The play that inspired Bollywood, revived Indian drama
Have you ever wondered how Indian films, especially the Bollywood variety, came to be song-and-dance spectacles, mostly featuring two people falling in love, getting separated by circumstances/families/rivals but after heart-tugging vicissitudes, living happily ever after? For this, you can commend (or castigate) a shy Urdu poet of the mid-19th century who not only resurrected drama as an Indian literary genre after centuries, but in his play, integrated five subcontinental cultural traditions and provided a sterling example of the "Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb/sanskriti".
But such are the vagaries of fortune that Syed Agha Hasan 'Amanat Lakhnavi' (1815-59) and his "Indar Sabha" - the first written Indian play after Visakhadatta's "Mudra Rakhasa" (9th century) - remains little-known outside Urdu scholars though the work may evoke some glimmers of recognition from Bollywood historians.
And for good reason - "Indrasabha" (1932), the play's maiden cinematic foray - was among the first sound movies of the fledgling Hindustani film industry and holds a world record for number of songs - 71. But then Amanat's play (published 1853; first performed in Lucknow 1854) itself had 46 - eight geets in a variety of folk genres including "basant" and "sawan", eight thumris and 30 ghazals. Many of these accompanied dances and there is a duet too.
"Indar Sabha" draws from both the rich tapestry of Persian dastans/masnavis and folklore as well as Hindu mythology. But it goes much further - amalgamating the strands of Urdu literary tradition, North Indian nautanki (folk theatre), Hindu devotional theatre/dance (Ram Lila, Ras Lila), classical Sanskrit drama and Wajid Ali Shah's court pageants, contends Afroz Taj, professor of South Asian Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In fact, Prof Taj has translated and extensively analysed the work in "The Court of Indar and the Rebirth of North Indian Drama" (Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind), 2007).
The story is that Indar (Hindu celestial king Indra) organises a concert for his court. His court dancers, the Pukhraj (Yellow/Topaz), Nilam (Blue/Sapphire), and Lal (Red/Ruby) Paris (fairies) dance and sing for him in a variety of styles. Amanat showcases his craft here with their songs corresponding to their colour motif - the Pukhraj Pari presents basant songs, Nilam mentions blue flowers and jewels, and Lal Pari incorporates the red of the twilight, gems and blood in her lyrics.
When it is the Sabz (Green) Pari's turn, Indar falls asleep. She storms out and meets an old friend, the Kala Dev (dev here not the gods of the Indian mythology, but demons of Persian folklore) and confides she saw a sleeping human prince on her way and fell in love with him. She orders him to bring him before her and he complies.
Awoken to see a beautiful woman confessing she is in love with him, Prince Gulfam of Akhtarnagar (an obvious reference to Lucknow of Wajid Ali Shah "Akhtar") is confused and then angry at being abducted. Learning he is at Indar's fabled court, he is now most keen to see its legendary dancers. The Sabz Pari warns him of the peril but he is adamant and threatens to commit suicide. She gives in and smuggles him in before resuming her performance. Unfortunately, Gulfam is discovered and a furious Indar orders he be imprisoned in a deep well in the Koh-i-Kaf (Caucasus).
The Sabz Pari, herself humiliated and cast out of the court, wanders through fairyland in the guise of a "jogan (female hermit)" in search of the prince. Reports of a new singing talent reaches Indar, who summons her for a performance. He is moved so much that he offers to give her her heart's desire - and it is hard not to guess what she wants - and gets.
Encapsulating the refined aestheticism of Wajid Ali Shah's reign, the play, surviving British annexation of Nawabi Awadh and the horrors of 1857-59, got a new lease of life as it was taken up and performed by theatre companies, mostly Parsi troupes, all over British India. It was first performed in Bombay in 1864, hit Lahore and Calcutta in 1875, and overseas - Singapore (1913) and Rangoon (1927). And it was these Parsi troupes that eventually formed the nucleus of the Hindustani film industry.
Amanat's play is significant in other respects too. Not only is it a linguistic kaleidoscope with ghazals in polished Urdu and folk songs in Awadhi/Braj, but it also reflects the composite multicultural ethos - by conscious mixing of Hindu and Muslim cultural traditions or featuring Persian/Urdu words in a Braj lyric and vice versa.
Take examples like: "Umand ghumand ke kari badariya/Mohe 'nahak' nah satave..." or "Ayan sindoor ka tika nahi mehrab-e-abru mein/Chiragh us shamaa ru ne ain Kaabe mein jalaya hai", or "Faqiron ko daulat ki parva nahi/Yahan Har(i) ke afzal se kya nahi" and more.
At a time when language is being employed to foster sectarianism, Amanat's work shows us how it can combine diversities too!