The warm glow from the lanterns lights up the stage. A large chandelier and sets with intricate jaali work recreate the ambience of the royal court. Opulent silk costumes lend an old world charm. The timeless and eloquent verses of a celebrated poet and the delicate, sensuous moves of a well-known courtesan bring alive an untold love story.
Dancer-choreographer Manjari Chaturvedi’s ‘The Legend of Nawab Jaan and Mirza Ghalib’ is a beautiful blend of history, literature and the performing arts.
Manjari conceived the production last year as a tribute to Ghalib on his 150th death anniversary. “Whatever be the mood or emotion, it is in his verses that we find the best expression. So it bothered me that nothing much was being done to remember his unparalleled contribution to literature. As part of my ongoing Courtesan Project, which has turned the spotlight on the exquisite artistry of tawaifs (courtesans), I stumbled upon the story of Nawab Jaan, an ardent admirer of Ghalib. And I decided to look at Ghalib through her eyes,” says Manjari.
The production is set in the backdrop of the Mutiny of 1857. Nawab Jaan was a singer-dancer in the court of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. She would perform to Ghalib’s ghazals and developed a great liking for the poet.
“It is said that Ghalib has mentioned her in his letters to friends. Though he doesn’t mention the name of the courtesan, Nawab Jaan is how I refer to her in this theatrical production. She is called Chaudhvin in the 1954 Sohrab Modi film on the poet’s life. But not much is known about their relationship, whether the admiration was mutual or if Nawab Jaan eventually became Ghalib’s muse.”
Manjari has woven the story around documented and oral history. “It was an era when much was left unsaid in romance. Letters were written in secret and a world of dreams was built in the heart. In keeping with the spirit of the time, I have used my imagination to show the bonding between the two. I convey the essence and emotions through Ghalib’s ghazals and the expressive moves of Darbari Kathak,” explains Manjari.
‘The Legend of Nawab Jaan and Mirza Ghalib’ opens with Ghalib hearing his ghazal Ishq par zor nahin, hai yeh woh aatish Ghalib Jo lagaye na lage aur bujhaaye na bane! (One can’t control love, it’s such a flame that can neither be ignited nor extinguished) being sung melodiously by Nawab Jaan when he enters her mansion. When he asks her who has written it, she tells him it’s her favourite Ghalib and that she is praying to Allah to make him the most popular.
The production concludes with Ghalib rushing to meet Nawab Jaan after being honoured with the title of Dabir ul Mulk in the Mughal court only to know that she has died thinking of him. It is said, informs Manjari, that he went to her grave and offered his favourite dushaala (shawl).
Dil - e - nadan tujhe hua kya hai…Akhir is dard ki dava kya hai (What has happened to my heart; what is the cure for this pain?)
The Courtesan Project has been an exciting journey, says the dancer. “It has opened my eyes to precious aspects of art and literature, which I would have missed out on had I not ventured on the trail of these women, who faced social rejection, yet defined Kathak with their passion and creativity.”
‘The Legend of Nawab Jaan and Mirza Ghalib- An evening of poetry and dance’ will be staged on Feb 8 (7 p.m.) at Royal Opera House, Mumbai.