The much publicized ‘Uff Mallka Jaan and the Velvet Courtesans’ a dance presentation by Sufi Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi presented at Creaticity had indeed caught my interest.
For one, it was an ode to the dream weavers of a bygone era- the tawaifs or the courtesans and secondly it promised the idiom of Kathak, in its purest, Darbari-influenced style.
“A tawaif was a highly sophisticated courtesan who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre and the Urdu literary tradition, and were considered an authority on etiquette.” – Thus began the compere.
The text is straight from the pages of Wikipedia, with almost all facts presented in the 75 minutes recital following in the same strain.
The very lovely Neesha Singh (of the film Ankur fame) looking resplendent in shimmering costume, spoke in first person assuming the identity of the courtesan she represented. Her diction, poise and eloquence quite noteworthy, but her bearing mismatched with her outfit and the script pointedly unoriginal.
Add to that, Fouzia Dastango- India’s first female Dastango (a 13th century art of oral Urdu storytelling)-and what we had was an overkill of information and gab. The strains of the legendary “Aaj Jaane ki Zid Na Karo” once again drew one out of the ennui. And, suddenly the dull stage lit up with opulent backdrop of a palace recreating the Mughal era.
Brilliant LED designing by Vijay Tarang studio. And there in the middle of the stage sat the alluring temptress Mallka Jaan (Manjari Chaturvedi) attempting to recreate the famed ada of the courtesan.
Performed in the baithaki style of Kathak and supported by the beautiful words of Fayyaz Hashmi, immortalized by the voice of Farida Khannum, one couldn’t go wrong, so you would presume. However, the over exaggerated shringara actions with the repetitive use of the Suchi hasta to depict curls and constant adornment of the hair with flowers (and pins galore!) was a letdown. Add to that an almost wooden expression of the dancer and jerky attempts at stopping the paramour from leaving, had no measure of velvet smoothness.
The title of the concert being Mallka Jaan, one expected a peek into her life and times.
But soon the focus shifted to Gauhar Jaan (Mallka Jaan’s daughter) through Singh’s monologues. Famed as Gauhar Jaan was, it is but natural for the narrative to tilt towards her. But then one wonders, being a disciple of the great Bindadin Maharaj (grandfather of Pt. Birju Maharaj), not a single Bindadin composition was recreated.
The Tarana took me by surprise as it happened just 10 minutes into the concert. Once again beautifully rendered vocally and interspersed with the famous bandish “Lat Uljhi suljha ja balma”. The foot mikes, three in number, as is common in a Kathak recital, took place of pride and one looked up expectantly for some crisp tukdas, tihais. But Chaturvedi, although sporting ghungroos, did not venture into anything more complicated than the basic steps of Tritala.
Each piece of dance followed the same pattern of Hansasiya hasta rolling, very unsteady pirouettes, with none of the swag of Kathak Chakkars, coquettish actions of peeping out of the palms and more adornment.
The purpose of the presentation being, to highlight the humane side of the courtesans, other than just their bewitching, beguiling ada, was sadly not met. Besides, what started as a life story of Mallka Jaan turned out to be a documentary of other courtesans like Kesarbai, Rasoolan bai, Chanda Bibi. And, all the stories were, as mentioned Wiki retellings.
The production technical quality was indeed noteworthy. The music, for example was absolutely enchanting.
Be it the Raga Bageshwari thumri Sajan laagi tori magan manava made famous by Noor Jehan; the Ghalib classics Dile nadaan tuzhe huaa kya hai; Behzad Lucknowvi scripted deewana banana hai toh immortalized by Begum Akhtar were heartwarming.
What lacked in Choreography variety was made up with the variety of costumes and sets. Each scene was matched with gorgeous period costumes. All in all, the presentation unfortunately remained as yet another superficial attempt at eulogizing the depth of the Tawaif’s repertoire.
#All views expressed in this review are those of the author/reviewer and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to the same
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