It’s not every day that you get a mail from the director of the Welsh National Opera, requesting contribution for a production on the cards. Naturally, author Shreya Sen-Handley was shocked into silence. Sir David Pountney, the director, was staging an opera called ‘Migrations’ to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing, when the British went to America for the first time on the Mayflower ship. Sir David wanted a contribution from Shreya to focus on the Indian migration to the UK. Only two other Indians have received similar invitations to contribute to an opera—Amit Chaudhuri and Jeet Thayil.
“I am perhaps the first Indian and South Asian woman to write for a major opera,” she says. The result was the poem, ‘This is the life!’, around two central Indian characters—doctors Jai and Neera who had been invited by the British government to come across to help build the National Health Service, but were ultimately treated poorly. Finally, there is a rapprochement at the end and the British realise the Indian doctors are as good as them. Composer Will Todd set the poem to music, and is working with Sir David to produce it for the stage.
There will be Bollywood-style dances, British-Indian singers and Indian instruments such as the sitar and the tabla will be used. The premiere is to be held on October 3 at the Wales Millennium Centre, home of the Welsh National Opera. Prince Charles as the head of the institution might be in attendance, says an excited Shreya. The premiere will be followed by six performances in different venues in Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol and Southampton, and the run will conclude on November 28.
The two-hour-long event will boast 100 cast members and another 100 comprising three different choirs, besides a full live orchestra. Multi-talented, Shreya writes poetry, does book cover illustrations and has recently come out with her second book, a collection of short stories called Strange. She also teaches creative writing at Cambridge and Nottingham universities and was a director of the Nottingham Festival of Literature.
In fact, Shreya traces her roots to some notable lineage. Her paternal grandfather Satyabrata Sen worked in the UN and was also an advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as well as the Kerala government. Her mother is the great-grandniece of the spiritual philosopher Sri Aurobindo. Her great-great-grandfather was Ramananda Chatterjee, the editor of the Modern Review, which published articles by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru. “Many regard him as the father of Indian journalism,” says Shreya. “So writing is in my blood,” she smiles.