French ballet creates a classical love tangle with Rajasthani puppets
Hitesh Kanwar Jaipur
A girl in two plaits, dressed up in a lehenga-choli, going to a panghat to get water with a matki on her head and doing 'ballet' in the presence of 30 life-size puppets on Indian fusion music. This description seems totally different to the ballet we have known. Pointe work, short tutus, flowing skirts with bare shanks, hair restrained in a bun and aerobic techniques have been the characteristics of western ballet. But this is not how Varun and Rea perceived the classical French Ballet Giselle and created the Indian version - Giselle ki Kahani - using modern ballet and contemporary puppetry. The ballet was brought to Jaipur by 'Siyahi' which is working towards the preservation and perpetuation of our varied literary traditions.
"I was fascinated with Giselle as it was a story of a girl who suffered when the expression of her love was looked down upon by society. She falls in love with a peasant who is actually a prince in disguise. A rogue who is also in love with Giselle, tells her the reality that her lover is engaged. Her dreams are shattered; she is believed to have gone insane, dies of humiliation. All of us have had such experiences of love, passion, pain and injustice," says Varun Narain, puppeteer and director.
The original ballet was written by Adolphe Adam and was first performed at Theatre de I'Acdemic Royale de Musique, Paris in 1841. The story was set in times when it was believed that women who were deceived by men and died of broken hearts turned into ghosts and took revenge by seducing the men and killing them. "People might not understand the story of classical ballet. It is important that the audience must feel connected. We gave a slight twist to the story to give it an Indian touch. There is revenge but the ghost of Giselle is not an evil creature," Varun explains.
Most of the classical ballet used supernatural elements. For instance, Petrushka, a Russian ballet, is the story of a 'traditional puppet' who comes to life and develops emotions. In Giselle ki Kahani, the girl is introduced as a puppet that dances and fetches water from the well. There is a parallel comparison drawn between the living and non-living. Puppets become the strong medium of connecting reality to fantasy. The girl's dream of becoming a bride are conveyed through a puppet dressed in a white wedding gown and a veil adorned with flowers.
The ghost of Giselle after death is brought face to face with her puppet of her living self to remind her of the injustice done to her. "We chose to show the larger picture, a bigger law where justice is done to good people after death. We have used the cycle of karma and spiritual law," says Varun.
Each puppet has distinct features, a different personality. The blushing heroine, the rogue with a crooked face, the fortune-teller with popped out eyes and the grieving mother with gloomy looks tell the narrative in this wordless performance. Varun has created masks and puppets with batting eyelids - they look amazingly real.
The art of ballet originated in early 17th century, as short dance performances between scenes of an opera to entertain the audience. It became popular as court dances. Gradually, its movements were standardised. Various dance schools flourished in Italy, Russia, America and other parts of the world. Classical ballets were highly formalised narratives which attached great emphasis on technique, movement and execution. Says Rea Krishnatraye, main dancer and choreographer of the show, "Though I have majored in classical ballet, in this performance I don't use strict ballet techniques. The concept is so unique that the concentration is on expression through movement and not on dance style. It's not that we put the puppets in the background as objects and the dancer is dancing around. The puppets in Giselle ki Kahani are characters that are moved and brought to life by the puppeteer."
As the ballet is wordless, music becomes as important as expressions. Surprisingly, music was given a secondary role till mid 19th century. Gradually, the world witnessed great composers like Igor Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake) and Sergei Prokofiev (Romeo & Juliet).
"To give an Indian touch through sounds, we used the original music and blended it with tanpura, tabla, ghunghroo etc. It creates the natural sense of theatre and graceful harmony with the setting. A perfect synchronisation of music and lighting is necessary in theatrical ballet. In the first half, a variety of bright colours, while in the second half the setting is predominantly in white which gives it a surreal feel. Props like an elaborately decorated elephant depicting a royal procession, a heart with a devil's tail as a symbol of love overpowering her and a weighing scale for justice are used as strong media of communicating the story," says Rea.