A cross cultural story about forbidden love between a Westerner and an Indian isn’t an unfamiliar story plot today. Back in the 19th century, when oriental subjects were a hot trend in art, this plot found itself playing out in an opera that would go on to achieve an iconic status in the years to come. Lakmé, derived from “Lakshmi” (the Hindu Goddess of wealth known for her beauty) premiered in April 1883 at the Opéra Comique Paris and became an instant success. It was performed over 1500 times (at the same venue) and performances continue to this day.
The plot of the three-act opera set in 19th century British India revolved around a tragic love tale between an English soldier and a Hindu priest’s daughter ending in her suicide (sacrifice). The opera is considered to be one of the most well known works of the French composer Léo Delibes (1836-1892). To its viewers, it offered an exotic view of India; nearly 7 decades after it was first performed, the title of opera served as an inspiration for independent India’s first homegrown cosmetic brand that would alter the ‘oriental’ lens Indian women had been viewed with.
In Pictures: Lakmé, the Opera
At the time of its premiere in 1883, the play spoke of the “current” scenario: In India, under British rule, Indians are forbidden to openly practice their religion. Prayers and rituals are thus performed in secret at temples. The Brahmin Nilkantha hopes for the “oppressors” to perish. Two British soldiers and their female companions trespass into his ashram while he is away.
Lakmé and her companion Mallika are bathing, picking flowers, and singing the now popular “Flower Duet“ at the river’s edge. The British women are excited by the jewellery left behind by Lakmé but hesitate to go any further. While others return, the British officer Gerald stays back to make sketches of Lakmé’s jewellery. At first Lakmé is terrified to see him but two are drawn towards each other. Nilakantha is enraged when he comes to know about the transgression and swears revenge.
Nilakantha persuades his daughter to sing the alluring ‘Bell Song’ in the marketplace in the hope that it will attract Gerald. When his plan succeeds, Nilakantha stabs and wounds Gerald. The couple run off together into the forest helped by Nilakantha’s servant, Hadji.
It turns out that Gerald is only wounded & out of danger. In the forest, Lakmé nurses him to health.
Lakmé hears of a spring in the forest which has magical properties to unite people in love. She goes to find some of this water to bring back to Gerald. While she is away Gerald’s friend visits him, reminding him of his duty to the Empire. In the distance Gérald hears the military call to suppress a revolt.
On her return, Lakmé senses Gerald’s withdrawal and in despair she consumes a poisonous datura flower from a nearby bush.
Gerald drinks the water, and becomes “sacred”. Nilkantha can no longer cause him harm, & thanks the Gods so his dead daughter may now remain “in the splendor of heaven”.
India, the spectacle
Operas before Lakmé too, featured a stereotypical image of India – in India everything was sacred, mysterious, & mystic; also lacking agency, removed from reality and largely ignorant. In other words, India was far removed from the ideals of Enlightenment that Europe identified with.
Through the sets, music, costumes, make-up – an opera like Lakmé propagated and reaffirmed an exotic view of India held by European audiences. They displayed the opposing worlds of Western civilisation and Eastern backwardness.
Women were likely to be associated with nature inspired-imagery (springtime, flowers, birds) and could be broadly categorised as ‘femme fatale’ (the seductive one who causes trouble) or ‘femme fragile’ (the delicate, pure one who sacrifices). The people – men like Nilkantha were violent; and so on.
The “orient” was thus, largely conjured by Europeans who had travelled to India & sought to “see” all they had heard; and was recreated / reshaped by those who had never set step outside Europe. Léo Delibes fell into the latter category but Lakmé did have roots in the works of someone who could well fall into the first category. Enter, Theodore Pavie.
Theodore Pavie: the oriental scholar who’s writings inspired Lakmé
In the year 1839, Théodore Pavie, a French orientalist & scholar, having learnt & taught Sanskrit, had the opportunity to travel to India. Here he visited Madras, Bombay, Poona, Calcutta and Pondicherry. Spending two years in India prompted him to write a series of short stories about love & vengeance titled “Scenes et recits des pays d’outre-mer” (Scenes & Stories from Overseas countries).
According to Cronin and Klier, Lakmé is based on the Theodore Pavie’s work Les Babouches du Brahmane and other stories; previously, Lakmé has been dubiously attributed to Pierre Loti’s “Rarahu“/ “The Marriage of Loti“.
Les Babouches du Brahmane : In this story you meet the Brahman (priest) Nilkantha who avenges two British soldiers. The soldiers, had humiliated him by placing slippers on his head during his prayers while making sexual advances towards his daughter Rukmini. Later, Nilkantha tricks one of the soldiers into buying a bouquet of (poisonous) flowers to present to his English fiancé.
Pavie’s other tale, Soughandie, features Lakshmi’s as the brides of Vishnu (a take on the Devadasi tradition); Sougandhie, the daughter of a Lakshmi (Lakmé) falls in love with a young British officer, but they do not unite.
Scholars have analysed other works by Pavie, his letters from India to his father and concluded that the scholar liked romanticising India – though he remained true to reality and neither of his stories end in marriage. It also interesting, that in his stories it is the Westerner that dies.
But it is not only the storyline that seems inspired, it is also the description of the places that the story is based in, as pointed out by Cronin & Klier:
Interestingly, Pavie had never been told about “the inspiration”, until the time the opera traveled to his hometown, Angers (France).
At a dinner gathering, when asked about the inspiration for Lakmé, Leo Delibes’ collaborator Philippe Gille promptly mentioned the stories by “some Pavie”. When told that he lived in the same town, Delibes & Gille, having sought no permission from Pavie, feared that he would get upset. They ended up inviting him to the opera (the only royalty he would ever receive) and never mentioned the attribution again.
Pavie wasn’t the only orientalist to have influenced Delibes. The Airs of Hindostan 1794 (by William Hamilton Bird) was another work in the pursuit of “oriental learning” and perhaps Delibes was not entirely unfamiliar with it.
But wait… why would a French composer situate an opera in India & feature a British (rival colonial power) military officer in the lead?
In the essay Imperialisms: Historical and Literary Investigations, Linda and Michael Hutcheon write:
In 1757, after the British established victory in Plassey & cemented their position in India, there was little scope for French expansion. The battle though, continued in art & literature of the time. In early 19th century Britain, there was a strong opposition to “mixing with Indian natives romantically”. By 1820, it had become socially unacceptable for British soldiers or officials to marry Indian women. The opera thus took a jibe at British morality and their ways in India; it also highlighted their negative influence in the subcontinent, and added the anti-British sentiment in India to the discourse.
In a sense, the story of Lakmé is the story of India; the British first allured by her jewels, seduces her – leading to her doom. The wrath of Nilkantha is the representation of uprisings against the British.
Lakmé : the French connection, adopting the once oriental “otherness” and making it our own.
In the 1950s, a newly independent India seeking to stimulate domestic industry and manufacturing, introduced a ban on the import of foreign soaps, perfumes and cosmetics. The only problem was that India did not have a domestic cosmetic industry to protect.
The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru turned to the entrepreneur J.R.D Tata for a solution; the Government of India extended all possible support to set up an industry that would be “owned by all women of India”.
Tata (born to an Indian father & French mother in Paris) founded Lakmé in collaboration with the French companies Robert Piguet and Renoir. It so happened that the Opera was playing in Paris at the time, and a member of the Renoir team put forth the suggestion to name the cosmetic line after the Opera.
The name combined Indian tradition & culture with “western modernity” and had a French touch. Moreover, it was named after the Goddess of wealth & beauty. It was likely to resonate with women who were used to buying ‘foreign made’ cosmetics.
The meaning of Lakmé had changed:
India with a rising social mobility was no longer the same as the one presented in 19th century Operas. A visionary Prime Minister and an entrepreneur born to Indian-French parents, together created a different image of India.
That’s all for this week 🙂 If you spotted something fascinating from a gallery, museum, archive or library, tell us about it! Whether it is a link, image, or story, we’d love to hear from you at [email protected]. Thanks for reading!