Theatre

Love is all around

Partition tales: Ahlam Khan Karachiwala as Phuphi in a still from Aaj Rang Hai

Partition tales: Ahlam Khan Karachiwala as Phuphi in a still from Aaj Rang Hai  

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The play, Aaj Rang Hai is a celebration of Amir Khusrau’s syncretism vision

Returning to the Mumbai stage after a long hiatus is the musical melodrama Aaj Rang Hai from long-time collaborators Gopal Tiwari and Purva Naresh, who has also co-scripted the play with her mother, Vijay Naresh. The always popular play returns to the very venue where it had enjoyed a robust full house at its premiere in 2010, as part of the inaugural NCPA Centrestage Festival. The play takes its name from the pièce de résistance Sufi qawwali by Amir Khusrau which was such a rousing paean to his pir, Nizamuddin Auliya, and magically blended the colours of Basant with his own unabashed ardour. Love is, therefore, very much on the agenda.

A period drama set in post-Partition India, Aaj Rang Hai frequently invokes the spirit of Khusrau, not only by harnessing the rich and diverse cultural legacy laid at his door, but through dramatised parables from his life that spell out, in no uncertain terms, the inclusivity and pluralism he stood for even in the Delhi Sultanate of the 13th century, a time marked by rising intolerance and rampant persecution. These tales, simplistic to a fault but rendered topical by the prevailing climate in the country, are performed behind the pale shimmer of a sheer curtain and serve as spiritual backdrop for the play. A musical troupe, also behind the curtain, performs Sufi melodies (including the eponymous number) through the play’s running time. During the first few runs, professional qawwals from Lucknow were taken on board, but when that proved to be logistically untenable, Tiwari and Naresh assembled a scratch team drawn from that particular breed of talented singer-actors who have inhabited the city’s spate of Hindustani musicals in the past decade — and they are every bit as peerless.

Communal communication

In front of the curtain, as is typical of her plays, Naresh foregrounds the stories of women. Aaj Rang Hai is a piquant window into a small-town household of the 1960s, where the erstwhile classical singer Beni Bai and a house-bound widow, known only as Phuphi, attempt to foster of spirit of Hindu-Muslim amity in a locality that is growing increasingly sectarian. Two young girls in their care, and Beni’s faithful retainer, Munnu, as well as a neighbourhood couple in the throes of love — Fanne, a young Muslim wastrel, and Sharda, an educated Hindu girl — round-up the ensemble. Beni is played by Trishla Patel as a woman with a progressive mindset, whose strong convictions can sometimes come across as didactic. Patel is the only one extant from the play’s original trifecta of tour de force performers, which included Imraan Rasheed as Munnu and Ahlam Khan Karachiwala as Phuphi, inimitable actors who created wonderfully delineated characters for the ages. However, Tiwari and Naresh have groomed some able successors. Sariika Singh, who has already performed as Phuphi in several shows, has been a revelation in the part, and in the words of an insider, “a ‘scene-sealer’ rather than a scene-stealer”. Munnu’s mantle will be assumed by indie star Sharib Hashmi, recently seen in Padman precursor Phullu.

Family tales

The characters of Beni Bai and Munnu recur in a trilogy of plays penned by Naresh over roughly a decade. They first made an appearance in Afsaneh - Bai Se Bioscope Tak, a play directed by Akarsh Khurana which opened in 2008. Last year’s Bandish 20-20000Hz, an Aadyam production, saw the characters make a welcome return to her oeuvre. Beni is loosely based on Naresh’s maternal grandmother, one of her formative influences. More than biographical detail, Naresh draws out essences and philosophies from her life, embellished with fictional flourishes, and Patel’s consummate performance (and singing) adds volumes.

Beni’s liberal outlook is contrasted with Phuphi’s conditioned prejudices, but in the end, they are both kindred spirits with bona fide secular credentials, and Khusrau (played by Sukant Goel) is their calling card of choice. The innocent love story of Sharda and Fanne is contrasted with the now controversial tale of Allauddin Khilji’s unrequited and doomed love for Rani Padmini (or Padmavati) of Chittor, and his son’s acquisition of Deval Rani, another Rajput princess — the only archetypal stories of inter-religious passion accessible then, and macabre cautionary tales at that. In these days, when we have supposedly been cruelly confronted with the lie that is secularism, Aaj Rang Hai and Khusrau could perhaps conspire to find an antidote to society’s ills in a much more light-hearted and lyrical manner.

Aaj Rang Hai will be staged this evening, at 7 p.m. at Tata Theatre, Nariman Point, NCPA; more details at bookshow.com

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 6:26:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/love-is-all-around/article23005674.ece

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