Fan-ning O’er It: Gauhar

Posted on 28 October, 2016 by Team Wishberry

Written by Mahesh Dattani

Directed by Lillete Dubey


Rajeshwari Sachdev as Gauhar Jaan

Zila Khan as Malka Jaan/Victoria Hemmings and Old Gauhar

Denzil Smith as William Robert Yeoward (Gauhar’s father) and Fred Gaisberg (The Gramophone Company Representative)

Gauhar Jaan was a baller. The Hindustani Classical singer was the first Indian artist to ever record her musical works in 1902. She went on to record over 600 records in multiple languages. She was paid an average of Rs. 3000 per concert, and she splurged thousands on her cats and cheap thrills like riding in a four-horse carriage. She is a legend, in the true sense of the word.

Gauhar, written by Mahesh Dattani and directed by Lillete Dubey, is a play which chronicles the life of Gauhar Jaan.

The play focuses on Gauhar’s rise and prime years mainly. In one of the first scenes of the play, Badi Malka Jaan enquires about Gauhar’s decision to record and mentions how every great singer in the country is not up for it. Gauhar responds saying that all the others are scare and she is not afraid of trying it. That scene truly gives a glimpse into how ballsy Gauhar Jaan was from the beginning.

Gauhar’s mother then questions her about the painting of Rai Chhagan of Benaras which she still possesses. Rai Chhagan was one of Gauhar’s early lovers who abandoned her once he was married by his family. She still carried the memory of that young love for which she had let go of singing. She delves into the past and we see Gauhar and Chhagan’s relationship. During this sequence, we also are shown Victoria Hemmings’ marriage with William Robert Yeoward, Gauhar’s biological father, breaking and she then gets married to a Muslim poet. Victoria becomes Malka Jaan, and young Angelina becomes Gauhar Jaan.

Chhagan abandons Gauhar, and she vows that she will become so famous and so rich that the world will bow in front of her. She goes on to do that. The recordings, the compositions, Gauhar’s richness and the spoils, her time of dealing with court cases and how it affected her singing, her cravings for a decent romantic life - everything is encapsulated beautifully in the play.

Gauhar Jaan’s life had multiple aspects that were extremely amazing. The play knew which ones to concentrate on and did so swiftly. The other aspects, it gave us a glimpse of, and in a way that gives the audience a concrete idea of those quirks which she possessed.. For example, the plays shows a lot of her life turning events and of the recording and her mastery of it over time, but Gauhar’s rockstar, splurging lifestyle is only shown in one or two instances but it gives you a sense of what her behaviour was like with money.

One of the smartest things the play has employed to show different timelines is projector screens on either side in the backdrop. It shows the year and location of the incident being performed in front of it. It facilitates easy flashbacks with the help of lights and makes for a great experience as audience. Such information also saves the play a lot of blackouts and transitions, which in turn holds the audience’s attention strongly. With all of these things, Lilette Dubey shows why she is so revered in the theatre scene. The direction is visibly genius in most parts of the play.

Rajeshwari Sachdev was a big deal when I was a kid. With her portrayal of Gauhar, she just went a notch higher. Now she might not be a trained singer, yet she does not make you feel like that at all. She sings like a dream, and her acting is top notch. The texture of her voice and everything makes you feel every song. Her demeanour as Gauhar is impeccable and creates an aura of knowing her own stardom as Gauhar Jaan did in real life. Zila Khan is marvellous as both Gauhar’s mother and the older Gauhar, as well. Her expertise in singing is well-known and she delivers on her reputation. Denzil Smith has proved his acting prowess time and again, and with this one, he just stamps his authority on stage. He does two roles and pulls off the posh English and the Armenian accent with equal ease. It is a joy to watch everyone on stage in this one.

The entire play is elevated with the set design and the lights. The lights reflect the raag being sung and is also employed to mark the emotions being dealt with on stage. The set design is minimalistic yet magnifies the play and the era beautifully.

Gauhar is a play everyone needs to watch, especially people who love music of any kind. It brings you close to the lost legend of Indian music, a gutsy star who went against the flow and brought a variety of music to everyone through her records. With the play, her legend is resurrected and how!

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