Judith Weir composing at the piano

Judith Weir - Manimekalai and Psyche

Psyche and Manimekelai

Psyche and Manimekelai are the latest episodes in a long-running series starring BCMG players, Vayu Naidu and Sarvar Sabri. We first met for a tentative day’s workshop session in 1996, after which we somehow mustered the courage to devise a programme to tour around Birmingham Parting Company in 1997). By now full of enthusiasm, we created a much longer programme, Future Perfect which travelled between fifteen concerts all over England, as part of an Arts Council CMN tour in 2000. An alternative version of Future Perfect travelled around India in 2002. And now here we are again, preparing to travel through England during the month of May 2005, with new tales to tell.

Our working process feels very natural, but it is complicated to explain, because so many of the things we do are very different from the usual procedures which bring forth a “new work for BCMG”. It all starts when Vayu tells me a story. I try and remember the unchangeable moments in the story – what I call the “pillars”, the things that have to happen or the story won’t work. I write short musical numbers about these important moments and bring them along to the first rehearsal, where we play them to Vayu, wonder if they are appropriate, pull them in this or that direction, and work them into the storyline. I usually go home with a lot of rewriting and “why didn’t I think of that” ideas from the musicians to sort out.

After that, we work on the narrative sections of the story, the parts of the story where we play (quietly) to accentuate the spirit of Vayu’s words. Sabri, our tabla player, takes a leading role here; he is a superb “accompanist”. It’s a major priority to me that Vayu is able to function properly as a storyteller, extemporising as the mood takes her. As a result we don’t follow a written (verbal) text or a fixed musical one, and we try to be ready to hear different words every night. We don’t have set cues; we just have to listen. It’s a complicated way to work from a Western Classical point of view, but very good exercise for us in all sorts of ways.

Once we’re ready to run the stories through, we remain prepared to give a different overall shape to every performance, depending on Vayu’s inspiration, and that of the musicians playing along with her.
At the time of writing, at the beginning of the rehearsal month, there’s a lot I don’t know yet about these two “new works”. Vayu tells me that the Tamil epic Manimekelai sounds appropriately “Carnatic” (ie like South Indian music) because of its semi Scottish-Indian melodies for the violin, and its evocations, unintended on my part, of the nagashwaram, a loud honking instrument which (with no disrespect to our two distinguished performers tonight) does indeed sound like the illicit offspring of a saxophone and a trombone. In Psyche, we are aiming to take the idea of “active accompaniment” a stage further by entrusting each section of the story to one instrument plus tabla only, hoping for an even more intimate connection between story and music.

Judith Weir

Notes by Vayu Naidu – writer and storyteller

In that ongoing battle establishing the supremacy of literary and oral traditions, classical texts (oral and literary) get caught in the cross-fire. Liberating the classics from the imprisonment of bound volumes on dusted shelves, is really about letting the word out and stretching the shorelines of performance and culture.

Who is Manimekalai? She is a hero among men and women, a protagonist of the 11th Century Tamil Sancam poet Illango. Her life is cinemascopic in the fact that she is pursued by the crouching tigers of her past lives while she is on the quest of discovering the hidden dragon of Truth. Manimekalai is the sequel to Silappadhikaram, the story of Kannagi, a woman who challenges the King in seeking justice for the murder of her husband Kovalan and is associated with the city of Madurai even today.

Manimekalai is the daughter from the union of a temple courtesan and Kovalan. Manimekalai is trained in her art, according to her caste, and Prince Udayan is desperate for her love. In a revelation, Manimekalai discovers that he has been her husband across many lives where he had been brutal to his subordinates. That is why in spite of casting away her profession as a dancer of the courtesan caste, she too is drawn to him. Not unlike Kannagi, she decides to take the untrodden path; pursuing a goal alone without familial ties. For her soul to evolve beyond the wheel of attachment she seeks the path of compassion, the way of non-violence and absolute Truth, as a Jain monk. Ambudasurabhi, an ever-fulfilling begging bowl is iconic of her metaphorically and literally feeding those who are in need of eternal Truth. Structurally, this epic does not have a beginning, middle and an end. It is like its philosophy, continuous and present, and each listener will take as much as is their fill. I am deeply grateful to Lakshmi Holmstrom for her lyrical translation from the Tamil, without diluting classical and sociological references. (Orient Longmann, India).

A European counterpart of the study of the soul is Psyche. This is a story that is linear and is possibly the first motif for the european fairy tale. Three sisters, two cruel. The youngest is an innocent who finds the love of her life, and is ruined by sibling envy. Psyche does what she is not supposed to do; go against her husband’s wishes and sees his face (or form). Having broken the rules that make for domestic bliss, her happiness is broken. Punishment is the only way to strive to return to innocence.

Psyche and Manimekalai offer interesting polarities not only by the geographical and cultural continents they originate from, but in their archetypes of thinking, and in our work, pausing for reflection.

First performed by BCMG on 29 April 2005 at CBSO Centre, Birmingham.