Love, in the time of the Mughals

The show is about the torrid romance between the poet and a tawaif dancer in his court  

“Dil-e-nadan tujhe hua kya hai, ahir is dard ki dava kya hai?” recites kathak dancer, and founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, Manjari Chaturvedi over a phone call on a languid afternoon. With a gentle voice, and a frenzied passion for Mirza Ghalib’s poetry, the dancer recreates the atmosphere of Ghalib’s writing, that continues to resonate 150 years after his demise. Chaturvedi in collaboration with Aviv Learning, is keen on protecting Ghalib’s poignant prose in an evening of song and dance at The Royal Opera House. Through historic stories about the revolt of 1857, the Mughal Durbar, and his own romantic legends, the Urdu and Persian poet is an integral figure in understanding India’s secular values.

The Legend of Nawab Jaan and Mirza Ghalib, is about the torrid romance between the poet and a tawaif dancer in his court. The woman protagonist has featured in numerous letters penned by Ghalib, but has always remained nameless. Over decades, the identity of this mysterious woman has been explored in multiple films and plays, including Gulzar’s 1988 television drama series about the renowned writer.

“I believe that Nawab Jaan was responsible for popularising Ghalib, since their courtship was widely performed and sung about. Through this concert, I’d like to trace the creative relationship that exists between a performer and a poet, and not only focus on the aspect of a muse,” explains Chaturvedi. While Chaturvedi, will play Nawaab Jaan, actor, Ekant Kaul from Srinagar, will embrace the persona of Ghalib. Apart from ‘Dil-e-nadan’, renditions of ‘Nukta-cheen ai gham-e-dil’ will also feature in the 90-minute theatrical dance production, which is the second staged performance after a debut show in Bangalore, in November last year.

Unsung artists

Chaturvedi has done extensive research for The Legend of Nawab Jaan and Mirza Ghalib since two-and-a half years, as part of her nine-year old, Courtesan Project. The latter traces the journey of women artistes who were never given the recognition they deserved, and were often written-off as naachne walis. “Why should these women remain unnamed? The fact that they inspired art, obviously means that they were worthy of more than just generic titles,” shares Chaturvedi. In a recent show titled, ‘Begums and Baijis of Bollywood,’ the dancer shed light on the forgotten female stalwarts of Indian cinema, through stories of Jaddan Bai, Mukhtar Begum, Jahanara Kajjan and Begum Akhtar. “They were often equated with prostitution, and bracketed as mere entertainers instead of artists,” elucidates the dancer.

Chaturvedi knows what discrimination can feel like, having been the recipient of it in January this year. The performer says that her qawwali performance was “deliberately” stopped midway by officials during a dinner hosted by the UP assembly speaker for a conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. “I heard the officials coming from the side of the stage, and saying - ‘yahan qawwali nahi chalegi’ (qawwali will not be played here),” she says. The claim has been denied by the state’s Cultural Department.

Chaturvedi says that she has been at the receiving end of complete silence from state officials. The artiste lives in hope though, overwhelmed as she is by the solidarity extended to her once story went viral. “These are strange times, but I guess we’re all finding our own ways to resist against divisive politics,” she asserts.

The Legend of Nawab Jaan and Mirza Ghalib: An Evening of Poetry and Dance, February 8, 7 p.m. at Royal Opera House. More details on

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 5:03:13 AM |

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