ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31

Stories of Pearl Fishers

By Richard Boyle

It is remarkable that two Frenchmen, geniuses in separate arts, created during the same period, the 1860s, two totally dissimilar fictional descriptions of Ceylon's legendary pearl fishery. Furthermore, they are virtually the sole imaginary efforts on this subject. One was contained in a chapter from the science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, the other an opera, The Pearl Fishers, by George Bizet. These works were also diverse in the context of the output of the artists. While the novel was written by an accomplished Verne (his previous work was Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and has attracted readers for more than a century, the opera was an early Bizet creation and (not necessarily as a result) has generated surprisingly few professional productions, which is why the upcoming one in Colombo is of special importance.

Verne's book was published in 1870, whereas Bizet's opera appeared in 1863. I should cover Bizet first, but as I intend concentrating on his opera, Verne will commence this essay. The relevant section in his novel begins: "On the 28th of January (1868), when at noon the Nautilus came to the surface of the sea, in 9° 4' north latitude, there was land in sight about eight miles to westward. The first thing I noticed was a range of mountains about two thousand feet high, the shapes of which were most capricious. On taking the bearings, I knew that we were nearing the Island of Ceylon, the pearl which hangs from the lobe of the Indian Peninsular," relates Professor Arannax, who, it will be remembered, had been captured by Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus.

In the early hours of the following morning, Captain Nemo and three passengers, one of whom is Arannax, are rowed from the Nautilus to the pearl banks. Arannax describes the scene: "I looked on the side where the land lay, and saw nothing but a dark line enclosing three parts of the horizon, from south-west to north-west. The Nautilus, was now west of the bay formed by the mainland and the island of Mannar."

On deck: A pearl-fishery in Ceylon (The Graphic, October 22, 1887).

"About half-past five, the first tints on the horizon showed the upper line of coast more distinctly," continues Arannax. "Flat enough in the east, it rose a little to the south. Five miles still lay between us, and it was indistinct owing to the mist on the water. At six o'clock it became suddenly daylight, with the rapidity peculiar to tropical regions, which know neither dawn nor twilight. I saw land distinctly, with a few trees scattered here and there."

When the pearl banks are reached the anchor is dropped and the party prepares to dive. Nemo reveals more about the fishery: "Here, in a month, will be assembled the numerous fishing-boats of the exporters, and these are the waters their divers will ransack so boldly. It is sheltered from the strongest winds, the sea is never very rough here, which makes it favourable for the diver's work."

After reaching the seabed, Nemo guides the others to a submarine grotto and shows them an enormous oyster. "The shells were a little open; the Captain raised with a dagger the membrane with its fringed edges, which formed a cloak for the creature," explains Arannax. "There I saw a loose pearl, whose size equalled that of a coconut. Its globular shape, perfect clearness, and admirable lustre made it altogether a jewel of inestimable value."

Nemo gestures the others to crouch behind a rock. "It was a man," recounts Arannax, "a fisherman who had come to glean before the harvest. A stone held between his feet, whilst a rope fastened him to his boat, helped him to descend more rapidly. Reaching the bottom about five yards deep, he went on his knees and filled his bags with oysters."

Suddenly a gigantic shadow appears in the water above. A shark rushes towards the unfortunate diver, who throws himself sideways. However, he is struck by the shark's tail and collapses on the seabed. When the shark returns for the kill, Nemo stabs it with a dagger. Hurriedly, they help the unconscious diver to the surface and place him in his small canoe.

"What was his surprise at seeing four great copper heads leaning over him!" Arannax speculates. "And, above all, what must he have thought when Captain Nemo, displaying a bag of pearls, placed it in his hand! This munificent charity, from the man of the waters to the poor Cingalese was accepted with trembling hand."

In 1863, George Bizet, composed an opera supposedly based on the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar. However, The Pearl Fishers bears no resemblance to the fishery of the Gulf of Mannar, and the music pays no respect to the unique rhythms of the island. This is hardly surprising, though, because The Pearl Fishers was originally set elsewhere, and it turned out to be a vehicle for Bizet to develop his early compositional skills.

When the composer started on the opera the setting was quite different. Originally the Hindus were American Indians, for Bizet's pearl fishery occurred off the Mexican coast. It appears the American Indians were not very convincing, so the opera was transposed to the Gulf of Mannar.

The libretto was stereotypical of French operas of the period. It tells the story of two friends, Zurga, the king of the pearl-fishers, and Nadir. Predictably, they are in love with the same woman, Leila, who they first met in Kandy (although why pearl-fishers should be in the hill capital is unclear). Later they encounter a veiled princess who is under an oath of chastity to a temple. Nadir realizes the veiled virgin is Leila and takes her to a cave so they can make love. They are discovered, however, and the high priest of the temple sentences them to death. In the original libretto Zurga comes to the rescue by starting a fire and they all escape. However, in more recent versions Zurga is killed off to satisfy audience expectations.

The critics gave The Pearl Fishers a rough ride. Some were unimpressed by its "noisiness", while others were repelled by its overtly exotic flavour. After just a few performances the opera was dropped and was never heard again during Bizet's short lifetime, although apparently the composer never regretted its lack of popularity, as afterwards he wrote what is considered to be the finest opera of all time, Carmen.

The forthcoming version of The Pearl Fishers in Colombo is due to take place on January 9 and 11 at the BMICH. It is produced by the Neemrama Music Foundation and will gather 150 Sri Lankan-Indo-French singers, and many musicians, including 25 from the Symphonic Orchestra of Sri Lanka and 12 from the French Pelleas Orchestra. Benjamin Levy, the conductor, has been associated with The Opera de Paris and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Patricia Panton, stage director, has been involved with the Opera of Monte Carlo for a quarter of a century.

I mentioned earlier that Verne and Bizet created virtually the sole imaginary efforts regarding the pearl fishery. Virtual because there is an obscure novelette authored by a Sri Lankan set against the mesmeric backdrop of the pearl fishery. Titled The Mani Pearl, it was written by J.A.R. Grenier and is contained in his collection of stories, Isle of Eden (1961). It is remarkable for several reasons, not least of which is that it portrays the immense power the shark-binders held over the fishery, and the way the British used this situation to their own advantage.

The story is set during the pearl fishery of 1831, the last to be held under the governorship of Sir Edward Barnes. There are two distinct strands. One follows the fortunes of a pearl diver from Delft called Vishool and his beautiful sister, Rasini, who is the leader of the ritual water dance preceding the fishery. The other depicts the interactions the two Englishmen in charge have with the bewildering array of humanity attending the fishery.

The shark represented the main occupational danger to the divers. Being superstitious, they always consulted the so-called shark-charmers or shark-binders before commencing work. Indeed, the divers would not venture into the sea until they received an assurance that "the mouths of the sharks would close at their command".

Trouble begins for Vishool and Rasini when the chief shark-binder summons them to his hut. Vishool is told he is under the influence of an evil star, and that to gain protection from the sharks he must give his sister to the shark-binder. However, Vishool rejects this suggestion, stating that she is already betrothed. Such is the shark-binder's power that the very next day Vishool is denied work as a diver, and Rasini finds that people refuse to sell her food.

Vishool goes to meet the English administrators in charge of the fishery, to make a complaint about the shark-binder. The Englishmen are reluctant to do anything unless a crime is committed, and in any case they do not wish to upset the status quo, because belief in the shark-binders is in the interest of the Government in order to protect the pearl banks from plunder. Nevertheless, Rasini is given a job cleaning oysters so that she and her brother can survive until they return home at the termination of the fishery.

Rasini discovers a mani pearl, which is prized for its brilliant lustre and perfect roundness, in one of the oysters claimed as Vishool's share as a diver. She takes it to one of the pearl buyers for a valuation, but he alerts the authorities, believing it to be stolen. Before the Englishmen arrive in response to the tip-off, Rasini hides the pearl. The shark-binder tries to take advantage of the situation, but Rasini is freed from his evil designs when he dies after eating the flesh of a hawksbill turtle, which is poisonous during a certain season.

Apart from its value down the ages as an object of adornment, the pearl has provided the human race with a potent symbol of the soul. In the Chinese tradition it is equated with 'genius in obscurity', while for Muslims it symbolizes heaven, since they believe that the blessed are enclosed in one. In another realm, psychoanalysts have alleged that the function of the pearl is to represent the mystic centre.

Because of the pearl's far-reaching significance for the human race, it is of relevance that until the early part of the twentieth century, Sri Lanka enjoyed unrivalled fame as a prime source of this much-treasured gift of nature. The pearl has always had strong religious connotations. For instance, The Third Eye of the Buddha is a pearl representing the highest essence of wisdom. The concept of a precious gem enclosed within a rough outer shell made the pearl an obvious symbol of the soul. Because of its purity it is also associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary, while heaven itself is guarded by pearly gates. A similar association of ideas can be seen in the concept of the pearl as symbolizing the mystic centre of the personality.

Pearls in large numbers take on a different symbolic character. Despite their high collective value, they become mere beads, for when joined they correspond to the symbol of the necklace. When they are scattered, however, they relate to the symbol of dismemberment, like all things that are dispersed.

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