Sayeed Alam shares his thoughts on bringing to the stage a new perspective on Ghalib

Mirza Ghalib has spun an alluring web over theatre director M. Sayeed Alam. Enamoured by the dichotomy the 19th Century Urdu poet presents, Alam is set to return to the stage with another Ghalib play — “Ghalib ke Khat” along with yet another show of “Ghalib in New Delhi.”

Alam's Pierrot's Troupe will perform “Ghalib in New Delhi” touched up to give a Commonwealth sheen in its 295th performance has Ghalib re-born to watch the Games, along with the premier show of “Ghalib ke Khat,” this weekend.

“Ghalib ke Khat” will be Alam's fourth play on the Urdu poet. The Ghalib saga which began with “Ghalib in New Delhi” in 1997, traversed through “Ghalib” in 2006, “Shareek-e-Ghalib”, a production with school children and now stands at “Ghalib ke Khat.”

“There are two Ghalibs — Ghalib reflected in his poetry and Ghalib in his letters. Since Ghalib never wrote the letters to publish them, one thankfully sees the true traits of his character there. On one side is this highly learned, academic and self-righteous man and on the other, an ordinary human being who believes in scheming, managing his finances, full of weaknesses, but has great wit. This paradox attracted me to him,” Alam bares his fascination.

Correcting an injustice

With “Ghalib ke Khat”, however, Alam aims to delve into Ghalib through a different keyhole. There is no Ghalib in flesh and blood here, only the man through the eyes of his wife Umrao Begum, his maid Wafadar and his disciples. The play is Alam's way of correcting an injustice often done to Umrao Begum. He admits, he too in his earlier plays has portrayed her “as the butt of jokes, one who is a hurdle in the way of Ghalib's creativity.”

“We have always characterised Umrao Begum as a God-fearing lady, the butt of all jokes, but she was from the Loharu family which had very learned people, including men and women. She was a learned lady and belonged to a class that Ghalib could not match,” reveals Alam.

The director in his research about Umrao Begum found the letter she wrote to the Nawab of Rampur following Ghalib's death requesting continuation of pension. “It is a brilliantly written letter saying only Ghalib is dead, his family has to survive. It is a highly emotional letter, probably as good as Ghalib's, the only missing element is the sense of humour. But the situation did not warrant humour,” notes Alam.

He also relied on the interview of Ghalib's adopted great grand daughter Janno Begum in 1935 by an Urdu scholar. She was about five-years-old when Ghalib died and seven at the time of Umrao Begum's death. Her memories draw an Umrao Begum who was “the sole master of the household, a lady whom Ghalib had great respect for, who was highly learned and gave her comments on his ghazals and was his critic.”

“To create a hero out of Ghalib we often made a soft villain out of Umrao Begum. But it was she who managed the house and even financially supported Ghalib throughout his life,” he says. Alam regrets Umrao Begum, quite like other women of the time, is given the side glance. “Nobody remembers Manto's wife.”

“Ghalib ke Khat” has Umrao Begum, her maid and disciples including Har Gopal Taftah played by Tom Alter, reading and reviewing Ghalib's personal letters. It is also a mirror to how the 19th Century viewed those letters. “In the 21st Century, the letters are considered brilliant pieces of Urdu prose. But how was it in the 19{+t}{+h} Century, for his wife and disciples to read them? Ghalib's letters are like today's smses or e-mails, short and communicative and were not considered good pieces of literature then,” says Alam.

“Ghalib in New Delhi” – October 2, 7.30 p.m.

“Ghalib ke Khat” — October 3, 7.30 p.m.

Venue — Shri Ram Centre