Dancing an epic: ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ on stage

In a space that usually hosts sports events, a houseful hall holds its breath as a statue of ethereal beauty is unveiled with a sword, and comes alive as a young maiden. The Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium has been transformed into a grand stage , transporting the audience into an era of emperors and courtesans, love and war as “Mughal-e-Azam” – the musical is back in Delhi for its second season . The valorous young man wielding the sword on stage is the Mughal prince Salim and the scene marks his first meeting with Anarkali, the court dancer whose beauty and courage anchors the period drama. An adaptation of K Asif’s 1960 classic, director Feroz Abbas Khan’s musical has met with resounding success and has captivated audience of all generations .

A fine balance

With more than 175 performances, the play treads the thin line between invoking its cinematic ancestor and offering something new. While the audience recall and applaud the memorable dialogues, Shakeel Badayuni’s poetry and Naushad’s music, it is the original dance sequences that leave them mesmerised and lend the play a fresh approach. For Mayuri Upadhya, choreographing the magnum opus was an exciting and challenging experience. “Mughal-e-Azam is not just a project for me, but the multitude of possibilities for what art, music, theatre and dance can be.”

The Bengaluru-based dancer-choreographer is better known for her contemporary dance productions and was surprised when she was initially approached to choreograph the historical drama with its dance aesthetics clearly rooted in the Kathak form. “In our initial discussions I raised this question, since I am not a Kathak expert, why me! But my doubts vanished when it was emphasised that it is the choreographic and artistic approach that is most important to conceptualise the performance. I also felt that it was a brilliant opportunity to present my version of this timeless classic, from a contemporary sensibility and a changing perspective.”

Upadhya’s choreographic vision was complimented by Gauri Diwakar’s Kathak expertise. Legendary Kathak guru, Lachhu Maharaj had choreographed the dance sequences in the 1960s classic. Incredibly so, Diwakar had never watched the film and refrained from doing so throughout the project to avoid being overawed or too inspired by the screen version. “Working with Mayuri was intense and rewarding,” she recounts. “We had long one-on-one sessions in her studio where we worked through the layering of the dance. Each composition has three different layers of movements and a separate choreography for the protagonist.” For Upadhya, the process is intuitive, “We worked on ideas and metaphors, imagining and replaying them on the floor within the grammar of Kathak.”

Meanwhile, extensive auditions were carried out across the country to spot promising Kathak dancers. Around 40 dancers were selected from more than 250 who had auditioned. “I was clear about this,” explains Upadhya, “I didn’t want dancers who could also do Kathak, but dedicated and trained Kathak dancers who were immersed in riyaaz every day.” The choreographic challenge was to balance the classical form within a populist framework. “In the film, cinematic liberties have been taken with the dance form and other elements have been infused, but in the play, pure Kathak has been used, without resorting to filmy moves.” Once the choreography had been set, in Mumbai the dancers underwent rigorous fitness training with Upadhya’s team along with focused footwork and movement sessions led by Diwakar.

Interpreting emotion

Versatility is an integral component of the choreography in the musical. The intricacies of Kathak are braided into the emotional undercurrent of each song. Diwakar deployed a range of elements from her wide repertoire. “Gat nikas, complex rhythm patterns and footwork, along with subtleties of abhinaya like nakhra, andaaz and bhava were worked on,” she says.

Some choreographic moments stand out with their refreshing originality. For instance, the confrontation between Akbar and Anarkali is prefaced by silence where the dancers surround Anarkali and the soundtrack gradually ascends into the distinct and then deafening sound of ghungroos. The iconic Sheesh Mahal scene from the film in the song ‘Pyaar kiya toh darna kya’ where Anarkali’s image is reflected in several mirrors is remembered for its technical excellence. In the play, this moment revolves around metaphor, as several dancers start mirroring each other, building up to a flurry of chakkars.

For Upadhya, metaphors and images emerge from different sources. The thumri ‘Mohe panghat pe’ was inspired by the depiction of Radha and Krishna in miniature paintings. Amid early morning serenity, chirping birds and coffee, the artist sourced creativity from MS Subbulakshmi’s suprabhatams. “While listening to this music, I finally cracked the tagline of the song ‘Pyaar kiya toh darna kya’. Here, Anarkali is celebrating her love and it is also a play of power.”

The qawwali ‘Teri mehfil mein’ is depicted in the baithaki style with the two dancers – Bahaar and Anarkali contesting their skills and ideologies about love. “This composition is about poetry and competition,” says the choreographer. The spirit of the song is essayed through a match between the two different Kathak gharanas – Lucknow and Jaipur.

Dancing to a ‘musical’

Although the production is positioned as a ‘Broadway-style musical’, it is a stylistic departure because the dance aesthetics in Broadway are different from the requirements of its Indian counterpart. Since the protagonist Anarkali (played by Priyanka Barve and Neha Sargam) was also singing live in this production, it was choreographically and conceptually challenging.

Subdued movements had to be used that wouldn't affect the singing and voice control, creating an irony since they are playing the role of a stellar dancer. “The singing is at the centre and the dance is complimentary. We worked around this by integrating movement into the personalities of the two dancers – Anarkali and Bahaar, rather than having them move too much,” reflects Upadhya, “We focused on what is grace for Anarkali and how it comes through in her personality rather than how gracefully she can dance!”

The production thrives on opulent sets and the enormity of scale. The dancers often appear diminutive on stage, yet each movement, pause and gaze is accurately coordinated to create a captivating image. Two and a half months of rigorous rehearsals before the show in Mumbai led up to the translation of the choreography from the studio to the sets.

Creative transformation

Bringing together a team of dancers from different regions of the country with a variety of styles, gharanas and varying levels of experience and training was the primary challenge for Upadhya. “I wanted to build a team that can trust and love each other and celebrate their confidence on stage.”

Each piece has at least one of the rasas that has been used for training the dancers. The parmelu from the Kathak repertoire that uses bol, highlights the veera rasa. On the other hand, the thumri was sensuous and romantic. “It was difficult to have the youngsters understand love as a deep concept, so I worked with the director to have the girls share their own stories of infatuation and arrive at the collective emotion that is created in the song.”

The first part of ‘Pyaar kiya toh darna kya’ is a solo sequence, performed in a minimal spotlight. “It is an inner struggle that Anarkali is going through,” says the choreographer. In the second part, Akbar’s imperious attitude, embodied by several dancers, is juxtaposed to Anarkali’s free-spirited declaration of love. It was particularly challenging to have the young dancers depict the power and pride of Akbar. “We worked on getting the essence of the emotion and body language, and move beyond mere imitation.” For the young dancers, the process of preparing the show, from technique to teamwork and most of all emotional intensity, was a deeply transformative process.

While “Mughal-e-Azam” is a grand saga of power and love, at the core, it is the story of a dancer. “Anarkali, for me, is a powerful, relatable, modern woman, she is the one who stood by what she believed, no excuses, not helpless, she is standing tall and setting an example,” says Upadhya with striking conviction, “all artists are like that at heart, we follow art because there is something so soulful and passionate about it.”

(On till April 21, Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium, New Delhi)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 8:03:06 PM |

Next Story