Unheard history

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IN HIS SHOES Tom Alter plays the aging Maulana Azad to perfection Photo: A.M. Faruqui
IN HIS SHOES Tom Alter plays the aging Maulana Azad to perfection Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Maulana Azad offers a view of history missing in most official narratives of the Freedom Movement

You need to get over one fixation before beginning to appreciate the play Maulana Azad: awe for a firang speaking a desi language. Tom Alter plays one of the architects of free India, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, in the solo play. And if you are too taken in by the impeccable Urdu rolling off an American-born's tongue, you might just miss out on a lot else that the play offers. Tom has declared in interview after interview that he grew up speaking to his missionary parents in Urdu in Mussoorie and even read his Bible in Urdu. But the exotic value never seems to die out.

Rare view

Once you cross that first hurdle, Maulana Azad (scripted and directed by M. Sayeed Alam, staged at Ranga Shankara in Bangalore last weekend) takes you in a sweep through those bylanes of history that our textbooks rarely even take a peek into. The play unfolds in the backdrop of Maulana Azad dictating notes to his friend and scribe Humayun Kabir for his book, India Wins Freedom. Joking about the impossibility of capturing the whole saga of the Indian Freedom Movement in a book, Maulana asks Humayun with the characteristic Urdu flourish: "Humayun, why do you insist on holding a flowing stream captive in a well?"As Maulana gets talking about the Freedom Movement and Partition, you begin to realise that it is indeed more than a flowing stream. It's a virtual ocean, the ebb and flow of which is unpredictable, complex and intriguing. Refusing to soft-peddle the tricky issues of religion and nationality, Maulana takes a hard and critical look at all the protagonists of the Freedom Movement (Gandhiji, Nehru, Vallabbhai Patel, Acharya Kripalani, Babu Rajendra Prasad... ) and the politicking within the Indian National Congress. Though a Congress loyalist throughout his life, Maulana does not hesitate to put his own party under the scanner in the same manner that he analyses the Muslim League. Even as he stoutly refutes Jinnah's charges against Congress as a "Hindu party" by reeling out reams of irrefutable statistics, he also talks about how Muslims were let down by the Congress in several instances. Maulana is deeply hurt that Jinnah called him the "showboy of Congress", but that does not stop him from seeing that Jinnah was not the only "villain" of the Partition. He is scathing when he calls Vallabbhai Patel the "founder of Indian Partition" and insists that several Congress leaders made no insignificant contribution to the script of Partition. The biggest emotional blow in his life, he says in the most intense moment of the play, is Gandhiji's consent to Partition.Maulana Azad is a dense play and demands undivided attention of the audience. For those of us not familiar with Urdu, this can be particularly hard. Though Maulana's complex analysis of the politics of the time is broken by some light-hearted conversation (about shorthand writers, jasmine tea and cigarettes), lines of Ghalib, interesting stories of his days in prison and his reveries of his wife, the play remains largely intellectual. It doesn't help matters that Tom plays an aging Maulana to perfection. You tend to see more of the bent figure's cap than the face in the play!

A revelation

But this lack of "drama" in the conventional sense is more than made up by the perspective on our history the play offers. In these divisive times, the dilemma of a Muslim, who was devout even as he was firm in his secular convictions, rings particularly relevant. For those of us used to the Nehru-Gandhi-centric view of the history of India's Freedom Movement, Maulana Azad is a great revelation. The Gujarat Censor Board had banned its staging at Darpana in Ahmedahad, run by Mallika Sarabhai. Something entirely unsurprising.BAGESHREE S.



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