Royal Twist showed Naya Zamana at its zenith

Naya Zamana 19: A Royal Twist presented two weeks ago as a repeat performance by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha is worth revisiting. This is so because of the celebration of the annual dance production’s 20th Anniversary in 2015. Though it might be a private triumph for Naya Zamana and its producers, it is more important for its place in dance in Guyana at a national level and in dance theatre productions specifically.

What is more, is the quality of the production. To that may be added the meaning of its achievements, the kind of theatre that it attempts and that which it represents in the larger context of the national dance theatre.

A Royal Twist was written, choreographed and directed by Dr Vindhya Persaud, a dancer/choreographer and designed by Trishala Persaud, also a dancer, who produced the set and costumes. It is a mixture of types which has matured after varied experiments tried by Dr Persaud over successive years of the annual production. It is a musical and a dance drama with strains and influences of the Broadway musical, but a more pronounced derivative of the Bollywood cinema. It is Indian drama and theatre with several characteristics of the forms.

20100919artsonsundayNaya Zamana has reached a high point arising from the importance of its background. This background involves a mixture of the Hindu Society at the University of Guyana and dance performances on campus involving Vindhya and Trishala Persaud. But it also had much to do with the development of a dance group in the Dharmic Sabha’s Kendra in Prashad Nagar. The development of dance in Guyana, and particularly Indian dance, benefited from the contributions of Hinduism which drove performance in kendras and mandirs around chowtals and melas during Phagwah and Diwali. This led to the formation of several dance troupes. In synchrony with this was the public training in dance which developed in the 1970s that helped to produce persons trained in the form, further leading to the establishment of schools and companies.

Out of these came such institutions as the National School of Dance, the National Dance Company, the Nadira and Indrani Shah Dance Troupe, Nrityageet, the Indian Cultural Centre, the group coming out of the (now named) Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud Dharmic Sanskritik Kendra and Naya Zamana, along with many other private dance schools and companies. These have been important developments in dance theatre in Guyana.

This production has risen from that background fortified by the extensive training and research into Indian dance put into Naya Zamana. It took a number of years, however, for the annual show to settle down into a mature shape as achieved in such productions as Ramlila and A Royal Twist.

A part of the Naya Zamana cast
A part of the Naya Zamana cast

This drama is set at the greatest heights of the powerful and successful Mughal Empire in India during the very long reign of the Emperor Akbar-e-Azam in the sixteenth century. So successful was this king that he is recorded in history as Akbar the Great. It is a love story, a tragedy, in which Akbar’s son and heir Prince Saleem (Salim), who succeeded his father and continued the dynasty as Emperor Jahangir, falls in love with a court dancer Anarkali.

This angered Akbar who eventually brought the romance to a tragic end. The story of Anarkali, referred to as a slave girl, is missing from some historical records and is surrounded by mystery in others.

Vindhya Persaud’s treatment of the story is highly influenced by the Bollywood film Mughal-e-Azam (Emperor of the Mughals) – more a story about Akbar, but with the Saleem/Anarkali love affair at its centre. Like the movie, Dr Persaud trades on the mystery to take artistic advantage and even makes effective use of the versions of the story, as will become evident below.

In A Royal Twist, an actress turned director, Riya (Dr Indhira Harry) decides to dramatise the love story as her first stage play. Leading her cast is the conceited, self-centred Sid (Norman Ahmad) who is immediately romantically interested in her. But two important things happen as she begins rehearsals. The real Prince Saleem appears from the past (Arun Subramanian), remains close to her and takes quite an interest in the stage drama. Secondly, she finds an old neglected manuscript with a different account of the ancient story that causes her to change her ending to what seems to be the true account. The mysterious Prince Saleem approves of this and declares her work true and successful.

As it turns out, he has a personal interest in it. When Emperor Akbar (Nazim Hussain) condemns Anarkali (Zahrah Alli) to death to end the affair with Saleem, her mother curses both father and son – that Saleem would wander around forever and would only find peace if the story of Anarkali is told and it makes someone who does not believe in love, changed by the story. It so happens that Riya is a skeptic with no time for love, but is moved by the story of her play, ending up a believer and providing the real Saleem with his catharsis; giving him satisfaction that the true story of his love Anarkali has been told.

The play moves between the enactment of the affair in the court of Akbar and Riya’s direction of her play, between the truth of the past and the versions played in the present. These parallels are kept together dramatically by a Narrator (Aamir Khan) who at times over-explains it, but works very well, both as a character and a Chorus adding value to the drama. Such a Narrator was a very good idea. Riya’s is a work of love because she is truly dedicated to it—first because she is all business and professionalism with a love for her work, and second, because the story teaches her what love is. Dr Harry’s performance is consistently faithful to this as she effectively delivers Riya torn between reality and fantasy and the natural conflict that develops between Prince Saleem and Sid.

These two parallel plots are both the best and the worst elements of the play. They make up the best because they add merit and depth to the work and complicate the drama in very creditable fashion, giving it interesting layers. The best part is the catharsis in the play’s resolution which neatly ties up the two layers of parallel plots. Riya is committed to telling the truth about the love story and therefore serves the Prince’s purpose. In the process she begins to believe that love exists.

Where the problem arises is that the ending in which she finds love herself is unconvincing. Sid is not a worthy partner for her and pales badly in comparison with the prince who was willing to risk his succession to the throne because of his love for Anarkali. His father had to play a sad trick on him to force the lovers apart. Sid on the other hand comes over as shallow, vain, conceited and self-centred and seems more in love with himself first, and then with the idea of being in love with Riya. He is a most unlikely candidate for the man with whom she finds love. Both actors, Subramanian and Ahmad play the roles to suit, as did Dr Harry in her obvious uncertain bemusement in the final scene when she is dragged off to the cast party.

The production as a whole was a very grand spectacle and successful theatre. It had all the high qualities of Indian dance and theatre including spectacle, colour, excellent costuming and set as designed by Trishala Persaud. The dance sequences worked with precision, good pace and energy in a production well managed by Dr Persaud. Its characteristic grandeur demonstrated the levels reached by the kind of Indian dance theatre now seen in the Naya Zamana of today.   Hussain captured the imperious presence of the Emperor Akbar just as Zahrah Alli created the grace and simplicity of the court dancer, both in her dancing and her acting.

All the technical support was in place and worked effectively – the lighting and the sound were robust and ample. Their quality was better than what one has become accustomed to at the Cultural Centre. One wonders whether Naya Zamana 19 shipped in extra facilities or extra help to boost light and sound.

The setting of the Mughal Court in all its grandeur, the atmosphere of pomp and ceremony enhanced the presentation in very realistic fashion. All that was achieved without affecting the modern day scenes which contrasted. The production demonstrated Naya Zamana at its zenith with a form in which it has settled after years of effort, while exhibiting what can be achieved today in dance theatre in Guyana.

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