x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Play celebrates Indian poet's legacy

Indian nawab was a patron of the arts but lost his land to British

DUBAI // The sound of ankle bells resonates as Indian dancers keep pace with the rhythm of singers rehearsing for a musical about a 19th-century kingdom under colonial rule.

The performers are practising for the dance-drama Jashn-e-Awadh (Celebration of the Kingdom of Awadh) set to open this month. It portrays the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah as a poet-nobleman tricked by the British into relinquishing control of his fertile realm in northern India.

"The nawab knew that if he fought, the kingdom he loved would be destroyed and his people would die," said Jogiraj Sikidar, a Dubai-based television media consultant who conceived and wrote the score for the two-hour production. "But history portrayed him as a man who enjoyed the good life and gave up his kingdom without a fight. Few talk of his contribution to the performing arts."

During a recent rehearsal conducted by Mr Sikidar, dancers in white robes with crimson and gold traditional Indian scarves kept time to the beat of a tabla, a small Indian drum, as the tempo gradually rose to a crescendo.

Mr Sikidar also leads a group of 35 singers from Malhaar, the UAE's first Indian choir. He composed the lyrics six months ago to link the dance and theatrical elements of the production.

The musical centres on the land of Awadh being transformed into a cultural hub. The nawab set up a school to train artistes and revived kathak, the classic Indian dance form. Eight fast-paced dances will recreate the turmoil of the era while highlighting the music and poetry that flourished under the nawab's nine-year rule.

The dance routines are spliced with scenes of the British invoking a technicality in a treaty to annex his kingdom in 1856 on grounds of poor governance.

Contemporary India blends with the historical backdrop as the musical kicks off with a guitar-strumming student visiting Awadh. The student's preconceived notions about Awadh's ancient ruler are dispelled by an earnest tourist guide who takes him on a musical journey back in time.

"It's fascinating to have this artistically inclined king who didn't give a toss about war," said the director Sanjeev Dixit, who also plays the tourist. "We tend to look at warriors by what they conquered, but this king gave up his kingdom to prevent bloodshed. It's so easy to be dismissive of the arts in times of political turmoil."

The performers have day jobs ranging from logistics, architecture and engineering to insurance and advertising, and live from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah.

The heavy local presence has made it difficult to secure sponsorship. Companies prefer star-studded Bollywood acts over home-grown talent, said Kruti Shah, a classical singer and marketing manager for the Indian broadcaster Star TV who grew up and studied in Dubai.

"When you say local talent, people think it's mediocre," she said. "They don't want local, they want Bollywood. Getting sponsors to support a non-Bollywood original production is a challenge."

Jashn-e-Awadh will show on February 25 and 26 at 6:30pm at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac), Mall of the Emirates. Tickets can be purchased starting today at the Ductac box office and from timeouttickets.com.

rtalwar@thenational.ae

To see a video of the troupe in rehearsal, go to www.thenational.ae/multimedia