Begum Sumroo Draws Curious Crowds

By Ali Hasan Cemendtaur


After drawing crowds of intrigued people for two weeks, the play ‘Begum Sumroo, the Rebel Courtesan’ held its last show on Sunday October 24 at the Artaud Theater in San Francisco. The play was produced by Theater Rasa Nova, a nascent group, in collaboration with Ekta.

Ghulam Qadir and Farzana
‘Begum Sumroo’ is a dramatization of the tumultuous times of the latter half of the eighteenth century witnessing the crumbling of the house of Timur and the growing influence of the English in India.

The events revolve around the colorful life of Farzana, a prostitute of Kashmiri descent, whose intrepidity and entrepreneurship make her the wife of General Walter Reinhardt, a young officer of East India Company, and later make her rule the small kingdom of Sardhana on her husband’s death.

Whereas no credit has been given to the historical references of the play I suspect Pratap Sharma, the playwright, derived his information from ‘Begam Samru: Fading Portrait in a Gilded Frame’ written by John Lall and ‘Dark Legacy, the Fortunes of Begam Samru’ a book by Shreeve Nicholas. In an obvious marketing stunt Sharma has creatively changed the name of the historical character from Begum Samru to Begum Sumroo--the unsuspecting audience believes the play is about an obscure Sindhi warrior lady.

‘Begum Sumroo’ is a carefully put together script. Pratap Sharma takes a curious audience along as the play progresses from one scene to another: the transition of a German soldier of fortune to General Samru; Farzana, Ghulam Qadir Rohilla’s favorite concubine, moving on from a spy to a traitor to becoming the wife of General Samru; Ghulam Qadir captured by the army of Mughal emperor Shah Alam, and castrated as a punishment for treason; General dying and Begum Sumroo taking over the command of General’s army; Ghulam Qadir’s usurpation attempt with the help of Mansoor Ali, eunuch in Shah Alam’s court; Ghulam Qadir taking revenge by pulling out Shah Alam’s eyeballs; Begum Samru attacking the army of Ghulam Qadir; capture and execution of Ghulam Qadir; and Begum Sumroo’s love affair with another young soldier, and later confession before the priest.

Begum Sumroo has a big cast with many actors from director Vidhu Singh’s earlier productions. The lead roles of Ghulam Qadir, Farzana, General Samru, Mansur Ali, and Shah Alam are played by Saqib Mausoof, Nidhi Singh, Axel Parker, Rakesh Modi, and Sonny Harris respectively. Sukanya Mehra plays Zulekha and Janaki Ranpura plays Gauri, friends of Farzana. Raj Pakkala plays Inayatullah, an Indian military officer. Karl Wieser plays two roles: that of Benedict, a friend of Walter Reinhardt, and of George Thomas, an Irish adventurer. Randall Wright plays Saleur, a French mercenary. Nicholas Hall plays Pauli a German mercenary. Grey Wold plays Father Gregorio, an Italian priest. Cedric Westphal plays Le Vassoult, a French mercenary, later in the play a lover of Begum Sumroo.

As far as the enactment of the play Begum Sumroo is concerned, this correspondent saw some room for improvement. Actors who aced their performances were Axel Parker, Rann (playing the kathak dance teacher of Farzana), Sonny Harris, Grey Wold, and Raj Pakkala. This scribe couldn’t decide if at times he had problem understanding the dialogs because they were in English (this writer would have preferred this very desi play enacted in Urdu/Hindi), or because the rendering was at fault, or if the acoustics of the Artaud Theater had to be blamed.

One place where the play did really well was in the costumes of the actors. The European mercenaries were dressed in eighteenth century attire, the Indians donned clothes from the Mughal era, and the Catholic priest wore an impressive robe.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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