National Theatre's Dara examines life of the Mughal prince, showcases his socio-political relevance in contemporary discourse

In an uncomfortable dichotomy with some bearing on real-life perceptions of Muslims, Dara Shukoh is remembered as a translator of the Upanishads, and religiously syncretic to the core, whereas an archetypal Aurangzeb destroyed temples and imposed Jizya on non-Muslims even as he ruled by Sharia law.

Vikram Phukan April 18, 2020 10:07:30 IST
National Theatre's Dara examines life of the Mughal prince, showcases his socio-political relevance in contemporary discourse

The renewed contemporary interest in Dara Shukoh [also spelt Shikoh], the erstwhile ‘mystic prince’ of the Mughal empire, has much to do with his freethinking legacy, all but extinguished in its prime, as it does with him being regarded as the absolute antithesis — and thus, ironically, almost always mentioned in the same breath — of brother Aurangzeb, eternally the Emperor of egregious excesses of whom perhaps no fond memory remains.

In February, the Ministry of Culture appointed a seven-member panel of the Archaeological Survey of India to locate the final resting place of Dara from among a cluster of unmarked graves at Humayun’s Tomb, where his decapitated body is said to have been unceremoniously interred. Short of exhumation, the task is certainly onerous — there are about 150 graves in this ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’ — and its targeted three-month deadline has now likely been pushed forward due to the coronavirus-related lockdown.

In 2017, Dalhousie Road in Central Delhi was designated as the Dara Shukoh Road, in the wake of an earlier proposal to rename Aurangzeb Road after the prince falling through. There was even a public call, never officially considered, to rechristen the city of Aurangabad — Aurangzeb’s Deccan capital — after Dara, as if to set right a historical wrong that, if nothing else, has contributed to endless speculation about the country’s probable course of history had the liberal Dara ruled instead of his intolerant brother.

National Theatres Dara examines life of the Mughal prince showcases his sociopolitical relevance in contemporary discourse

Dara Shukoh (left) and his teacher Mian Mir. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As history remembers it, their touted rivalry was unexceptional in itself, since accession to the Mughal throne had rarely been bloodless — their father, Shah Jahan, was equally ruthless with kin — but because of their fundamentally opposite world-views, the blood-strewn saga of the brothers has been commandeered into a propaganda-laced narrative gaining currency in these polarised times. In an uncomfortable dichotomy with some bearing on real-life perceptions of Muslims, Dara is remembered as a translator of the Upanishads, and religiously syncretic to the core, whereas an archetypal Aurangzeb destroyed temples and imposed jizya on non-Muslims even as he ruled by Sharia law. In Karan Johar’s upcoming period drama Takht, matinée idols Ranveer Singh and Vicky Kaushal have been cast as Dara and Aurangzeb respectively. It remains to be seen how these iconic figures, perennially cast in white and black, fare under the penmanship of mainstream writers Sumit Roy and Hussain Haidry — the ‘Hindustani Mussalman’ frequently out of favour with right-wing trolls.

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One of the opportunities thrown up by this quarantine has been the opening up of digital archives of the performing arts. Of course, theatre is best served up live: intimate, immediate and real to the touch. But, professionally shot recordings from, say, London’s National Theatre, capture stage experiences in cinematically immersive ways while remaining committed to the idea of unexpurgated performance as it happened. This writer was able to recently catch the National’s 2015 production of playwright Shahid Nadeem’s Dara, directed by Nadia Fall and adapted into English by Tanya Ronder from the Urdu original. Also available online is Nadeem’s own production with Pakistan’s Ajoka Theatre, which opened in Lahore in 2010. Dubbed “a domestic drama of global consequence”, Dara is one of many plays (including several from India) set against the backdrop of this 17th-century palace intrigue that still serves up a topical dialectic, albeit skewed towards Dara’s martyred beatification as it were.

National Theatres Dara examines life of the Mughal prince showcases his sociopolitical relevance in contemporary discourse

Zubin Varla in and as Dara | Photo by Ellie Kurtz.

It is tempting to set the two versions side by side. Compared to Nadeem’s old-style theatre of declamation, the tempered sensibility of the British version struggles to supplant hyperbole with realism. And where Nadeem’s signature musicality and stylistic pomp is essential to his staging, they survive only as unseemly exotic lashings in Fall’s otherwise tastefully mounted production. And by sidelining Sarmad Kashani, the naked heretic — Nadeem’s resolute figure of conscience — Ronder is able to better foreground Jahanara Begum, the sister of Aurangzeb and Dara (who favoured the latter), as the play’s compassionate voice of reason, even if her protestations fell on deaf ears. The 1964 film, Jahan Ara, starring Mala Sinha as the Begum, focused more on Jahanara’s great love thwarted on the altar of filial devotion — a gender-reversed Salim and Anarkali tale — than her political idealism. In Johar’s film, Kareena Kapoor Khan steps into these formidable trappings.

The heavy lifting in the British production is left to Zubin Varla as a tormented but unshaken Dara facing imminent execution and Sargon Yelda as the conflicted Aurangzeb who could perhaps still be impressed upon to see good sense. At the outset, they are never simply ciphers of good and evil. The lust for power is balanced, with Dara’s entitlement stemming from being his father’s openly acknowledged favourite son (his ‘watermelon’) coming off as poorly as Aurangzeb’s seething resentment at being made to settle for scraps from childhood. It is only in the second half, during his trial for apostasy in the court of the Qazis that Dara finally demonstrates what he has come to represent morally and politically, and the play comes into its stride — everything else seems like expository buildup for audiences unfamiliar with the history.

National Theatres Dara examines life of the Mughal prince showcases his sociopolitical relevance in contemporary discourse

Still from Shahid Nadeem's play Dara directed by Nadia Fall. (In the picture) Sargon Yelda plays Aurangzeb | Photo by Ellie Kurtz.

Somewhat predictably, the debate plays out in the mien of a TV courtroom drama with the odds stacked against Dara who nevertheless chooses to defend himself with self-possessed fervour. With liberal values at stake, Dara admirably doesn’t tread a middle path, eschewing attempts to create false equivalences between dogma and reason. Yet, it proves difficult for the play to transcend the manner in which its protagonists have been set up, in history as in drama. It’s almost impossible for the religion of Islam itself to not come out worse for wear after the proceedings — especially to those looking for contemporary metaphors in this text. When Dara cannot bring himself to attest to the tenets of orthodoxy without qualification, his fate is sealed. His severed head is sent to the deposed Shah Jahan as a wrapped gift, who says, “I think it’s watermelon.” This is one of many ironic allusions introduced by Ronder that allows us to feel deep empathy for the people behind the titles.

In Nadeem’s version, the other character ordered to be beheaded for apostasy by Aurangzeb was Sarmad, the mystic who had so deeply impressed Dara that he invited him to the Mughal court and sought his counsel on matters politic and spiritual. In Anamika Haksar’s film Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, yet to be seen in wide release, a public procession is taken out to mourn ‘The Passion of Sarmad’ as it were, with pretend-corpses hauled on hand-carriages to where his tomb, painted in blood-red hues, stands near Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Sarmad’s fixation with a much younger Hindu man, Abhay Chand, as legend goes, so disconcerted Ronder according to an article in Caravan magazine, that her adaptation features a Sarmad stand-in as a peripheral character billed simply as Faqir (an effective Scott Karim) who is both soothsayer and someone who speaks truth to power, to his eventual detriment.

Although Sarmad was executed at age 70, both Nadeem and Fall depict him as a perpetually youthful figure with piercing eyes, and in a state of flagrant undress. This is how he is remembered to this day, as a man who forsook the trappings of social propriety to be united with his ‘other’, and then spent a lifetime taking radical but spiritually essential ideas to people across India. Nadeem’s Sarmad (a spirited Usman Zia) is a true Sufi, a dervish in the wind, and a poet of great erudition, and his spiritual embracing of Abhay is depicted in the Ajoka production via an elegiac musical interlude that doesn’t invisibilise its underlying connotations of forbidden desire.

National Theatres Dara examines life of the Mughal prince showcases his sociopolitical relevance in contemporary discourse

Still from Nadia Fall's Dara. (In the picture) Zubin Varla as Dara. Photo by Ellie Kurtz.

The power of these persisting histories speak of entire worlds lost to humanity that can never be brought back. It is certainly a bewitching notion that a secular ruler with liberal leanings could have been the last great Mughal. It might certainly have an effect on latter-day Islamophobia if we could let the wounds of the past rest or simply be erased. Yet, to see Dara’s leanings as the acceptable alternative to dyed-in-the-wool religiousity, is a double-edged sword that serves to feed prejudice against said religion, especially one that has been at the recieving end of attacks everywhere. In this, the incipient value of Dara’s own spiritual practices is conveniently obfuscated.

The renaming of boulevards and palaces is an attempt to whitewash those blemishes of the past that uncomfortably remind us of the manner in which history seems to be repeating itself, particularly in an India in the grips of growing extremism. Truth be told, the great hegemonies that once existed should no longer cast a blight on contemporary national spirit, because that spirit shouldn’t be dependent on selectively drawing from history. We are nothing if not everything that happened before us. There is no one dominant strain of Indian consciousness, one would like to believe. Yet, in thinking so, the spirit of lost souls like Dara (or Sarmad for that matter) appears to live on in essence. Notwithstanding death and despair, their ideals linger on.

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