French Tales

Posted by sepoy on January 19, 2010 · 3 mins read

Le Roi de Lahore (1877) was the second opera written by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). The tale depicts the romance of the King Alim and the temple girl Sita against the backdrop of Mahmoud Ghazni's invasion of Lahore. ((Sita is at the temple in Lahore, where Timour, the head priest, jealously guards her while Scindia, her uncle and the minister, also desires her. Sita confesses her love for an un-named suitor, and Timour rabbles up a whole lot of people against her. At the last minute, Alim reveals himself as the lover. Alim is also the king of Lahore. Then, he has to go defend his city against the Muslim invaders. They lose the battle, the King dies. Scindia becomes the King and he takes Sita. Alim, now in Indra's heaven, pleads his case. He is sent back to earth as a commoner but bound to Sita (and doomed to die). He shows up in time to see Sita's wedding to Scindia. They run off together, and are chased into Indra's temple. Where Sita stabs herself and Alim is also returned to heaven.))

Théodore Pavie (1811-1896) the French traveller and writer of exotica for Revue des Deux Mondes studied Sanskrit in Paris, from 1835-39 and went to Calcutta in 1839. He spent two years in India and the stories and sketches of India were published in his 1853 collection Scènes et récits des pays d'outre-mer. One of his stories, "Les babouches du Brahmane", became the inspiration for Leo Dalibés's opera Lakmé (1883). ((It tells the story of British officer Gerald who happens across the beautiful Lakmé and they fall in love. Her father Nilankantha is not so happy with this and he stabs Gerald. Lakmé hides Gerald in the forest and nurses him to health. Once better, he returns to his service. Lakmé chews some poisonous leaves and kills herself.))

Pavie also translated the story of Padmini, the fourteenth century queen of Rajputs, from James Tod's Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan in 1856, La Légende de Padmani, reine de Tchitor. From this Louis Laloy (1874-1944), the French literary critic, helped write a two-act opera for Albert Roussel (1869-1937), called Padmavati (composed, 1914-8). ((I trust you know that story?))



Sud | January 19, 2010

Ah, Orientalism and the Opera, go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly, don't they? Of course, in German opera there is also Meyerbeer, who was the jewish rival of Wagner and the focus of his many anti-semitic diatribes. But we're still fortunate to have such classics from Meyerbeer such as "The Crusades in Egypt", "The Exile of Granada", and simply "The African Woman". That last one is a saucy affair with an African/Indian Queen who saves Vasco de Gama only to be enslaved by him. You just can't make this stuff up.

omar | January 20, 2010

Thank you Manan, always interesting. Sud, out of curiosity, is this "orientalim" theme still as popular as it was in the nineties or do you feel it has crested? I am not an academic, just curious. It seems to me that the anti-imperialist project still needs its propaganda, but do students still buy this particular brand of propaganda or is it time to look for a new theme? Maybe time to say good bye to the late great Edward bhai? or does that sound too heretical? Btw, Meyerbeer's titles remind me of another "native informant" : check out Nasim Hijazi...even his pen name is Hijazi!

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Sud | January 21, 2010

Well, even dated concepts can be true. We still can't let go of Socrates. The golden age of opera also coincides with the golden age of Orientalist scholarship, so the connections are not that far fetched. But conceptually, the 19th/20th European interest in the east is as 'orientalizing' as say Chinese Tang era depictions of their exotic invaders from the north. I guess the distinction matters more when you are the invader or the invaded, or even worse, the thing/nation/people being defined and those doing the actual defining. Does Chamberlain and Churchill drawing lines on blank maps have anything to do with it? Well, if they have a clear idea of what an Iraqi should be like, and how a Jordanian should be like, then they can (and did) invent countries with the sense of certainty that they had. Do you know what a Jordanian looks like? Can you tell him apart from an Iraqi? This is where Orientalist representation steps in, fills the blanks for the masters of the universe, and then keep the natives busy for more than half a century trying to figure out who they really are.

Rehmah | January 26, 2010

Hi Manan, Thanks for posting this. I first discovered Le Roi de Lahore when I read The Phantom of the Opera. Have wanted to 'see' it since.

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