The Twentieth Wife, Z Space, January 16

20 Jan

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh mounted this tale of Nur Jahan, the Jehangir’s Twentieth Wife, at Z Space for three sold-out performances January 16-18, supported by Indu Sundaresan, author of the book inspiring Shaikh to create the colorful dance drama. Shaikh’s interpretation was so vigorous on the opening night I wondered at her ability to maintain her energy for the subsequent two performances.

Indu Sundaresan was responsible for a clarifying narrative for the eighteen scenes, with music supplied by Salar Nader at the tabla, his composition carried out with the aid of Ben Kunin on sarod, Raginder Singh Momi on violin and Deepti Warrier for vocals.

Visually, the performance space was marked by a black-and-white visual pattern drawing its inspiration from Mughal Indian jalis, [screens] repeated in smaller fashion on a background scrim in softened shape, a reddish sandstone color characteristic of Agra earth. The musicians were seated on a slightly raised platform on stage right, vocalist and Sundaresan on a shorter back platform.

Supporting the artists was a gifted production team: Jim French and Andrew Kaufman, lighting and scenic design; Ian Winters, video and media design; Drew Yerys, Sound; Brook Duthie, consultant; Natasha Dutt, make-up; Aika Garg, costume. With the multiple changes and handsome changes Garg supplied for Shaikh, Garg accomplished and deepened the sense of Mughal splendor, a vital part in this dance drama.

Having read Sundaresan’s book, Shaikh’s narrative followed the story closely, from the moment Mehrunnisa’s father tries to abandon his daughter, born as the family migrated from Persia to India. Here Shaikh, dressed in an enveloping kurta and turban, demonstrated her understanding of kathak – story telling – in stylized gestures of sorrowful necessity, unfortunately marred by bright nail polish.

Throughout the narrative, Shaikh’s abhinaya,[gesture], drew its tandava [masculine] inspiration from her guru, the late Chitresh Das, [his image adorned the inside of the stylish program cover, printed on black stock], to whom she dedicated the production and for whom she served as a teacher for over a decade and a half. While filtered by Das’ training, her lasya[feminine] gestures were entirely her own.

Scenes depicted through the scrim, such as the birth of Mehrunnisa, gained by the silhouette. Das as source of her male characters was particularly apparent when Shaikh interpreted the character of Ali Quil, the Persian husband designated as Mehrunnisa’s first husband, especially when he is confronted with the men assigned to kill him; the turns, and gestures conveyed his frenzied self-defense admirably.

Sundaresan’s voice added much to the quality of the program, its Indian inflected English, cadence and emphasis sometimes echoing the capacity of Indian stringed instrumental sound to linger after being struck.

Finally, Z’s reception space turned into something of an Indian bazaar with colorful apparel available for purchase as well as Sundaresan’s three books on her Mughal subject, and a more recent one chronicling the route the Kohinoor diamond took from the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab to the court of Queen Victoria. Sundaresan was available to autograph her books.

With an audience filled with Indians, the women handsomely garbed in saris or salwar cameez , it reminded me how good it is to see a production well produced and a stylish audience enjoying the occasion. It almost was like being in New Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai.

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