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Umrao Jaan: India’s Forgotten Courtesan Culture

Umrao Jaan: India’s Forgotten Courtesan Culture

July 15, 2015

An interview with Viram Jasani, the producer of the upcoming stage adaptation of Umrao Jaan.

Courtesans. Prostitutes. Don’t they generally hold the same definition as each other? Aren’t they both basically women who offer sexual services to horny men with the means to pay the price? Many would believe this to be the case, but the Courtesan Culture that existed during Mughal times, similar to the geishas of Japan, offered men so much more than sexual gratification. They sang, they played instruments, they professionally danced, they recited poetry and literature – and the elite sent their children to them to be taught all of the above, in addition to the art of etiquette.

Here to correct the undeserved stigma attached to the courtesans of India, Viram Jasani, producer of the Asian Music Circuit, has commissioned the story of Umrao Jaan to be adapted for the stage. The NRI caught up with him to ask how much it will differ from the infamous film starring Rekha, and to discover how the Courtesan Culture led to the rise of the HMV music publishing company in India.

  1. 1. What is it about the story of Umrao Jaan that called out to you the most as a producer?

For many years now the Asian Music Circuit has been producing music styles that many of the Tawa’if used to sing (namely Thumri and Ghazal). I personally grew up listening to Indian classical music so it’s in my blood. I love thumri and ghazal so I wanted to present these genres in an innovative way and in the context from which they evolved; for example, the interaction between the Hindu and Islamic cultures, the royal courts, the impact of recordings and the historical, political and social background.

I was inspired by a visit to the Royal Albert Hall when I went to see a production of Madam Butterfly. The stage setting and production values were so impressive. I wanted to do something like that for Indian music; I wanted to create a serious, beautiful, classical, traditional production in a contemporary way, to appeal to different audiences across society.  One of my main concerns was keeping it original, and not copying the film by Muzzafar Ali, which was so iconic and beautiful in itself. What I really wanted to focus on was to create a different kind of theatre production, so I commissioned a script to be written in English, use 19th Century Urdu poetry and use traditional classical music for the ghazals. Our writer, Simon Mundy, is a wonderful poet, has even included some of his work in the play.

  1. 2. The 1981 film of Umrao Jaan is still the most recognised version of the story. Do you feel that the play is more inspired by the film or the novel?

One can’t help but be moved and inspired by Muzzafar Ali’s film of 1981 with its lovely poetry (different from the book) and music. However, I did not want to copy the film. It’s true that whenever one thinks of Umrao Jaan, one thinks of the music and lyrics of the movie rather than the original Urdu novel. So, I wanted to produce something that was different from both but was still inspired by the wonderful music that I have had the privilege of listening to and meeting the artists who performed it.

I also wanted to try and compose the music myself – as a classical music performer, one improvises and creates music all the time. However composing for a play is very different and very challenging, and I wanted to give it a go before it was too late! It really would be great to have the audience leaving the theatre with my music still in their head!

  1. 3. What is the relationship between the Indian courtesans of this period and the music publishing company HMV?

This is a fascinating story! In a nutshell, around 1900, the British Gramophone and Typewriter Company (later HMV), provided a platform to take the female artists from their “salons” to the concert stage! As patronage from royalty, nobility and gentry dwindled away, the British had no interest in using the women other than as prostitutes. With the strongly prevalent conservative attitudes of Indian society, the women artists lost their position of privilege and influence and also gradually their art.

However, the British Typewriter and Gramophone Company provided an opportunity of an alternative income to the courtesans, with many of them becoming famous recording artists.  In the later 20th century of course the women had also become great solo vocalists touring internationally and performing concerts. Their records clearly sold in large numbers. One artist recorded some 60 recordings of her music and was handsomely paid even by today’s standards. From a business perspective, the opportunity for the British Gramophone and Typewriter Company was fantastic.

The Indian market was huge and the demand was very high - thus HMV was born! This really raised questions; was this another kind of British exploitation of Indian people?  Or like the railways do the British consider this as their contribution to Indian culture (even though the main beneficiary was the Gramophone Company)? At the time it was stated British policy to try to destroy Indian culture - but was the temptation of profit slowing down the destruction of culture? What has happened to that policy now?

The legacy of recordings is both good and bad; good because it provides us with a phenomenal archive and record of Indian music culture – an oral tradition – from which we can learn a huge amount; however being an oral music tradition and one in which improvisation plays a huge role, with no written music, recordings became a replacement for the written scores. Thus the spontaneity was getting lost as people would just copy the music on the recordings instead of developing individual ideas and creativity. The music can be said to have become caught in a trap and its development slowed.

The AMC are producing a superb exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London called TAWA’IF – The Life and Art of the Courtesan, running from the 4th Sept until the 6th September 2015. Here you will be able to see old photographs of the artists who were first recorded by The British Gramophone and Typewriter Company.  You will also be able to listen to some of those very early recordings. We have two fantastic historians – Dr. Anna Morcom and Dr. Richard Williams – who have written up the history of courtesan tradition from the Mughal period into the 21st. There will also be information about the genre of music and dance performed by the tawa’if.  On Saturday 5th September Dr Morcom and Dr Williams will be giving talks about the fascinating lives and traditions of the tawa’if at the Royal Geographical Society. Entrance is free!

  1. 4. How will the play appeal to spectators not familiar with the period or the world of the story?

Firstly the play is in English and it is produced using great lighting and sets. Of course there are very traditional aspects like the costumes, music and dance but it will still appeal to audiences across society. I have found over the many years that I have been producing traditional Indian music concerts that there is a genuine and great interes all over the world in Indian music - provided it is of a high standard.

Secondly I have created a music ensemble which includes a sitar, tabla and of course, a sarangi which was always closely associated with the courtesan tradition. The final twist to the music is that I have also included a rubab from Afghanistan – an instrument which would have been more prevalent than the sitar in the 19th century.

Finally the story is an age old one and features in many other cultures, even in Japanese culture with its “geisha” tradition.  The story will not be difficult to follow as fundamentally, it is about resilience to adversity, dignity, strength acquired through art, and its unique connection with spirituality.

  1. 5. The courtesans of Mughal times were highly educated and of many talents. Why now are they only recognised for their services of a sexual nature?

Conservative thinking in India has been around for a long time and is not at all new. This was one of the reasons for the downfall of the tawa’if culture. Ignorance is another. Yet in the 19th century, elite society sent their children to be educated by the courtesans in etiquette, literature, music and dance. It’s interesting that today male ghazal singers have become so popular – they can perform at concerts, soirees and “mehfils” without attracting any stigma! As soon as you get a female singer, then people immediately associate that with the darker side of that culture which was probably the creation of men anyway and also not necessarily the reality.


Umrao – The Noble Courtesan will open on Wednesday 22nd July and play through to Friday 24th July 2015 at The Cockpit, London, NW8 8EH. It will then go on to play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from the 6th August till 31st August at George Square Studio One, Edinburgh EH8 9JS.

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