In the 2007 film Aaja Nachle, NRI choreographer Dia (Madhuri Dixit) returns to her small village of Shamli after learning that her childhood mentor is dying. On his deathbed he asks Dia to save the ancient dance theatre "Ajanta", now deserted, from being torn down completely and replaced with a shopping mall.
To save Ajanta from destruction, Dia demonstrates the importance of dance through a performance of the popular love story "Layla and Majnun", identified as "Laila Majnu" in the film.
If you are new to Bollywood, this is a film you'll want to watch for this spellbinding musical number and to experience the importance of performance arts in our lives. The film also serves as a great introduction to this Persian love story.
Layla and the Madman
While everyone agrees that the ancient Persian folk story of Layla and Majnun was first penned as a poem which was adopted by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi in the 12th century, some believe the tale to be based on real-life persons. According to Afsar Saman, this ancient tale of star-crossed lovers is based on the love story of 7th century Arab poet Qays ibn Mulawwah who fell deeply in love with his cousin Layla.
In one version, he spent his youth together with Layla, tending their flocks. In another version, upon seeing Layla he fell passionately in love with her. In both versions, however, he went mad when her father prevented him from marrying her; for that reason he came to be called Majnun meaning "madman."
The two lovers are separated many times by people and circumstances. Majnun's love is so all-encompassing, he can think of nothing other than Layla and the two continue to try to meet, despite the odds against them. One of the most famous lines of poetry quotes Majnun:
I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart
But of the One who dwells within them
Both Layla and Majnun live out their lives pining for each other, unable to marry or otherwise consummate their love. Bodeleian Libraries of the University of Oxford explain:
In Persian accounts, the hopeless lovers meet as schoolchildren and fall deeply in love; however, they are forbidden to marry. Grief-stricken, Majnūn retreats to the desert, wild animals his only companions. Laylá, in time, is married to a nobleman, but she remains devoted to Majnūn, making several thwarted attempts to meet him. Eventually she dies of a broken heart, and her obsessed beloved follows her to her grave, dying as he mourns at her tomb.
Different sources have different versions of the scene of their deaths, but the village of Bijnore in Rajasthan lays claim to a mausoleum that houses the graves of Layla and Majnun. Every June hundreds of newlyweds and lovers attend an annual Layla and Majnun fair in the village to celebrate their undying love and devotion.
Layla-Majnun: The Musical
The film Aaja Nachle builds up to a 20-minute dance ballet and musical play of the "Layla Majnu" epic choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant to music composed by Salim-Sulaiman with lyrics penned by Jaideep Sahni and Piyush Mishra. The beautifully staged, costumed and choreographed mini-musical is of the same production scale and grandeur as that of the 1999 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
The performers - who we've come to know and love in the lead-up to this performance - include Madhuri Dixit (as the narrator), Kunal Kapoor (as Majnun), Konkona Sen Sharma (as Layla), Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, Jugal Hansraj, and Divya Dutta.
The 20-minute performance of the epic story of Layla and Majnun unfolds as follows:
Layla and Majnun meet as children in school. Majnun falls in love with Layla and is so captivated by her that he writes poems to her rather than attending to his schoolwork. Through some sort of magical connection when the schoolmaster punishes Majnun by caning his hands, Layla's hands are also wounded. Word reached their households and their families separate the two.
Years later Layla and Majnun meet again and their love is rekindled; however, Layla's brother, Tabrez, refuses to let Layla shame the family name by marrying Majnun. Tabrez and Majnun quarrel and Majnun murders Tabrez. Majnun is sentenced to be stoned to death by the villagers. Unable to bear this, Layla first tries to protect Majnun from his punishment. When that doesn't work, she agrees to marry another man if Majnun's sentence is commuted to exile in the wilderness rather than death.
Layla marries King Jawan Bakht, but her heart belongs to Majnun. Angry at hearing this, Jawan Bakht rides with his soldiers to the wilderness to challenge Majnun to a duel the death. The instant Jawan Bakht's sword pierces Majnun's heart, Layla also dies. Layla and Majnun are buried next to each other as her husband and their fathers pray. Layla and Majnun meet again in heaven where they are free to love forever.
A Deeper Meaning
Like many eastern writings, a deeper meaning can be attributed to the story. At the conclusion of the ballet, the narrator focuses on the importance of love. Her words translate to english as:
Believe in Brahma's word, or in what the Gita holds
In the Bible, the Quran, or Guru Granth's divine folds
But faith without love could wear out your soul
Believe in love and mankind, before the last bells toll.
In the 2005 The Sufi Book of Life: 99 Pathways of the Heart for the Modern Dervish by Neil Douglas-Klotz, the author focuses on the concept of unity:
The Sufis speak of lover and beloved, seeking and sought, human and divine. Yet we can experience a moment when all the "ands" fall away. In these moments, we cannot speak about "we," "I," or "you." Everything is united. In small ways, many of us may have experienced this. Attar tells this story of the famous lovers Leyla and Majnun:
Majnun knocked on Leyla's door.
"It is I."
"Go away. There is no room here for you and I."
Majnun retreated to the forest, meditated for a long time, and then returned.
"Who is it?"
"It is you."
The door opened.
Layla and Majnun have been characters for Sufi poets, as Krishna was for the poets of India. Majnun means absorption into a thought and Layla means the night of obscurity. The story is from beginning to end a teaching on the path of devotion, the experience of the soul in search of God.
Eric Clapton's Layla
According to Where's Eric magazine, the love story of Layla and Majnun proved to be an inspiration to musician Eric Clapton.
Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” in 1970 for Pattie Boyd Harrison. He had fallen in love with her although she was married to his good friend, George Harrison. In the song, he was trying to tell a romantic story about what was actually happening in his love life at that time but disguise it a bit by bringing in elements from The Story of Layla And Majnun. ... A friend had given him a copy of the poem as they saw the parallels between Layla and Majnun and Eric Clapton and Pattie Harrison. Eric has said, "As a song just in itself I don’t think it’s got much going for it to be honest with you. I mean there’s a structure and there is a melody, but historically where its at in the scheme of things, at the end of the ’60s with the kind of bands that were coming into being, with the way that music was changing, and with the historic little bit of life history, you know with me and George and Pattie, that it got a life of its own".
Years after the initial release of "Layla", Eric Clapton performed an unplugged version for MTV which breathed new life into an old favorite.
The following playlist features the full Layla and Majnun performance piece from Aaja Nachle along with two Eric Clapton performances of the song "Layla."
If you liked this, leave a comment or visit our other posts.