Just after the turn of the 20th century, a Lucknow-based courtesan named Umrao Jaan Ada narrated the story of her life to poet Mirza Hadi Ruswa. He met her at a mushaira at his friend’s residence, and could not forget the hushed awe in the room, when she concluded her verse with the lines, Kisko sunaye haal-e-dil jor-e Ada/ Awargi mein humne zamaane ki sair ki (Who will listen to the tale of my woeful heart? I have wandered far and wide on the face of the earth).
Ruswa was intrigued by this ageing, retired courtesan from Faizabad, who now lived in the apartment next door. He spoke to her, even flirted a little, to convince her to tell her story. And she finally spoke. Umrao Jaan’s tale of love and life, from Ameeran to Umrao, complex thought process on courtesans and the concept of marriage, the notions of age and beauty, and the tawaifs being the most educated women of the times — who could read and write poetry and repartee on matters political and otherwise — were interspersed with her personal story, made it to the pages of a manuscript at a time when the society was quite conservative and patriarchal. The narrative wasn’t that of a dishonoured woman, but of a complex and intelligent woman whose biographer treated her with respect and empathy.
Umrao Jaan Ada (Gulab Munshi and Sons Press, Lucknow, 1905), considered the first Urdu novel by many, was feted during its times, and has stayed on as one of the most authentic stories of the life of a tawaif. It became more popular after filmmaker Muzaffar Ali created Umrao Jaan in 1981, starring Rekha and Farooq Sheikh, with music by composer Khayyam and poetry by renowned poet Shehryar. A generation’s heart was captured with Dil cheez kya hai aap meri jaan leejiye and Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm.
Almost 38 years later, a four-member team comprising director Rajeev Goswami, composers Salim-Sulaiman and writer Irfan Siddiqui, has decided to recreate the magic of Umrao Jaan Ada in a grand, eponymous musical, being staged in the Capital. “This story, first through the book and later in Muzaffar Ali’s film, is etched in our memories. So when you recreate something as iconic as Umrao Jaan, it’s extremely challenging. It is being created in the format of a theatrical musical with live musicians and singing, and no retakes. And people always expect more than what they’ve already watched,” says Goswami, who began his career as a choreographer. He created the musical Beyond Bollywood in 2015, which travelled the world. The recent musical on a similar scale was Mughal-e-Azam by Feroze Abbas Khan.
Goswami’s Umrao Jaan Ada is played by playback singer and reality show contestant Pratibha Singh Baghel, who had to go through a rigorous training for dance and acting while also singing on stage. “It was an interesting and difficult journey,” she says. Goswami and Siddiqui have taken elements from the book that were not originally used in the film. “There is a description of a musical competition between Umrao Jaan and Barodewali Bai, which never made it to the film. Apart from introducing a couple of new characters, we took elements from the book that were not in the film,” says Siddiqui.
The magic of Umrao Jaan largely came from the immortal melodies that gave it the cult status. The moment Ustad Sultan Khan’s sarangi delivered a riff, Asha Bhosle’s voice would follow with a ghazal. There were some others too: Pratham dhar dhyan by Ut Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Kaahe ko byahi bides by Jagjit Kaur and Jhoola kinne daala by Shahida Khan among the 20 compositions. While the musical uses the popular ditties, it also has four original songs including a qawwali. Even for Khyyam’s songs in the musical, the composers have reinterpreted them their own way. “I was about eight when I heard these songs for the first time and the impact was massive. I had to be careful in touching them,” says Salim, who has merged the sounds of sarangi, tabla, and sitar with that of violins, violas, and cellos played by Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The web of orchestration plays on a track as a background to the melodies while the Indian musicians play live. “Since this was for the stage, the idea was to keep it grand,” says Salim.
In one of the rehearsals at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium’s auditorium, a conversation between Umrao Jaan and Nawab Hussain is on. The two are speaking of shayari and its significance, when Hussain, played by Indian Idol 1 contestant Harish Moyal breaks into the Talat Aziz-Sheheryar’s ghazal, Har mulaqat ka anjaam judaai kyun hai/ Ab toh har vaqt yahi baat sataati hai humein… Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm mein laati hai humein… Moyal and Baghel’s mediocre acting and brilliant singing manage to take one back to the watched and the appreciated, and to the story of a courtesan who dared to fall in love, and lost it all because she was one.
On till August 11 at JLN Stadium, Delhi. Tickets on insider.in