The Story of Sukanya

The story of Sukanya is found in the Mahabharata, the longest of the Sanskrit epics of ancient India (at over 1.8 million words it is 10 times the length of the Odyssey and the Iliad combined!). The story comes from Book III, the Vana Parva (‘Book of the Forest’). Read the opera's synopsis here. 

The Characters

The Aswini Twins (baritones)
Chyavana (a sage) (tenor)
King Sharyaati (bass)
Princess Sukanya, his daughter (soprano)
Sukanya's friend (alto)
Attendants to the Goddess of Love; royal entourages

Synopsis

Part I

Prelude: Present day India, The Temple of the Goddess of Love. The Aswini twins – two beautiful, young demigods, ayurevedic physicians to the gods – break into the temple and sing a song to the Goddess. They celebrate her power and describe love's effects on the human world, including some of the extreme and absurd lengths the lovestruck man can go to. They ask the Goddess to show them love at its most true.

In answer to the Aswini twins' question, the Goddess of Love transports them through time and space. They witness a young bereaved man named Chyavana meditating in the forest; he is so immersed in his meditation that ants build a nest around him and a huge ant hill is formed. A hundred years pass.

One beautiful spring day King Sharyaati goes to the forest to celebrate the new season, accompanied by his daughter Princess Sukanya, her friend and the royal entourage. An intrepid explorer, Sukanya discovers the ant hill and what looks like two jewels glowing from within. She pokes them with her fan and a cry of agony comes from the mound. The glow fades and storm clouds gather.

As Chyavana emerges, now an old man, Sukanya, the King and Court realize what has happened. The King, learning of Chyavana’s spiritual stature, promises to make amends, offering Chyavana Sukanya’s hand in marriage. Sukanya accepts this decision, knowing it is for the good of the kingdom but also feeling that some mystical force is at work.

As the Aswini Twins continue to look on, a wedding is hastily arranged. Sukanya's friend sings a song and all present join in: who can foresee the outcome?

Part II

The Aswini Twins, captivated by Sukanya's beauty, declare their outrage at how events are unfolding and how unworthy man is to love and be loved by a woman. As they spy on the life of the now married Sukanya and Chyavana they comment that things would be different if a woman had the opportunity to love a god.

In the music room at Chyavana and Sukanya's, the couple listen to a recital. Afterwards, Chyavana teaches Sukanya to tune the tanpura while recounting his life as a student musician. Chyavana describes how Indian and Western music differ as they sing the Raag Yaman Kalyan together. Sukanya realizes she has found peace and contentment in her marriage to Chyavana, much to the disgust of the Aswini Twins who now decide to burst into the story.

The Twins ask Sukanya why she stays with her aged husband when, young and beautiful as she is, she could be with one of them. Sukanya refuses to talk to them and, scorned, the Twins then propose a test: they will restore Chyavana's eyesight and youth, make him look exactly like them, and she must choose which one is her husband. Chyavana overhears the exchange and accepts the challenge on Sukanya's behalf.

The Twins and Chyavana step outside of the house and walk into a lake as Sukanya anxiously watches. After several minutes submerged in the lake the Aswini Twins and Chyavana emerge as three identical, god-like young men, seemingly in a trance. Sukanya must choose ‘the only one who walks on earth’. Knowing her husband's soul, Sukanya immediately and correctly identifies Chyavana and they each sing a song for the other.

As the Goddess of Love looks on, Sukanya's friend, King Sharyaati and the royal entourage celebrate the reunion of Sukanya and the restored Chyavana as they begin their new life together. The Aswini Twins finally return to the Goddess' temple, having witnessed a true and extraordinary human love.



We're enormously excited about being the first to perform Sukanya next month, alongside an international cast of singers and dancers. We'll be giving the world premiere at Curve Leicester, followed by performances at The Lowry, Salford QuaysBirmingham Symphony Hall, and Royal Festival Hall in London.

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Sukanya is a co-production between The Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Curve.
19 May performance in association with Southbank Centre.
Sukanya score completed by Ravi Shankar’s long-time collaborator David Murphy.
Generous philanthropic support from Arts Council England and the Bagri Foundation.