July 21 2015
In popular South Asian culture, the figure of the courtesan still persists but their long-held intellectual traditions and devotion to art have been much neglected. Not any more…
SEDUCTIVE, romantic, and tragic – that was the lot of the courtesan dancers who were venerated figures in much of Mughal India.
Take the great 19th century Urdu novel “Umrao Jaan”, and the literary works that inspired “Pakeezah” (1972), “Devdas” (2002) and the later screen version of “Umrao Jaan” (2006) itself with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the lead….they were lavish productions that spoke of a different time and era.
Now, in what is believed to be the first time ever in the UK, the courtesan tradition is to be resurrected in the form of a theatrical production with music. It has been entitled, “Umrao – The Noble Courtesan”
A later exhibition will also give people the chance to hear recordings of actual courtesans dating back to 1902.
These initiatives are the brainchild of Viram Jasani, who will be known to many as the face behind the long-running Asian Music Circuit (AMC). He is passionate about wanting to resurrect the culture that supported the courtesan tradition and restore it to its former glories.
For just two nights in London (starting tomorrow on July 22) and an extended run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (from August 6-31), there will be a stage adaptation of “Umrao Jaan” made up of music and dance.
It will form one part of a three-pronged project, entitled “Lost Traditions” to bring the courtesan or Tawa’if as it was known more formally, back to life.
Jasani told www.asianculturevulture.com: “ Nobody as far as I known has done something like this – where you put music on stage and it’s a musical (of sorts). It’s not an opera but a play with music.”
He has assembled a cast of six musicians and 10 actors.
“It’s a theatre adaption of ‘Umrao Jaan’ written in English. I want the story and culture to be accessible to everybody that’s why it is in English,” pointed out Jasani.
The play has been put together by Simon Mundy, a poet who has instilled both his own and the verses of poets such as Rumi into the drama to give it authenticity and a traditional feel. It is directed by Vasilios Arabos.
“I’ve taken the traditional Urdu poetry of the 19th century and composed traditional music to it,” said Jasani, who as the man behind the AMC, has staged many concerts in the UK previously.
“You have got this lovely blend of scripted English and the music and dance is all very traditional,” he added.
The play will feature Kathak dancing and there will be an ensemble of musicians on the stage with a singer.
The music of courtesans has survived in two particular singing styles, Thumri and Ghazals, said Jasani.
Jasani said he had noticed an appetite for both forms when he had produced music concerts over the years.
While the music survived, the actual tradition of courtesans in India in the 19th century began to fall into disrepute.
The British found the women and some of the other performers (it was acceptable for some ‘men’ to be Tawa’ifs too, see here) as generally suspect and began to clamp down on those involved.
There was also another purpose which sadly led to Indian society shunning Tawa’ifs as well.
“The presence of the British in the late 19th century culture had a real significance and impact,” explained Jasani.
“These educated women, who some would send their children to be educated by, were reduced to prostitution. The English needed entertainment and had these houses where no Indian was allowed and where these women would have to entertain soldiers.”
So, British Victorian morality and crude needs began to erode the status of the Tawa’if and by much of the 20th century, the tradition had vanished from respectable, mainstream society.
Jasani recalled going to a brothel in Kolkata for a BBC documentary to show how the music of Thumri had continued to be passed from one generation to another.
“There was this lady singing wonderful Thumri but she was a prostitute,” he revealed.
Equally, the courtesan tradition of music was adopted (or appropriated, if you feel more strongly about this) by Indian cinema.
“They took these genres and made them into a typical Bollywood style, and it completely changed and destroyed the original beauty of the singing,” argued Jasani.
However, people will get the chance to hear actual courtesans singing from a period before that.
In 1902, the British Typewriter and Gramaphone Company, the early forerunner of HMV, recorded work by courtesans and this will be broadcast at a Royal Geographical Society exhibition in September.
For a few days, the public will also get a chance to find out more about the lives of the Tawa’ifs and what happened to them.
Academics and experts Anna Morcom and Richard Williams have written ‘storyboards’ accompanying pictures, to reveal what happened to these women, as one century gave way to another.
The exhibition will also mount a short film about the tradition’s survival in some urban red light areas in India.
In September and October, there will also be a trio of concerts under the “Lost Traditions” season (of which “Umrao Jaan” is the start) with musicians from India coming over to perform both Thumri and Ghazals.
“I’ve wanted to reproduce something with a context for these genres of music and tell the story about these women of the late 19th century who used to dance and compose poetry.
“There’s been a lot of interest in this from around the world, especially where there is diaspora. I’d love to take it back to India,” said Jasani.
He also has a grand vision for this ‘Umrao Jaan’ style of production.
“I’d really like to end up with a big production in the Albert Hall in a couple of years of time,” said Jasani.
‘Umrao Jaan’ – Wednesday, July 22-24 at The Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street, Marylebone, London NW8 8EH.
‘Umrao Jaan’ Edinburgh Fringe Festival, George Square Studio One, George Square and Windmill Lane, Edinburgh EH8 9JS.
Details of the exhibition and concerts will be published nearer the time.
Sex at the Edge: Dance bars and courtesans