The Twentieth Wife was published in 2002 and I’ve fielded numerous queries for cinematic rights. And then, a couple of years ago, a new history channel, Epic, bought the rights to the novels of the Taj trilogy, and very shortly after, began filming. The television series based on The Twentieth Wife, titled Siyaasat began airing in November.
Last year, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh wrote to me asking to convert The Twentieth Wife into a kathak dance drama—she would dance and I would narrate live during the performance.
Absolutely fascinated by this unusual medium to tell the story, I said yes.
This is a unique collaboration. While authors have written screenplays for their novels, in this production, the narrative is directly from the novel. What you’ve read in the book, you will see on stage.
Farah and I have had many discussions about this project, over many months now. Something, along these lines…
Indu Sundaresan: Why? Just, why?
Farah Yasmeen Shaikh: I first read The Twentieth Wife in 2006, on a flight to India for a performance with my Guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das and I was captivated by Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan. Every free moment, I would pick up the book if only to read a page or two before having to rush back to the dance floor.
Guruji noticed my attentiveness to the novel, and said, “Maybe you should dance something on this.” At that time in my career, I couldn’t have imagined that would ever become a reality.
IS: Why now? And, why did you want me to be such an integral part?
FYS: I felt an urge to connect at a more personal level with my craft, for a challenge that would fulfill me in a deeply personal way. I remembered your work—not just The Twentieth Wife but also The Feast of Roses—and so, it was Nur Jahan’s entire life.
I was inspired to represent all of her—loss, struggles, victories, respect for her parents, adoration of her daughter, and the love between Jahangir and her.
It was the words of the novel that brought Mehrunnisa to life for me. I knew dance and music would add a new dimension, and I envisioned a marriage of all these mediums.
It was truly an honor when you agreed to bring this project to life in collaboration with me.
IS: The Twentieth Wife dance drama has an original musical score. And, the performance is meant to be an experience—with multimedia, sound effects, vocals, and lighting. What led you to choose this cast?
FYS: I’m very fortunate that Salar Nader agreed to be not only the tabla artist, but also the Musical Director. He played the same role earlier, in adapting The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini. Salar has been trained by Ustad Zakir Hussain.
Ben Kunin, at the sarod, has a deep skill and knowledge of raag, having been trained by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
We also have multimedia to add texture. Some wonderfully talented people—Brooke Duthie, Ian Winters and Jim French—fill in as creative consultant, multimedia designer and lighting and set designer. It’s a dream production team!
IS: It’s safe to say you’ve been immensely busy for the past few months. How do you find the time to actually practice for the performance?
FYS: I get to the dance studio before 7 a.m., at least five days a week, and get 1-2 hours of riyaz (practice) in, digging deep into the characters and each scene. I have to be sure to first get a good physical workout also, focusing on strength and stamina. And then, I rush home, take my daughter to school, and then jump into a local café or library and work on the many other areas of this project. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I do!
IS: The Twentieth Wife is 380 pages long. The Twentieth Wife dance drama is about two hours. I helped write the final script, and I’m intrigued by why you picked specific scenes from the novel to tell the story.
FYS: I kept Mehrunnisa at the forefront, but, it was also important to tell the stories of characters who influenced her.
So, I gave importance to the relationship between Prince Salim and Emperor Akbar, especially when Salim tried to poison Akbar. After they reconciled, Salim was at such a profound loss when his father died.
On a more personal note, I remember choreographing the Akbar death scene and drawing on observing my own husband (also named Salim) and the devotion he had for his father. Akbar’s death is an especially emotional for me because of the personal experiences I visualize and honor when I perform this scene.
IS: You have eight costume changes during the performance, and play numerous characters—Mehrunnisa, Salim, Jahangir, Akbar, Ghias Beg, Ali Quli, Empress Jagat Gosini, among others. How do you do this?
FYS: We set a stop watch during rehearsals to get costume changes done in about 3 minutes. Each costume is designed for a quick change, layered whenever possible. My costume designer, Alka Garg, is an expert at creating looks that function for the intensity and movement of a Kathak dancer.
IS: I’m deeply grateful that readers worldwide have connected with the novel. What do you hope audience members take away from The Twentieth Wife dance drama?
FYS: I have multiple goals with this project. I want to honor the Indian classical traditions of dance by creating work steeped in Indian history while also being innovative. I want to bring all the emotion that I felt when reading The Twentieth Wife to life through my artistic vision and execution, and thus honor the research and writing of the novel. And, I want to shed light on women who constantly push the boundaries of societal pressures and expectations in the way Mehrunnisa did, to obtain her power and influence as Empress Nur Jahan, Light of the World.