Monday, September 17: Tonight I go to the Royal Opera House to see a concert of classical Indian music: Nine Jewels of India present Panchtatva.
I drive directly from work because the university is about a half-hour closer to Muscat than my house is. I am wearing a dress I bought this summer in the U.S. It’s nothing special, not at all formal, just a casual summer dress. It has short bell sleeves and the hem hits right at the top of my knee. I have seen people dressed in all kinds of things at the Opera House before, including jeans, so I figure this dress will be okay. For work, since we cannot wear skirts above the knee, I have on a pair of leggings, but for the Opera House, I plan to remove the leggings. However, when I tell one of my colleagues I’m heading to the Opera House this evening, he says, “You can’t wear that!! You know there is a dress code now at the Opera House!”
I don’t know anything about this, so he grabs the September 12 edition of Muscat Daily. According to the Muscat Daily article, “The Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) has asked all its patrons, both nationals and expatriates, attending events during the season to arrive on time and in formal dress.” Apparently ROHM reserves to the right to refuse entry to those who don’t meet the dress code. No refunds or exchanges would be granted if patrons are prevented from entering.
“Our dress code is formal or business. For Omanis, this means dishdasha and mussar for men and formal attire for women. For non-Omanis, this means suits or dinner jackets for men and conservative dresses for women. We have a strict no jeans, no tennis shoes and no t-shirt policy. Please note that local culture requires conservative dress, which means no exposed shoulders or short dresses above the knee.”
Uh-oh. I am not about to drive in the opposite direction back to my house to change my clothes. I figure I will try to go into the Opera House, and if they won’t allow me in, I’ll run out to my car and put on my leggings. That should solve the issue.
Before I go to the Opera House, I drop by the Left Bank, which is nearby, for a light dinner. I order their Chili Fried Prawns, Goat Cheese en Croute with Cranberries, and a glass of red wine. I decide to sit outdoors despite the air being heavy with moisture, much like a steam room. Thinking briefly that it is too miserable outside, I go inside to find I’m the only person inside and the air conditioning is icy cold! I go back outside to sit, thinking it will be more like Greece, where I just visited for two weeks on my vacation.
Every night while I was in Greece, I ate on outdoor terraces in perfectly dry, breezy and cool weather. I ate delicious Greek food and drank Greek wine. Frankly, I am hoping to recapture that experience. However, sitting on the porch at the Left Bank is absolute misery. Not only is it steamy, making me feel like a damp rag, but mosquitoes are feasting away on my ankles. I am scratching and sweating, sweating and scratching. I gobble my food down and get the heck out of there fast. At least I can get some relief at the Opera House. That is, IF they allow me entry in my knee-length dress.
I find easy parking at the Opera House, pick up my tickets at the Will Call window, and go inside. No one says anything to me, nor do they look at me askance as if I’m inappropriately dressed. As most of tonight’s patrons are Indians, most women are dressed in typical Indian kurtas with leggings. I do see one woman with a sleeveless dress that’s quite above her knee, so I figure if they let her in, they can’t throw me out. Maybe they are not yet enforcing the dress code.
Of course, since I never spend much money on tickets to performances, except for my favorite musicians, I am sitting on the highest tier, though a little more to the center than when I went to see the opera Carmen. About 10 minutes before the show is due to begin at 7:30, the Omani ushers tell us we can all move to the first floor as there are many vacant seats. We all move happily down to the bottom level, where there are still seats to spare even after we are all seated.
The live concert is called Panchtatva which, according to the program, combines Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic classical styles, with original Sanskrit verses from the Vedas to create an enchanting and exquisite musical experience. The music depicts the five elements of nature: space, wind, fire, water and earth, while the Verses link these different elements and highlight their eternal qualities.
Indian legends come together to create this music: Pandit Jasraj, the divine voice; Pandit Hariiprasad Chaurasia, master of the bansuri, or bamboo flute; and T.H. Vikku Vinayakram, the master of the percussion instrument, the ghatam. In addition are maestros such as Niladri Kumar, the maverick sitar player of his generation; V. Selvaganesh, a khangira (hand-held drum) player; Yogesh Samsi, the powerful tabla player; Ramkumar Mishra, another wonderful tabla player; and Sridhar Parthasarrathy, a master of the mridangam (the oldest Carnatic classical percussion instrument).
I’m afraid I never quite figure out who or what the “Nine Jewels” are. As seen in the paragraph above, only 8 names are listed. On the stage are over 11 artists. Possibly the 9th “jewel” is Durga Jasraj, the woman who conceived, developed, directed, as well as narrated, the event. The other 2 people on the stage were probably Ankita Joshi and Debopriya Ranadive, accompanying artists for vocals and flute, respectively.
Each artist is introduced in turn by Durga Jasraj, and each one comes on stage wearing a white kurta and white pants. They all sit spread across the stage on white cushions. Behind the artists is a huge movie screen. During the presentation of each element, the screen shows the element moving in nature.
In SPACE, we see a lovely film of galaxies and stars in slow motion. During WIND, yellow and brown leaves drift in a breeze, green leaves dance on trees in a forest. During FIRE, volcanoes explode, flames lick a black sky. During WATER, we see bubbles, slow motion waves, rain, waves crashing. During EARTH, we see giant blades of emerald-green grass, a canopy overhead of green leaves, huge flowers, oversized slow-motion butterflies and hummingbirds, seagulls soaring over the ocean.
The music matches the elements. SPACE sounds ethereal, WIND moving and ephemeral, FIRE crackling and energetic, WATER soothing and fluid, and EARTH grounded and elemental. Percussion instruments are primarily used during the FIRE section, while the “divine voice” of Pandit Jasraj is the primary “instrument” in the EARTH performance.
Apparently Pandit Jasraj originated a unique concept called Jasrangi, a sensuous fusion of the Yin and the Yang, the male and female principles. It’s a harmonious blend, wherein a male and female singer, each with individual accompaniments, sing different ragas in their own respective scales, interweaving them. During the EARTH performance, Pandit Jasraj does this alternating duet with another man, as far as I can tell. Pandit’s voice is soulful and sonorous, highly spiritual. His voice travels easily over all four and a half octaves. I’m quite impressed by what he can do with his voice.
The music is very mellow and trance-like; as a matter of fact, listening to the music and watching the hypnotic film of the elements almost puts me in a trance! I find myself dozing off a number of times. The music is repetitive and soothing, much like a meditative state.
I have heard Indian classical music before, probably in famous movies that try to depict India as a place of spirituality. It matches my experience of the atmosphere I encountered in the yoga capital of Rishikesh in India when I visited there in March 2011. I believe I’ve also heard this type of Indian Classical music in movies such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, and too many other Indian films to count.
Overall, it is a lovely performance, and as entranced as I have always been by the spiritual practices in India, I find myself transported into a kind of dream world.