Not just a spectacle

Celebrating the syncretic tradition: Mohammad Ali Baig   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

From travel to cuisine, heritage is the buzz word these days. For years now, Mohammad Ali Baig is reigniting audience interest in heritage theatre. Once a significant cultural feature of ancient Greece, Baig is successfully practising it in Hyderabad with popular plays that provide the audience a sense of the rich past of the region. Quli: Dilon Ka Shehzada celebrates the love story of the poet-sultan of Qutub Shahi dynasty and his wife Bhagmati, who was an accomplished dancer. Historians might question Bhagamti’s existence, but the play unravels the secular ethos of the region. Similarly, 1857:Turrebaz Khan brings into focus a little know revolutionary from the Deccan region during the First War of Independence.

A Padma Shri awardee, Baig will be honoured with Asian-Arab Award for international theatre on March 30 in Hyderabad. The award will be followed by performances of his popular plays in Dubai in April. “This is an honour. The west has acknowledged my work. This is the first time that West Asia is recognising my efforts to popularise heritage theatre. Quli: Dilon Ka Shehzada and Under An Oak Tree will be staged in Dubai,” says Baig, who addressed scholars on heritage theatre in Oxford University last year.

His kind of theatre is often described as just a spectacle. “The performances are equally important. In my plays, every element of stagecraft, be it the venue, light or sound design, is a character.” There is always a danger of the monument overpowering the performances. “On the contrary, the performance has to be masterful if you are projecting it in the open to 1500-2000 people, without the aid and comfort of the proscenium. Unless you master little nuances of theatre, how will you reach out to such a large audience,” he wonders.

How does he travel with such plays? “We have devised certain sets and some things we source locally.” Baig says he avoids performing at the local heritage sites. “Instead of being factually incorrect and aesthetically jarring, it is better to recreate things artificially,” he reasons.

Apart from his father Qadir Ali Baig and Ebrahim Alkazi, Baig reminds, very few theatre practitioners have tried this form. “I have nothing against it, but putting two blocks on stage and performing in denim and T-shirt doesn’t give me a kick. It is not creatively fulfilling for me. I want to recreate a syncretic past for a generation which has not lived it. But you have to be very just and judicious. You can’t romanticise or fictionalise the past events just because the characters’ family members are not there to defend them. Usually, historians and creative people focus on Mughals; the history and folklore of Deccan have been ignored. People know of Wajid Ali Shah’s interest in arts, but not many know about Quli Qutub Shah who was an accomplished poet and was the first Saheb-e diwan. He wrote extensively in Persian, Urdu, and Telugu.”

With government support, Baig says, heritage theatre could be replicated in different parts of the country. “It will do wonders.” He cites the example of Taramati Baradari in Hyderabad which has been brought back into public attention through a 150-minute musical designed by him with the support of the Tourism Department. “Many theatre people called it too ambitious or impractical but we did it with 40 actors on a hillock. Today, it is a busy landmark in the city.” Similarly, Quli: Dilon Ka Shehzada is performed every month in the Golconda Fort. “We ensure that the sanctity of the monument is maintained.”

In Baig’s oeuvre, Under An Oak Tree is different. An autobiographical play told in a storytelling format, it captures Baig’s relationship with his father, who was a legendary figure in theatre. Baig calls it a “portable” play as he could easily travel with it. “It is a conversation between a mother and her son with the focus on the father-son relationship mired in a theatre scenario. It grapples with the quintessential question: when the father is so legendary, does the offspring live in a shadow or does he come out of it. The Oak tree is a metaphor for the father’s success.” When Baig was about to debut as an actor with Tughlaq, he lost his father. He moved to the advertising industry and made a name for himself. But the love for theatre and the desire to take forward his father’s legacy brought him back to the stage. “Theatre people are expected to compromise. They are often addressed as bechare (helpless). I wanted theatre to become a mainstream art form, with the same dignity and prestige that a classical dance or a jazz performance gets.”

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 1:09:07 PM |

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