There are many cross-currents flowing between India and the UK. In this very issue, which focuses upon the growth of contemporary dance in India, we also highlight the first phase of The Nautch Girl, a UK dance theatre production from Phizzical that takes inspiration from Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s 1899 Urdu novel about a Lucknow courtesan, Umrao Jaan Ada. Sanjeevini Dutta assesses the production.
The 1981 film version of the story, Umrao Jaan, cast an aura of glamour and mystique around the courtesan – so much so that even respectable middle-class India accepts the courtesan and glosses over the less palatable aspects of her life. The producer and scriptwriter Samir Bhamra cites the historical pull of a romantic era (the refined aristocratic Lucknow culture) as the impetus for his explorations.
Over an intense two-week rehearsal period, a group of six actor-dancers with tabla artist Rishii Chowdhury and the creative team (director Chirag Lukha, choreographer Sonia Sabri, composer Devesh Sodha and scriptwriter Samir Bhamra) exchanged movement languages, freely taking from Western physical theatre, martial arts, mudra (gesture)/mujra to kathak and Bollywood dance as the medium for their storytelling.
Pulse went to one of the public showings of the R&D period at Embrace Arts in Leicester. The entertaining forty-five-minute presentation had surprises and some curiosities, balancing precariously between ‘art’ and ‘commercial’. The narrative, set in the kothi or brothel of a madam of great haughtiness and attitude, describes the goings-on of the house: the inevitable selling of girls, the female friendships that thrive, the daily luring of customers and the complex interactions that ensue. The story centres on a young recruit to the brothel who seems to have been kidnapped and sold. She is gradually groomed, being taught the finer arts of dance and movement, mannerisms and etiquette. Her loveliness catches the eye of the Nawab, the ruler of the state, while her friend and pimp is also in love with her, setting up a triangle on which the story revolves.
The show succeeds in unfolding the narrative purely through movement and mime. The use of hand gesture is literal, such as rubbing of tummy to indicate hunger and the gesture of putting into mouth to show food, not the symbolic hastas of classical dance. The mime is curiously old-fashioned, but in the hands of a consummate performer like Subhash Viman luring a British officer by flattery and obsequiousness can be very funny. At the same time, the abstractions of contemporary dance such as use of lift and contact-improvisation bring new elements into South Asian dance theatre.
The engagement and enjoyment of the performers comes from their ownership of the material. As the piece has been made in rehearsal to which all the performers have contributed, they look comfortable and in control of the material. There is much to enjoy: sumptuous costumes that in tableau look like a studio shot still; energetic Bollywood numbers that brim with energy and invention; delicate kathak hands and wrists; humour of a purely physical kind in which the clownishness of the dance tutor contrasts with the elegance of the madam’s teaching.
At the level of movement skill and variety, the theatrical setting and lighting, The Nautch Girl works. However, the writer will need to flesh out some of the dilemmas that this era throws out: is a courtesan the carrier of a time-honoured tradition or an exploited member of the female race without a free will? Is there a true exchange of thoughts and ideas between the long-term clients so that we understand the companionship a courtesan provided in an era where wives often had no education? The novel describes Umrao Jaan as being well-read and learned, but are we able to glimpse her inner mind?
There is no doubt that Phizzical are reaching a new audience and have a unique product. They have a way into the hearts of young Asians that classical dance companies can only dream of. They combine populism with art and through the glamour of Bollywood can attract audiences to learning lines from Shakespeare (as with their production of Cymbeline) or watching kathak dance. It is not unconnected that Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge) is Samir Bhamra’s favourite director and a massive influence on his work. Pulse will be looking out for the full production of The Nautch Girl.