Taj: more than a love story

Dance-theatre work stars Kabir Bedi as the emperor who built the Taj Mahal and Lisa Ray as his daughter.

Tales of the Mughal rule, court intrigues and a son imprisoning his father

In Taj, Lisa Ray stars as Princess Jahanara, who tends to her father in his final years and persuades him to share his stories. (Sid Sawant)

Taj, an international collaboration debuting Friday as part of the Luminato Festival in Toronto, pairs Indian film star Kabir Bedi and Canadian actor Lisa Ray to tell one of the world's most famous love stories.

The production at Toronto's Fleck Dance Theatre is one of Luminato's hottest tickets because of its high-profile stars and combination of talent from three continents.

Bedi tackles a role he's played before: Shah Jahan, the 17th century Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved wife who died in childbirth. Bedi is a veteran of stage, film and television in India and also found success in Europe and in Hollywood, starring as the James Bond villain Gobinda in 1983's Octopussy. 

Ray, a Canadian-born film star known forBollywood/Hollywood, Water and Cooking with Stella, plays his daughter Princess Jahanara Begum. She is her father's companion in his final years, when he is imprisoned in Agra Fort after his son Aurangzeb takes the throne.

"As he has grown older and more feeble — perhaps in his last days — she is the one who stayed devoted, looking after him," said Lata Pada, artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations and the creative force behind Taj.

"The intimacy of the relationship with her father has given her the courage to ask him many questions, to challenge him on many things that he did as the emperor. The story is a dialogue, a conversation between the two."

Shah Jahan's stories cover his years in power and also tell of Jahanara's mother, the woman for whom he built one of the world's most beautiful buildings. Pada enjoys creating roles for strong women in her productions and several emerge in the dance-theatre presentation. 

"Stories are very important repository of human truth. It doesn't really matter when they took place, in which era, they all have a history of important lessons. There is a timelessness about it," Pada said. 

Storytelling is also the main theme of this year's edition of Luminato, which features One Thousand and One Nights, a new work based on the original tales of Shahrazad, popularly known as Arabian Nights.

Pada doesn't want to focus too much on the love story behind the Taj Mahal — there's much more to the story, including how the Mughals, originally from Central Asia, came to rule part of India, the court intrigues of Shah Jahan's time and why a son would imprison his father.

"It's a canvas. It's about human emotion, human stories, human tragedies and triumphs," she said. "There are so many threads and that is what I wanted to do in this production, is pull them all together."

Though Bedi and Ray do all the speaking, working from a script developed by Canadian playwright John Murrell, the flashbacks are conveyed through kathak, a form of North Indian classical dance influenced by Mughal culture. The dancers are drawn from Britain and India, as well as from Sampradaya Dance Creations, Pada's Mississauga company and producer of the work.

Legendary kathak choreographer

Pada calls Taj her "dream project." Fascinated by Mughal culture, she had been thinking of creating an ambitious cross-cultural work to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sampradaya. Winning the Luminato commission allowed her to pull together many threads, including hiring acclaimed theatre designer Philip Silver — who she knew from York University — and Jacques Collin, the Quebec-based multimedia expert who has worked with Robert Lepage's Ex Machina.

But the real coup was getting kathak legend Kumudini Lakhia as a choreographer. While Pada is an expert in the ancient bharatanatyam dance, a style associated with South India, the 81-year-old Lakhia is the world's top choreographer of kathak, indigenous to the North.

"She is a woman of another generation, but she has an incredibly agile, modern mind in the way she sees choreography," Pada said.

Kathak, like most classical dance forms, has a structured vocabulary, but Taj director Tom Diamond says he is moving the performance toward something that will be universal and understood by audiences of all backgrounds. Pada has brought Indian dance into the mainstream in past productions such as Stealth, performed at the 2010 Canadian Dance Festival, and Revealed by Fire, created in 2001 to commemorate the loss of her husband and two daughters in the Air India bombing.

Calling himself "a stranger in an exotic universe," Diamond immersed himself in Mughal culture for the past six months in an effort to make Taj both authentic and spectacular. Part of that immersion was a trip to India to meet with composer Praveen Rao and to see the Taj Mahal itself in Agra.

Interpreting poetic text

Kabir Bedi, a veteran of stage and screen, plays Shah Jahan. (Sampradaya Dance Creations )

"In this amazingly alive world that is India — this hive of rich and poor where there is so much going on — you get to the Taj Mahal and it's serene. It's like an oasis of calmness," Diamond said, adding that travelling to India gave him an understanding of Taj's creative roots.

Murrell, the writer behind works as a diverse as the opera Filumena and the play Waiting for the Parade, has provided a very poetic text for Taj, with heightened language in keeping with the dance that accompanies it, Diamond said.

The challenge, then, has been to get his two stars to interpret what is essentially a classical text.

Bedi, a native of Punjab, previously portrayed the emperor in the 2005 film Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story and his theatre roles have included Othello and a West End production of The Far Pavilions. Though he has been away from the stage for years, Bedi's experience in classical theatre shines through, Diamond said.

Ray is mainly a film star accustomed to a medium in which a mere blink can be imbued with significance, so it's more of a stretch for her, he added.

"I'm not an expert on Bollywood, but the thing about Bollywood is that it tends to be a little larger in the presentation than the veracity of western film. [Bedi] really gets that part," Diamond said, making particular note of the actor's extraordinary voice.

"When Kabir speaks, the world stops. [His voice is] deep and resonant. Lisa…has to find the courage to play big."

Taj runs June 10-12 at Toronto's Fleck Dance Theatre.