Phoolan Devi comes to life in an opera to be staged next year in New York

Phoolan Devi, India’s notorious Bandit Queen, continues to live on in popular imagination. Rape victim and avenging angel, oppressor and oppressed, she finally won respectability, and a seat in Parliament, embraced Buddhism, before a barrage of bullets ended it all in 2001. She was 37.

Rape. Murder. Bloodshed. Violence. Vengeance. Her short, chaotic life was indeed the stuff of drama, and several artistic ventures have tried to capture this turbulence. Among the most successful attempts was Shekhar Kapur’s film Bandit Queen, which won international fame for both the director and Seema Biswas for her powerful portrayal of the protagonist.

In her latest avatar, Phoolan Devi is the central figure in an opera: “Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen”. A multi-media chamber opera in the making, it is co-sponsored by the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) and Da Capo Chamber Players. It is directed by Tom Diamond and choreographed by Nandini Sikand, to music composed by Shirish Korde, with a libretto by Anushree Roy. Over wine and cheese at the Saffron Art Space in Manhattan, Aroon Shivdasani, the director of IAAC, brought together several New Yorkers with the creative team behind the opera.

“Phoolan Devi was born in abject poverty, sold as a child bride, abused, gang raped, abducted by bandits and finally, became a bandit queen herself,” said Shivdasani. “She saw herself as a Robin Hood — as a Durga. So much violence was done to her that she herself developed a thirst for it.”

Shirish Korde, a noted composer, spent his early years in East Africa. He was already familiar with Indian and African music before studying Western music in the U.S., and is currently a Professor of Music at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He has several operatic works to his credit, including Chitra and Rasa, in which he combines Indian instruments with Western orchestral music. His guitar concerto Nada Ananda was recently released on CD. The Bandit Queen has been on his mind for several years. “The themes in her life: violence, retribution, transformation, myth, class were all fascinating... in fact, ideal dramatic material for an opera,” he says. “Phoolan Devi’s story raises difficult and universal questions about violence and women. I felt that no single vocal style could accurately represent her complex character,” he says. So the music draws from many cultures and embraces opera, classical music, jazz, hip hop, folk music from Rajasthan and Vedic chants. The spoken word includes poems by Pablo Neruda, the Iraqi poet Rabia and Pakistani poet Faiz.

Indeed, the cast is a mix of West and East and from Canada and the U.S. Toronto-based soprano Zorana Sadiq, who is a Pakistani-Canadian, plays Phoolan Devi. “What’s beautiful about her voice is that she can cross over into jazz, Carnatic music or popular music,” says Korde. Sadiq has won high praise in the role of Phoolan Devi in a staged performance in Boston and has also played Margaret Trudeau in Trudeau: Long Path, Shining March for the World Stage Festival, Laurette in Opera New York’s Gianni Schicchi, and Ariane in R. Murray Schafer’s opera The Enchanted Forest, among others.

“Musically, singing the role of the Phoolan Devi is quite challenging,” said Zorana Sadiq from Ontario. “Shirish’s compositional style requires that I sing a large range of vocal styles, from Western Classical to the Carnatic to the ghazals of Pakistan.  As I prepare for this, I must be flexible with all of these very different styles of vocalization.”

Dance is an integral visual part of telling the Bandit Queen’s story in this opera and choreographer Nandini Sikand uses Odissi as basic vocabulary. A filmmaker, Odissi dancer and anthropologist, Sikand is an Assistant Professor in the media studies programme at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. She has her own neo-classical Odissi dance company and typically collaborates with various dancers. Donia Salem is co-choreographing and the duo will audition dancers — male and female — trained in martial arts and modern dance as they move further in the process.

For Sikand, the question is “Who was Phoolan Devi — victim or avenging Durga?” Through dance, the opera explores the larger aspect of divinity, what it means to feel forsaken and the fact that devotion can come from a place of strength. In this choreography the goddesses Durga, Kali and Bhairavi change qualities and countenance, as Phoolan Devi’s life unfolds.

There have been several workshops of the opera, the last one staged in Boston. Korde says this procedure is natural in the creation of operas. “Operas are major artistic endeavours and by nature collaborative, with music, sung and spoken texts, dance, sets, lighting, video and costumes,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to get all the elements right... so it is customary for operas to have at least one or two workshops, unstaged and staged productions before the full production is premiered.”

The next workshop is planned as a concert on May 10 as part of the Festival of India at Queens College in New York. The opera premieres at the Lynch theatre in NYC in the Spring of 2014.

How challenging is it to fund such a work as Phoolan Devi — and that too, an opera, a form with which many Indian-Americans may not be familiar? Korde says the budget for the New York presentation is $200,000 and they are seeking funds from the government, art foundations as well as individuals. He acknowledges that fund raising is very challenging, especially in the current economic climate.

For Korde, Bandit Queen has been a passion of several years. He says, “It is truly an important theme: the violence against women, not only in South Asia but all over the world. Artistically speaking, it is a great challenge and very rewarding to bring this multi-discipline East/West collaboration to fruition.”

More than anything else, the opera seeks to highlight the inner life of the Bandit Queen. “Our take is not on the biopic but on who she was. There’s the person and there’s the myth. And that story has to be done justice,” says Korde.

As Zorana Sadiq points out, it is very easy to play this kind of icon as a “type” instead of a person with hopes, dreams, and doubts: “I believe what drives the character in our piece is the unending search for peace of mind.  There is a line in the libretto — ‘There is a war in my soul’ — that I believe is explanation of her entire life, really.”