- What attracted you to the story of Umrao Jaan?
For many years now the Asian Music Circuit has been producing music styles that many of the Tawa’if used to sing (namely Thumri and Ghazal). I personally grew up listening to Indian classical music so it’s in my blood. I love thumri and ghazal so I wanted to present these genres in an innovative way and in the context from which they evolved; for example, the interaction between the Hindu and Islamic cultures, the royal courts, the impact of recordings and the historical, political and social background.
I was inspired by a visit to the Royal Albert Hall when I went to see a production of Madam Butterfly. The stage setting and production values were so impressive. I wanted to do something like that for Indian music; I wanted to create a serious, beautiful, classical, traditional production in a contemporary way, to appeal to different audiences across society. One of my main concerns was keeping it original, and not copying the film by Muzzafar Ali, which was so iconic and beautiful in itself. What I really wanted to focus on was to create a different kind of theatre production, so I commissioned a script to be written in English, use 19th Century Urdu poetry and use traditional classical music for the ghazals. Our writer, Simon Mundy, is a wonderful poet, has even included some of his work in the play.
- Umrao Jaan has been told in many amazing and recognised ways; is the play more inspired by the film or the novel?
One can’t help but be moved and inspired by Muzzafar Ali’s film of 1981 with its lovely poetry (different from the book) and music. However, I did not want to copy the film. It’s true that whenever one thinks of Umrao Jaan, one thinks of the music and lyrics of the movie rather than the original Urdu novel. So, I wanted to produce something that was different from both but was still inspired by the wonderful music that I have had the privilege of listening to and meeting the artists who performed it.
I also wanted to try and compose the music myself – as a classical music performer, one improvises and creates music all the time. However composing for a play is very different and very challenging, and I wanted to give it a go before it was too late! It really would be great to have the audience leaving the theatre with my music still in their head!
- How did the music publishing company, HMV influence the status of courtesans in the period?
This is a fascinating story! In a nutshell, around 1900, the British Gramophone and Typewriter Company (later HMV), provided a platform to take the female artists from their “salons” to the concert stage! As patronage from royalty, nobility and gentry dwindled away, the British had no interest in using the women other than as prostitutes. With the strongly prevalent conservative attitudes of Indian society, the women artists lost their position of privilege and influence and also gradually their art.
However, the British Typewriter and Gramophone Company provided an opportunity of an alternative income to the courtesans, with many of them becoming famous recording artists. In the later 20th century of course the women had also become great solo vocalists touring internationally and performing concerts. Their records clearly sold in large numbers. One artist recorded some 60 recordings of her music and was handsomely paid even by today’s standards. From a business perspective, the opportunity for the British Gramophone and Typewriter Company was fantastic. The Indian market was huge and the demand was very high – thus HMV was born! This really raised questions; was this another kind of British exploitation of Indian people? Or like the railways do the British consider this as their contribution to Indian culture (even though the main beneficiary was the Gramophone Company)? At the time it was stated British policy to try to destroy Indian culture – but was the temptation of profit slowing down the destruction of culture? What has happened to that policy now?
The legacy of recordings is both good and bad; good because it provides us with a phenomenal archive and record of Indian music culture – an oral tradition – from which we can learn a huge amount; however being an oral music tradition and one in which improvisation plays a huge role, with no written music, recordings became a replacement for the written scores. Thus the spontaneity was getting lost as people would just copy the music on the recordings instead of developing individual ideas and creativity. The music can in some ways be said to have become caught in a trap and its development slowed.
- Has there been anything lost in translating the poetry into English?
We have not translated any Urdu poetry – this will be sung in its original form and the English poetry that is include in the play will not be sung but recited. So there is a wonderful combination in the play of English and traditional Indian/Urdu ghazals and music. We are trying to get the translations of the Urdu across through the dialogue and other means such as programme notes. I have chosen appropriate verses by great poets of the period such as, Mir Taqi Mir, Daag Dehlvi and Jigar Moradabadi, and set them to traditional music.
- How will the story appeal to audiences who don’t know the story of Umrao Jaan or aren’t familiar with the Mughal period?
Firstly the play is in English and it is produced using great lighting and sets. Of course there are very traditional aspects like the costumes, music and dance but it will still appeal to audiences across society. I have found over the many years that I have been producing traditional Indian music concerts that there is a genuine and great interes all over the world in Indian music – provided it is of a high standard.
Secondly I have created a music ensemble which includes a sitar, tabla and of course, a sarangi which was always closely associated with the courtesan tradition. The final twist to the music is that I have also included a rubab from Afghanistan – an instrument which would have been more prevalent than the sitar in the 19th century.
Finally the story is an age old one and features in many other cultures, even in Japanese culture with its “geisha” tradition. The story will not be difficult to follow as fundamentally, it is about resilience to adversity, dignity, strength acquired through art, and its unique connection with spirituality.
- The courtesans of Mughal times were highly educated and of many talents. So why are they now associated with sexual services?
Conservative thinking in India has been around for a long time and is not at all new. This was one of the reasons for the downfall of the tawa’if culture. Ignorance is another. Yet in the 19th century, elite society sent their children to be educated by the courtesans in etiquette, literature, music and dance. It’s interesting that today male ghazal singers have become so popular – they can perform at concerts, soirees and “mehfils” without attracting any stigma! As soon as you get a female singer, then people immediately associate that with the darker side of that culture which was probably the creation of men anyway and also not necessarily the reality.
- The play is performing in London before having a long run at the Edinburgh Festival. Do you plan to tour the play around the country after this? Or even outside of the UK?
We have had a lot of interest in the production, not only from the UK but also from
Mainland Europe, USA and the Far East. I want to see how we do in the first stage in the smaller venues in London and Edinburgh and then develop the idea further for production on tour next year and beyond. The nature of events at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is such that our play has to be restricted to 80 minutes without an interval. However next year we hope to be in larger venues with a longer production.
- Umrao – The Noble Courtesan is part of a series of events including an exhibition and three concerts. What sparked your interest in the Mughal period and more specifically, courtesan culture? It is important to know that the courtesan tradition preceded the Mughals in the Hindu temples especially in South India. The women were called Devdasis. The art and culture of the courtesans flourished in the royal courts in the North but in the South, it was the temples. What I wanted to focus on was the art forms that the women performed and excelled in, namely dance, poetry and of course music. It was their art that enabled them to rise above the darker side of their lives and in many cases to leave that way of life altogether.
However, over time, these traditions were starting to get lost and as a result, knowledge of that way of life associated with the poetry and music and dance was getting lost. I wanted to bring it back to people’s attention, especially young Asians who have little or no idea about all of this. I came up with the concept of Lost Traditions, which is made up of three distinct parts; a play, an exhibition called Tawa’if – The Life and Art of the Courtesans (featuring some of the original recordings and images of the first female performers) and three ghazal, thumri and qawali concerts at Cadogan Hall.
When you listen to the music and the fantastic skills of the musicians performing the great traditional genres of Indian music, you will understand my love and fascination for the subject!
Umrao – The Noble Courtesan will open on Wednesday 22nd July through to Friday 24th July 2015 at The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, Marylebone, London,NW8 8EH and Edinburgh Fringe Festival 6th August till 31st August 2015 at George Square Studio One, George Square and Windmill Lane, Edinburgh EH8 9JS.