Nagada Style: Bollywood at the Cairo Opera House

Mukesh Tomar and Parul Mishra performing one of the Bollywood songs. At the back, Cairo Opera Ballet Company (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Mukesh Tomar and Parul Mishra performing one of the Bollywood songs. At the back, Cairo Opera Ballet Company (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Bollywood Fusion, part of India by the Nile festival, was a collaboration between artists from Egypt and India. The show proved to be a new experience for audiences and artists alike

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

For two evenings on 14-15 April, the Cairo Opera House saw Bollywood Fusion, a music and dance show the like of which had never been seen before. The event was part of the India by the Nile festival, a dynamic and first-of-its-kind, month-long programme (13 April-13 May) offering Egyptians the widest variety of Indian artistic events from concerts, calligraphy and crafts exhibitions to film screenings and literary seminars.

The festival aims to bring the gems of Indian culture closer to viewers and provide a platform for artistic cooperation and exchange between the two countries. To this end the organisers, the Embassy of India and the India Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), working with the Team Work Productions India, have incorporated Egyptian artists and intellectuals into a number of activities.

Bollywood Fusion was one such collaboration between artists from India and Egypt, with several singing and dancing numbers by performers celebrated in India: Mukesh Tomar, whose bright career took off in 2006 when he reached the Indian Idol’s semi-finals; and Parul Mishra, described in the festival’s programme as “a diversely talented, well-known voice of popular Indian music”. To present them, the India-based French choreographer Gilles Chuyen worked with the soloists from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. For one song, a small group of Egyptian students from the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture joined in.

The audience was treated to the celebratory atmosphere filled with over 20 of biggest hits from the Mumbai film industry in the past two decades, among them a very popular song, “Nagada Nagada” (Beat the Kettledrum) which describes the seductive power of a young woman who is “pretty as a picture… [has] mesmerising eyes… and lethal beauty” from the 2007 movie Jab We Met. Another song, “Chammak Challo” (an expression used to describe a lady with a showy attitude) comes from the huge 2011 hit movie Ra.One, while “Dard-e-Disco” (Pain of the Disco) is from the 2007 Om Shanti Om which, at the time of release, grossed the highest revenues in the history of Hindi cinema. From Dhom 2 (Blast 2), a 2006 action movie, “Crazy Kiya Re”  reflects a number of Western pop icons.

Following those Bollywood favourites, on 15 April, the Main Hall — full to the brim — was seething with excitement. By the time the Egyptian pop star Hisham Abbas went on stage to perform “Nari Narein” — his famous single, shot in India in 2002 — the enthusiasm could not have been greater.

The dynamic and mostly fast-paced songs brought the hits to the audience filled with Bollywood-inspired dance. It is worth noting that the choreography of the dance numbers in Bollywood productions is an interesting amalgam of different dance genres. Carrying many elements linked to classical Hindu dance, Bollywood also incorporates folk styles of India and tops them up with Western-style jazz, hip-hop and modern dance. Some Bollywood moves even reflect Oriental dance elements such as belly-dancing. Indeed Bollywood seems to have absorbed a multitude of dance elements from all over the world.

And it was interesting to see how this tradition would translate on an Egyptian stage when executed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. Understandably, people might have expected what they must already be used to from Indian-made films that reach them through a variety of channels. Bollywood Fusion however was rather more particular, as organisers have stated, since it is based on choreography by Chuyen designed specifically for the Cairo Opera Ballet Company; it is the result of a ten-day workshop involving Chuyen and the Egyptian dancers, and such fusion of experiences has inevitably reshaped classical Bollywood dance.

It was apparent that Chuyen tried to focus on those movements that would be easy to execute by the dancers whose skills and culture are distant from the Bollywood experience. Accordingly, the choreography emphasised the main lines of Bollywood dance by using movements found at the artistic crossroads between Bollywood, classical ballet and a few modern or Orient-flavoured styles.

In this give-and-take, a number of details were definitely missing. For instance, the choreographer had to compromise the hand movements, which play an important role in communicating messages and telling stories in Hindu classical dance which, in its turn, is one of the main sources for Bollywood.

Bright colour costumes were brought for the dancers from India, and effective lighting underscored Bollywood’s festive atmosphere. However one would have liked better developed set design that would bring some elements of the country to the Egyptian viewer, even if it had to be done through mere projections. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the sets — possibly a solution to budget limitations — gave the numbers a better chance to come through in as plain a form as possible.

As much as the final show suffered due to such artistic compromises — no one could reasonably expect a typical Bollywood performance, whose artists are steeped in the culture — the initiative of Bollywood Fusion has, in this and other ways, infused the Egypt’s cultural scene with significant gains. The show managed to bring many values to the surface — not only testifying to the newborn artistic cooperation between India and Egypt, but to the Egyptian dancers’ capacity to absorb, in a relatively short time, styles that are completely new to them, exploring hitherto uncharted territories.

The Cairo Opera Ballet Company is well-known for its versatility, having performed many important ballets and collaborated with many internationally renowned choreographers. The troupe performs iconic classical works, directed by late Abdel Moneim Kamel: Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet etc. The Nutcracker keeps returning each Christmas, attracting a large number of families to Kamel’s original interpretation. A ballet based on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, performed until the mid-2000s, has been among the most important works of the troupe. Thierry Mandalin’s choreography of Danses Qu’on Croise to Brahms’ music, brought by Kamel to Egyptian audiences, received great acclaim.

The well-known French-American choreographer, Joseph Russillo, who worked for several years at Milano’s La Scala, choreographed the company’s performance of Tango to Astor Piazzolla’s music. And let us not forget the multilayered cooperation between the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and Maurice Bejart himself, who does not need to be introduced. Zorba choreographed by Lorca Massine was first brought to Egypt in 2009 and its version with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company was called by Massine himself one of the best realisations of his vision.

It would be impossible to enumerate what, over the past decades, have brought the Cairo Opera Ballet Company good reviews from well-known names in the music and ballet criticism field both locally and internationally, giving it an important place in the performing arts of the region. Occasionally, the company moves beyond the Western classical dance repertoire: in the Egyptian operetta El Leila El Kebira, for example, which performed to the full house, bringing new social strata into the Opera.

The troupe’s work on India-inspired choreography gave the dancers a new set of challenges…

***

A multitude of events presenting the best in Indian art are yet to take place, some of them relying on cooperation between the two countries. Let us recall an exhibition titled Akshara, Calligraphy in Crafts on 15-21 April, which showcased numerous India-made crafts adorned with scripts. The initiative invited Egyptian calligraphers on the one hand and Egyptian craftsmen on the other hand to cooperate with their counterparts from India.

We are still to see more interesting meetings between India and Egypt’s artists and intellectuals. Among such remarkable exchanges of experiences and thoughts is the meeting of writers from India (Amish Tripathi, Mushiru Hasan and Namita Gokhale) with their counterparts from Egypt (Galal Amin, Ahdaf Soueif, Kamilia Sobhy and Amr Hamzawy), which will take place on 5 May at El-Sawy Culturewheel in Cairo and on 7 May at Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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