The Depiction of the Indian Subcontinent in 19th Century French Grand Opera

From my personal blog:

[Kabir’s note: A change of pace from the usual topics. As Zack says there is no need to be so confrontational all the time]

During the mid-nineteenth century, European composers experienced a vogue for depicting the Orient on stage.  Not only was the Orient an exotic location, but the operas set there spoke to the imperial anxieties of various European nations.  In their essay published in Imperialisms: Historical and Literary Investigations, Linda and Michael Hutcheon write: “Opera may not appear at first to be quite the same as these other Western means explored by [Edward] Said of ‘dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’. But it is important to recall that Opera was a powerful discursive practice in nineteenth century Europe, one that created, by repetition, national stereotypes that, we argue, are used to appropriate culturally what France could not always conquer militarily” (Hutcheon 204).

In this paper, I will analyze two French Grand Operas from this period—George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (1863) and Leo Delibes’s Lakme (1883)—in order to determine the stereotype of the “Oriental” that was being presented to French audiences.  As a point of contrast, I will also discuss Indrasabha (The Heavenly Court of Indra), an operatic drama written by the Urdu poet Agha Hasan Amanat and produced in 1855 in the palace courtyard of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh.  This contrast will serve to illuminate how the operatic tradition was adapted by Indians themselves as well as the differences in the narratives about the Orient as conceived by the Occident as opposed to the Orient itself.

The Pearl Fishers is set on the island of Ceylon—the modern nation of Sri Lanka.  The opera tells the story of of how two men’s vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman. This woman, in turn, faces a dilemma between secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess. The score is perhaps best known for “Au fond du temple saint”, the “friendship duet” for Tenor and Baritone.

In his essay “The Pearl Fishers and the Exotic”, musicologist Ross Hagen writes that “the orientalist musical language of Le desert, The Pearl Fishers, and similar works became essentially a catch-all signifier for any foreign culture full of danger, violence, superstition, taut tanned bodies and permissive sensuality.” He further argues that “the accompaniments of ‘exotic’ melodies often relied on drone pitches and fairly static rhythms as a way to lend a ‘primitive’ touch” (

Presenting such a work in the early twenty-first century has its challenges. As Hagen argues, the fact of globalization “doesn’t do these exoticist works any favors… Indian culture is also much less alien to an opera audience today than it would have been in nineteenth century Paris” (  He argues that presenting a period-faithful production in which a cast of white singers attempts to look “Indian” risks being perceived as an exercise in “brown-face”. However, setting the opera in a blank “postmodern” space seems dishonest. He concludes his article by noting that: “Regardless of the path taken by an individual production, it is useful to remember that The Pearl Fishers was designed to appeal to the imaginations, prejudices, and preconceptions of a nineteenth century Parisian audience. Acknowledging the desires of the original audience perhaps creates a measure of critical distance and allows the audience to appreciate the opera without denying its place in the lineup of vaguely colonialist and patronizing works from the time period” (  As John Mackenzie notes in his book Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts: “Again perhaps, it might be possible to see the central plot conceit of a sacred virgin yielding to love as somehow parallel to the seductions of European imperialism, but it was a favorite Romantic theme and in the opera it takes place purely within a Ceylonese context” (Mackenzie 151).  Thus, it is debatable whether simply setting a work in a foreign culture such as Sri Lanka makes the opera inherently colonialist.

Unlike The Pearl Fishers— in which all the characters are Sri Lankan–Delibes’s Lakme revolves around the romance between Gerald, a soldier serving in British India, and the Hindu priestess, Lakme. As Mackenzie states: “Here a British officer loves an Indian woman who sacrifices herself to save him. The imperial interpretation is obvious: the indigenous woman as sacrificial victim for the greater good of the civilizing mission, though the theme of cross-racial love is movingly portrayed in the music” (Mackenzie 151).  In their own discussion of Lakme, Linda and Michael Hutcheon note that: “By the time of Lakme, the French and the British, on the other hand, had been fighting each other militarily over India and other overseas territories for more than a century… it is as if the French were seeking ways to explore other aspects of imperialism by means of the safety afforded by distance and displacement” (205).

The Hutcheons note that Gerald infantilizes Lakme. He calls her a child and believes his fellow officer when he assures him that he can leave the Hindu priestess with impunity because “These children don’t know how to suffer”. They write: “In the discourse of French imperialism, ‘peuples enfants’ was a common positive term for the colonized—seen as simple, capricious but capable of devotion and loyalty” (209).  They cite Raoul Girardet’s argument that  in the 1870s, France developed “a moral, economic and political doctrine and discourse of imperialism… Perhaps by contemplating the difficult situation of the imperial British in India, French audiences could consider, with greater distance, the tensions involved in their own colonial efforts somewhat more easily” (210).

Another important point made by the Hutcheons is that in these operas it is the men who act violently to protect their religion “but it is the women who articulate the immensity of the religious and cultural differences”. This connects with the general Romantic fascination with the femme fatale.  Lakme commits suicide for the love of a European man.  The Hutcheons cite Binita Metha’s argument in Widows, Pariahs and Bayaderes: India as Spectacle that “the sacrifice of the (subject) woman is the formulation upon which the colonial (male) ideology of temptation and duty are resolved” (211).

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I am Pakistani-American. I hold a B.A. degree from George Washington University, where I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in Western Classical Music. During my undergraduate education, I spent two years at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where I studied Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Sociology and Political Philosophy. I have studied Hindustani Classical Vocal from a young age. Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course on the history of music in South Asia at LUMS. At BP, I intend to write on art, music and literature.

34 thoughts on “The Depiction of the Indian Subcontinent in 19th Century French Grand Opera”

  1. Very interesting piece and I learnt something about opera in India (I didn’t even know of its existence) and the colonial portrayal of Indic characters.

    Two questions:

    Is there any similar research on the popularization of this art form in England – presumably during the Renaissance – and parallels with the Indian adaptations? After all Opera singing is a squarely Italian (going back to Roman late antiquity) as far as I understand.

    Secondly, how common is operatic singing in India (I have heard of none but I admit I am a total philistine when it comes to music) and any thoughts on commonalities/differences of opera singing vs Hindostani gayaki classical (shastrIya) or semi-classical (sugam)?

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Opera actually doesn’t go back to Roman late antiquity. It was invented during the Italian Renaissance. The first opera is supposed to have been Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne”, produced in Florence in 1598. However, it very quickly spread throughout Europe. In England, Henry Purcell had popularized opera in the 17th century. His “Dido and Aeneas” was produced in 1688.

      There really is no tradition of opera in India. The only example seems to be Wajid Ali Shah’s “Indrasabha”. India does have a long standing tradition of dance dramas though, which presumably included music. The Natyashastra discusses how music is supposed to be integrated into theatrical performances.

      Hindustani Classical singing is a solo art form (at most two musicians can sing duets like Amanat Ali-Fateh Ali). It is a musical form, with no real emphasis on narrative. In contrast, in Opera the music is used to tell a story.

      1. Turandot is a famous Oriental opera – opera doesn’t travel well outside of the West..

        I was a huge Opera fan; it’s my favourite art form.

        Watching Hamilton tonight let’s see how it

        1. Yes, Puccini was big on Orientalism: “Turandot” and “Madama Butterfly”. Incidentally, even though “Turandot” is set in China, its source is actually an old Persian tale. Her name is actually Turan Dokht.

          I’ve never seen “Hamilton” but I’ve heard some of the songs. I particularly like the Schuyler Sisters and the song that King George sings (“You’ll Be Back”) is hilarious in a very creepy way.

          1. Glad you enjoyed “Hamilton”.
            Re “opera doesn’t travel well outside of the West”– China has a longstanding tradition of what–for a lack of a better word–we call “Chinese Opera”, though obviously musically it is quite different from European opera. Chinese opera reached its mature form under the Song dynasty in the 13th century while Italian opera was not invented until the late 16th century.


          2. Yes I thought of Chinese Opera afterward but it’s a fairly independent tradition. I’ve only been to it once – I liked it but the Cultural Revolution has certainly had its effect, so much more diminutive than the Italianate variety.

            I am so Colonised 🙂

          3. I’m very colonized too. I think we all know that I think Europe is the best thing ever (other than Urdu and Indo-Islamic culture) 🙂

      2. There is the Royal Opera House in Bombay which has been defunct for more than a generation but is now being restored. It may have been the first opera house in Asia.

    2. @Slapstik,

      All dramas and plays in South India included singing until movies took over.

      There are two very popular plays even upto 70s, one was Krishna’s diplomacy with Kauravas and the other was Harischandra. Both involved singing of poems, and people learned/sang them at home.

      My father has only audio recording of Harischandra and heard it often.

      On top of it, there were street dramas that involved a lot of ditties and fun back and forth songs about MIL an DIL etc.

      These are more evident when you watch movies from 30s and 40s in South India. They had a lot of real dramas feel.

      1. Yes, I thought the court of Thanjavur was particularly important in patronizing these art forms. For some reason I associate Telugu with the operatic style (the italian of east !), so I did some searching and it seems that some people consider “geya nataka” to be the south indian analog of classical opera. Evidently, not just Thyagaraja but also Maharaja Shahaji II of Thanjavur composed a number of geyanatakas in Telugu. Yakshagana of western Karnataka also has actors who occasionally sing, but i’m not sure at what scale of grandeur musical theatre becomes opera.

        1. Opera is different from musical theater since it doesn’t feature “actors who occasionally sing”. Rather, the entire story is told in song. Traditionally, operas did not feature any dialogue, instead using recitative. Of course, according to this definition, ” The Magic Flute”, one of Mozart’s most famous operas,is actually a singspiel since it does feature spoken dialogue.

  2. Calcutta has long had a history of plays, musical plays (similar to Broadway), and musical performance. Going back to when the Anglos were still around.

    Bengal as best as I can observe is the only place where this old living tradition lives. Bengal is the only “liberal arts” place in India that I have seen.

    1. Maharashtra also has a tradition of Natya Sangeet. But it’s not opera because as far as I know the actors don’t do their own singing and the musicians just sit at the side of the stage and do songs in between the scenes.

      1. Actually this could not be further from the truth. Marathi musical plays are an exact desi analogue of the opera.

        1. Agree with Arjun.

          Let me clarify what was written about Bengali performing arts. As as I know Bengal might be the only place where a fusion Anglo Indian type of performing arts was created that lives to this day. Tagore from a certain point of view might be considered to be in this tradition.

          Natya Sangeet and other Indian live performances are ancient (thousands of years old) traditional forms of art. Many places in India have these traditional plays, props, instrumentation, dances, and singing (often in combination). And not just in Sanskrit (Kalidasa, Valmiki Ramayana), Pali, Tamil put in colloquel languages. As recently as the 1980s Tulsidasa Ramcharitmanas plays were widely performed in many places.

          Indonesians and Malaysians converted from Buddhist Hindus to Islam because of excellent Ramayana and Mahabharata plays performed by muslim proselytizers. Muslims used these plays to depict Islamic values and Islamic culture. Krishna, Rama and Sita were depicted as ideal muslims. These plays were deeply popular throughout Malaysia and Indonesia until the 1970s. Having read and watched many of them (the Indonesian/Malay Mahabharata is its own thing comparable to Kamban or Tusidasa); I think they are very good.

          Question for Kabir:
          Can you please share about Mughal live action musical plays?

          1. Anan,
            I don’t know anything about theatrical performances under the Mughals. While they patronized Dhrupad, I don’t know that they did anything similar for theater, though they probably had pageants of some kind. In any case, opera as we know it in the West was invented in Florence in 1598.

            It is believed that Wajid Ali Shah invented kathak. He also produced the first native “Indian” opera. I have heard from some sources that he had a Frenchman at his court and thus came to know of the European operatic tradition. There are excerpts of a modern production of “Indrasabha” available online and the music is clearly North Indian, though it is operatic in the sense that the story is being told through song.


        2. I admit I could be wrong about Marathi musical plays, but it was my impression that the actors did not do their own singing. In Opera, people are cast for their vocal ability and they are supposed to be able to sing over a large orchestra.

          In any case, Wajid Ali Shah’s “Indrasahba” was explicitly inspired by the tradition of European Grand Opera and was written around the same time that Bizet and Delibes were writing their works set in the Indian Subcontinent. That is why it offers an interesting point of comparison. As I mentioned in my essay, dance dramas (incorporating music) have existed in the Subcontinent since the days of the Natyashastra.

  3. Kabir,

    Opera is a very much acquired taste. Like Blue and aged cheese. In comparison the majority dont need to acquire a taste for potato. Are modern versions like Tommy (by The Who) and Jesus Christ Super star also considered opera.

    Pretty impressive that Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon (the writers) of the opera, just used a book ‘L’Ile de Ceylan et ses curiosités naturelles’ by the voyager Octave Sacho (1824)

    1. I agree Opera is an acquired taste (as is Hindustani Classical Music). It requires an educated audience. In the US, one year of some sort of fine arts was required to graduate high school. Of course, they understood that most people were going to be doctors and engineers, but they at least needed to know what the highest musical accomplishments of their civilization are.

      Most Pakistani kids have no idea who Tansen was. They think Ghazal is “classical music” and I’m like, “no, it’s at best semi-classical”.

      “Jesus Christ Superstar” is musical theater, not opera, though that is really a semantic difference. If it is sung-through (no spoken dialogue) it could be considered an opera. If it’s performed on Broadway, it’s a musical. If it’s performed in an opera house, it’s Opera.

      Speaking of JSS, you must hear this rendition of “Gethsemane”

      Also, I thought you would get a kick out of the depiction of Ceylon in “The Pearl Fishers”. The main character is a Hindu priestess, so clearly the composer and librettists had no idea what Ceylon was actually like. The main male characters are named “Nadir” and “Zurga” which also just seems very random.

      1. “The main character is a Hindu priestess, so clearly the composer and librettists had no idea what Ceylon was actually like. ”

        Which part is wrong in it ? Hindus in Ceylon or Hindu Priestess ? Hindus have been in Ceylon for historical times . The pearl fishery coast is on both sides of Gulf of Mannar , both in Indian side and SL side , pearl fishery has been a traditional occupation and it is generally populated by Tamil Hindus on both sides.

        I saw Pearl Fishers may be 15 years back in the ROH in London. I thought the choreography was quite good . The male players were wearing south Indian dhoti. I still remember the vivacity of the players.

        1. It was my impression from sbarrkum (who is Sri Lankan) that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. In any case, Bizet had never been there. The name “Nadir” for one of the leading men also seemed vaguely Muslim to me.

          I’ve never seen “The Pearl Fishers”. All I know is the “friendship duet” for Tenor and Baritone and the tenor aria “Je crois entendre encore”.

          1. Opera is based on imagination, so lot of details are imaginary and they can be excused .
            No one accuses it of history or sociology.

          2. Opera is obviously not history or sociology. But the point of my essay was that clearly in the 19th century in France there was a fascination with the Orient. So Bizet just randomly picked Ceylon (or his librettists picked up a travel book) and created a story which really could be set in any ancient society.

            Lakme is specifically about the British in India and even there the main character is a Brahmin Priestess. So clearly, they had a fascination with India. Of course, there are lots of operas with Ottoman characters, so they had a fascination with Islam as well.

  4. Yes, I did get a kick out of having Ceylon depicted from excerpts of a travel book.

    If it’s performed on Broadway, it’s a musical. If it’s performed in an opera house, it’s Opera.
    Perfect explanation. Now I can wag my head and appear familiar about the differences between opera and musicals.

    1. LOL, usually musicals have spoken dialogue, while in opera even the “dialogue” is sung (it’s called recitative). There was a new trend of “sung through” musicals in the 1980s. “Les Miserables” is one of them. Anyway, the distinction is mostly semantic.

    2. I saw an opera Nixon in China, on his visit to China in 1972. It may very well be called musical also. I suppose it’s just class bias.

      1. Nixon in China is definitely an opera. Opera usually demands a different kind of singing from Broadway musicals.

  5. There’s a Russian opera Sadko, I think set in 13th century Russia. There’s an Indian merchant an important part and he sings an aria about India.

  6. An important part of Opera or operatic talk is characters singing what they think , it is a kind of loud thinking. It is not a logical dialogue between 2 people

    1. When characters sing their feelings out loud, it’s usually an “aria”. “Recitative” is the dialogue, the stuff which comes before the aria.

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