Kabir Bedi and Lisa Ray.
Millions of people visit the Taj Mahal every year, not only to see the internationally renowned structure of white marble, but also to hear the tragic love story behind it: an emperor so heartbroken over the death of his beloved wife that he builds the world’s most beautiful tomb for her out of white marble. He makes sure it’s visible from his window so that every day he can be reunited with her. It’s a beautiful story, told many, many times over the years, and it’s being told again in the Sampradaya Dance Company‘s TAJ, which opened last night as part of the Luminato festival. Like the actual Taj, the show was a dramatic and extravagant testament to love, loss, and memory. Unfortunately, we missed the human connection that is supposed to be its foundation.
This is one of the year’s most anticipated shows, and it has all the makings of an epic production. The company is trying out a new style, a dance/theatre hybrid that brought its creators across India for research. The creative team is international and iconic—there’s Kathak choreographer Kumudini Lakhia, Canadian playwright John Murrell, Toronto opera director Tom Diamond, and producer Lata Pada, the artistic director of SAMPRADAYA Dance Company and legendary Bharatanatyam dancer. On stage, Bollywood superstar Kabir Bedi (The Bold and the Beautiful, Octopussy) as Shah Jahan and Canadian-born Lisa Ray (Water, Cooking With Stella) as his daughter Jahanara, are major box-office draws. The story revolves around love, death, betrayal, and passion. And with the Taj Mahal as the central figure, the potential for design is (pardon us) monumental.
Unfortunately, as promising as all these forces are, we were left unfulfilled. If the space had been larger, the hanging set pieces more elaborate, and the technicalities of raising and lowering such set pieces more fluid (an early backdrop of hanging Indian silks arrived and left with the grace of a new manual driver), then maybe we would feel like the majesty of the Taj was done justice. However, that isn’t to discredit Jacques Collin‘s masterful video projections, which we loved in Robert Le Page’s The Andersen Project. They certainly gave the show a sense of wonder, awe, fantasy, and creation similar to that of the Taj Mahal, especially when focusing on the intricate details of the marble carvings to represent the erection of the building in a more abstract way.
Kabir Bedi as the Shah Jahan, in the last decade of his life.
The projections mark one of the few examples of more conceptual storytelling in the show, which surprised us, since choreographer Lakhia wrote in her production notes for TAJ that she wanted dancers to do more than narrate the action. True, Ray and Bedi did the actual storytelling, but the dance sequences (taking place in Jahan’s memory) are very literal. The courting between young Jahan and the future inspiration for the Taj, Mumtaz Mahal, consists of a lot of coy maneuvering, the construction of the Taj Mahal has dancers mime carving and bricklaying as Bedi explains the process, and Mumtaz’s death involves her lying in a bed with a new baby in her arms, screaming, and throwing herself back from an embrace with Jahan in a dramatic loss of life. How could this be intended as anything but literal narration?
It could be that many of TAJ‘s troubles are the result of merging one art form with another. There is, regrettably, a barrier between the audience and Ray’s and Bedi’s performances as the former emperor and his devoted daughter, who spend their scenes together locked away in a room, gazing out at the Taj Mahal. They are film actors, Bollywood film actors in particular, used to a highly exaggerated, melodramatic style. While this is Ray’s Canadian stage debut and Bedi is slightly more familiar with live performance, both find themselves playing one slow-paced, heavily performed note, gazing into the distance, breathing heavily, and confined to a small corner of the stage. As a result, these complex characters fall flat, and key questions are left unanswered. Why were the families of Mumtaz and Jahan so opposed to their marriage, and why did they suddenly relent? How can Jahanara justify her father’s obsession with the Taj Mahal, when its construction bankrupted the citizens and killed so many workers? Does that not weigh on Jahan at all? And does his son, Aurangzeb, really only have malicious intentions when he usurps the role of emperor from his father?
What about Jahan’s other, less famous, wives? Do they not merit an acknowledgement on the stage, or shall they forever be the brides who were more like bridesmaids? These are incredibly complex characters and situations, critical to the story of the Taj Mahal but unexplored in TAJ. What results is a grand, beautiful shell, with not much inside.
Photos by Divine Method Photography