Venue: Epicenter, Gurgaon
Date: 08 April, 2016
Most of us have a confused idea of Tawaifs or courtesans thanks to Bollywood. The impression is that these ladies are glorified prostitutes or mistresses. No offense as everybody is entitled to a vocation but to clear the air, Tawaifs have been first and foremost musicians – Their lifelong pursuit. Various forms of music and dance have survived in India because of them.
Malka Jaan, a half white lady was a renowned Tawaif commanding patronage in Calcutta and Benaras. She was also a poet and a legend in her own right. Her daughter Gauhar Jaan even surpassed her and was the first artist to record songs on discs. To familiarize today’s generation about Gauhar Jaan, Vikram Sampath has written a book which has been adopted as a play by Mahesh Dattani under the eponymous Gauhar. This stage production directed by Lilette Dubey has Rajeshwari Sachdev playing Gauhar. We can imagine Rajeshwari being selected for this role as she already has background in singing and dance. While she was present in almost every scene we were absolutely mesmerised by little pieces of thumris and tappas that she sang live. Infact like Gauhar Jaan who sang in 20 plus languages Rajeshwari also sang in Hindi, English, Bangla and Tamil during the play. This genre of live classical music is rarely heard these days.
The artists in the support cast changed into various roles e.g. Jila Khan played Malka Jaan and old Gauhar and Denzil Smith played Gauhar’s father as well as the representative of the recoding company. In fact Danzel Smith shone amongst the actors and took us with him to the era when gramophones were considered haunted. Zila Khan also rendered quite a few numbers of the Benarasi Gharana. Her boisterous voice, commanded the whole auditorium. A group of instrumentalists playing Tabla, harmonium and the sarangi offered apt support to the songs. In fact recorded music would have taken away 80% of the listening pleasure.
The only question we had is with the language. The lines were partly in English and partly in Hindi and it was difficult to follow the rationale behind it. Nonetheless Gauhar was more of a musical and at the end of its 135 minutes duration we longed for more. They had back to back shows at Sirifort and Epicenter and we hope they come back again to bring to life this play based on India’s first recording artist Gauhar Jaan.