Gauhar preview: Tunes from the past

Gauhar, directed by Lillette Dubey, recreates the life of legendary musician Gauhar Jaan, accompanied by live music

August 06, 2019 04:41 pm | Updated August 25, 2019 06:38 am IST

After playing across many Indian cities and travelling to London and the US, Gauhar by The Primetime Theatre Co, directed by Lillette Dubey, premieres in Chennai. Re-creating the magic of a legendary musical figure, Gauhar Jaan, a pioneer of sorts — equally celebrated for her music and her fiery spirit — this play uses costumes and sets very interestingly to add a layer that celebrates life and times gone by. Dubey speaks about why she is so excited to bring the play to Chennai.

What is the genesis of Gauhar ?

Gauhar was originally inspired by Vikram Sampath’s book, My Name is Gauhar Jaan that traces the life and times of the musician with a wide and eclectic repertoire who is also one of the “earliest women artistes who seized the opportunity that came with the advent of recording technology and became the first voice to be recorded way back in 1902”.

The core philosophy of my company, The Primetime Theatre Co, is to mount original English plays that are written by Indian playwrights and tell stories that are based here but have the power to resonate universally. I was so fascinated with the voice of Gauhar Jaan and her life as a whole that when Mahesh Dattani, told me about her, I knew I wanted to capture her story for the stage.

The play has live music too...

Originally, Mahesh envisaged using the recordings of Gauhar Jaan at points in the play; her music has this beautiful, haunting quality, but the quality of the recordings was extremely poor and I felt that we wouldn’t be doing justice to it, if we did that. So I decided to have actors singing her songs live on stage so the audience could feel the impact of her lyrics and compositions. During our initial shows we had live musicians too who travelled with us but travelling with a huge crew proved to be cumbersome and so we recorded the soundtrack. The singing is all very much live still! Rajeshwari Sachdev (who plays the younger Gauhar) is an accomplished actor, dancer and singer and Zila Khan, who plays the older Gauhar Jaan also has an extraordinary voice.

What about Gauhar Jaan fascinates you?

She was prodigiously talented and incredibly intelligent, and gorgeous to boot. She was also a path-breaker in her field. At the same time she faced the same difficulties that a lot of successful women face in their lives even today, which also made her very contemporary.

Around the time I began thinking about Gauhar Jaan and the possibility of recreating her life on stage, I attended a concert by Shubha Mudgal and she sang a signature piece of Gauhar Jaan (a piece that we have incorporated into the play). It was so brilliant that I knew I had to do the play!

What is it like to recreate a period drama on stage?

For us, the challenge in designing sets for Gauhar lay in giving a sense of period and grandeur without making the sets heavy. The costumes are period and meticulously recreated by Pia Benegal, Shyam Benegal’s daughter. So the set employs sepia visuals and plays a great deal with lights, both designed by Salim Akhtar.

Do you think by virtue of presenting a biopic of sorts on stage, you are making a significant cultural contribution?

I have no such grand ambitions! I feel hers is an important and fascinating story and needs to be told. And her music needs to be heard.

For both the story and music are moving and inspirational as well as historically relevant.

Gauhar will be staged on August 29, 7.30 pm at the Music Academy, Chennai

Tickets available on  and The Hindu's Theatre Fest page

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