Court of Indra (Indar Sabha)
CENTURY OLD URDU OPERA WRITTEN UNDER EUROPEAN CULTURAL INFLUENCE
Author: Late Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla (circa 1938) ©
Cover Page of the 1887 Edition of the Indar Sabha Book
Court of Indra or, to give the opera its popular Hindustani title, Indar Sabha, was the first Indian opera to be arranged and performed on Western models. The story and the libretto were written by Syed Agha Hassan Amanat, a poet of Lucknow, about the middle of the nineteenth century, a decade before the Mutiny.
Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh, was an accomplished musician. It is said that a French musician - probably a former military bandsman or bandmaster - took service under him. The Nawab was told about the glories of the European opera: its ballet, its orchestra, its fantastic settings, its grotesque plots. Wajid Ali Shah became so much interested that he commissioned Syed Agha Hassan Amanat to write out a suitable story in Urdu verse, interspersed with Hindi songs.
The poet took a year and a half to complete the work, together with complete stage directions which appeared in the first edition of the book. The Nawab supervised the production and probably composed part of the music. There is also evidence to show that he took the chief part in the opera whenever it was performed before the courtiers on the huge stage built in Kaisar Bagh at Lucknow!
Thus for the first time an Indian opera on Western models and a large orchestra of Indian musical instruments - Sarangis, Chikaras, Sitars, Woodwind, and Percussion - came into being, forestalling the modern Indian radio and cinema-studio orchestras by over a century. It was the precursor to modern developments in the Indian theatre.
The great Parsi actor-manager of the 1890s, Khursedji Baliwala, who did so much to introduce Western technique on the Indian stage, had Indar Sabha regularly in his repertoire. Before the days of "talkies" well-known singers with histrionic talent used to specialise in the various parts of the opera and made small fortunes for the producing companies that engaged them. Even when the "talkies" came, Indar Sabha was one of the first sound films to be made in India. It was produced under the personal supervision of another great actor-manager, the late J. F. Madan. To this day the opera is put on boards and also broadcast by several radio stations in Northern India. It is remarkable that this century-old opera continues to retain its popularity.
Some portions of the music of Indar Sabha show an incipient influence of European melodies and "march time", though no melodies have been harmonised. Mostly the music is on the classical Indian model. Some basic concepts of Indian musical theory have been utilised to advantage. The opera begins with melodies prescribed, according to Hindu theory, for the early part of the night. It ends with melodies in the type Bhairavi, the classical melody for dawn. The music therefore synchronises in theory with the time of the actual performance, which takes over seven hours. The opera usually begins after 10 p.m. and ends just before dawn.
Properly speaking, Indar Sabha is an operatic fantasy. It contains quintessence of "stuff that dreams are made of". Nevertheless it has a strong human interest. Its plot is an absorbing love story in a setting of a fantastic intermixture of Iranian legend and Hindu mythology. It has just the right elements for a successful operatic fantasy.
Raja Indra, the superhuman king, is the ruler of Parastan (Fairyland) said to be situated in Koh Qaf, the Caucasus Mountains, beyond Iran. His subjects, the denizens of Parastan, are divided into two classes of beings. There are superhuman Peris (Fairies) who can fly about in the air at will. The fairies are beautiful damsels in human form, but each has a pair of wings like those of an angel in classical Italian paintings. The fairies, though superhuman, are endowed with all the passions of human beings. Then there are the demons (dev), who can smell out things like animals and also transport themselves from place to place in the twinkling of an eye. They have horns and tails.
Amanat explains in his stage directions and notes that he conceived the fairies to be of four kinds, each being the denizens of one of the four quarters: North, South, East, and West. The four orders are distinguished by four colours and named after four kinds of coloured semi-precious stones.
The opera mainly deals with the doings of the Green (emerald) Fairy, who is the chief dancer at the Court of Indra and the head of all fairies.
All the demons are under two chiefs - the Red Demon and the Black Demon. The Red Demon (Lāl Dev) appears in the opera in the traditional make-up of Mephistopheles with an added tail, as long as a bullock's. The Black Demon (Kālā Dev) is similiarly attired, but in black. Both these demons are very fat. They are the Masters of Ceremony at the court of Indra, his court jesters, and also the personal servants of the fairies, and are responsible for law and order in Parastan.
The story of the opera deals with the interaction between these denizens of a super-human kingdom and a mortal man, a Prince of Akhtarnagar, said to be in Hindustan. What a conception for and operatic fantasy!
Now for the Story .....
"COURT OF INDRA"
Prince Gulfam (the "Flower Prince"), the son of Gulzar Shah (the "Flower-Garden King"), once got tired of the pomp and pageantry at the court of his father. He decided to go out to the royal garden on the outskirts of the city and pass a peaceful night among flowers.
It was the night of the full moon. The māli arranged for him a bed bedecked with flowers and, after a short prayer of thanksgiving, the Prince lay down on the flower-covered couch and fell asleep.
On this very night the Green Fairy (Sabz Pari), on her way down from Parastan to the Court of Raja Indra, was out for an airing. She was flying over Hindusthan when, attracted by the beauty of the moonlit garden beneath her, she was tempted to descend down to earth. This was against the laws of Parastan, but who would see, she argued, who would know if she broke the law for just once, to satisfy her curiosity? She would just have a peep around and then fly on to the Court in time for her part in the nightly ritual of song and dance over there. Womanlike, she was tempted to break the law; she disobeyed and paid the price of disobedience.
Moving about in the beautiful garden, she espied someone sleeping on a bed bedecked with flowers. She had never seen a human being before. At the same time, though a celestial fairy, she had all the passions commonly ascribed to denizens of the mortal earth. Curiosity brought her near the bed of the sleeping Prince - his entrancing beauty did the rest. For the first time in her fairy existence she experienced the pangs of love!
Love for a human being! How would it end? Anyway, there was no time to think now; the moment of her appearance at the celestial court was drawing near. Hurriedly she slipped a ring with a green stone from off her finger put it on the finger of the sleeping Prince. Kissing him softly, she flew back to Parastan.
*** *** *** *** ***
The song and dance at the Court of Indra had almost come to an end. The Raja ordered the Black Demon (Kālā Dev) to produce the Chief Dancer. The Green Fairy was just in time for her part. The Raja was already tired out and soon fell asleep. The Court ended.
The Black Demon
The Green Fairy went back to her own palace but she could not keep her mind off the "Flower Prince". She called her slave, the good natured Black Demon, and confided her secret. Telling him exactly what had happened and where she had seen the sleeping Prince, the Fairy coaxed and cajoled the Black Demon to bring the Prince to Parastan. She would keep him hidden in her own private palace and none need suspect the presence of a human being in Parastan. Her entreaties had effect and, after extracting a solemn promise of secrecy, the Black Demon - with his magical powers - transported the sleeping Prince, complete with his flower bedecked bed, to the palace of the Green Fairy in Parastan.
Now that the sleeping Prince was actually before her, the Green Fairy, woman-like, became shy and coquettish. How could she wake up this stranger she did not know? So the Black Demon, with further entreaties, was cajoled into waking up the Prince. But the Prince was sound asleep and all the soft words of the Black Demon had no effect. Ultimately the demon gave him a blow and the Prince woke up with a start.
Prince in Wonderland
Demons and Fairyland are out of the normal experience of even princes ruling patches of mortal earth. First the Prince thought he was dreaming. The scene around him was constantly changing as if by magic. When he saw the Black Demon he was nearly out of his wits. He rushed about like a madman, trying to find a way of escape from his fantastic surroundings. Where was he? Would that uncouth black creature with horns and a tail eat him up? Where were his servants? Where were his father and mother? Would he ever get back home? He was on the verge of losing his reason.
Quickly grasping the situation the Fairy, who stood hiding in a corner, sent the Black Demon away. Approaching the Prince from behind she placed a soft hand on his shoulder. The touch reassured him. Turning around he saw a beautiful damsel, completely in green, smiling at him reassuringly. But how could a human being have a couple of wings attached to the shoulders? He recoiled from her touch in horror. She tried her best to reassure him, but he would not approach her. He angrily demanded to know why he was in those fantastic surroundings, who was she, and what were the two wing-like things jutting from her shoulders?
His surprise and fear were only intensified when she told him that she was a real fairy and that the two feathery things were real wings with which she could fly about. She also told him how she had fallen in love with him and how the Black Demon had been prevailed upon to bring the Prince to Fairyland.
The Prince's Predicament
The Prince was lost in wonder. He did not know what to make of this strange situation.
"You now know who I am" said the Fairy, "but tell me who are you?"
"I?" replied the bewildered Prince, "Why I am the Prince Gulfam, the son of Gulzar Shah. And I command that I should immediately be sent back to the kingdom of my father."
"What a man! Why should you wish to go back to mortal earth, having set foot in Fairyland? Why not spend the rest of your life in the pleasures of love?"
The Prince thought this over. Apparently there was no way to get out of the clutches of this cruel fairy but he would make her pay dearly for her whims!
"How can I trust one who has had me abducted? Anyway, what do you do here for a living?", he asked.
"I am the chief dancer at the Court of the great Raja Indra. Isn't that enough work for a living?"
The Prince was lost in thought. "I see. I have heard story-tellers relate about the wonderful festivals of song and dance at the Court of Indra."
"They speak the truth; the festivals are really wonderful", was the eager reply.
"Then, while I am here, I might as well see what the festivals are like", said the crafty Prince. The Fairy was horrified.
The Green Fairy's Fright
How could a mere human being even dare to make such a suggestion? Was it not enough that, against all the laws of Fairyland, he had been brought here? Did he know what the angry Raja would do if he found a human being in Parastan? And she detailed to him all the terrible forms of punishment meted out to wrong-doers in Fairyland. But the Prince was adamant.
"If you really love me, you must show me the Court of Indra. That is the only condition on which I shall consent to live with you in Fairyland."
"But you cannot fly. How can I take you with me, even if I dare to do so? The Court of Indra is very far away. Long distances have to be traversed through the sky before one can reach there."
The Prince smiled. "It is quite easy", he said, "either you get me a pair of wings or, if that is not possible, there is another way."
"And what is that?"
"When sitting on your throne you rise into the air, I shall take hold of one of the feet of the throne, and will thus fly with you."
"And what if you are discovered?"
"Why should I be? Ask the Black Demon who has dared against all laws to bring me here, to hide me somewhere at the Court. Anywhere. In the branches of a tree, if no other place can be found. All I want is to witness the festival. Then we can fly back here and I shall be your for life."
As luck would have it, at this very moment the Red Demon came in, unperceived, to deliver a message fro the Red Fairy. He overheard the conversation. He was the enemy of the Black Demon and his protégé, the Green Fairy. Bearing the information in mind, he went out as silently as he had come in. Meanwhile, the quarrel between the Green Fairy and the Prince continued.
"No, I cannot take you under any circumstances", was the final and firm reply of the Fairy.
"Very well", replied the Prince calmly. "Since I can neither go back to my father's domain nor can I even see the festival at the Court of Indra, I may as well put an end to my wretched existence." Quickly drawing his dagger he tried to stab himself, but the Fairy was quicker. She snatched the dagger from him; he grabbed it back. She had to use all her strength to prevent him from cutting his own throat!
"Will you take me?" he shouted while she struggled with him. "Yes -yes - I will", she faltered. "PROMISE!" he shouted louder still.
Only when she had gone through the ritual of solemn promise, he let go of the dagger and smiled sweetly at her.
But the Fairy was sad; inexpressibly sad. How would it all end? Anyway, come what may, a Fairy's promise must be kept. So, calling the Black Demon, the Green Fairy explained the arrangement to him and for the first time a mortal human being managed to witness the ritual of song and dance at the celestial Court of India.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
It was the night of the full moon. Raja Indra was holding his Sabha in a celestial garden. Prince Gulfam sat hidden in a huge shamshad tree. What he saw far surpassed his wildest imaginings.
Song and Dance
First Raja Indra, seated on his resplendent throne and surrounded by courtiers, would summon a Demon - Lāl Dev and Kālā Dev - by turns. The Raja would demand that a certain fairy be brought. While the Demon was away to find the fairy the courtiers would rise and sing in chorus, heralding the approach of the fairy and describing her charms and accomplishments. Then the Demon would return and make some passes in the air. Immediately a magic fire would rise from the ground and the fairy called would materialise or she would come flying down from the sky.
The fairy would first sing several songs and then she would dance until the Raja, pleased with her performance, would offer her a little present. Gratefully accepting this she would then take her appointed seat on one side of the throne, opposite to the courtiers. And then the next fairy would be called. Each succeeding fairy far excelled in song and dance her predecessor. Prince Gulfam saw a number of them - each of a different hue - appear.
At length the Raja ordered the Black Demon to produce the Green Fairy, who was the Chief Dancer at the Court. She surpassed all the other fairies both in song and in dance. While she was dancing the Red Demon was looking around every nook and corner of the celestial garden. When the dance was at its height the Red Demon came rushing into the Court.
"Adam Boo! Adam Boo!" he shouted, "I smell a human being!" The dance stopped abruptly. The Green Fairy feared the worst. In an attempt to hide her crime she went over to where the Red Demon stood at the foot of the throne.
"How can you smell a human being in Fairyland? How dare you interrupt my dance?" she said defiantly. But the Red Demon was adamant. "I do smell a human being", he persisted.
The two Demons - Black and Red - were also the Court Jesters. Indra thought this was merely an ill-timed joke. "If you smell a human being", he said, "then produce him!"
There was complete silence while the Red Demon once again looked everywhere for a human being. Meanwhile the Black Demon had made Prince Gulfam to descend from the shamshad tree and to hide behind him. After a long game of hide and seek Gulfam was at last discovered and dragged before the enraged Raja. The commotion was indescribable. Never before has mortal set foot in Fairyland!
"Tell me who brought you here?", shouted the furious Raja at the cowering Prince.
"This creature!", blurted the frightened Prince, pointing at the Green Fairy.
Down rushed Raja Indra from his throne and, with a dagger in hand, pounced upon the Green Fairy. He would have killed her outright, but for the entreaties of the courtiers and all other fairies who begged that the life of the Chief Dancer may be spared.
"But she must be punished so that an example is set to others", thundered Indra.
He ordered the beautiful wings of the Green Fairy to be destroyed there and then. When this was done he ordered her banishment, not only from the Court, but from Fairyland. She was to be thrown down upon mortal earth, there to eke out her existence any way she liked. Parastan was henceforth forbidden to her.
Then the Raja turned towards the Prince. "As for you, wretch", he thundered, "I order the Red Demon to take you to the borders of Koh Qaf and there to throw you into a well of eternal fire. You will neither die nor live, but roast in the fire till eternity."
The Prince was horror stricken at this cruel punishment. As the Red Demon came forward to put him in chains, the Green Fairy rushed to embrace him. They were separated immediately.
"Did I not warn you, sweet fool, not to insist on being brought here? Do you see now where your stubbornness has landed us both?"
Indra's word was law in Fairyland. Prince Gulfam was dragged away by the Red Demon to be thrown into the well of eternal fire; The Green Fairy was thrown down upon the mortal earth, with her wings clipped and her celestial robes taken away from her. With the disappearance of the Chief Dancer the Court of Indra lost most of its lustre. Indra became sad. The Black Demon, in his capacity as Master of Ceremonies, was hard put to find a substitute for the inimitable Green Fairy, now in digress.