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BHASKAR DASGUPTA

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 7/15/2015 |




 ‘And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.’                
John Donne

UMRAO MARY JAAN

This is the tragic story of a talented, beautiful, courtesan from the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Lucknow. The story is told through the eyes of a Victorian woman ,Mary Jane (Mary jaan) ,whose life runs in parallel and is inexorably inter-linked with Umrao  Jaan’s life and shared tragedy. The story unites the different strands of human, social and political events - the rise of British imperialism and Raj, turbulent late nineteenth century India, devastation of war, the exploitation of women both in Mughal India and Victorian England, and the heroic story of two exceptional women who rise above this maelstrom to form a unique bond as a beacon of humanity.


CAST OF CHARACTERS
Mary : story teller friend and ex- rival of Umrao Jaan
Emily: Grand daughter of Mary
Umrao jaan: courtesan of Lucknown
Mirza Ruswa: Umrao ‘s biographer
Ameeran: original name of Umrao
Ameeran’s brother
Ameeran’s Father
Dilawar: Man who kidnaps Umrao’s
Dilawar’s crony
James: Mary ‘s husband First officer to the Resident
Anthony: friend of James
Young Mary: young girl that James marries
Mary’s friend
Wajid Ali Shah: King and Nawab of Lucknow
Bindadin :dancer in Wajid ‘s court founder of Kathak
Ustadji famous vocalist in Wajid Ali Shah
Bai: Umrao’s maid

Scene 1
An English sitting room
In the Victorian Living Room an old lady (Mary) sits in an arm chair helping her grand-daughter Emily with her hair- Emily is   sitting at her feet reading a book of poetry.( Music : Elgar, followed by Chopin and then violins)
Emily: (reading Campbell)
‘ The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.  
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.  
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,  
And the highwayman came riding—
         Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door’
Mary: Still thinking of Michael, you’re favourite Highwayman my love? He really stole your heart and disappeared didn’t he?
Emily: I will see him again wont I Grandma?
Mary:  Of course you will darling (paraphrasing the poem, running her hand over Emily’s hair, loving)
‘Grandma’s joy and laughter
 Emily, my GRAND, grand-daughter
Let me plait a love-knot in your long black hair’.
Smoke, occludes the sky, the sound of machine guns, then the acrid smoke gets thicker and from the back ground screams of people dying and the cry ‘Mustard, mustard’!! Music changes to Holtz The Planets (Mars the God of War),
A loud knock at the door, insistent, incessant, louder –reaches a crescendo –‘ A telegram for Mrs Burton, telegram for Mrs Burton’!!
Dear Mrs Burton – with great sadness we report that on 26th March 1916 Captain Burton of Grenadier Guards was killed at the battle of the Somme. He was a valiant soldier and died in the line of duty protecting the King and country. We would like to offer our deepest sympathy and condolences to his wife, children and family at this time.
Emily buries her head in Mary’s lap – wracked with soundless sobs
Mary: (stage whisper) Hush my child, hold me tight, you have to be brave, for you, for me…
Emily: Grandma, what am I to do now?
Mary: Go on living my baby, we have to go on living when our world seems to have died…
Emily: lifts her head from Grandma’s lap, face upturned) but, but how?
Mary: I will help you my child - the way Umrao Jaan helped me many years go….( begins to open the Bureau to bring out a jewel Box)
Emily: (confused, not understanding the relevance) what’s this – and who is Umrao Jaan?
Mary: This is a gift from a friend, from Umrao Jaan, the Courtesan of Lucknow, and a woman who knew all about living with loss. Let me tell you her story …( her gaze and mind shifts thousands of miles away to another continent..
The jewel box is a lacquered damasked antique with a glass mirror set in its lid and as she opens it resonates with the sound of Ghunghru, sarangi , tabla and the voice of Umrao singing Daag  the old lady replies-
So the story starts…. the glass mirror glints with the stage light, dazzles and bares her soul and telescopes fifty years ago to mid nineteenth century Lucknow.
Music ……
Scene 2
Umrao Jaan’s house
 Umrao Jaan sitting on her bed seen through a screen of beads. Backstage a large window with the troubled evening sky and the moon shining through –‘a ghostly galleon tossed on cloudy seas;. Light should simulate that of a solitary candle with Umrao’s face seen in the penumbra
Umrao looking out at the window, writing a letter, humming …a ghazal about the moon  - ‘Chandki saath kai dardein puraaney nikli
Background distant sounds of a dancer practising Kathak with tabla, ghunghru and bols as if coming from an adjoining room
Knock on the door – gentle, hesitant – ‘Adaab! I am Mirza Ruswa, I have come to meet Umrao Jaan Ada, the famous poet, musician and dancer of Lucknow. Can I come in?’
Umrao (replies in a soft, measured, sad voice) if you are also ready to meet Umrao the popular courtesan and Tawaif (a pause)  –please do. I know you by name Mirza Ruswa – your visit is an honour.
Mirza: It is a greater honour for me to meet Umrao Jaan Ada in person
Umrao: What’s so special?  Kaon Umrao,  kiski Jaan, Kaisi Ada? I was born Ameeran  from Faizabad , now I respond to any  name that people  care to call me by.
Mirza: Not just your name – you ARE TRULY beautiful just as they say…
Umrao: (pointing outside the window) more beautiful Mirza Saab than the moon out there, like a dream ship sailing in the skies? But do you know what cargo it carries, what bodies’ lie rotting inside its hull?
Mirza: (mesmerised) there is so much pain – in the words you speak, the music you sing – but no trace of bitterness
Umrao: Mirza saab, beautiful words and melodies are born from pain, people write poetry to replace love (fighting self-control, choked)
Mirza: I am sorry to have caused you so much distress Umrao Begum, tell me more about Ameeran
Umrao: (after a pause) I don’t remember clearly, it happened so many years ago, almost to another person.(A long pause- background noises emerge of a fair – sound of fireworks, rides, excited children screaming) It was the day of Ram Lila and there was a Nautanki in town. Ruswa Mirza, Do you like eating bataashas?
Scene 3
Dilawar’s kidnapping of Ameeran
Announcer runs in beating his drum:
Come one come all, to the final night at the village hall
The last day of the Nautanki, Nawab Saab’s Radha kanhaiya Kissa Ki’
Full of action Garmaa garam, we end with Sita Haran
Men fighting, women crying, children giving them talian!
If you don’t come, you lose out – tera kya hoga kaaliya!!
(Runs out, drums and voice can be heard in the distance)
Enter Ameeran and her brother with her father
Brother: Abbu can we get a good central seat so that we can see the players and dances
Abbu:  Don’t worry my son I will hold you on my shoulders, so that you can see
Ameeran:  (excited, breathless) will they come every year? You know what they have brought with them? There is an enormous light that burns with a whooshing noise, they call it a gas light, once you light it stays on forever, they  have a magic tent with jugglers, contortionists and a ugly crooked dwarf and the bird, it’s called a myena sings your name back, Abbu can I have one?
Abbu: You certainly can have a Bataasha my darling, I will go and get some
Ameeran:  I want to join the Nautanki, dance like Helen with Sultana Daaku, I want to go away, see the world, wear rich clothes lined with zari, munch Zaarda paan, it’s so boring in Faisabad we don’t get to do anything…..
Brother:  Yes please, Abbu, can we go travelling?
Abbu (to Ameeran): And what will we do when you go away? We may be poor people my daughter but with pride and izzat; as Daroga Saab, there are so many evil men I have put away without taking a paisa of rishwaat; we have tried to bring you up well; one day when you get married you will go away, Stay here while I get you some bataasha (goes off, the crowd fills up quickly, including Dilawar and his crony)
Dilawar: (sibiliant to his crony) There is that damned Daroga’s daughter – let’s give him a present he will remember forever – (miming) ‘ I swear on the the sacred book that I saw these two steal from the villagers of Faizabad’ –ye daroga ka baccha  bahut izzatdar aur imandaar hai –this man has remarkable integrity and honesty - how about stealing his daughter to return the favour? (Bursts into raucous laughter as the Nautanki players come on stage).
Dancers come on stage, set up their costumes, instruments and the dance of Sita haran starts.  The audience increases with lots of appreciation and ‘Wah wah’s. As the dance increases in tempo with the 10 headed Ravana circling Sita; Dilawar edges closer to Ameeran and at the very point that Ravana emerges from his disguise as a deer, Dilawar throws off his shawl , to wrap Ameeran in his embrace, gags her and drags her off the stage . Ravana meanwhile has abducted Sita who is crying – the music reaches a crescendo mixed with cries from Ameeran –Abbu where are you? Help!’ to which Dilawar grotesquely replies ‘ main hun na tera Kanhaiya – meri pyari Radha’ at which point Ameeran faints and goes limp. A silhouette of the 10 headed burning Ravana dominates the stage
The next scene shows Dilawar and his crony criss- crossing the stage on the way to Lucknow dragging Ameeran in a bundle like a sack, the scenery and backdrop changes from rural countryside to urban Lucknow with the background music changing to a Raagmala. Faint echoes of Ameeran’s cries become fainter and ultimately fall silent. Sounds of Ghazal ‘Ah ko chahiye ek umra asar honey tak, kaun jeeta tera zulf sahar honey tak’
Scene 4
Back to the Victorian living room
Mary; On and on they went, dragging the poor girl to Lucknow. And her father, he was beside himself with grief, he blamed himself for leaving a young girl alone in a large crowd, searching high and low for his missing daughter ……
Emily:   But Grandma how do you know all this, how do you know the life story of a common Indian courtesan?
Mary:  She was a courtesan but she certainly wasn’t common! She became very close with me – an intimacy which your Grand-father would have given his body and soul to share –especially his body, bless my dear departed husband….(silent tears trickle down the winkled face) –(tries to cover) – where are my glasses?
Emily fixes Mary with a shocked knowing stare forgetting her own grief, the tick-tock of the grandfather clock is heard as the two women sit in silence
Emily: (gasps finally) A British captain   and an Indian nautch Girl!! You have lived with this secret for so many years ….
Mary: It was the high noon of the Raj and the East India Company.  Company Bahadur , as the Indians called it, was trying to gobble up the Mughal Empire. The Kingdom of  Awadh  with its mad musical monarch Wajid Ali Shah ruling from Lucknow was the next piece of cake. Your Grandfather was the First officer of the British Resident.
(Murmuring) Darling, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the height of Victorian piety and it was also the time of evil. It happened and It never really happened, well, it could have but for Umrao. She said to your grandfather ‘Saheb, I am only an Indian peasant girl from Faisabad. I am not even a whole woman – just some stolen goods sold many years ago to Khanum, the celebrated Kothawali Madame of Lucknow.
 (Turning to Emily with indignation) Do you know those villains sold her for hundred rupees ? But for the kindness of a woman and her husband ,Bua Husseini and the Maulvi – Umrao would have lived as a common prostitute.  As it happened her foster parents built her a heart of gold , taught her rhythm and grace; she became a stunning beauty , the finest poet and dancer in all Lucknow – even bewitched the Nawab’s son and fine British gentleman…. (  Starts crying again)
Emily:  How did she meet Grand-father then?
Mary: Don’t you want to know first how I met your grandfather? Believe it or not he fought for me!

Scene 5
A Victorian Party where Mary loses her innocence
This scene transforms to a Victorian Ball. Mary-Jane, the young debutante, early in her teens, attends this London social event in the company of her family. Held at the palace of an aristocrat, the Ball fills with   ambitious men and amorous women, colonial triumphal Victorian music (Holtz,Handel), cigar smoke, cruel hysterical laughter and intoxicating gossip from the Raj. In the crowd Mary Jane is separated from her family and meets two young officers full of alcohol-fuelled bravado and sabre-rattling wit.  The encounter deteriorates into a melee as the more timid officer intervenes to save Mary from the lecherous advances of his burlier friend.  Mary marries him to return the favour.
Two drunk men stagger in supporting each other
James: I've taken my fun where I've found it;
 I've rogued an' I've ranged in my time;
I've 'ad my pickin' o' sweet'earts,
 An' four o' the lot was prime.
Tony: (mock tears) One was an 'arf-caste widow,
 One was a woman at Prome,
One was the wife of a jemadar-sais,
 An' one is a girl at 'ome.
James: I really need a good English girl - as a link to home , old sport. Just heard that I am going to be posted in Lucknow as First officer to the resident in India in couple of months’ time. The Company is trying to annexe the Kingdom of Oudh – Oudh, Bengal and Hyderabad -once we control them we take over the whole country. But we don’t tell the heathens that – we tell the Nabob we are his friend and counsellor. (Bowing, smirking) We wish his subjects the very best – especially the attractive female ones (winks) We are there to look after the darkies …
Tony: where would we be without your high moral principles and international statesmanship!  Off to India are you now? Phew- that too as the First officer of the Resident! Obviously your old man knows someone, they tell me that Oudh is ruled by a king who loves his wine, women and song - and lots of them. Will your Victorian virility allow you any time on the job or will it be entirely a pleasure seeker’s paradise?
James: Well, all work and no play will definitely make James a dull boy old sport! A stallion can’t fall asleep without its night mares!! Ha, ha, poor joke really!!
Mary and her friend wander onto the stage obviously a bit lost.
Tony: (with a lecherous stare) Now, now who do we have here, can we help you in any way m’ladies?
Young Mary:  We are lost, you see we thought we would take a walk outside on the grounds   but we can’t now find our way back to the Hall.(A bit frightened and weepy) my parents will be looking, can you help take us back please?
Tony:  At your service, m’ladies , we always endeavour to give satisfaction - I can take you anywhere you like – and (sotto voce) any way you like!(tries to embrace Mary)
Mary: Stop it you, you are not a proper gentleman, how dare you? (Shouting) help, help!!
James :  embarrassed by his friends antics, struggles with Tony) leave the poor girls alone!!
Tony: High moral principles speaking again are they? From where I wonder - threesome or foursome – that’s the question!
James: You bastard, how dare you? (A fight ensues they come to blows and after the fight Tony lies on the ground, Offers his coat to Mary who is shaking, cold) Let me walk you and your friend back to the house , I do apologise for this man, he is really not my friend ( Mary collapses in his arms)
Scene 6
Lights move to the Victorian living room with Mary and Emily
Mary:  So you understand my darling, your grandfather was really not a bad man, just a man of his generation. We got married two months later just before he left for Lucknow, I moved to India after eight months  – a month before the Barakhana (stares into the distance)
Emily:  What’s a Barakhana and why are you looking like that?
Mary: A Barakhana , literally a large meal, is an obnoxiously excessive party that the Company threw whenever they wanted to bribe their way with the natives –(a pause) it was also the first time that I met Umrao Jaan.
But let me tell you first about the King and the courtesan!
Scene 7
Wajid Ali Shah’s palace: Inner room
 Wajid  strumming his Tanpura, Bindadin with his pakhawaj, sarangi player and Ustaad Basit Khan - Wajid  in deep thought
Knock on the door
Bai (enters): Jahapana,  Khanum has sent you one of her best girls from her Kotha. They say she is a very good dancer and musician as well. But she is new and young– her name is Ameeran  –she is very interested in music and dance and wanted to see you - Khanum says please treat her kindly
Wajid: (irritated waving away the messenger lady) How dare you -I am the gentlest soul in the world. Ask the urchin to come and sit quietly in the corner –so long as she does not disturb.(Umrao Jaan enters timidly, and courtseys formally, Wajid Ali shah does not look up)  There is no need for that - just come in girl, show your respects to Ustadji and Maharajji (waving to her) sit quietly in the corner, Bai will get you some sharbat. And don’t talk– this is a room for dance, music and poetry only.
Turning to his musicians , sad) these Firangis won’t leave us alone Ustadji – all they want is land, power, armies and war – all we want is peace, mausiki, shairi and shatranj –  what I really want to be is Akhtar Piya the poet – we need some joy-  what was that composition of mine that you set in wonderful Raag  Bahaar?
Ustadji : (bowing) Indeed Nawab saab or  shall I say Akhtar Piya?  may you be forever blessed for writing this wonderful call to the ‘Phoolwala’ –the flower seller- to bring spring (basant) into our hearts and `end our hearts’ loneliness. I hope this bandeesh - your words and my tune -can be remembered always – whenever people need a joyous song and dance to raise their spirits.
Phulawaale Kaunda mein
Ka basanta Gharawa mola le
 Akhtar Piya son wo jahaa kahiyo
Tanak sa biraha thor de
Sings the bandeesh and then fast taans and sargams…
Bindadin Maharaj  breaks into a fast tempo tukra on the pakhawaj (unobserved by the three men Umrao jaan has got up and is keeping the difficult teentaal beat with her feet and hands showing the Sum and khali)…
The pakhawaj comes to the Sum with a tehai and just as Bindadinji is resuming his theka Umrao Jaan begins a bol in the same tempo echoing the structure of the previous tukra, Bindadinji initially nonplussed quickly takes up the accompaniment and extemporises as Umrao follows the rhythm with her fees (saat sangat). Ustadji and Nawab saab are mesmerised, Ustadji keeps the nagma on the harmonium and Wajid Ali shah keeps the taal with a flourish as the musicians conclude with a crescendo.
Bindadin: (very impressed by Umrao) Nawabsaab we do have a very special talent here! Unbelievable!!
Ustadji:  (nodding in agreement) Wah, wah, kya baat!!
Wajid:(quite impressed but feigning outer indifference) just beginners luck I should say and Maharajji you made it simple so that she could keep pace with you
Bindadin: Not at all sire, she dances like an Apsara, a princess!
Umrao: You gentlemen are so kind – you treat a common tawaif like a princess!!
Wajid: and I treat all my princesses like common tawaifs!!
 (Guffaws amused by his own joke and following Bindadin) Maharaji what about a little wager here? you have always wanted a good disciple –( inspecting Umrao as if she were an inanimate object) with a bit of cleaning up you could pass this wretched wench of as a stunning beauty – (smiling) do you think with six months training you may be able to present her at a Mujra as a dancing queen or even at those devilish Barakhanas the Firangi Resident throws –as The Jewelled Courtesan of Lucknow – why don’t we call her Umrao Jaan Ada?
I will give you two pieces of silver if you can and it will be good amusement even if you can't   Are you up for it?
Bindadin:(excited)  I have never refused   your wishes my Lord – I am prepared to try. (turning to Umrao ) It will be hard work my dear – do you agree with this proposal?
Umrao : (visibly moved very nervous by this unexpected development ) I,I just don't know what to say.I don’t know whether I will be able to fulfil your high expectations.  I will also have to ask Khanum’s permission.
Wajid: (bellowing) you will be the most ungrateful creature that Khuda  ever created if you refuse this offer. Go and repeat this offer to Khanum or to whoever else that owns you. Tell them that the great Bindadin Maharaj has done you the unequalled honour of becoming your Guruji. If you say yes and are willing to practise all day and night without food or sleep for six months – you will be taken to my Pari Khana where you will be trained as the Enchantress of Lucknow and the streets will be full of bodies of young men fighting for your hand. However, If you fail, you will be tied to a heavy stone and dumped into the Gomti so that your rotting body does not pollute the river next day. Do I make myself clear – what’s your decision?
Brindadin: (moved as he sees Umrao confused and in tears) Nawabsaab, you cannot ask like that -she is very young and will need some time to think about it. Come my child with me, I will take you to my home and dancing school where you can meet my family, other pupils and many musicians.
(exits with Umrao)
Wajid (sudden change of expression, looking visibly tired,  walks up to Basit Khan and puts a gentle hand on his shoulders): Ustadji, I don’t know how long we will be able to preserve our magical land, our culture our Izzat , our labz. I know that all around us homes are burning and the day when we have to leave our lovely city is fast approaching. Of late I have been afflicted by a heavy heart Ustadji- I wrote an odd poem last night – I wonder whether you can set it as a Bhairavi  thumri?
Ustaadji: As your highness pleases - let us hear the verses and I will think of a tune.
Wajid:  in these verses I have tried to feel the sorrow of the departing bride as she leaves her parents and family to lead her new life in another land. I fear one day , like the newly wed, we will feel the same estrangement , when we leave our beloved city.
Sings:
Babul mora naihara chooto hi jai
Chaar kahaar mil, mori doliyaa uthaaye
Mora apanaa begana chhuTo hi jaaye
Anganaa to parbat bhaye, dehlii bhayi bides
Le babul ghar aappano, mai chali piya ke des

END OF FIRST HALF





A presentation backdrop (with shadow play)  and a Rag Mala (music and appropriate paintings) marks the passage of years, quickening from a serene Dhrupad to sensuous kheyal to celebrate the   development of Umrao Jaan into a stylish courtesan, accomplished poet and  kathak dancer of outstanding beauty.
 This is paralleled by roll of battle drums and shadow play as the British tighten their reigns over Awadh (Oudh). The procession of Nawabs of Oudh ends with Wazir Ali Shah – who writes music and poetry under the pseudonym of Akhtar Piya and Qaisar – a man of letters but completely effete and a stooge of his British master the Resident of Lucknow.
Mary’s husband has moved to Lucknow as the powerful First officer to the British Resident and  a friend of the Nawab Sultan. Their marriage , marked by recurrent infidelities- Mary moves to a palatial colonial house full of servants but bereft of any happiness.

Scene 8
The Residents House on the banks of the Gomti – a pleasant Lucknow evening
James now the First Officer with the Resident, General Outram and Sargent Major
Outram : So tell me Captain , you have met the King, what sort of man is he?
James: very impressive sir, young, writes plays, poetry, composes music, and comes across as a sensible and sensitive man.
Outram:( suspicious ) I see , a monarch AND a philosopher hmmmm – (aside) such men are dangerous.  (turning to James) What sort of poet is he, any good or do people read whatever he writes just because he is King?
James: I think he is very good sir. I once attended an evening at his Qaisarbagh Rahas Manzil and saw his play Radha Kanhaiya ka kissa – a great love story popular among the Hindoos. The King is a practising Muslim and yet he played the main role of Krishna Kanhaiya. He dances well , takes instructions from his court dancer Bindadin Maharaj – the   best dancer in Hindoostan.
Outram: (sarcasm ): His Highness  The Dancing Romeo Rex – Splendid combination ! Do you know any of his work, shall we hear some lines and make our own judgement?
James : of course sir. I studied Urdu (Outram looks suspicious) to understand the Kings works. But it is not just the king, there are so many poets in his court Ghalib, Daag……
Outram (sarcastic):  going native are we now? Not going to run away with a Lucknow nautch girl and planning to dump the fair maiden back home are you?
Seargent Major: (bringing in the drinks) We are spoilt for choices here in Lucknow if he is missing his girl back in London. Here you are sir, some pink gin (turning to Outram) far too serious this man, do I have your permission sir to show him some of the action and distract him from this subversive Nabob and his decadent culture?
Outram:  I have high plans for this young officer – we don’t want the nabob and his dancing fairies to turn his career into a fairy tale!  Sargent Major, divert him from his brooding thoughts. Let him sample the pleasures of Lucknow. Bring him back only after he has had his fill.
Sargent Major: we will look after him and make him forget his worries – he may have a few new worries not worth writing home about!!
  (Singing bawdily)   Now I aren't no 'and with the ladies,
      For, takin' 'em all along,
     You never can say till you've tried 'em,
      An' then you are like to be wrong.
     There's times when you'll think that you mightn't,
      There's times when you'll know that you might;
     But the things you will learn from the Yellow an' Brown,
      They'll 'elp you a lot with the White!
Outram:  You distract him while I write an indecent proposal for the King, his crown or his head – an offer he cannot refuse!
Sargent major : What about his crown with his head in it? Wouldn’t that be a trophy for the Natural History Museum? Alongside the Elks and the Royal Bengal Tiger? Ha, ha, ha all these Indian Guddhas !!
Outram: : (blowing out his chest) We are proud  to announce a new species-- Homo Sapiens Decadence Pruriens Dancing Romeo Rex! A nice title for a lecture at the Royal. Society!
Sargent Major: (copying the cue) before we do that we need to sample  the female environment that has spawned this rare species   Come Captain let us go –
while the night is still young ( drags James off who appears caught in two moods – unwilling but also a bit excited)

SCENE 9
At a Lucknow Kota  ‘ The Magic Carpet’
Doorman: The magic carpet welcomes you to the beauties of the Land,
Come and while your time away, with the spiciest and most bland
The tall and lean, the short and plump, re-create the Arabian night
Our Ladies cater to every taste, the customer is always right!
Jewels for the crown, black or brown, singing, dancing and the rest...
All sixty-four skills of the courtesan, assure you we have only the best!!
Suddenly spotting James and the Sargent Major ‘over here Sirs, jewels for the crown, black or brown! (repeats ) Jewels for the crown, sahibs!! A real passage to India!!
Sargent Major:(sarcastically) jewels from the back passage of India ,more likely, Ha,ha!! They may cater to every taste but are they clean? If not you will taste my laathee, you Gudhha!!
James:  (a bit embarrassed, turning to the sergeant-major) Shall we go now, lets come back tomorrow…
SM:  What about doing justice to the twin royal Orbs and the rigid Sceptre –  the ones between your legs?
James: (having second thoughts) Shall we shelve this for another day – got to get ready for the Barakhana tomorrow ((turns to go, suddenly hears a voice floating through the night- sounds of ghunghru -Ah ko chaahiye ek umr asr hone tak….) what is that?
SM: Its Umrao Jaan, the hottest piece of action in Lucknow – but she is supposed to be special  ‘eyes only’ for the local nabobs – but as you said the barakhana is tomorrow. We will let you off….

Scene 10
The Barakhana
The scene moves to a ‘Barakhana’   at the house of the British Resident –a most opulent party thrown by the British for the Nawab Sultan and hi court. Ostensibly it honours the Nawab but really it is a plot to consolidate the British stranglehold on the Nawab’s jugular. The conversation is marked by external courtesies and obeisance, conversations with double meanings and hypocritical stage asides – which tell the real purpose of the day and the contempt and mistrust that exists between the Resident and the Nawab. The star acts of the day are the dances and songs by Umrao Jaan – the most celebrated courtesan of Lucknow. In a glittering show of shairis, ghazals with dance – always tinged with pathos – Umrao steals the heart of James, the First Officer. The set has four groups of people (officers and petty royals) chatting, enter Outram with Wajid and James and Sargeant Major…
Outram: (bowing  to Wajid Ali Shah, with exaggerated courtesy) This is a singular honour. To share a meal with a person is a stamp of friendship; to share a Barakhana ,  the biggest feast, with the Nawab of Oudh is like sharing slices from a giant cake….
SM: (winking) Slices of Hindoostan he means – and lets hope we get more than our fair share…
Wajid: (naïve) Thank you Resident Saab. I know of your land , I taught myself English to read your great Poet and Bard of Avon William Shakespeare
Outram: (bowing theatrically) We are honoured by your presence Mr Nawabsaab. All we want is that you enjoy our simple hospitality today (with false humility), and find it within your gracious nature to forgive any shortcomings.. ( turning to James) Make sure that His Grace wants for nothing…(turning to Wajid) would you like to taste a piece of cake specially made for the occasion?
Wajid: (overwhelmed).Thank you Residentsaab. I am deeply moved . I have written a poem, to remember this day and hope to present it one day in person to Queen Victoria. They say that you British are the most cultured race in the world – only you will understand the beauties of our own language …
Outram: of course your majesty (aside to James) the King’s present has to be bit more material than a poem such as ….the Kingdom of Oudh perhaps? (turning back to Wajid)  but first we have prepared some wonderful entertainment for you. People talk far and wide about your penchant for music and dance. For today we have arranged the most talented dancer and singer in all Lucknow, the most precious jewel in your crown….
Wajid: Umrao Jaan Ada? I named her myself when she was brought to my court after two despicable men stole her from her father’s house. She has learnt her music under the great Bindadinji, they say she is the finest courtesan in lucknow- but only an illiterate peasant will be diverted by her body, which covers a most gifted and sensitive soul.
Outram : Nawabsahib As they say in Latin’ Men sana in corpore sano’ – a gifted mind in a gifted body –(with a wink noticing James’ consternation) perhaps not quite the literal translation but adapted for this occasion!!
James:  (to Wajid) Let me escort you to the banquet table and introduce you to our guests. You will be seated next to the Resident and my wife Mary will give you company and look after you through the day. (Takes him to Mary standing at the side)….
 My wife, your excellency, she has arrived in Lucknow only a few days ago. She was a bit worried, leaving England , but I have told her about Lucknow  and what a wonderful poet and musician you are…
Mary, this is the Nawabsaab; Nawabsaab, this is wife Mary….
Mary: Enchanted Nawab sahib!!
Wajid: (murmuring sincerely) More fragrant than the rose, as they say in my language….
As they sit down the music starts and Umrao appears on the stage classically dressed ans asks for permission to begin…
The main stage darkens, the music continues with sounds of ghunghru and table and sarangi and aside stage lightens with elderly Mary and her granddaughter
Mary: That was the first time I saw Umrao Jaan (Emily is now listening with rapt attention). I have never seen a kinder face lined with so much sadness my dear. Her delicate hand gestures, the flowing motions of her body, the rhythmic rapid movements of her feet, and the tinkle of the bells on her feet, her voice and the music were like a trance. But it was her eyes - they were filled with hurt and oppression that no one else noticed…’(Mary sighs). I saw that the Nawabsahib was mesmerised but was more concerned by the way my darling husband was looking at her.
Emily: ‘Mischief thou art afoot’ you must have thought ‘and it did run’!
The stage darkens, Umrao Jaan , now a silhouette,  dances a beautiful Kathak piece with lots of appreciative ‘Wah Wahs ‘ in the background.
Scene 11
James falls in love with Umrao, kills her paramour and has to flee
There follows a scene where James confesses his love to Umrao and in turn Umrao relates her life story to him. James  is shocked and angry and during the intimate scene the couple are disturbed by one of Umrao’s paramours who is insistent that he needs her company instantly. James is livid and a fracas then ensues – where he runs the intruder with his sword.  Immediately aware of his murder he seeks advice from his Resident . Outram  does not approve of their relationship and advises him to be transferred out of Lucknow.  Umrao’s brief idyll is shattered.
Umrao Jaan’s Kotha dimly lit with a window at the back – moon shining through
Umrao is resting on her bed , softly humming, reading the shairis of Ghalib. There is a knocking at the door
Maid: Apse milne koi saab aye huye hain, koi Firangi officer; madam there is a man who wishes to meet you, he is a white man and will not have anyone else , we tried so much (noises below ,shouting by James, pleading by the Kotha ladies)
James: (drunk) I will not be put off , I will only have the best , you know that I can burn down  the Magic Carpet if I want? (bursts through the door, sees Umrao calm exterior , is a bit nonplussed)….I am sorry ,did not mean to intrude,…..I was told about this star courtesan Umrao  … do apologise..I am sorry..
Umrao: (with wan smile gesturing to others to withdraw, a bit sarcastic)  I am not sorry to see you, why are you sorry to see me? Sahib I don’t think you are feeling very well , please have this glass of water. I will call for some food and after you have eaten you will feel better. You were looking for Umrao Jaan Ada , you said?
James:  yes but she is a common street woman, I apologise for my behaviour..
Umrao:  Sahib what we seek we never find, what we find we never prize or even recognise (her veil slips off as she turns toward him)
James: (gasps) you ARE Umrao Jaan ! They say you are what dreams are made of – for a single night with you - unto half my kingdom!
Umrao: You are so generous, but only nightmares can breed in an unworthy courtesan’s chamber, go back to your home Sahib, you must have a lovely wife waiting for you…share your best dreams with her..
James: (still hypnotised) Your celestial music, your haunting  voice, your disembodied movements, when you dance you have the rhythm of the stars, you look like the ghost of a human being  and an angel from another world at the same time, sing to me Umrao Jaan just for one night (on his knees) I beg you
Umrao: I am a common courtesan now although I cam from a respectable family, I don’t understand your fine words , don’t waste them on me, (gasps, tells James her story) I will call your carriage Sahib (James is very moved)
Commotion outside , again shouts, drunken anger, door bursts open a man enters shoouting ‘no man, even a firangee officer can keep me from my whore, I want to lie with Umrao tonight , I want to taste her innermost pleasures
Ah there she is, rushes up to Umrao, grabs her by her waist and shoulders
James driven with rage takes hs sword and runs the intruder through “you rascal, you rogue, how dare you…(the man slumps on the floor, bleeding, wretches, a few heaves and then dies
James is terrorised by the situation, at what he has done but Umrao is very composed calls for the Bai and the sentries tells them to remove the dead body and turns to James
Sahib, you are in great danger, just leave at once before people come to know. There is a lot of anger against the Firangees and I cant protect you any longer. Go ,Sahib, go and don’t ever look behind.
Turning to Bai : Le jao ye murda ko!!!
Scene 12
The house of James and Mary
Mary confronts James   after his return from the courtesan’s chambers. He physically assaults Mary and after he has fallen into a drunken stupor Mary angrily rushes to Umrao Jaan. She meets Umrao and her anger turns to tears as she hears the courtesan’s life story.
Mary:  How can you do this to me? Have you no shame? Everyone is talking of your affair with this courtesan – this Umrao Jaan Ada – I only see her as a common prostitute. Do you not have any feelings for me? Do you not at least see how impossible a position I am in? I understand Outram has signed an order for you to be transferred out of Lucknow – he thinks you are a security threat – ‘the man has gone native’ ‘gone over to the other side, cannot be depended on, the letter says ; is this what has become off this ambitious upper class gentleman reduced to warming the beds of Lucknow  wearing a Musselman’s dress  - with an Indian slut? They will try you for treachery -For a common nautch girl? Why? Why? (throws a statuette at him)
James: (drinking, chuckling, definitely inebriated, catching the statuette  easily)I always fielded well at slips in the school cricket team - but I will answer your question. First of all she can make a wicked drink, second she gives me respect, she recites poetry, sings, dances – and you my queen how good are you at doing all those things? Shall I tie little bells on your feet and get you to dance? And what about your horizontal skills? Do you need tuition?(approaches Mary in a lewd manner)
Mary (in tears of anger, slaps James) Don’t touch me, Get out of this house and go to your wretched whore that’s what she is, try and play those drums they play when she is turning her body and turning the heads of debauches like you, get out (slaps him again)!!
James (hitting her with drunken ferocity) You high minded slut, how dare you touch me; you know what I get when I l am with her, I get peace, peace from your vain artifices and club manners, peace when I can be the man that I want to be, not a little cog in the wheel carrying out the orders of this mighty Raj …She is a better person than you & I are,’Gunga Din’!!
Incessant knock on the door ‘Capain Burton, Captain Burton- Please report immediately to the Resident – there have been native attacks on all Army units , please report for duties at once!’ James rushes out, Mary distraught ,cries, gets ready to go out in the night
Scene 13
Umrao’s chamber
Gunshots heard in the background, Umraos’s window shows Lucknow on fire, the usually well-ordered room in disarray
A maid servant hurries into the room , obviously distressed
Maid servant:  There is a firengee memsahib waiting to see you. I explained to her that you cannot meet her in the middle of the night like this. I told her that it is dangerous for her on the streets, with Lucknow on fire,   but she will not go away. She keeps repeating ‘I have urgent personal business with Umrao Jaan’. What should I do now?
Umrao: Bai, some people have the luck of going  through their life  bearing their own misfortunes,  but I am more privileged – my life’s burden is not heavy enough it seems before the almighty; I must  share and lighten the burden of others (sighs) I I know what this lady wants   and I am not in a position to give it …Bai, I have received so many men in here, isn’t it amazing that this is the first time a woman has come calling for me in the middle of the night (turns her back abruptly)  bring her in
Mary comes in angry
Mary: Are you Umrao Jaan?
Umrao: Please sit down Begum Sahebaan  -(a pause) I know why you have come to see me Mary Jaan. It is too late to order tea, would you like to have a paan?
Mary: You impudent hussy …
Umrao:  (interrupting) whore, nautch girl, tawaif, the litany of names is quite extensive and apt Memsahib; sadly against my best efforts your husband was taken in by my exterior, he does not realise that I am like your firengee singing  &dancing doll; wind it up and it goes round making music until it stops dead , falling silent and useless when the spring is fully unwound (pause) until someone else pays to wind the doll up again. They don’t realise that they get the same tune ,the same action, every day.
Men, like your husband Memsahibaan are like boys playing with their toys - even when they are really playing with people’s lives. You speak to them  but they  don’t listen; I really did Mary Jaan, told him to leave this purgatory and return to you I really did (breaks down sobbing, with a faraway look),you took so long Abba to get back to your Ameeran  with her bataasha, it has been such a long wait…
The figures in a frieze as there is re-run of the Ramlila night and the kidnapping of Ameeran with the raucous and leering laughter of Dilawar – the raagmala music returns
Mary: (initially uncomprehending and then understands) sits still draws closer to Umrao , both women take each other’s hands..
Scene 14
The frieze is interrupted by gunfire, the maid runs in
Maid: –madam, madam they have surrounded the Resident’s house ,there has been a laathi charge but the mob wont give in, they have already burnt a police station’..
Mary:  My James is at the Residents House Umrao you have to save him, please,please ..
Umrao: As long as I live memsahib, he will live, but come with me , there is not a moment to be lost (both women rush out….)
Scene 12
Lucknow has descended into war as the British attack the city. Mary and her husband are surrounded by a lynching mob. Umrao saves the couple, pleading with the leader , one of her ex-clients.
Mob  (in front of the Residence):
Hang him, hang the firangee, let his soul burn in hell, they  burn our homes and rape our daughters, let them reap the results of their crimes, hang him, cut his tongue out, bring out his guts, let his soul rot in hell!!
Mary: No,no please don’t –you all have families, wives; he is my husband, my only support – please, please save him Umrao
Mob spokesman: stop your pleading woman, otherwise we will string you up next to him; don’t you remember how you firangees have destroyed our lives, our homes, our land? Do you know what happened to my neighbour, they butchered him in the middle of the night and then his wife and children starved to death…. String her up as well! (mob  moves towards Mary)
Umrao ( leaps forward,eyes blazing, angry)and what of your own wife Miya saab? Shall I tell everyone how you plead every night? (miming) Come on Umrao jaan once more, give me the happiness and pleasure that I have been denied ever since I was jailed to my female monster! But I am a common tawaif and you Miya saab inhabit a different plane – of hypocriry and double standards- let this woman and her man go immediately otherwise …….
Miya: Alright,(eager to silence Umrao, turning to Mary) stop your whining woman we will let you and your rakshahsh, rascal  go – be grateful for the streak of generosity that runs in the Lucknow character..
Umrao:  and the stain of infidelity that runs through its aristocracy …! Cut him loose before your own family decides to string you up for dishonour!
Miya:  Untie him , I am a kind man – I have been moved by the pleas of mercy on the firangee’s behalf even if it comes from a common tawaif. Go, go you infidel(speaking to James ) and take your whining woman with you and return to your home.  If we ever see you again in this area we will deal without the mercy and clemency that your undeserving soul has received today!
Mary runs to Umra ,in a flood of tears, as James completely bewildered  by the passage of immediate events tries to recover from the brush with imminent death.
Mary:  Umrao Meri Jaan, what have we done to deserve this favour from you? Please ask for your price , anything , anything for saving my husband’s life!
James: ( in shock , muttering like an idiot) Umrao, and I thought… Umrao.. you are an angel…
Umrao:  Angels are useful only in heaven, on earth you need help from wicked tawaifs like myself. Sahib and Memsahib , please leave immediately, I cannot hold this mob any longer. You can see they are in close discussion and may change their mind any moment. Go, go Sahib immediately and don’t turn back , and memsahib – only one thing do I ask - please remember me if possible with some mercy , so that your kindness and generosity may turn me away from the Jahannum, the Hell  that surely waits to swallow me.
Mary and James flee as the British soldiers come in and give them protection.
A shadow play with soft, sad background music : Umrao destitute , penniless returns to her original parental home in Faizabad. Her father is dead and her brother and mother turn her away since she is a tawaif.
Her brother’s voice shouting: Yahaan se chali jao , Ameeran ka intikal bahut saal pahale ho chuka hain, meri koi bahin zinda nahin, apney tawaif ei kothey pe abhi waapas chali jao.
My sister Ameeran died in her childhood , I  have no other sister living, we do not know you Umrao Jaan , go back to your Kotha in Lucknow.  Never return to Faisabad and in God’s name  leave us in peace.
 Umrao pleads, begs for an embrace from her family but her brother turns away from her.
Scene 13
Umrao journeys back to Lucknow, returns to her room. The scene returns to the same set with her and Mirza Ruswa. The window is open showing a starlight night Umrao hums a Ghalib ghazal, Mirza listening
‘Dayim padha hua tere dar par nahi huun mai
Khak eysee zindagi pe ki pat-thar nahi hun mai
Yaarab jamaana mujhko mitatha hai kis liye
Lowhe jahaan ke harf-e- mukarrar nahin huun mai’

Umrao explains to Ruswa Mirza
Now like an dead piece of rock o’er your doorstep do I lie
As the old wound hurts and fresh blood spurts - why shouldn’t I cry?
Only a frail sinning woman, not a goddess sculpted in iron
Why does the world kill me  - before I die?
Umrao: Ruswa Mirza,  you are a kind man will you do me a lasting- perhaps even a last favour?
Ruswa Mirza: It will be an honour Umrao Jaan Ada. I came here to write your story , I have now become part of your story.
Umrao: (taking the jewellery box) Will you deliver this box to the British Resident’s House please? Don’t feel concerned, I see the question mark on your face – the box contains some precious stones  given to me by rich deluded men, but more importantly it contains a letter written to a Firangee  white lady with whom I shared my life for one night. You are a kind person just like she was -(eyes brimming with tears)  promise you will deliver it as soon as you can?
Ruswa Mirza: M’lady, I will deliver it even if it is the last thing I do (face averted, straining to maintain his composure withdraws). I have troubled you enough, life has troubled you enough, let us now leave you in peace
The door closes, Umrao dresses herself in the most regal courtesan dress, ties on her her anklets (ghunghru). There is background music of Sarangi, a beautiful Dadra and a bandeesh ki thumri. Umrao prepares a dram of poison very relaxed almost unmindfully
 She looks out of the window watching the pale stars, hums a song
Pareshaan Raat saari hai, Sitaron tum to so jao….
She drinks the poison , looking out of the window, speaks to herself as she falls asleep
‘In the stillness of the troubled night
I gaze and see them shining bright
I touch the stars , they hold me tight
Sleep my stars, I will surely follow’

Scene 14
Emily: What was in the letter grandma, what did Umrao Jaan say to you?
Mary: I received this collection of poetry and  a jewel box , a gift of the Nawab,  with the British despatches from Lucknow ,many years after I returned home.  After James died fifteen years later, I tried searching for her but no one in Lucknow knew her any more, some had heard of a noble courtesan who had taken her life several years ago ….
Emily : Read Grandma, I want to hear what she said….
Mary : I can’t  (breaks down) (lights darken)
Emily: (taking the letter from Mary reads, hypnotised, reads) (spotlight on her)
‘To the Most Noble and Kind Hearted Begum MemSahebaan Mary jaaan
 You will be extremely surprised, perhaps offended to receive this letter of a very personal nature from a near complete stranger. But I am sure you will forgive me this rude intrusion – because I know that it is in your gentlest nature to understand and help lost human beings like myself. I am writing to you because I once heard a young poet called Mirza Ghalib  recite  his Shairi at the court of our Nawabsaab . He said:
Ibn-e- Mariam dua kare koi - Meri dukh ki dawa kare koi
In our language   this means –he who is blessed by Ibn-e- Mariam, the prophet,  the son of Mary – receives the medicine that dulls his earthly pain forever. And you, Begum Memsahebaan are Mariam, Mary jaan, the mother of the prophet, the original  fountainhead   of mercy- who once extended her hand of friendship to an undeserving tawaif like myself.
I consider myself  most fortunate in having had the company of the kindest souls that have inhabited this earth. My Abba and Ammijaan ,my father & mother, brought me up with more love and affection than a daughter like myself deserves -every day I chastise myself  that I was unable to live up to their great expectations.  What Amiran  gained and Umrao then lost can only be put down to my own inadequacy and I pray every day in penitence for my sins.
And what about Bua Husseini and Maulvi saab? Do you know how they found me  in Khanum’s  chambers – a frightened, illiterate urchin with a face encrusted with dried up tears? They could have turned  away and handed me back to Dilawar. Instead they persuaded Khanum to take me in, loved me like their daughter and Maulvi Saab introduced me to my most faithful friend – poetry. To me they were like the moon that rises every evening,  that bathes the dark earth every night, banishing into the shadows our fears and tears, gently crooning a mother’s  lullaby so that wicked souls like myself can sleep another night.’ Dil cheez kya hai meri jaan lijiye’ – truly my heart, my body and soul remains sold to these kind people, like Maulvi Saab, the Nawab  – and you.
And what did I return to these kind people? Nothing,  nothing but pain. But believe me Mary Jaan (please forgive this intimate form of address) I tried, tried very hard, perhaps too hard – like a dwarf trying to reach for the stars. I am no Ghalib or Daag but worked hard to transmute my pain into poetry- as much as an ignorant wench can do. I discovered an aptitude   for our music and our dance in our great Nawab’s court, filled my empty soul with the strains of melodies like Malkauns; a thrifty melody using only five fixed points, but with transitions between the five notes like a journey across five continents; O the storms and ocean currents one has to survive to reach landfall clinging to these five notes!.
And I became a court dancer, learnt the dance that developed in our own beloved Lucknow, you know it is called Kathak from the stories it tells.  Amiran who became Umrao Jaan became   Sheherazade of the Arabian Nights, who could survive another night so long as she kept her distinguished visitors like your husband,courtiers, paramours and lovers amused and in suspense with her unending sea of stories. And of course I was good at Abhinaya, role  playing, wearing masks, do you Begum memsahebaan have masks in your society? Sometimes you wear them so long that you forget to take them off, you can’t take them off even if it itches, they become like your face, they ARE your face.
Begum Memsahebaan I feel now I have no more stories to tell. I have hurt too many people, my parents, my brother, Nawab sultan, you and who knows how many more I am not even aware of. That for me is the highest prize of my notoriety. When I was young, Maulvi Saab told me the story of a brave but ambitious English knight called Macbeth - who killed his king to usurp the throne. The poet (someone called Shakespeare who they say is as clever with words as our young Mirza) wrote – ‘Glamis hath murdered sleep hence Cawdor can sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more. Mary Jaan (my dearest friend, how can I call you anything else now?), Umrao Jaan has murdered sleep all her life, now it is time for little Ameeran to sleep forever……….
Sarangi, sounds of ghunghru, table, dancing
Light dims to a darkness
Curtains  close

 [BHASKAR DASGUPTA]






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