Much Before ‘Padmaavat’, ‘Padmavati’ Was a 1923 French Opera

The gift of hindsight gives many storytellers opportunities to reimagine the past. Padmavati’s antiquated tale seems to have captured the imagination of many artists who lent the story diverse interpretations.

Much before Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, the legend recounted in Malik Muhammad Jayasi‘s poem Padmavat (1540) was a French opera in two acts by composer Albert Roussel inspired by his visit to the Chittor ruins. Composed during the first world war, Padmâvatî was first performed at the Paris Opéra on June 1, 1923. It reportedly acquired the reputation of one of the great neglected masterpieces of 20th-century French opera.

In fact, Bhansali himself had presented an opera by the same name on the Parisian stage in 2008, based on Roussel’s work.

Well, history does repeat itself.

Albert Roussel’s Padmavati

A poster/promotional material of the 1923 Opera.

Like any other magnum opus, this one styled as an opera ballet, was suffused with dance numbers and kaleidoscopic orchestral colours. Since Rajputana (now Rajasthan) left a deep imprint on Roussel, he weaved many Indian notes in the musical score, replete with a chorus of sopranos offers flowers to Ganesha.

Turning the dominant narrative on its head- the opera sees Rani Padmini murdering her own husband, and the king of Mewar, Rawal Ratan Singh, who pleads with his wife to give herself up to the Sultan and then preferring to commit Sati to protect the kingdom’s honour from the loathsome Khilji. The mood leading up to the climax - the elaborate ritual of self-immolation is set as ominous.

The recording of the opera was reissued a few years ago by EMI.

Bhansali’s Version of the Opera

A scene from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati opera. 

Bhansali’s operatic version in 2008 featured local actors, an original score, and the additions of a tiger, a python and an elephant, when it premiered at the Theatre Du Chatelet in Paris.

The cast of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s operatic version of Padmavati.

He was the first Indian filmmaker to be commissioned by the distinguished theatre. Choreographer Tanushree Shankar and her dance troupe were roped in for the opera. He handpicked his team, which comprises the likes of his old art-director Omung Kumar, costume designer Rajesh Pratap Singh.

"“There was an initial communication problem and I was sometimes exasperated by the French language. What we say in three words in Hindi takes three sentences in French. I’m seduced by the idea of performing for a live audience.”" - Sanjay Leela Bhansali told IANS at the time of the premier of the opera.

Source: Scroll, Centre International Albert Roussel

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