Tyagaraja’s opera and the French connect

Nauka Charitram was staged across Europe, thanks to Christian and Miriam Ledoux’s love for the composer’s works

In 2001, French impresario Christian Ledoux and his wife Miriam landed up at our house. After listening to my daughter Shubasree’s singing in a concert, they had decided that they wanted her to play the role of the main gopika (friend of Krishna) in Tyagaraja’s opera Nauka Charitram (Story of the boat). They also wanted my husband [Trichur Ramachandran] and me to participate, along with an impressive group of accompanists. We were delighted to accept.

Shubasree as the main gopika in ‘Nauka Charitram’  

Christian and Miriam headed Diva Musiques de Mondes, an arts organisation in Paris, and were very keen to promote Carnatic and Hindustani music in Europe. They regularly organised shows at all major cultural centres in France, including the Théâtre de la Ville, a grand old-style theatre (near the famous Moulin Rouge) where art performances from across the world were staged.

Christian Ledoux  

We were amazed by the duo’s knowledge of Tyagaraja’s works. We have often heard Christian hum a kriti and Miriam explain the meaning of some of the words in the song. They knew about most Indian classical musicians and regularly attended the December Music Festival in Chennai and annual music concerts in Kolkata and Kashi.

Painting the story

As I spoke to Miriam about developing the idea for the opera, I suggested using old miniature paintings of Krishna with the gopis, of the Yamuna river, and of scenes depicting Krishna travelling by boat.

Miriam instantly agreed and I began sourcing appropriate photographs of paintings for each scene from my large collection of art books. Both of us felt that for the European audience to understand the story, we should have translations in French appearing on the side screens.

The opera describes Krishna’s journey by boat on the Yamuna with the gopikas. Angry with their vanity and arrogance, Krishna creates a storm and a huge hole appears in the boat. The petrified gopis scream for help, but Krishna playfully asks them to seal the hole with their clothes. The gopis realise their folly and seek forgiveness. Krishna, happy to have taught them a lesson, rescues them.

Charumathi Ramachandran, Trichur Ramachandran and Subhashree  

In 2002, before the performance, the Ledouxs released the recording of Nauka Charitam’s songs in the European market, which were sung by Trichur Ramachandran (who played the roles of Krishna and the narrator), Shubasree (main gopika), Lakshmi Rangarajan and me (other gopikas). The opera premièred at Sivagami Pethachi Hall in Chennai. I created a huge golden-hued boat for the backdrop.

I also provided the background score and notations, while the eclectic orchestra included Prapancham Balachandran on the flute, Mudicondan Ramesh on the veena, Kallidai Sivakumar on the mridangam, K. Sivaraman on the violin, and Sivaramakrishnan on the ghatam.

When we landed at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, Tyagaraja’s Thodi kriti ‘Dasarathee’ came to my mind. In the kriti, the saint-poet sings of how Rama makes his songs popular in doora desa (far away lands). How true.

Miriam told me how much she loved the last song ‘Gandhamu puyyaruga’ in Punnagavarali in the opera.

Sadly, in April this year, Ladduji (our nickname for Christian Ledoux) passed away. I will always remember him for making the Nauka Charitram performance tour an integral part of my life and art.

The writer is a senior Carnatic vocalist and musicologist.

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