In the summer of 1875, the Bengal Renaissance culminated in a theatre boom in Calcutta, then the heart of the British-Indian Empire. The Empire’s capital was a hotbed of intellectuals, artists and culture and plays.
Among the plays of note was “The Splendid Opera of Indur Sabha” – an Urdu play about the court of a Hindu deity, funded by the local Jewish community. Calcutta’s Jewish community was (and are) called the Baghdadi Jews – a nod to their heritage as settlers from Baghdad of what was once the Ottoman Empire.
In the midst of steadily-more cosmopolitan times in Bengal, they settled and made themselves at home in their culture – and in that of the cultures around them. Between 1856-66, the Baghdadi Jews had their own serial, ‘Doresh tov le’ – later renamed the Hebrew Gazette. With an elegant lithography, it was written in their distinct Judeo-Arabic dialect in a Hebrew script.
The play has its roots with a local Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who, banished from his empire in Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh), lived a secluded life on the banks of the Hooghly river. He greatly resented the annexation of his kingdom but passed his days by supporting the arts. His court was a place where the arts of India found expression, from the dance form of Kathak to the theatrical adaptation of Hindu legends. The Nawab himself tried his hand at writing plays, penning a drama called ‘Radha Kanhaiya ki Qissa’ on the life of Krishna as Cowherd.
It was one of Wajid’s court poets, Agha Sayyid Hasan ‘Amanat’, who composed an illustrated manuscript of the play of Indar Sabha, in 1853. It was, by all accounts, a musical drama – featuring 31 ghazals, 9 thumris, 4 holis, 15 songs, two chaubolas and five chhand songs.
The story is similar to the tale of Prometheus; featuring a mortal who enters the court of Indra, ruler of the heavens, who falls in love with a fairy named Sabz Pari (Emerald Fairy). The fairies in Indra’s court are named after jewels – Emerald, Topaz, Sapphire and Ruby.
The fairy and the mortal conspire to be together, with the help of a demon named Kali Devi. But their forbidden love is punished by the gods. The fairy’s wings are clipped and the mortal is imprisoned in a well. The tale has a few parallels to Wajid’s own experience of being removed from his kingdom, and Indra is presented as similar to a Mughal ruler.
But what began as a courtly drama soon spread across the land as a cultural phenomenon. It traveled from Awadh to Bengal and Bombay – even spreading beyond the continent. It helped that it was a musical, and had a happy ending. The fairy becomes a Sanyasi who travels the lands singing songs. She manages to enchant her way back into Indra’s court – and secures the release of her lover.
The play is considered as the first Urdu drama and was republished in Hindi, Gurmukhi, Gujarati, Tamil, Sinhala, Malaya and even German.
From the 1870s, Parsi troupes blew audiences away with their performance of the play – where the female roles were played by men. It was the Parsis who helped bring the play to Malaysia, where the ‘Wayang Parsi’ artists performed the same melodies in the Malay tongue.
By the early 20th century, a manuscript was made in Calcutta that was a Hebrew copy of the original Urdu play.
The Jewish influence on the Urdu art didn’t end there. In the 1930s, fair-skinned Parsi women were employed to act in the play; advertised as “white-misses [gori-gori misen] who will present enchanting songs and dances”. Later, a Jewish actress named Jamila played the role of the Emerald fairy. The link between the Baghdadi Jews and Indian cinema could also have helped convert the play to the silver screen.
In 1932, a year after India’s first talky was released, “Indra Sabha” hit cinemas in India. The cinematographer was an Italian named T.Marconi – who had earlier worked on Savitri (1923). And, like the play, the film utilized a technique of musical narration; giving it by some measures as many as 71 songs. At the time, it was the musical with the most number of songs.
The film was remade in Tamil by A. Narayana, and again in Hindi in 1956. Sadly, none of the film versions have been preserved by the National Film Archives in Pune.
The Hebrew manuscript, however, remains preserved by the British Library in London. It’s a testimony to the effortless syncretism of India’s past – and the tides of media, art and technology that brought a Mughal’s play to the world and back.
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