Phoolan Devi’s New York Opera Takes her far Away From Chambal

Shirish Korde wants to interrogate the issues of violence against women through his opera on the former Bandit Queen.

3 min read

Shirish Korde has always spoken about being drawn to strong Indian women and their stories.

The internationally famous composer – who was born in Uganda to Indian parents – has often talked about how deeply he has been inspired by the contributions of Indian women. Various myths and realities have been explored in his works, with great finesse and to much acclaim.


Phoolan Devi: Victim or Perpetrator?

He is currently making news for his multimedia chamber opera “Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen,” which will make its world premiere with shows in New York City on June 26-27.

Korde, in conversation with this reporter, spoke enthusiastically and at length on the subject.

When asked how he’d picked his subject, he claimed that he had wanted to contribute to the conversation about women and violence against them.

I saw many sides to her story. Is she a victim? A perpetrator? Was she seeking vengeance or justice?  Was she persecuted because she stood up for herself? Are strong women silenced? I wanted to ask these difficult questions.
– Shirish Korde

He explained that the opera will contain a series of  “visually stunning scenes” in a “riveting dramatisation” which will explore real and re-imagined events of Phoolan Devi’s life “musically” and “visually”.

Shirish Korde wants to interrogate the issues of violence against women through his opera on the former Bandit Queen.
Shirish Korde, through his opera “Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen”, wants to contribute to the conversation about violence against women. (Photo Courtesy:

“Few have had such dramatic and extraordinary lives”, declared Shirish about the former notorious bandit-turned-politician. Korde would know; he is currently the Chair of the Music Department at the College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts.

Born into poverty, sold as a child bride, abducted by bandits, abused and victimised, imprisoned, elected to India’s Parliament and then tragically gunned down in the streets of New Delhi in 2001, the Bandit Queen was just 37 at the time of her death.
– Shirish Korde

Not his First Tryst with Phoolan Devi

Incidentally, this is not Korde’s first tryst with the story of the former bandit queen. He had composed a song cycle on Phoolan Devi in 2006 – which he has now expanded into an opera.

Regardless of the escalation in form, his score will retain his signature style –which is a distinctive synthesis of Asian and contemporary Western traditions with strains of Indian classical song, opera, jazz and hip hop.

The production is co-presented by the Indo-American Arts Council and Da Capo Chamber Players.

Korde’s magnum opus has found strong support in Aroon Shivdasani, founder and executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council.

The energy and strength of Phoolan Devi is particularly powerful in the context of today’s awakening awareness of decades of brutality towards women.
– Aroon Shivdasani

Shirish Korde wants to interrogate the issues of violence against women through his opera on the former Bandit Queen.
Music composer Shirish Korde at one of his previous performances. (Photo Courtesy:

Korde has two previous operas with women protagonists – Chitra (2000)  and Rasa (1991),  inspired by the works of Rabindranath Tagore and novelist Bharati Mukherjee, respectively.

Phoolan Devi will complete his trilogy.


Critical Acclaim Ahead of the Show

Korde’s opera has been generating hype ahead of its much-awaited premiere.

The biggest compliment, however, came from another critically acclaimed composer, Argentinean-born composer Osvoldo Golijov. Golijov wrote an email, praising his contemporary:

Phoolan Devi’s life is a contemporary story with the resonant quality of an ancient myth. Korde is the ideal composer to realise it as a transcendent work of art. He has the dramatic instinct of a true opera composer and the gift of rendering vocal lines that soar freely as they engage themselves in the minds and hearts of audiences.
– Osvoldo Golijov

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(Sonia Chopra is a freelance journalist based in the US.)

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