The epithet “India’s National Treasure” is perhaps not the right one for Ustad Zakir Hussain. A treasure is suggestive of a dormant equity, whereas Hussain reinvents his music every time he touches his tabla. His latest is a Persian-influenced Asian score for ballet superstar Alonzo King’s interpretation of the Scheherazade, of Arabian Nights fame.
We’ve all grown up listening to at least a few stories of flying carpets and genies, their source attributed to the centuries-old story of “One Thousand and One Nights.” As the story goes, Shahryar, the king of Persia, is embittered by his wife’s betrayal and has her beheaded. Not quite pacified, he marries a virgin every day and had her beheaded the following day, in a displaced sense of vengeance. Then along came Scheherazade, the prime minister’s daughter, who—against her father’s wishes—chooses to marry the king. On the wedding night, she connives to narrate a story, and such a gifted narrator is she that Shahryar’s murderous rage is held at bay till the dawn of the next day. And so on, for 1,000 nights until her stock of stories is depleted. Shahryar then is a changed man, cleansed of his anger, and makes her his queen.
The oft-retold story has inspired another, unique interpretation—the character of Scheherazade will be portrayed as divine compassion, and Shahryar will embody humankind’s suffering.
“When I accepted the commission, there was never any intention to literally enact the stories of ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’” says King, who is also the artistic director of the San Francisco-based LINES Ballet School. “My intention was to grapple with the metaphysical meaning behind Scheherazade. My choreographic focus was not the details of the narrative, but its universal truth.”
The presentation premiered at the Monaco Dance Forum in December 2009. The 45-minute program is split into two parts, with continuous music in each and 11 LINES dancers staging the power of metamorphosis that one can induce in another. King believes that his dancers must be impeccable storytellers themselves; the artist has to be able to communicate clearly. As Scheherazade had gently coaxed Shahryar’s anger to recede, the audience will be nudged onto a path of contemplation.
King thought deeply about what treatment the piece warranted. His imagination was sparked with Paramhamsa Yogananda’s statement, “Women are the saviors of mankind,” underpinning his vision of Scheherazade.
“Very little is known of Scheherazade herself. My main interest was, who is this woman? Scheherazade is the symbol of the savior. She weaves tales not to save her own life, but to save humanity from its unending retributive response to injury,” he says.
A unique perspective demands a unique musical setting: Hussain has reinterpreted the original score by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. “It was difficult to tackle this piece because the music was written 100 years ago by Rimsky-Korsakov. I was anxious about changing any aspect of this beautiful score,” Hussain says. “But (King) convinced the sponsors that a more Asian-oriented score should be written; his confidence inspired me.”
The chemistry, rather, the bond Hussain shares with King contributes to the magic of Scheherazade. The two go back more than a decade, Hussain composed for LINES’ “Who Dressed You Like A Foreigner?” in 1998, for which he received the “Izzy” (Isadora Duncan Award). In 2000, Hussain-King created history with “The Subtle Current Upstream,” and in 2007 for LINES Ballet’s 25th anniversary celebratory “Rasa,” an elaboration of the bond between dancing and music.
Hussain expands, “I grew up playing for Indian classical dancers, (and) there is an existing repertoire that you all learn. To compose something entirely new for a contemporary ballet is a challenge. But sitting with (King) in my living room, talking about his feelings about movement and rhythm made it so easy to come up with ideas,” he says. “He would talk to me about the piece, based on which I would create a track, and then we would shape it together.”