Six stories of love, lust and longing. Of betrothal and betrayal. Of life, of art – and of death by intoxication or poisoning. Six stories of riches and royalty, or of cheaters and poverty. The story of the birth of kittens, celebrated with a party costing Rs. 20,000, and the birth of a girl, hushed up, passed off as a sister instead of a daughter. The story of the eighty-two year old performer on a wheelchair, clad in a red Banarasi saree, receiving a last ovation from the audience in a packed auditorium.
This then was the Legend of Courtesans, conceived by Ekta Singh, presented by Ekta’s Gatherings, masterfully narrated by Narendra Shekhawat – a storyteller, writer and actor. Each tribute had a performance by Archana Kumar who is an independent performer whose expertise range from Baratanatyam to Butoh. She currently teaches Kathak and Flamenco actively.
Naren and Archana have collaborated for the first time with this unique format. The story of each legendary woman performer was first summarized in Hindi by Naren, spiced with anecdotes and laced with quips and quotes. This was followed by a recording of the performer’s own voice, one of each performer’s most famous songs, accompanied by Archana’s dance moves. About the dance, Archana said, “It’s an amalgamation of motifs from primarily Kathak, Rajasthani folk dance Ghoomar and Kalbeliya; some Rabindra Sangeet style Bengali folk and pure Baratanatyam.”
The lights were dim, there were diyas all over the hall, and the audience was offered ‘paan’, perfume, mehendi for the women and a complete ‘mehfil’ atmosphere.
So we had courtesans, court musicians, theatre artistes and devadasis from 19th and 20th Century India – starting with ‘Malika-e-ghazal’, Begum Akhtar. The survivor of a poison attack that killed her sister, a teenage mother (the result of rape) – she sang so sweetly that even Sarojini Naidu was enraptured. What was the secret pull her voice had over her audience? What was the imperfection that kept people attending her concerts multiple times? What happened when she received offers from the film industry? Whom did she fall in love with, and propose to, and why did she then go into depression? Naren has researched deeply to give us answers to these questions.
The second artiste covered was someone who had, in fact, deeply influenced Begum Akhtar. This formidable lady broke all the norms of the era, personal and professional, to become the first Indian ever to have her voice recorded on a gramophone record. “My name is Gauhar Jaan” she said, at the conclusion of each recording, to indicate to the German technicians what the label on the record was to say. She made her debut at the age of eleven, became extremely famous, leading an extravagant life – giving lavish parties on occasions like the birth of kittens. Which norms did she break, professionally? Why did she get upset with Gandhiji, and how did she show him that she was angry? How many clothes did she have? How many languages did she sing in? The audience was enthralled to hear this, and much more, about the celebrated singer.
The oldest artiste spoken of was Binodini Dasi, called ‘Nati Binodini’ because of her connection with theatre. Her childhood, tough and traumatic like the childhoods of each of the women spoken of, strengthened her resolve to join the theatre. She became the first Indian female artiste to actually go on stage – she played female roles, and a few years later, male roles as well. She learnt to read and write in her twenties, so that she could write her autobiography. Great personalities like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa were impressed by her portrayal of spiritual characters. Why was her career so short? How did she hit back at society, for all the disappointments she suffered? Again, a captivating saga, succinctly put forth by Naren.
From Bengal to Rajasthan – with court musicians, especially Allah Jilai Bai. The story behind the name (‘God keep her alive’), her childhood, including the patronage of the then royal family, through to her most famous song and why it was ironic – all narrated by Naren with his personal touch of humour. A few asides, with legends of the time, and Archana launched into her next dance. Find out why Lata Mangeshkar telephoned Allah Jilai Bai, and the significance of the window drawn on Allah Jilai Bai’s tomb.
Of course, there had to be an artiste from the south – with the devadasi Tanjore Balasaraswati, from Tamil Nadu. She performed her Bharat Natyam dance to Jana Gana Mana, with Rabindranath Tagore and Uday Shankar in the audience – and won accolades from both these legends. She became famous in USA – and then gained recognition in India. See her in an image on the internet – smoking a cigarette with M. S. Subbulakshmi, and watch the documentary made about her by Satyajit Ray.
During Archana’s interpretation of the song, which depicted a call to Lord Krishna, the audience was asked to decipher whether it was Mother Yashoda or Lover Radha, or a devotee, calling out to Krishna. Naren gave the English translation of the song before the performance to facilitate the audience’s understanding, and various people called out their guesses once Archana had finished dancing.
The final artiste of the evening was Zarina Begum, who bought herself a harmonium as a child, and started by practicing without her parents’ knowledge. From there, she went on to become a disciple of Begum Akhtar and a popular singer, went into oblivion for a while, and gave a final performance on a wheelchair at the age of eighty-two.
A lot of research went into the narration, and, after the performance, we caught up with Archana about her costumes. “In an attempt to visually portray a unique image for each courtesan, I decided to wear six separate costumes, hoping to complement the movements within the dance,” she explained.
“The complete change in costume and jewelry was for T Balasaraswati - because in South India, the jewelry used is pearls and garnets and the costume is Sari adorned in a traditional way.“For those that had the Islamic influence, it was critical to wear the Chapka or “Jhoomar” (different from the Ghoomar dance !) on the right side of the head - it is a head piece , typically using kundan jewelry and cover the head with the dupatta.“The use of a large Red Bindi was incorporated while representing Nati Binodini to retain the authentic Bengali flavor and look .“The choice of colors were not particularly thought of. It sort of automatically ended up with using a wide range of bright colors.”
So there were stories, there was recorded music and live dancing, insights into art and into human nature, humourous touches, and lively interaction between the dancer and narrator, and the narrator and the audience. There were enthralling anecdotes, like that of the dacoit who donated his loot to Zarina Begum when her song moved him to tears, and thought-provoking links between tragedy and beauty.
A whiff of the past, a glimpse of the future – an evening well spent at Lahe Lahe.
Sonali Bhatia is a Bengaluru based writer and storyteller.