THEATRE: Playwright Danish Iqbal tells SWATI DAFTUAR about “Dara Shikoh”, a play that takes a look at one of Mughal India’s great lost names.

It is 1653, and the siege of Kandahar is raging. Dara Shikoh sits in his tent at night, writing his treatise on comparative religion. His general, a veteran and a contemporary of his great grandfather, enters with the request to discuss battle strategy for the next day. Dara Shikoh explains that for him, the treatise is more important. He doesn’t ask the general to sit down, showing him this respect only later, when the general’s conversation takes an intellectual turn.

This is a scene from “Dara Shikoh”, the modern classic directed by M.S. Sathyu and written by Danish Iqbal, which encapsulates the play’s portrayal of the young Mughal prince and heir apparent to Shah Jahan. The play, being performed after three years, is once again being directed by the eminent director and stage designer and art director M.S. Sathyu and presented by Impressario Asia. After a recent show in Gurgaon’s Epicentre, it will be performed this Friday at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi.

The play, Iqbal believes, cannot be considered a revival. “It’s been performed on and off over the years. This time, it’s only got minor changes. It’s a little shorter now, and there are a few new scenes.”

It was ten years ago, in 2004, that Iqbal, who confesses that he only works on commission because he needs to know that the words he pens will be performed, was approached by K.K. Kohli of Impressario Asia, the play’s producer. It could easily have been action oriented, a harsh, blood and gore portrayal of a prince whose life ended brutally and violently, killed in a succession struggle by his own brother. Iqbal and Kohli, though, decided to go a different way. The Dara Shikoh that Iqbal has penned is a prince who respects intellect over privilege. He is an egoistical, liberal, peace loving man who ignored war and translated scriptures.

“Dara was, in my opinion, the greatest person in Mughal history. I think he was greater than Akbar too.” Iqbal, while researching his play, says that he was surprised to see that this giant had been ignored by history. In this play, he has been careful to highlight Dara to the maximum, not allowing Aurangzeb or Sufi Sarmad, Dara Shikoh’s mentor, to take the stage. “I was questioned about this, but I think that in the case of Aurangzeb, the fear of the invisible and unknown would be much greater. Plus I didn’t want Dara overshadowed in any way.”

The playwright also goes on to admit that he owes more than half his knowledge about writing and stage skills to Sathyu. “He’s a grand old man of Indian theatre. He has a terrific sense of aesthetics. He makes sketches of every scene before the performance, to work out how the stage characters, headgear, beards, dresses, everything would look. He’s a very meticulous person. It’s a pleasure working with him. His art work is tremendously beautiful.” Iqbal adds that while he has indeed provided the dialogues, characters and content of the play, they’ve been given shape by Sathyu.

The shape this play has taken seems strangely placed in the past and the present. For Iqbal, the play holds a sort of every day importance. “In the past 10 years the challenges to inclusiveness and coexistence have increased in a big way; people are more fanatic. And terrorism is a bigger threat than before. The play has actually become more relevant.” He terms Dara as the first prince who died for his ideals, and adds that “Dara Shikoh” is today’s play. “It is a metaphor. We discussed if this play, because of how it ends, was becoming too sad and tragic, but it was in his defeat and death that Dara’s principles emerged victorious. This is what we wanted the play to show.”

Iqbal, a student of philosophy, has written a work that plays with many concepts and ideas that affect and influence human existence. Of death, a quote from the play says, “Maut kya hai, maut hai fakth ek dehleez”, which loosely translates to mean that death is ultimately the first step to a door between one chamber and the next. That death, ultimately, is nothing.

In a play packed with such layered, ambiguous dialogues, Iqbal confesses that it has become hard to cast the right actors for the roles. “It’s a great challenge. We don’t have very good actors, and especially young actors lack the capacity to understand the nuances of the play, absorb its ideas and translate them into emotions and gestures. This requires intellectuals of a certain calibre, and not all actors can deliver. Often, the average actor only sees the superficial meaning of a dialogue. To overcome this, we have conducted workshops with the actors, to explain the multilayered aspects of play.” Iqbal adds that there are hardly any professional actors hired for this season of the play. “They have their jobs, and (we have) amateur actors who wanted to be part of the production.”

He’s holding a book on Pataudi, and as a closing remark, adds that he’s working on another story that gives him the goose bumps, that of Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi. “Like Dara Shikoh, his story is also inspiring, and can reach people in manifold ways.”

Director M.S. Sathyu says, “We’ve only made minor changes in the play, and this time there is a new choreographer (Astha Dixit) and they’ve got trained Kathak dancers. The casting is always a problem, because this play requires a lot of Urdu and there are very few actors who can speak good Urdu. They can speak in Hindi and Punjabi but Urdu is a challenge.”