The immaculate Urdu used in this play takes it straight to the heart of lovers of the language.
Every time I step into public space in New Delhi, I am reminded of a couplet, “Zubaan mili hai magar humzubaan nahin milta”. It best encapsulates the irony of an Urdu speaker in cosmopolitan India. The lovers of the language are plenty, the practitioners few and far between. The language seems to have disappeared from our daily soaps on television, been all but forgotten in Hindi cinema. And reduced to a lump of nice nostalgia.
But then there is Urdu theatre! Thank God for that. And there is Sayeed Alam too. Thank God! The man has a way with words, the nuances of spoken languages, the subtleties of the written word. A few months ago when I watched his “Lal Quile ka Aakhri Mushaira”, I admired his redoubtable craft. And quietly thanked him for focussing on the under-celebrated skills of Zauq rather than Bahadur Shah Zafar or Ghalib. More recently, I got a chance to thank him again — quietly, once more — for bringing a wonderful Urdu adaptation of Dilip Hiro’s play “Shahjahan-o-Mumtaz” to the Capital stage.
Sayeed’s skills remain undiminished, his eye is still that of an eagle, his detailing remains flawless. His stamina is strong as ever. Considering he is often living out of the suitcase, it is extraordinary. With “Ghalib in New Delhi” and “Lal Quile ka Aakhri Mushaira” constantly doing the rounds of the theatre circuit, Sayeed has plenty of good days. They are interspersed with some great ones. Like for instance, when he turns up as Shahjahan in Hiro’s play.
A few minutes into the play that focuses on the politician in Mumtaz rather than the lover boy in Shahjahan, I wonder if Sayeed speaks the language. He lives it. The sophistry, the nuances, everything falls into place. As they say in Urdu, sheen, qaaf durust hai. And the play, which had attracted only reasonable reviews in the English version, got a rousing response from the audience. I was happy for Sayeed. And happier as an Urdu speaker to see such a warm response to an intriguing play that liberally uses chaste Urdu, adding only a light sprinkle of Hindustani. The language, for once, was not a barrier to total acceptance. Of course, Sayeed as the emperor and his wife Niti as the queen came up with fetching portrayals, but what was remarkable was that the product was greater than the sum of the parts.
And the idea was greater than it all.
Today, “Shahjahan-o-Mumtaz” is not the moment Sayeed will take time out and analyse what he has achieved. Considering his accomplishments over the years, he would probably need a few more such shows of the wonderful play to find out for himself what joy he has transmitted with Hiro’s gem and what he has done for the lovers of the language.
For Urdu theatre there could scarcely have been a better practitioner. He embodies something much more than the plays he brings to the Capital stage. Long may he be seen.