8a468eaf2d0b7fb300ce1e89fcc835d6-1As the story of Umrao Jaan unfolds before you on stage, it is hard to believe that the lady behind this production is Sally L. Jones, who went to India to “find herself.”

“I don’t know if I have managed to find myself but I have certainly found India, her mystery and magic, and more importantly her culture, which I want to share and bring to the West,” says Jones.
Along with a team of like-minded people, Jones conceived a theater-promoting company, Rasik Arts Inc., which promises to open doors linking the cultures of North America and South-East Asia. “It is not only the west, but also second and third-generation Indian-Americans and Indo-Canadians who know little of their culture other than what Indian films have to offer. Rasik Arts promises to change all that,” adds Jones, artistic director and founder of Rasik Arts.

The company has promoted and presented plays from India like Naga Mandala and the recent Umrao adapted from the legendary novel Umrao Jaan Ada about a 19th century courtesan, whose love and life charmed many. Sally also directed the humane play Tara written by Mahesh Dattani, which was staged in Toronto in Jan. 2002. Along with this, this also organizes and promotes various theater workshops by renowned playwrights and directors from India, including Girish Karnad, Mahesh Dattani, et al.

Sally came to Toronto to pursue a career in arts and theatre and enrolled in the University of Toronto’s graduate theatre program. Here, she wanted to incorporate music and dance into theatre and decided to experiment with the medium.

It was while studying her doctorate in theatre and while teaching at Ryerson’s and Queen’s University, that Sally was first introduced to India. “My tryst with India started through the medium of dance. I enrolled in Joanna Das’ kathak dance school in Toronto and was among the first among her batch of students in 1988. I took to dance to enhance my knowledge of theatre, acting, communication and movement. And, the initial introduction to India has grown into an undying relationship, which grows with every visit to India. I met the likes of Birju Maharaj and learnt the Thumri last spring,” adds Sally.
Through kathak she learnt the importance of the Indian culture, dance movements and expressions that added to her dramatic experience. Upon her first visit to India, she did not know what to expect. “People told me I would find myself in India. Even, while this did not happen, I kind of emerged from my shadow to rediscover myself,” adds Sally.

She has visited India six times in the last eight years and met and learnt under the likes of Birju Maharaj, Rukmani Devi and Padma Subramaniam. Each visit has managed to India demolish the many myths and misconceptions she held about India. One of them being on the submissive Indian woman.” Indian women are among the strongest in the world. I visited places like Delhi, Bangalore and Orissa but was scare to go to Bombay. It’s almost like New York.” While in India she saw a lot of dance performances and dance dramas, be it the street Ram Leela or ethnic folk tales performed in smaller towns and cities.

Fascinated by Girish Karnad’s play “Naga Mandala” which was about the cobra circle and expresses a humane tale through snake dance rituals and dance – Sally decided it would be her company’s first major stage performance and a challenging one at that. The play held audiences spellbound, when staged in Toronto a few years back.

The idea of staging her next theatrical venture,  “Umrao” came to Sally when she saw bought a tape of the movie from Gerrard Street and realized how powerful and popular the character of Umrao was to the Indian people.

“She is one of the greatest cultural icons of India and I went to Lucknow to study more about her background and the place she lived. Umrao Jaan was a charmer, a survivor, and a feminist ahead of her times. She accepted fate with great poise and dignity and had no room for self-pity and anguish. Her character had charmed many before me and I too succumbed to this fascination me and we adapted the play in English for the western audience,” adds Sally.

Rasik Arts presented the classic tale of the loves and adventures of the beloved 19th century courtesan, Umrao, for the first time in English in September this year. A talented cast of Indo-Canadian actors likes Ellora Patnaik, Doris Rajan, Ishwar Mooljee, Layanti Banerjee and others rendered power-packed performances.

While, Umrao played to packed audiences in Toronto Sally enjoyed the production challenges it brought, including the authentic music, dance, costumes, sets and lighting the play required.  Sally wants the play to tour major cities and town across Canada and the US. After Umrao, Sally would like to bring some Mahesh Dattani’s plays to Canada. He is an India’s leading English language playwright. His plays are contemporary, urban portraits of life and easier to produce and won him the 1998 Sahitya Akademi Award for his work “Final Solutions and Other Plays.”  Dattani runs his own studio in Bangalore where he trains and showcases new talents in acting, directing and play righting.
His recent play “Tara” is set in contemporary Bombay, “Tara” is a humorous, moving, and bittersweet tale of a brother and sister, twins, conjoined at birth. It looks at gender bias, the pain of being ‘different’, and the male and female within us all. The play was directed by Sally, who finds Dattani to be, “a sensitive writer with a lot of insight into the human mind,” and wants to bring another of his plays “Sandok – The Chest” to Canada and the US. Besides this, She wants to film a documentary on traditional, village storytellers of India that take to story telling for a living but have evolved it to a mystic art.

“With Rasik Arts and our interactive website (www.rasikarts.com), I plan is to use the tools of theatre, dance and drama to make a better human being out of each and everyone of us. I want Indians to play more than the brown-nose and your routine Indian cab driver in an international arena. I hope Rasik Arts goes a long way in changing the image of the Indian stereotype in the West!” she says wishfully.

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