It’s 1888 when Lehna and Leela meet in an Amritsar marketplace. They are stopped in their tracks, eyes widen with curiosity and shy smiles, and there is a quivering bolt of feeling. This is a love at first sight you can invest in. The Troth takes place against the great tragedy of the first world war and the deaths of 60,000 Indian soldiers who served in the British army. But it is always the personal, emotional details that connect us to such mass devastation.
Leela (Vidya Patel), alas, is betrothed to another man. And yet years later, when the men go to war, the devotion of Lehna (Subhash Viman Gorania) leads him to make a momentous promise to her. The story is Usne Kaha Tha, written by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri in 1915 (also a 1960 film). This version was conceived by Mira Kaushik, director of south Asian dance organisation Akademi. Choreographer Gary Clarke evokes the confused carnage of war, even when there are only four dancers on stage. The lost faces, the scramble to survive and the visceral weight of a bleeding body being dragged across a battlefield – all are bolstered by Shri Sriram’s music and the incredible projections of archive film footage: sepia-toned troops marching, soldiers digging trenches.
War is all the more jolting as it comes in huge contrast to the carefree, celebratory opening in Amritsar, with folkish dance in joyful flow, all loose and light and innocent. Likewise, Daniel Hay-Gordon’s camp toff officer seems beamed in from another show, but perhaps that’s the point, like a spoilt child in a pith helmet playing toy soldiers with people’s real lives.
The strongest dancing moments are Patel’s solos. She is a performer of great grace, from the buoyant freedom of the opening scene to the haunted, fearful despair that comes later. There are rich depths behind her eyes, and that’s why we can believe that Lehna might make a promise, and a sacrifice, for her unrequited love.