism’, from the condescending and coercive, all the way to the genuine and hyper-reverent. This short study highlighted just one of the many ways in which the east-west cultural dynamic has played out in the realm of artistic expression. The years to come will reveal how this process will evolve into other new and inspiring creative productions.
Cronin, Charles P. D. and Klier, Betje Black. “Theodore Pavie’s Les babouches du Brahmane" and the Story of Delibes's Lakme.” Opera Quarterly 12 (1996): 19-33.
Del Bonta, Robert J. “Songs of India” Opera Quarterly , Vol. 2, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 5-14.
Head, Raymond. "Holst and India (II)". Tempo (160) March 1987: 27–36.
Trend, J. B. “Savitri, an Opera from the Sanskrit” Music & Letters Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1921), pp. 345-350