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Spectacular musical Mughal-e-Azam

September 19, 2017

My generation of people who have seen K. Asif's film Mughal-e-Azam both in black and white and in colour will remember with great nostalgia, Madhubala as Anarkali singing "Pyar kiya to darna kya" in Emperor Akbar's court to the choreography by legendary Lacchu Maharaj. The film took seven years to be ready for screening. The melodious music by Naushad Ali has produced evergreen songs which have captured the audiences all over India and wherever Indian Diaspora is.

It was a big challenge for Feroz Abbas Khan to adapt Mughal-e-Azam for theater from the film. It could have been a monumental failure also. But with his passion to make it stage worthy, with a reputation for making productions like Broadway Musicals and vast experience of making films, working for television and directing plays, Feroz Abbas Khan created history on 21st October 2016 when he staged Mughal-e-Azam, his dream, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai.

I had seen Feroz Abbas Khan's musical West Side Story, his plays like Mahatma Vs Gandhi, Tumhari Amrita and was quite familiar with his work. But like many others, I too was apprehensive before watching this mega production in Delhi at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium. How would it compare with the film which I had often seen and also during my lectures on classical dance in Bollywood films, shown that very famous song "Pyar kiya to darna kya" by that enchantress Madhubala.

The challenge of choreography was given to Bangalore based contemporary dancer Mayuri Upadhya of Nritarutya. Having choreographed 'Madhushala,' an original piece of musical work for Amitabh Bachchan and 'Make in India' for Hannover Messe for representing Republic of India, Mayuri had earned fame for choreographing large productions. Such works had inspired confidence not only in her but also in director Feroz Abbas Khan that Mayuri Upadhya would deliver the goods.

Last year, Mayuri had shifted to Mumbai from Bangalore for more than three months. A big hype was built up around this production with big names like award winning technicians from New York, David Lander for light design, scenic design by Neil Patel, projection design by John Narun, sound design by Richard Nowell, background score by Piyush Kanojia and casting by Mukesh Chhabra with stunning costumes by Manish Malhotra, known for designing costumes for Bollywood film stars.

To work with such a formidable team of professional masters, Mayuri indeed felt fortunate, in particular, working with costume designer Manish Malhotra. Mayuri is a contemporary dancer, with enough knowledge of Bharatanatyam and Odissi too. From across India, she auditioned more than 200 Kathak dancers and had also invited the noted Kathak exponent Gauri Diwakar, to assist her in choreographing sequences using Kathak. With her sister Madhuri Upadhya as assistant choreographer and dancer Masoom Parmar from Nritarutya as technical assistant to overlook several other details, Mayuri undertook this challenge with confidence.

The dancers were invited for audition from across the country - Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Ranchi, Kolkata, Noida and Pune - and finally 60 dancers were selected. Then started rigorous training in Kathak and not a single gesture was used to fall into mode of Bollywood dancing. The traditional classical Kathak was kept intact. "It was not enough to be a part of such a large production for more than fifty sold out shows; it was necessary to continue being with the company and last for daily shows," says Mayuri.

For Delhi shows, the group choreography with more than 30 dancers for a large stage, space and a special stage with steps rising in succession, which often could not be moved to keep the Mughal court grandeur, had to be negotiated with imaginative choreography to fill up the visual for a large proscenium view. The dancers with lehengas, flaring skirts, had to maintain distance climbing steps and taking chakkars. "One must give credit to Manish Malhotra for using the best of the fabrics including Zardozi, to give royal feel matching with the royals Emperor Akbar, Jodhabai and Prince Salim, and creating costumes for dancers that have to look spectacular. Even the ones in white and red are used in startling manner in the song 'Pyar kiya to darna kya,'" says Mayuri.



The contrast also was maintained symbolically when black colour costumes were used. The choreography had to maintain the spirit of Kathak by a courtesan who was in a rebellious spirit declaring her love for Prince Salim, knowing fully well that the punishment was not less than going to the gallows. There were no close-up effects like in a film and Priyanka Barve, playing the role of Anarkali had to sing and dance simultaneously, also maintaining the breath. These challenges Mayuri has met with success, as has Priyanka Barve, granddaughter of leading vocalists Padmakar and Malati Pande. She has studied Kathak and is blessed with a melodious voice and looks right for the role of Anarkali.

Similarly the alternative performance by Neha Sargam, another vocalist, daughter of Siyaram Tiwari, also demanded equal stamina and control over breathing, singing and dancing. The performance that I saw had Priyanka Barve in lead role of Anarkali. At the end during the curtain call it was announced that one might suspect that her singing was lip sync singing, so she sang the song "Pyar kiya to darna kya" to continuous clapping by the audience.

Dancers whirl around Anarkali forming circles, sitting on floor, in separate groups, quickly moving in seamless manner with different colour costumes, using footwork, the sound of the ghunghroos, suggesting rebellion. That was a marvelous use of Kathak technique which gelled with the meaning of the song, "Parada nahi jab koi khuda se, to bandon se parada karna kya?" (When one does not hide anything from God, why should one hide true feelings from mortals?) for abhinaya and climax. The entries and exits were flawless.

When Bahar, another courtesan, challenges Anarkali in a duet, "Ghadi bhar nazaren utha ke ham bhi dekhenge" (let us see how we lift our eyes for a moment) and the exciting repartee between two groups of female singers and dancers in a qawwali mode, the choreographer excels in maintaining the mood and audience's natural sympathy with Anarkali. Salim is shown with his back to audience and in a large durbar hall the dancers are shown in colourful costumes, performing in perfect sync with the music, which keeps audience under the spell of original music of Naushad Ali, but is sung live by Priyanka as Anarkali and Assima Mahajan as Bahar, along with magnificent visuals of backdrops of Mughal court.

The scenic effects were breathtaking. The intricate jaali work on walls, the hanging mirrors reflecting light like diamonds from ceiling creating opulence of the court, the effect of Sheesh Mahal (in the film it is shown with multiple exposure in ceiling) on stage creates similar illusion minus multiple reflections. The way arches and pillars were brought down for scene changes, was so smooth that none felt any absence of visual, as the next scene, a gazebo where Prince Salim and Anarkali were seen, Anarkali sleeping in lap of the Prince, the half moon rising in the sky, stars twinkling in all directions and the ambience of night.

Of the seven dance sequences, three are additional: one in the beginning of the play where dancers with long red caps whirl like dervishes singing "Maula Ali Maula" praying to god for fulfilling Emperor's wish for a son; one of a dream like sequence showing Salim and Anarkali marrying each other, with a Rajasthani song. One in the end shows Salim and Anarkali embracing each other and getting separated, song being rendered and dancers surrounding Salim and Anarkali separately in two circles and finally lifting Anarkali on one side and Salim on another side - the most heart wrenching sequence and song the choreographer has done wonders to touch the hearts of audiences.

The most popular "Mohe panghat pe Nandalal chhed gayo re" - Krishna teasing me on the river bank - the appropriate thumri used in Kathak finds a felicitous expression in its crowd of gopis and Radha in the centre. The stage is filled with several gopis, few at either corner carrying pots on their heads, and moving in circles. In the centre, Anarkali as Radha sings "Mori najuk kalai marod gayo re" - he twisted my delicate palm. I saw the hall echoing the song as many were simultaneously humming the song which they knew by heart. The entire song is soaked in Kathak mode and looks, yes, spectacular.

Mayuri said that Feroz Abbas Khan wanted to pay tribute to the makers of Mughal-e-Azam, and not to duplicate the film on stage. Originally it was a play which K.Asif had turned into a film. Feroz Abbas Khan wanted very much to have it performed in Delhi, the seat of the Mughals. But he has taken into account the need to tone down the thundering dialogues in Urdu as over the years, the young generation and others may not understand the dialogues as used in the film. However, I did not feel it so and despite the subtitles on walls, few seem to look at it.

The film Anarkali (1953) starring Pradeep Kumar as Salim and Bina Rai as Anarkali, has tragic end where to the song "Yeh zindagi usi ki hai, jo kisi ka ho gaya" (this life is life if one belongs in love to the other) Anarkali is given death sentence and she is entombed alive. In Mughal-e-Azam, Anarkali is sent away with her mother with a condition that Salim should never know that she was alive. Emperor Akbar had given his ring to the maid who had brought the good news of Salim's birth and said she could ask for any favor in future. Learning about Anarkali's death sentence, the mother approaches with ring and is permitted to take Anarkali with her.

As a musical Mughal-e-Azam has succeeded with classical Kathak dance choreography and also as a play captured the audiences in Delhi with equal success. Now Feroz Abbas Khan is planning to take it abroad to USA, Canada and UK, where large Indian Diaspora is a potential market. There are large auditoriums and all state of art facilities to stage it with added advantage.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.

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