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Indar Sabha: The World's First Urdu Opera



Prince Gulfaam was born at the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Smitten by accounts of famous European operas, the Nawab decided that he simply must have an opera of his own.


That is when he commissioned the poet Syed Agha Hassan Amanat to compose an opera in Urdu. Personally overseeing its production, whispers suggest that the Nawab even contributed to the musical composition and took on a leading role in performances held at Kaisar Bagh in Lucknow.


The opera, Indar Sabha, recounted a tale of forbidden romance between Prince Gulfaam and Sabz Pari. The Prince, son of King Gulzar Shah of Hindustan, was a mortal. Sabz Pari, was the fairy princess, the daughter of the ruler of Paristan, Raja Indra.


The play opens with a rich depiction of the court of the King of Fairyland, Indar. His daughters, the fairies, take on the names of jewels: Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, and so on. Sabz also means green – the protagonist of our play here is the Emerald Fairy.


When she falls in love with Prince Gulfaam, she conspires with Kala Deo (The Black Div) to sneak her beloved into her father’s heavenly court.  


When she is caught for transgressing the rules, her wings are clipped, and she is exiled from her father’s court. Without her dear wings, Sabz Pari falls to earth, leaving Gulfaam behind, imprisoned in a well.


Exiled from her homeland, she wanders as an ascetic, playing music. Eventually, she finds her way back to Raja Indar’s court. She charms him into winning his favour and secures her Gulfaam’s release.


The tale itself speaks of the rich culture of Awadh. Gulfaam imprisoned in a well for transgressing his boundaries in love, and being found out, is reminiscent of the story of Bijan and Manizheh from the Shahnamah.  


Anarkali, the Mughal courtesan, was also imprisoned in a well in the Lahore fort, where she met the grim reaper, for refusing to give up on her love for Prince Saleem.


The Bahramnameh, a romantic epic by Nizami, also known as the Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties) may have inspired the fairy sisters, each named after a different precious gem. The Haft Peykar in turn, is likely to have drawn inspiration from the number seven being important in Persian tradition. Tables at Nowruz, the Persian New Year, are laid out with seven items even today in celebration.


The imagery of the fantasy worlds of Koh-e-Kaaf, and Paristan, is reminiscent of Hazaar Raatein, Dastan-e-Ameer Hamza and the Hasht Bihisht of Amir Khusrow.


Raja Indar as a character has been most certainly adopted from the Hindu tradition, for Indra is the King of the Skies in Hindu belief – the counterpart to Zeus if you will.


A certain Prince Gulfaam is also featured in an Indian serial from the 90s. Written by Inayat Akhtar and Directed by Moti Sagar, the series is believed to be based on the 1001 Nights. However, there isn’t a story entitled “Prince Gulfaam, the Sorceress Azbela, and the Magician Bargwan” in the original story cycle.


The character went on to feature in other stories, as is the case with many epics. A few examples include “Prince Gulfaam and the Seven Apples of Gold”; “Prince Gulfaam and Princess Dilnasheen” and “Prince Gulfaam and Princess Jasmine” – in Urdu, Punjabi and Kashmiri folklore.


The play was adapted into a book, “Prince Gulfaam in the Land of the Fairies” (Shehzada Gulfaam Paristan Main). He is also the protagonist of a Pashto folktale (that itself is a story for another time).


Many famous Pashto ghazal’s have also been sung. “Zama Gulfaam Raza” (Come, my Gulfaam) by Ustad Awalmir, a renowned Afghan composer is perhaps one of the most famous musical renditions of the tale.


The word Gulfaam was also adopted into languages beyond folklore. It can be an adjective and a name. As a name, it can be used synonymously with “lover” in both Urdu and Pashto. As an adjective, it means “rose-coloured” , “handsome” or “beautiful”.

The most interesting translation of the play by far, is one in Hebrew. It is in fact the sole Judaeo-Urdu manuscript in Hebrew at the British Museum. This translation leaves more questions than answers.


Whilst academics have speculated that it may have been the Baghdadi Jewish community, who spoke Arabic as a first language, even after moving to the Indian subcontinent, evidence remains scant. It is true, that many plays were performed in Hebrew, and dual-language printing presses were set up in Bombay and Calcutta. However one may argue that the Jews of the Indian subcontinent were well-versed in Urdu – then who might have translated an Urdu play into Hebrew, and why?

 

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