Gul, as mehfil and fantasy: Stage adaptation of courtesans' story transports audience to Lucknow of yore
Harkat Studios, the space where Gul was staged, was filled with the sweet smell of jasmine gajras and the soft tunes of two men playing In Aakhon Ki Masti Ke on a sarangi and tabla. The play addresses the place of women through the ages, particularly performing women, nautch girls, and bar dancers
Gul addresses the place of women through the ages, particularly performing women, nautch girls, and bar dancers
It normalises same-sex love and touches upon emotionally abusive relationships easily and organically
I first read Gul as a short story in the anthology Magical Women and was mesmerised by the layered narrative Shreya Ila Anasuya had chosen to tell. It won her the Toto Award for Creative Writing in 2019, even before it had been published. But having met Shreya all of once and ‘knowing’ her only the way two colleagues working remotely in two departments of the same project would, I felt a simultaneous rush of both pride and fear for the huge artistic risk she was taking when I first heard the story was being adapted for the stage.
The fear dissipated quickly when I took my seat at the dimly lit Harkat Studios in Versova, Mumbai, an intimate performance space where you take off your shoes outside the door, and the couch, mismatched chairs, and floor cushions give you the feel of being not at an intimidating theatre experience, but rather a mehfil. That night, the space was filled with the sweet smell of jasmine gajras and the soft tunes of two men playing 'In Aakhon Ki Masti Ke' on a sarangi and tabla. There’s an Urdu word for this — mahaul, or ambience. And it was set.
The lights came on. A storyteller, a dancer, and a singer stepped on stage. And then, there was magic.
In the middle of the Great Mutiny of 1857, a 19-year-old courtesan called Muniya locks eyes with Gulbadan in a tawaif’s house in Lucknow, and time stops. Instantly, she knows something is different. “She was no girl,” Shreya narrates, taking on Muniya’s voice, “But time had not left its mark on her face in the way it criss-crosses most faces.” Slowly, the story unfolds through narrative, dance, and song after delightful song from Gauhar Jaan and Begum Akhtar (among others) — a deliberate choice, considering how the histories of courtesan singers tie in with the story.
This is a tale that addresses the place of women through the ages, particularly performing women, nautch girls, and bar dancers, who are objectified in a culture that — at once — reveres apsaras, mythical nymphs who danced and sang in the courts of the gods. It normalises same-sex love. It touches upon emotionally abusive relationships. But it does so easily, organically, without the heavy-handed tones of a work that’s trying to teach you something.
Shreya Ila Anasuya had already been researching and writing about courtesan performers when she met Shinjita Roy and Vidhya Gopal a few years ago. But their collaboration didn’t materialise until this year, when she shared her short story with them and they pointed out its potential as a musical. “When I thought about how much the story is about music, dancing and women’s history, it made sense to me as well,” says Shreya. “The three of us began, with each of our roles in mind — Shinjita dancing, Vidhya singing and myself narrating.” But it didn’t all come together until Shreya asked Lopamudra Chatterjee, whom she has known since college, to run some lines with her for Gul. “Immediately, she began to give me these beautiful visual ideas of how it could be staged. And a lightbulb went off in my head! Thank god she agreed to come on board as director, because the four of us really collaborated to turn the story into a workable script that intersperses music and dance.”
The collaborative energy of their process manifests beautifully in the performance. Vidhya sings each ghazal and thumri with exquisite care, taking us inside the pleasure and pain of both women. Shinjita embodies every arch of Gul’s eyebrow, the tilt of Muniya’s chin, and the thrum of their heart song, as she performs Kathak. Shreya looks us in the eye and dares us to scoff at Gul’s choices, or at Muniya’s naivete as she experiences the first flush of love and eventually, betrayal. But the three always work together, like strands in a braid, weaving the tale under Lopamudra’s deft direction.
There are elements of fantasy in this tale of historical fiction, but instead of unraveling through showy special effects, they emerge on the faces of the performers, in the twirl of an anarkali kurti or the shimmering sounds of ghungroos.
For reference, the last time I witnessed a musical dance-drama on stage, it was Shapoorji Pallonji’s extravagantly produced Mughal-e-Azam, with its embellished moving sets, uber-stylised lighting and award-winning costumes that feature over 550 original designs from Manish Malhotra. In Gul, the outfits and jewelry look like they were nicked from somebody’s mum’s treasured collection, and the set is sparsely decorated with cane ottomans. Yet, I could almost see the round columns of an old Lucknowi home, with jasmine trees in the verandah, and women leaning against them.
“We don’t have any external funding for this show,” Shreya says. “We knew from the get go that we’d have to make it work with just the three of us on stage with two musicians. We didn’t have the budget to build a big set. And I don’t think it’s that kind of production either. Lopamudra put together a lighting script and we all worked collaboratively to put up the show, to ensure the musicians were paid and the set was effective without being ornate.”
Perhaps it was because of this that I had a severe case of what the young people call “feels”. For the duration of an hour-and-a-half, I smiled, applauded, gaped, and fought back tears before giving up and weeping. I was not alone. There were several other people in my row, who shared similar reactions. Somewhere in the front row, a man hummed along to Vidhya’s songs, adding an unspeakable intimacy to it all. And this, in spite of the show being sold out.
When Gulbadan becomes an absence, she still circles incessantly in Muniya’s head and lives on in the songs she sings. Gul has left me similarly haunted. The play will be staged in Delhi on 19 October at Kala Dibba, Ghitorni, on 20 October at Eastwind Blackbox, Gurgaon, and in Kolkata in mid-November. I recommend you catch it with a loved one. There will be much to talk about after.
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