Gauhar Jaan – The Datia Incident at Omnibus Theatre
Walking into the long auditorium at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, you are greeted by the dulcet tones of the sitar and the smell of incense. A dais fitted with crimson brocade sits at the far end of the room, grandly awaiting the arrival of the audience to the Maharaja’s court. Gauhar Jaan – The Datia Incident, it seems to say, will see you now.
At the turn of the 20th century, we find a young American executive heading to India to capture on record the famed voice of the so-called “Nightingale of India”, Gauhar Jaan, and bring the sound of classical Indian music to his employers in London. Mysteriously, he finds himself chasing the elusive courtesan and musician, but consistently comes up against a singular scandal in her fabled past: the Datia incident. Still, her reputation precedes her as a strong woman, able to bring rulers to their knees with her quick wit and razor-sharp tongue.
The story of the legendary singer – and the first Indian woman to be recorded for the gramophone – has its roots in truth. An informative exhibition that accompanies the show helps place the narrative in its proper historical context and highlight a relatively unknown, but doubtless important, episode in the history of music. Indeed, at its heart, the play is a sort of celebration of this tradition and of classical Indian culture as a whole. It has an element of the spectacular about it, with scenes interspersed with dance in regular, almost cinematic sequences as the hems of the dancers’ skirts breeze by the audience.
The production leans perhaps to too great an extent on these moments, and on humourous anachronisms in the script. As playwright Tarun Jasani weaves a tapestry of fiction and history, the plot sometimes lags, losing itself somewhat in parables and poetics.
Photo: Buffy Sharpe
Gauhar Jaan – The Datia Incident is at Omnibus Theatre from 10th April until 29th April 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.