Umrao Jaan Ada – The Musical: 19th-century nostalgia reflects ‘Ganga-Jamni Tahzeeb’

Photo: SAT

By Neeraj Nanda

MELBOURNE, 6 October: Any talk about Umrao Jaan Ada revives the memory of Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 classic Umrao Jaan, which mesmerized India and the subcontinent. That the 1899 Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, considered the first Urdu novel, immortalizing the story of a courtesan and later poet in the 19th century Lucknow/Faizabad was being staged (second time) as a musical this year, was nothing but disbelief. The play staged at the Renaissance Theatre on 5 October 2019, remains embedded in the mind strong and pulsating.

In a diaspora where culture is dominated by the confused Bollywood potpourri, laced with streaming services dishing newer and newer sleazy stuff, Khelaya Productions Umrao Jaan Ada, is a whiff of fresh air. The scenario where the existing socio-economic-political structure is withering away with the onslaught of the British colonial administration, Lucknow’s ‘tawaif’ (courtesan) culture faces a tough test, ultimately shattering its roots and creating unprecedented human agony. It is this nostalgic period, with poetry, music, love, and tragedy finds reflection in this production.

Photo: SAT

The synopsis supplied by the organisers says, “Although the existence of Umrao Jaan Ada is disputed among scholars as there are few mentions of her outside of Ruswa’s book, the existence of an Uttar Pradesh dacoit named Fazal Ali is recorded, and there are British documents that mention the claims of a courtesan named Azizan Bai who stated that she was taught by Umrao Jaan.

The novel is known for its elaborate portrayal of mid-19th century Lucknow, its
decadent society, and also describes the moral hypocrisy of the era, where Umrao
Jaan also becomes the symbol of a nation that had long attracted many suitors
who were only looking to exploit her.”

The storyline, costumes, customs, dances, sufiana poetry (Amir Khusrow) generating on stage the ambiance of Ganga-Jamni Tahzeeb, the musical progresses at a step by step pace weaving the human drama as Ameeran becomes Umrao Jaan and the tale moves on. The Urdu/Hindustani dialogues and the ‘Sutradhar’ (play anchor) add to the excellence of the musical, though the poor pronunciation of Urdu words with the exception of a couple of artists is jarring on ears.

This nostalgic storytelling on the stage is aptly done by the support and hard work of the large team of actors, musicians, technicians, supporters, and volunteers. Director Harsiddhi Mody needs to be commended for handling this rather delicate piece of human drama on the stage.

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