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2,000 years of Asian Theatre at the Musee Guimet in Paris

2,000 years of Asian Theatre at the Musee Guimet in Paris

PRACTICALLY everyone you mention her name to will be familiar with Mata Hari. But if you further question your interlocutors in depth, it will soon become evident that there is a lot of perplexity over her personality as to who she was, where she was born, where she lived and what she represented. Actually, Mata Hari’s life can be summed up in three words — confusion, mystery and tragedy.

Born in 1876 in a bourgeois family in the Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle grew up mainly in Amsterdam and The Hague. Still a teenager in 1895, she married Capt. Rudolph MacLeod, an army officer of Scottish descent 20 years her senior who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies, today Indonesia.




She began a comfortable life that brought her social respect and material well-being; but, despite being a mother of two children, the young woman had to leave her husband soon after because of his alcoholism and abusive behaviour.

Her answer to loneliness and desperation was Indian dance. She started taking lessons and worked hard at her new passion with a great deal of devotion. Of course, her husband was not pleased by her now growing reputation as a dancer and reacted violently. More trouble and tragedy followed as her children fell gravely ill, infected by an incurable disease; the son would die in his infancy and the daughter a few years later.

She definitively renounced family life and moved in 1903 to Paris where she was enthusiastically welcomed and newspaper articles appeared frequently about her successive performances. Though the critics of the day never described her as a great and a perfect artiste, they did not hesitate from waxing eloquent over her flirtatious dancing style and her unmistakable and impressive self-confidence.

In February 1905, in a letter to her father Adam Zelle who was still residing in Amsterdam, she wrote: “I have been invited to perform next month at the Musée Guimet in Paris by the museum’s founder-director Monsieur Emile Guimet himself. He had seen me dancing at the residence of Baroness Kireevsky and was very impressed, to use his own words.”

Our story actually begins on March 13, 1905 when Margaretha Zelle gave an excellent performance at the museum that was, and still is today, devoted to Oriental art and history. But Emile Guimet went a few steps further. A multimillionaire with a passion for the East, he used his resources to spin around his protégée’s persona a legend according to which she was born in Java in a priestly Hindu family and was trained as a temple dancer from her very early childhood. They were the temple priests who had chosen the name of Mata Hari for her!

Her stunning stage renditions and her strangely dark, exotic looks gave credence to the story and Mata Hari was an immediate success. After the Guimet museum show she was regularly invited by the rich and important people not only in Paris but from many other European cities as well to perform at their residences. As years passed by, her reputation grew stronger and her acquaintances now included powerful politicians and high ranking military officers. Then came more confusion, more mystery and the final tragedy!

When the First World War broke out, Mata Hari’s frequent travels across the borders to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were seen by some with suspicion. On February 13, 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room in Paris under the accusation of spying for Germany.

The charges could never really be proved but, following a hasty and chaotic trial, she was executed by the French army firing squad on October 15, 1917. She was 41.

Currently, in the 110th year of her historic performance, the Guimet museum is rendering a long overdue homage to Mata Hari in an expansive exhibition that began in April and will last until the end of August.

But the Guimet show, in fact, goes far beyond Mata Hari’s art and her life. The exhibition covers 2,000 years of theatre and dance in the part of Asia that covers India, China, Japan and the former East Asian territories. Going through the galleries one never stops wondering how such a vast collection of stage costumes, wigs and disguises belonging to such a far-stretched period could be collected from such a number of countries.

Apart from an impressive assortment of paintings and illustrated woven carpets, you see here Indian theatre robes, also headgears from the Beijing opera and the Japanese Nô masks that transformed actors into animal gods. As a matter of fact the exhibition is officially named “From Nô to Mata Hari”.

Aurélie Samuel, an official at the Guimet museum, explains: “In order to make the Japanese Nô and Kabuki traditions clearly distinguishable, we have put the artefacts belonging to the two eras face to face in a big hall of the museum. The 14th century Nô theatre belonged actually to the aristocratic class and its technique demanded a deep understanding of the gestures and symptoms in order to be comprehensible. On the contrary, the Kabuki style originated more from the popular masses and the roles were played by men who wore male or female costumes and masks according to the requirement.”

One also learns here that the tradition of Indian films, unimaginable without songs and dances, was not really the result of a need to entertain large audiences but drew its origin from the religious ceremonies that thus recounted the creation of the world and the existence of divinities.

A good part of the museum is reserved for constant projections of films where you can sit down and watch marionette shows, old Indian movie classics and yes, Mata Hari dances.

Shedding further light on the significance of more than 300 items on display in the show, Aurélie Samuel says: “Most of them have religious origins. Even as they were moved from the sacred to the profane, from the temples to the stage, they nevertheless retained their sanctity. The often extravagant costumes, always loaded with meaning, serve as a décor. The earliest theatre, born of course in India, was an offshoot of Buddhism and all the other religions that had originated in Asia.”

Also an important part of the show is the Kathakali dance of southern Indian tradition that recounts tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Then you have different varieties of masks of the monkey-god Hanuman belonging to the Indian but also East Asian theatrical performances that represented the unrelenting struggle between good and evil.

Spending a few hours at the exhibition is a thrilling experience and, at the end of the day when you finally leave the Guimet museum and return to your daily bread-and-butter routine, you miss all those gods and demons — and of course you miss Mata Hari most of all!

The writer is a journalist based in Paris. [email protected]

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine August 2nd, 2015

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