Beyond Bollywood: a cultural tour of India on stage

A diverse gathering of Omanis, Westerners and Indians awaited the arrival of Bollywood extravaganza, “Namaste India” at the Royal Opera House Muscat with eager intrepidation, not knowing quite what to expect. Programme notes stated, “it is a monsoon of emotion that explores the fire, heat and passion of Indian dance.” It sounded enticing, and one thing was clear, the House was not only sold-out, but very few seats were left empty on Thursday evening.
The show was a celebration of costume and dance across the country, traditional and modern, loosely knitted together by a story-line. It tells of a girl’s dream to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and how it brings her to fulfilment and love as she travels across India, discovering the roots she never knew. Shaily Shergil’s mother, Jasvinder Singh, was an established Kathak artist, danced here by the equally renowned and accomplished Kathak choreographer, Pooja Pant, in a cameo role which opened and closed the ‘exuberant theatrical coup’. The extravaganza began with a Banghra-Bharatanatyam fusion against an impressive backdrop of the Umaid Bhavan Hotel in Jodhpur projected in glorious technicolour behind the dholak drummers and dancers.
‘The best of Bollywood’s creative talent dreamed up this breath-taking spectacular, bursting with life’ as never seen at ROHM before. Credit goes to Video and Graphics Designer, Ganesh Nayak, and Lighting engineer, Ravindra Mali for achieving this all-dancing visual feast.
The story begins in Germany as Shaily is working on her dance-routine at The Great Indian Theatre, Munich, which is under threat of closure. Performed with brilliant energy and versatility, dancer-actor Ana Ilmi, brings a youthful flexibility to her non-stop, demanding performance throughout the show. She is aided by her friend Katrina, played convincingly by Goral Joshi who is a Bharatanatyam exponent herself. The second dance was an up-to-date break-dance interpretation of Slum Dog Millionaire’s ‘Jai Ho’, bringing increasing vibrancy and searing energy to the stunning musical drama.
The next dance presented a powerful stylistic contrast. Set in a City Jazz Cabaret, a highlight of Part One saw the twelve male dancers in gangster costume in a sleazy, sultry dance, with the first appearance of gymnast, Aanchal Batra, as the seductive Hindi Jazz singer. Later, a visit to the Maharashtra Ganesh Festival in Bombay, with its lavish costumes and wild, earthy rhythms began a new section of the narrative.
The whole production was a Bollywood version of ‘High School Musical’. Lyricist Irfan Siddiqui collaborated with renowned Indian choreographer, director and scriptwriter, Rajeev Goswami, and founded RG Studios. The original score for the pre-recorded soundtrack was written by the respected composing duo, Salim and Sulaiman Merchant. Together they created “Namaste India” in 2015 which went on to play for six weeks at The London Palladium.
Linking the sequences in two Acts was the comedy double-act obligatory in any Hindi Movie. The straight-guy and love-interest character, Raghav, was played by the multi-talented Sushant Vasishth, a prolific dancer, singer and actor who trained, impressively with Lushin Dubey, along with Derek Sharma who performed various roles throughout the show.
The fall-guy and buffoon was Mumbai-based singer, actor and percussionist, Soham Joshi as Ballu. While confident and experienced, the constant shouting self-parody and overly slapstick pastiche began to wear thin, and finally detracted from the superb dance scenes which stood up well enough on their own. If Act One was a little too modern for some tastes, Act Two catapulted the audience right into the heart of India’s countryside and provided some authentically portrayed traditional dances in a ‘cultural tour of India’. The projection of ‘Incredible India’ emphasised the vision behind the project, and it is no coincidence that this is the slogan of the Indian Tourist Board!
Part Two began on the cool, moonlit desert sands of Rajasthan with the nomadic Kalbeliya people – formerly snake charmers – whose women wear ornamented long, black skirts for their lively, twirling folk-dance.
Followed by a trip to Gujarat during Navratri, the troupe danced the popular ‘Dandiya Raas’ for Lord Krishna with sticks clashing rhythmically, against a lovely image of a swan-lake, and ‘Rama Lila’ in spinning, colourful dresses. Costume designer Prajakta Gore made over a thousand costumes to create the magic on stage, so full of glamour, yet retaining the original raw flavour of the folk dances.
The scene shifted to a huge backdrop of an ancient monument in the Punjab – where Shaily’s family originated – and the most pulsating, vibrant Banghra performance in yellow and red with dhols beaten enthusiastically entertained wedding guests. The icing on the cake – and most globally celebrated of all – came the Holi Festival in Agra, in front of a dazzling projection of the iconic Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, Mumtaz. The scene transformed into a bustling street-market with a semi-traditional dance, Bollywood inflected, using movement as exuberant as the luminous, exotic Holi colours exploding on stage. Touring East, the girls were taken to see the vigorous Martial Arts Sword Dance, Chhau, in Orissa and the elegant, graceful Bihu tea-dance in Assam.
The most poignant scene in Part Two was performed by aerial artists, Anshul Sharma and Aanchal Batra, dressed in dazzling white on a hooped-trapeze, twisting suspended in mid-air to an evocative slow ballad, which echoed the two principals falling in love. Each shift and pose received awe-inspired gasps and applause from enraptured onlookers.
The Finale was a climax of Bollywood proportions, never before seen outside the movies. There were fireworks – literally – behind the pulsating athleticism of the last dance. A final appearance of Pooja Pant as Mother brought the story full-circle. Shaily and Raghav’s wedding was juxtaposed with Shaily mirroring her mother’s footsteps in a Kathak reprise.
The show lasted just long enough, under an hour each way with no opportunity for encores or curtain calls. It was a perfect ending, and the audience slipped into the night wanting more, yet satisfied with the whistle-stop cultural tour of ‘Incredible India’.

Georgina Benison