Theatre Review: Umrao – The Noble Courtesan

A long celebrated classic rekindled on stage

Posted: 30.07.15

The bygone eras of the Tawa’if, a class of courtesans who entertained and enlightened during the age of the Mughals, has been a topic of fascination and allurement for decades. Associations of poetry, classical music and dance are eminent when reminiscing about the enchanting beauties that were the dancing girls of Lucknow, where they originated. Perhaps the longest lasting legacy of the Tawa’if is that of Umrao Jaan, the most renowned courtesan of the mid-nineteenth century, whose story has been brought to life through an array of literature, art, theatre and cinema over the years. In their passion to retell her story, The Asian Music Circuit (AMC) have brought to the stage Umrao – The Noble Courtesan, a theatre production based on the Urdu novel by Mohammed Mirza Hadi Ruswa published in 1899.

Since this classic has been retold countless time, any adaptation of the story has a lot to live up to, especially visually, with Bollywood already setting high standards having created timeless cinema. But this play was not all about lavish sets, extravagant costumes and opulence. Umrao – The Noble Courtesan is an organic portrayal, stripped back, baring the pure essence of the story of Umrao. The focus and life of the play was the classical live music by the talented Viram Jasani, which really carried the production throughout, accompanied by the outstanding vocals, harmonies and classical dance performances by Manorma Joisi playing young Amiran and Natalia Hildner starring as Umrao.

The AMC’s passion to go beyond the typical and negative associations of the Tawa’if is evident, by portraying the downfall of the courtesans following the British Raj, who played a huge part in their falling from grace, hence the emphasis on the ‘noble’ courtesan. A cultured class of women epitomising the most sophisticated etiquette, music, arts, poetry and dance, they were reduced to mere prostitutes, which is what we are now familiar with, however this play and story shows the ‘noble’ side which many are unaware of.

Natalia Hildner undoubtedly stole the show with her impeccable classical dance performances, along with her enchanting poise and grace. The role of Khanum played by Natasha Ali was also a very believable performance, perfecting the arrogance and attitude of lady of the house.

Despite the minimal set design and props, there was still a resonance of these times, and the audience was enraptured by a regal and cultured atmosphere created using Mughal-esque props, live music and dance, transported to an illustrious fantasy of a culture and class that no longer exists.

Umrao – The Noble Courtesan will be featured at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 6th August till 31st August 2015 at George Square Studio One, George Square and Windmill Lane, Edinburgh EH8 9JS

Fariha Sabir

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