Asian Music and Dance

The Nautch Girl – Re-imagined

Phizzical’s The Nautch Girl re-imagined Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s classic tale of Umrao Jaan Ada as narrative dance. To find out more about the process, we talked to the choreographer Sonia Sabri and Phizzical’s artistic director, Samir Bhamra.

Samir Bhamra

Why choose a theme that harks back to India’s colonial past?

The year 2014 celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Indian in Britain and the appointment of the first British envoy to India. We wanted to create a piece that celebrated the relationship between Britain and India and began looking for a perfect story. During a wide research period, I noticed that there are many Western operas and ballets that are set in India. In comparison, the subcontinent has many stories that are performed as Indian dance productions, many of which are mythological stories. I wanted to find a story that was beyond the scriptures; a real romance set within a British and Indian history. That’s when I came across an article about Hadi Ruswa and the three books he has written on Umrao Jaan. I immediately knew that I wanted to present the first fictional Urdu novel about one of the most enigmatic courtesans of our time as a dance production.

How would you describe The Nautch Girl: as a musical or dance drama?

The Nautch Girl takes elements from the story of Umrao Jaan Ada, but it is essentially a new work. The creative team always asked one question during our storyboard sessions. What are we offering that is new in The Nautch Girl? What makes it different from the book and the four films about Umrao Jaan? We finally decided that The Nautch Girl would take elements from the story of Umrao Jaan Ada, but it would be a fresh new take on it. Our version has a linear narrative and focuses on a courtesan’s relationship with her pimp Gauhar Mirza.  

Are you working in a genre that combines classical and Bollywood? Is this the niche that Phizzical occupies?

I am heavily inspired by Indian cinema. Phizzical works with a much wider remit. We produce a range of shows, from classical to contemporary, from Asian to Middle Eastern. The Nautch Girl has its Bollywood moments, but the visceral compositions by Devesh Sodha and live tabla by Rishii Chowdhury take inspiration from Western cinematic scores.

The music for the 1981 film Umrao Jaan was classic. Could you say something about the music for The Nautch Girl?

Devesh is a young composer who had to learn a lot of new skills to make new music for The Nautch Girl. He has brought in Indian instrumentation and fused it with European classical instruments to create something that works for dance and creates an ambience. There aren’t many young composers who would be willing to take on this challenge and work very hard to please Sonia Sabri, Chirag Lukha and me.

Is the production targeted towards young audiences? Did you feel that there was a gap in the market for such work?

The Nautch Girl is open to all ages. I believe there is a need for good quality work based on accessible stories from the subcontinent that take you back to a time that does not exist any more. The magical world of Chandramukhi [the courtesan in the novel Devdas] or the tehzeeb (‘refined manner’) of Lucknow are misaals (‘paradigms’) and it is our responsibility to preserve them and share them with a new generation and continue to excite the older audience with an exciting new style of storytelling and presentation.

What were the main challenges in bringing this production to fruition?

Time and funding. A full dance production needs about eleven weeks in the rehearsal room. We have to find a balance that allows the creative team scope to test the ideas out in a safe environment and receive audience feedback. We hope to use their feedback to return to the rehearsal room and make this production equivalent to a full-length ballet.

What was the highlight of the experience for you?

I am always amazed by what our British talent brings to the rehearsal room. We have an eclectic cast, ranging from hard-of-hearing dancer Nehal Bhogaita to contemporary and street/urban dancer Subhash Viman, ballet and musical theatre star Prem Rai to kathak’s rising star Satveet Pnaiser and Bollywood and kathak dancer Shafa Khan to multi-talented actor and dancer Showmi Das.

And the best bit of any Phizzical show is the costuming. I tend to go out of my way to find costumes that fit the story and are so unique that the audience wants to take them home!

Where does The Nautch Girl go from here (four nights at Embrace Arts Leicester)?

Back to the rehearsal room armed with audience feedback.

Sonia Sabri 

How would you describe the movement/styles deployed in The Nautch Girl?

The stem of the movement derived from kathak and, in addition, mujra (a form of dance developed by courtesans in the Mughal era) and folk dance. I used two strands of kathak, nritta (rhythmic dance movements) and nritya (narrative dance) and then used creative tasks to progress the movement material which took it to another level, resulting in an organic visual and which animated each dancer’s strengths as a mover. The styles were distinctive and woven together at times to depict or enhance the narrative as needed. The quality this brought was of intricate detail and bold geometry with both panache and rusticity. 

Do you think movement alone can convey complex narrative and complex concepts (such as colonisation and exploitation)?

Yes ‒ narrative movement can do this and choreography within an abstract can do too. The skill is in the movement language and the development of it through creative exploration.

What bits of movement did you feel worked best in the production? What would you like to develop further?

I liked the juxtaposition of intricate movement contrasted with the abstract. Kathak is such a vast art form, there is so much one can churn from it. I would like to develop the contrasts of movement and particularly the darker ambience of the movement language ornamented with the so-called ‘pretty’.

How much was set and how much was generated in rehearsal? How much did the dancers contribute to its creation?

The choreography was set and none of it was improvised in the sharing. In terms of process, there were various creative tasks and exploratory premises set up for the dancers to discover their characters within the parameters given by the director and myself. Each aspect of the exploratory phase was guided by myself (or the director) to develop the characters. This was the foremost important part to unveil because The Nautch Girl was a dance theatre/physical theatre R&D. Each moment on stage would need to have an objective from within the performer in a variety of contexts as well as in relation to one another without losing touch with their role. It was not only about the movement or the choreography but why they moved and what the consequence of the movement was, etc. After the exploratory work and direction from myself, I distilled the kernel movement language of each of the characters and from there I choreographed the sections. It was like shopping for the ingredients before cooking the dish. 

How was the morale of the group? Did exchanges happen spontaneously between the dancers/actors?

We had an excellent team. And everyone bounced off each other so well that it made a time-constrained R&D a highly enjoyable process. I don’t think I have ever cried with laughter so much during a creation process!! 



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