Friday Review » Theatre

Updated: August 15, 2013 18:40 IST

Portrait of the poet

Diwan Singh Bajeli
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Tom Alter.
The Hindu
Tom Alter.

“Ghalib Ke Khhat” brought out the loneliness of the great poet of Delhi and his love for his city

Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest poets of India, was a prolific letter writer. So far his more than 800 letters have been published, which reflect his time, his deep humanistic thoughts and his genius as a great thinker who was ahead of his time. It is heartening to observe that his works have been permeating the Delhi stage with his poetic grandeur and philosophy. We have also witnessed dramatic readings of his letters. Recently Pierrot’s Troupe presented “Ghalib Ke Khhat” at Shri Ram Centre with Tom Alter in the lead role of Munshi Har Gopal ‘Taftah’.

Written and directed by M. Sayeed Alam, the production is remarkable for its novelty in terms of its narrative structure and design. Alam has selected 20 letters of Ghalib written to different personalities of his time, including Munshi Har Gopal, his disciple and a Persian and Urdu poet, Nawab Alai and Nawab Yusuf Mirza. These letters are not read out by the character of Ghalib but by the one to whom these have been addressed. There are five letters that reflect Ghalib’s agonised vision of Delhi after the Revolt of 1857 was mercilessly crushed by the British. He paints the heartrending picture of the total ruin of the social, economic and cultural life of the people of Delhi in the aftermath of the defeat of the freedom fighters of the First War of Indian Independence. In one of the letters to Munshi Har Gopal he writes of his confinement in a house and the tragic death of his brother who tried to come out to see the streets and was shot dead. He expresses his pain at his inability to provide help to the family of his deceased brother.

In this production Umrao Begum, the wife of Ghalib, is given prominent space. Elsewhere she had expressed her agony in a letter that revealed that she had suffered with her husband all the privations and adversities but in his glory she had no place.

Here in the play through a dialogue delivered by Umrao Begum, it is subtly revealed that Ghalib lives on the upper floor of the house and is not able to come down the stairs because of his old-age related ailments. Umrao remains confined to the ground floor. Though Alam’s production focuses on the letters of Ghalib, there is a delicate thematic current that reflects Umrao Begum’s sufferings. Herself a pious Muslim lady, she does not approve of some of the activities of her husband. Here in the play she briefly comments on Ghalib and his works while in conversation with her domestic help. The character of Ghalib remains off stage throughout, which gives us an indication of the terrible loneliness Ghalib experienced.

Director Alam has imaginatively designed his production to project various locales where the action takes place. Upstage we watch Umrao Begum interacting with her domestic help, ensuring smooth entry and exit. On the one side of the central stage we watch Ghalib’s disciple poet Munshi Har Gopal ‘Taftah’ in his study room, reading Ghalib’s letters. On the other side of the central stage is the space for Nawab Alai talking with his servant about the desirability of the publication of Ghalib’s letters. Skilful lighting by Vijay Gupta transferring spotlights from one space to another imparted harmony to the production with uninterrupted flow of dramatic action.

To quote Dr. Daud Rahbar, “With physical distance separating him (Ghalib) from his friends, he did not brood in loneliness. He created an assembly of correspondence around him writing a large number of genuinely conversational letters.” Pierrot’s production captures this conversational tone of the letters. It could be described as a “conversational performance” that at once is able to ‘communicate, emote and intimate’. Through the interactions between Umrao Begum and her domestic help some lighter moments are offered.

It was a sheer delight to watch Tom Alter as Munshi Har Gopal Taftah reading out Ghalib’s letters. Seasoned actor of film and stage as he is, he seems to have mastered the conversational style of theatrical performance. He remains sitting behind his small writing desk. He reads out slowly, as if engaged in conversation with Ghalib. His effortless artistry and chaste Urdu accent further make his portrayal radiant. Jaskiran Chopra’s Umrao Begum brings to the fore the troubled world of her character with intensity. In the denouement when Ghalib comes to know that Umrao has gone through his letters (his letters were published during his lifetime), he expresses his desire to see her and wants to come to the ground floor. Her love for the husband which lay dormant for years emerges in bitterness like the force of a hilly rivulet in spate. This is a very touching moment for the audience. Anju Chhabra’s domestic help is full of life endowed with a sense of humour and boldness. M. Sayeed Alam as Nawab Alai and Nawab Yusuf Mirza and Manohar Pandey as Mian Mushki create brilliant portraits.

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