A new version of “Layla Majnun”, penned by Ismail Choonara and directed by Ram Gopal Bajaj, swept the audiences off their feet.
Ram Gopal Bajaj, is one of the leading theatre personalities in the country today.
It was during his tenure as the Director of National School of Drama (1995-2001) that the coveted Bharat Rang Mahotsav was started. This actor-director who made a name with his spectacular plays as “Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak”, “Asaad Ka Ek Din”, “Qaid-e-Hayat”, “Skandagupt” and many more, recently set up his new theatre company “Shabdaakar” mostly consisting of former NSD students. Early this year, he did the world premiere of Ismail Choonara’s play “Layla Majnun” in its Urdu translation done by Sabir Irshad Usman. The play was directed by Bajaj. He also staged it in a festival of plays organised by NSD in Guwahati recently. Interestingly, Choonara was born in South Africa but has lived most of his life in the U.K where he has worked as a research chemist, mathematics teacher and lecturer in science.
Over the years his short stories and poems etc., have appeared in books and journals in South Africa, U.K, U.S., India and Pakistan. His “Layla Majnu” was first published in 1997 by Kitab Books, London.
Bajaj met Choorana in Kolkata a few years ago who requested him to stage the play in Delhi. After three years of hard work and making some viable changes in its Urdu by yours truly and finding the appropriate cast, the play was finally staged in Delhi recently. Bajaj obviously, directed it.
The story of Layla Majnun is known to most theatre goers. In Choonara’s version, the story begins with the chorus comprising women introducing the character to the audience and informing that people thought Majnun as possessed as he wanders around lost in Layla’s love. , The scene shifts to Layla’s parents who are discussing how the love between Majnun and Layla has brought the family shame and that Layla must now be kept at home and groomed to be able to marry an honourable man from a respectable family.
Majnun convinces his father Sayyid to propose to Layla’s parents .For his son’s sake he goes to Layla’s father only to get back with a refusal. Disheartened, Majnun refrains from seeing her and begins to slip into melancholy. His father takes him on a pilgrimage to Makka to seek God’s help in freeing him of Layla’s feelings but Majnun strikes the Kaaba and cries. He continues to wander chanting poems of on Layla’s beauty and his love for her. He runs away into the wilderness, grows unkempt unable to not know good from evil. Eventually, Layla is married to Ibn-e-Saleem, a prince who is so love struck by Layla that he accepts her as his wife despite her past. All along, the chorus and a pair of story tellers namely, Amir and Sabir appear and the audiences live every moment of an incredible tale of love, pain and separation. As time goes by one hears of Ibn-e-Saleem’s death.After having mourned his death for two years Layla sets out on a journey to find Majnun. She finds him, but realises that Majnun she loved is lost. Instead there is a man who is in love with the ‘image’ of Layla – the ‘image’ that is now similar to that of the supreme power –Allah. Seeing that, Layla dies.
The cast, with the exception of Sayyid (Banwari Taneja) who played Majnun’s father are former students of NSD. Banwari, not seen much these days, is excellent as the father. Lakshmi Rawat as Layla and Kavita Verma as her mother were excellent among the other talented actors. Thanks to Shahid Anwar who spent hours with them correcting their pronunciation. Everyone on the stage spoke beautiful Urdu, a rarity on the Delhi stage.
Amongst the back stage workers Amba Sanyal as the costume designer was as usual excellent.
Her sense of colour, fabric and design that kept in mind the physical movement of the actors, and her coordination with lighting designer were just outstanding.
Rajesh Singh, who apart from being a music director, is also trained in design and direction from NSD, enriched Bajaj’s overall production and design.
Layla Majnun’s presentation by Shabdaakar is one of its ownkind but the end could well be reduced by 10 to 15 minutes.