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Glimpses of a fascinating era

A tapestry of emotions emerged as Timeri Murari's ``Taj: A Story of Mughal India" was read, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.

Timeri N Murari

THROUGH THE pages of a novel pulsating with love, intrigue, violence and sex, Timeri N. Murari has sketched the greatest love story of them all — nearly 20 years ago. ``Taj: A Story of Mughal India" made it to the international bestseller list and was translated into nine European languages. Penguin Books India has now reissued the novel, in a sleek and elegant edition, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Taj Mahal. When the HSBC, the British Council, Penguin Books India and the Park, Chennai, recently organised a reading by Theatre Y at the hotel, it drew a full auditorium.

Theatre Y, through a careful selection of passages from the novel and a rearrangement of the scenes, made sure that in the course of an hour each one in the audience felt they had lived though a fascinating era. And a reign that made possible through the enormous wealth available, the unquestioned power of the emperor, and the uncompromising adherence to the sprit of his artistic vision, the raising of a dream in marble that continues to bring the aesthete and the lover to Agra.

The novel continually braids together two strands — one, the love story of Shahjahan and Arjumand Banu ( Mumtaz Mahal) and the other, the manner in which the monument was built. Truth fleshed out with plenty of imagination gives us the tale. Timeri Murari said later it was his wife Maureen's query on visiting the Taj and hearing the brief story that he had to tell, that led him to the New York Library for research materials to write a novel.

The scene for the reading was set through a few imaginative props and a pleasing colour scheme in off-white. A brocade covered divan with a scarlet embroidered backdrop served as Mumtaz's couch and Shahjahan's seat. A hookah on a tall marble stand and lotuses floating in a bowl in the forefront were other touches. The actors were in off-white silk kurtas and pyjamas with the women sporting tissue dupattas that were discarded when they changed from their royal personae to other roles.

Imaginative props and a pleasing colour scheme brought the scene alive. — Pics by N. Sridharan.

Reversing the sequence of the book, Yog Japee, the director who also played Shahjahan, interchanged the first and final scenes. He began with the death of Mumtaz and ended with the blind man and the battle scarred leader of the monkey tribe taking refuge from the rain in the cold marble tomb. Within these two segments were packed scenes of the conceptual and the practical problems in building the Taj and the distrust between fathers and sons and between brothers that hacked a bloody trail to the Mughal throne. And throughout, there is the mystique of a queen who inspires such love. ``Taktya Takhta?" Throne or coffin? This question posed to Khusrav, Jehangir's son who rebels against his father, raises its head once again when Aurangazeb and his elder brother Dara clash .

The alternate reading of parts and the quick interchange of roles made the event racy and brought alive the spirit of the work that continually moves between the past and the present. Except for Shahjahan, the others read more than one role. Yog and Kaveri Lalchand, who was both narrator and Jahanara, read with practised ease. Sheetal Govindan captured shades of the Mumtaz character from time to time though the slight frown refused to be banished while Priyanka Joseph though enthusiastic rolled her eyes too much and needed to tone down expressions. Karthik Narayan appeared more comfortable as Moorthi, the South Indian sculptor, than as Aurangazeb. The alternative spotlighting of the characters is a much used device in mainstream Tamil theatre and was overused here too.

The theatre group managed to weave a tapestry of emotions. But then the words were the novelist's as also the complex structuring of the story.

Eunice Crook, Director of the British Council, referred at the beginning of the event to his work as ``a model of good historical writing." In a country where crumbling stones and neglected sculptures breathe the spirit of the past, often of a thousand years, historical fiction is a genre that is unfortunately not so popular.

Timeri Murari among a handful of writers shows us the way. ``Ultimately, the aim of the dramatisation is to make people buy the book," said Yog. And judging from the interest aroused, the mission had been accomplished.

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