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DANCE: REGAL REMEMBRANCES

December 10, 2017

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Photo: Naeem Ali Rizvi
Photo: Naeem Ali Rizvi

It is an open secret that Mughal history of the subcontinent has been (and continues to be) sabotaged by a flurry of facts fabricated deliberately for various (read nefarious) designs. While there is a deliberate smearing of a glorious era, the onus falls upon us to discover stories of glory, especially stories of women empowerment.

Luckily enough, people such as the Pakistani-American Farah Yasmeen Sheikh, the beautiful classical dancer and kathakar (storyteller) are carrying the torch ahead in revealing facts of history that lend a positive image of the past. While Sheikh conceived the idea of this dynamic dance drama, The Forgotten Empress, it was the famous American playwright Mathew Spangler who wrote a well-researched script about the powerful Mughal empress, Nur Jahan.

Recently performed at Habib University as a fundraiser for the Habib University Foundation and Murshid Hospital and Health Care Centre, The Forgotten Empress brought to the fore some very interesting facts of history that unfortunately are not part of our usual discourse. Spangler, who also has the play The Kite Runner to his credit, wrote the story with a sense of responsibility and caution, keeping at bay any controversial facts around Emperor Jahangir and Empress Nur Jahan.

California-based kathak dancer Farah Yasmeen Sheikh wows a local audience with a dance-drama on the life of Mughal Empress Nur Jahan

The Forgotten Empress is about the journey of Mehrunnisa who was born in the 1600s in a refugee camp and went on to become the Mughal empress Nur Jahan and to rule ‘one-third of the world’s population.’ However, the journey of the future empress was not an easy one: the baby girl, born to an impoverished refugee couple from Persia, was left in the difficult terrain of Afghanistan on the family’s way to South Asia. “May Allah keep my daughter safe,” prayed the father as he walked away from the baby. However, as fate would have it, a hunting team led by a noble merchant Malik Masud, found the baby and then the caravan on which the family was travelling, and returned the baby to the parents.

In 1594, the caravan of round 500 people settled in the alien environs of Lahore. Thanks to the generosity of Malik Masud, the baby girl’s father Mirza Ghias Beg was inducted in the royal court of Emperor Akbar. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As Mirza Ghias Beg rose to importance in the Royal Court, Mehrunnisa grew to become a beautiful young woman well-versed in the arts and who possessed the virtues of astuteness and sagacity. These virtues would later be valued by her beloved second husband, Emperor Jahangir (Saleem) who would rescue her from a brutal Quli Khan, and marry her as his twentieth wife. He would also give her a new name: Nur Jahan. In due course, the emperor lost himself to opium and alcohol, leaving the kingdom to be run solely by Nur Jahan.

The ensemble’s execution of accompaniments was well done. Music director Salar Nader composed a beautiful musical score combined with multimedia backdrops that rendered the right moods of warmongering, melancholy, chauvinism, romance and endearment. Salar Nader, a ‘disciple’ of tabla virtuoso Ustad Zakir Hussain and a vocalist himself, was accompanied by female vocalist Deepti Warrier, with Ben Kunin on the sarod and Raginder Momi Singh playing the violin and were a pleasure to listen to. Radhika Rao narrated the story with complete command over her vocals and a pleasant voice grain.

Of course, Sheikh’s choreography corresponded exceptionally well and in perfect timing with the thaap of the tabla. Her impeccable foot work told the story with ease, and her bodily gestures emphasised the narrative as she smoothly changed into various roles.

Sheikh reached Pakistan with her ensemble in November to launch this enthralling dance drama in Lahore which received huge audiences. On her return Farah wrote on her Facebook page: “We offer our gratitude to this great country (Pakistan) in the best way we know how — through our gifts of dance, music, theatre all wrapped up in our performance on the life of the great Empress Nur Jahan and the powerful story that surrounds her.”

We would like to see more of such mesmerizing performances by Sheikh, based on the stories of other empowered Mughal women: for instance Jahan Ara, Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, who vociferously supported her brother Dara Shikoh in all political decisions. She also contributed to developing the famous market place in Delhi in India — Chandni Chowk. Perhaps Sheikh’s penchant to be a Kathak dancer comes with a sense of purpose which is not just to promote the arts but to tell stories from a glorious collective past.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 10th, 2017