Gauhar Jaan – The Datia Incident

Looking at a beautifully lit and visually enticing set on a traverse stage, this production of Gauhar Jaan - The Datia Incident looks very promising.

This has the potential to be a great and dynamic play in performance.

The dais at one end is in a red light with luxuriant cushions; there are authentic-looking carpets and muslim symbols painted on the floor. The sounds of sitars fill the small Omnibus Theatre, establishing the mood and lavish environment of a Maharaja's palace. At the other end, the white curtains have differently angled silhouettes of windows symbolising the outside world. When music is not playing, the sound of the monsoon is constant.

The intentions of this play, written by Tarun Jasani, are admirable: to bring the cultural heritage of India and the story of one of its most famous singers to the attention of a London audience. The circumstances surrounding The Datia Incident are re-imagined and given three completely different explanations by three different characters (all played by the same actor) to Fred Gaisberg, who is seeking to record the famous singer Gauhar Jaan, played by Sheetal Kapoor.

The play is well written, but the scenes need to be re-ordered to make full use of the traverse. Too much time is spent in the palace, before the slow pace is broken by the livelier scenes with Fred Gaisberg (competently performed by Jordon Kemp) and his encounters with a variety of characters, enthusiastically played by Jas Steven Singh.

Sheetal Kapoor's performance lacks the necessary diversity of mood. This supposedly volatile singer never changes her vocal tone or physicality and never even sings. The exchanges between the Maharaja and his advisor are indeed interesting as they discuss and elaborate many of the cultural attitudes of the time. There is good deal of character development in these scenes, enabling the actors to offer the audience some dramatic tension.

Devesh Kishore, playing the advisor, is best when on his own, philosophising about the nature of the Moghul despots, and the role he plays within that culture. He is engaging as he uses the acting space with a natural ease, connecting well with the audience. However the palace scenes still feel laboured; even when the dance sequences are performed with great subtlety and beauty, the skilful movements often appear to have little meaning.

The endings of almost all scenes were ineffective with the last lines having little impact; the multimedia ending was momentarily engaging but its purpose was unclear. Was it meant to provide an element of authenticity? Or was it a convenient way of avoiding what might have been a very difficult scene to perform from a technical point of view? And was it really necessary to put up the casting and production details already in the programme?

The three different accounts of The Datia Incident are at the core of the plot and seemed to dominate it. This should have been more balanced with what seemed to become a sub-plot; the search to record the singer.

This has the potential to be a great and dynamic play in performance, but like The Datia Incident itself, it needs re-imagining when next performed.

Reviews by Jessica Holt

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The Blurb

India, Oct 1902. Fred Gaisberg is travelling across the country capturing the exotic sounds of the East to be played on his miraculous new machine, the gramophone. He is hoping to record the beautiful voice of Gauhar Jaan, a young courtesan famed not only for her musical prowess but her arrogance.

Numerous travellers Gaisberg meets along the way recount the famous Datia Incident where the Maharaja and Gauhar Jaan ‘the Queen of the Arts’ indulged in a fierce battle of egos, the outcome of which threatens Gaisberg’s mission. Each tells the tale of what happened on that dark day in Datia.So what exactly happened?

This is a multilingual play fused with live music and dance that celebrates the early 20th century musical revolution, and the remarkable story of a talented musician who only ever craved control over her own fate.

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