The aroma of Awadh

Striking a chord: Pratibha Singh Baghel  

When Mirza Hadi Ruswa would have penned down “Umrao Jaan Ada”, which is widely regarded as the first novel written in Urdu, around the turn of 19th century, he wouldn’t have imagined that one day it will become the emblem of the Lucknow’s rich courtesan culture for the posterity.

Over the years, the novel has had several film and television adaptations in both India as well as Pakistan – the most famous being Indian filmmaker Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 film “Umrao Jaan” starring Rekha in the eponymous role of a Lucknow-based courtesan in desperate search of true love. Almost four decades later, Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s magnum opus has received another major adaptation. Only this time it’s meant for theatre and not cinema. The project titled ‘Umrao Jaan Ada - The Musical’, featuring singer-actor Pratibha Singh Baghel as Umrao Jaan, is being staged in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Weightlifting Indoor Stadium.

The musical is helmed by the noted choreographer Rajeev Goswami who had the clarity from the world go that the theatrical rendition wouldn’t be a remake of the Muzaffar Ali classic .

“It is one hundred percent pure adaptation, completely inspired by Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s book. Now every director likes to bring a unique vision and so we have tried to present it keeping in mind the 21st century audiences but without diluting the source material,” reveals Goswami who has previously directed another musical“Beyond Bollywood”.

But dealing with an epic work like “Umrao Jaan Ada” was no cinch for Goswami. “It was a big challenge to adapt a 19th century story for the stage. The novel of course is a masterpiece. Now, I can understand Urdu and even appreciate its nuances but unfortunately I can’t read Urdu and so I had to rely on a Hindi translation. But I must tell you that having a writer and lyricist like Irfan Siddiqui in our team is really an added advantage,” adds Goswami.

Performing live

The musical features live music by Salim - Sulaiman Merchant who are also the presenters of the play. The composer duo previously collaborated with Goswami on “Beyond Bollywood”. “Right from a very young age we have been watching plays, both in India as well as abroad . Musicals such as ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘The Lion King’, ‘Wicked’, etc. have been our favourites. During our early training we were taught both Indian classical as well as Western music. And since we had good training we were able to use it to our advantage in our work for Hindi films. But what differentiates Broadway and West End-style music is that the actors themselves sing, dance and perform live . So there was a deep desire to replicate something similar for the Indian audiences,” explains Salim Merchant.

“There was also this thought at the back of our minds that we are not getting to hear our traditional forms of music such as folk, ghazal, khayal, and thumri in movies and on radio as much as we should. So that’s how we got the idea of adapting Ruswa’s novel into a grand musical production,” adds Sulaiman Merchant.

Once the idea was in place, the biggest challenge was to find someone who could essay the character of Umrao Jaan. What made it more difficult is that fact that the person was also required to be a good singer and a dancer. “ For the role of Umrao Jaan, we were looking for someone who could sing, act and dance live. It’s actually a very unique skill set to possess. So during the quest when we set our eyes on Pratibha she looked quite suitable for the part. And so far she has lived up to it with her commitment and dedication,” says Salim.

The formal training in Indian classical music has really helped Pratibha , a 2009 SaReGaMaPa finalist, in becoming a natural choice for roles that require live singing.

She previously essayed the character of Bahar in Feroz Abbas Khan’s musical “Mughal-e-Azam”. “Pronunciation / diction wasn’t an issue for me since I have been singing ghazals since my childhood but I had to work really hard to get the acting right. The character belongs to a completely different age and is nothing like the lives we live today. Also, the story and her life’s circumstances are so devastating. How a young girl named Amiran gets abducted from her house and is sold to a courtesan called Khanum Jaan who runs a brothel in early 19th century Lucknow. She grows up to become the famous courtesan Umrao Jaan who dares to fall in love with a Nawab. As an actor, it is very difficult to essay a character with such a complex arc. I really had to struggle for days in order to get a proper hold over the character,” confesses Pratibha.

The most exciting part about the musical is how it incorporates Khayyam’s original music and songs from the 1981 film. Other than three original songs composed by Salim – Sulaiman, the musical has four songs of Khayyam in addition to a fifth one which Umrao hums during the play. The duo has re-recorded the classic songs to suit the needs of live theatre. “We primarily like to see it as a re-documentation of a 40-year-old classic work as the style and everything else is all authentic. The flair and the drama of the musical only add to it. The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra has helped us with the strings, violins, cellos, and the brass instruments. It’s a great flavour of thumri, ghazal, and khayal with live symphony orchestra. It’s something that hasn’t been done before and the western part never gets to overshadow the Indian classical components,” reveals Sulaiman who is chuffed that such a complex arrangement has come out so well.

But, despite the novelties, the composer duo has made conscious efforts to ensure that the originality of the music in the songs in terms of the use of orchestra, how those songs were produced, and the use of beats is pretty much intact.

“We have made sure the authenticity of that is there. However, we wanted a little more than what was there in the film so that we could incorporate the Kathak beats and the different dance movements so almost all the songs have some form of change in terms of creating the right atmosphere for a musical play, ,” sums up Salim who is keen on taking the musical abroad once the Indian leg gets completed.

(“Umrao Jaan Ada” is being staged at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi, until August 11, 2019)

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 10:50:45 PM |

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