Mumbai-based theatre artiste Neha Singh was fascinated with Kanpur’s Azeezun Bai, a courtesan who turned freedom fighter during the revolt of 1857. Each time she searched for Azeezun Bai online, the name Jhalkari Bai, who served in the army of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, also popped up. Initially, Singh began researching on these two fighters as she wanted to build a play with them as the protagonists. However, since each of these personalities needed to be explored extensively, she chose Jhalkari Bai, Laxmibai’s lookalike, for her latest play.
“Jhalkari Bai rose to being a commander in the army of Rani Laxmibai in spite of her caste (she was a Dalit) and socio-economic status. Another very interesting aspect was that she was the queen’s body double. The queen and Jhalkari had mutual respect for each other and shared their passion to work towards a common goal. This excited me and my team very much,” says Singh, who has directed and produced the play, Jhalkari, which will be staged at Overact in Mumbai’s Andheri on January 19.
The process of putting up Jhalkari was long drawn. The playwright, Punarvasu, who has also composed and written songs for the play, did the initial research with books like Veerangana Jhalkari Bai by Mohandas Naimishrai. “Once we had exhausted all secondary research, we went to Jhansi for a week for more intensive research. There, we interviewed the Vice Chancellor of Bundelkhand University, Head of the Hindi Department and PhD students. We met several historians and experts in folklore and folk music,” says Singh.
They also visited Jhalkari Bai’s home in Bhojala village, about 12 km away from Jhansi, and met her descendants. “We collected a lot of Dalit folk songs from there. In Jhansi, we managed to get a copy of Vrindavan Lal Verma’s iconic literary work Jhansi ki Rani,” says Singh and adds that it turned out to be an overwhelming experience for Punarvasu, Kritika Pande (who plays Jhalkari) and herself. Back in Mumbai, they tweaked the script, added the details they had missed and folk music they had collected from Jhansi and Bhojala.
Singh, who was the casting director of the recently released Ribbon, believes that the plurality of stories from our history, “which are unfortunately obliterated from academic textbooks”, need to be told for children for “a more holistic attitude towards the concepts of nationalism and patriotism”. She says, “The revolt of 1857 and the entire course of struggle for Independence was a people’s struggle, not just the struggle of those in power. There were people of all religions, castes, genders, ages and languages involved in it. Children need to know and appreciate that.” The play is meant for audience above the age of seven.
As a theatre artiste, Singh has often felt that there’s a lack of good female roles. “Probably because most theatre producers, directors and writers are men and maybe it’s not easy for them to come up with stories about complex female characters. When I decided to produce plays, it was a clear decision to bring to stage these interesting and intriguing women characters,” says Singh, who had earlier directed, produced and acted in Dohri Zindagi, a play based on Vijaydan Detha’s story that explores homophobia.
She has also written four books for children titled The Wednesday Bazaar and Bela Misses Her Train (published by Karadi Tales); Moongphali (Red Turtle) and, recently, It’s Playtime (Pratham Books). “Like in theatre and cinema, under representation and misrepresentation of minorities in literature for children is glaring. I like to write stories that break the stereotype of gender, class, caste and religion. In It’s Playtime, a young girl plays the role of a king,” she says. Calling writing for children “a challenge”, she says, “one has to be economical with words, unpredictable, funny and god save you, if you become in-your-face preachy.”