review Theatre

Kings, pawns and the game of history

A scene from Shahjahan-O-Mumtaz.   | Photo Credit: 06dfrShahJahan

In 2012, Pierrot’s Troupe presented “Shahjahan-o-Mumtaz” in its original version in English. The actors did their best and the décor was elegantly designed. The presence of playwright Dilip Hiro added charm to the evening. However, some in the audience did not relish Emperor Shahjahan, Mumtaz and other characters in period costumes delivering their lines in English. Perhaps as a consequence, Pierrot's Troupe staged this play in Urdu at Shri Ram Centre recently. It was a tremendous success, and the audience burst into applause when the performers took their curtain call. One of the endearing aspects of the production was the chaste Urdu delivered in impeccable accent. It was a joy to hear the beauty of the dialogues delivered by the performers.

Based in London, Dilip Hiro is an internationally renowned author. His scripts display his craftsmanship as a playwright and his deep insight that helps him recreate and reinterpret historical characters. (Last time he was in Delhi to watch the premiere of “Shahjahan-o-Mumtaz”, this writer had a long conversation with him at the India International Centre, discussing his social vision as a writer of contemporary social, economic and political dichotomies and his craft as a creative writer, and how the British audience respond to his plays staged in London. At that time he was working on the Indian trade union movement.)

As far as “Shahjahan-o-Mumtaz” is concerned, he has not distorted historical facts. The play reveals the court intrigues and counter-intrigues to capture the throne. These facts provide a background for the brave, intelligent and master strategist Mumtaz, who inflicts a crushing defeat on the rivals of her husband. In the pitilessly fought war of succession, ultimately the winner is Shahjahan, who occupies the throne of the Mughal empire. In Hiro’s version it is not Shahjahan who is the true hero, but Mumtaz who emerges the real heroine. But all the time she remains in the background. Even her dear husband is not aware of her invaluable contribution to his victory. Of course, he adores her because she is endowed with unparalleled beauty.

The play is directed by M. Sayeed Alam, a political science lecturer-turned-professional theatre artist. The opening scene itself introduces us to the main dramatis personae whose motive is to liquidate their rivals, desperate to become the successor to the Mughal emperor Jahangir. We meet Nurjahan, who is determined to ensure the success of her son-in-law Shahryar. Her brother Asaf Khan, the rich and powerful noble, is conspiring to make his son-in-law Shahjahan, who is married to his daughter Mumtaz, the Mughal emperor. This bloody confrontation makes the dramatic conflict intense. In this bloody web of deception Mumtaz becomes a mighty and decisive force operating behind the scenes.

The play has been translated into Urdu from the original English by Aslam. Different characters in the play use different speech. The characters belonging to Mughal royalty deliver their lines in Persianised Urdu and those belonging to lower strata of society speak in Hindustani.

Aslam has imaginatively created the right decor, reflecting the dazzling splendour of the Mughal court without using a costly and imposing set. Using a variety of colours and colourful draperies in the backdrop illuminated with skilful light effects, the illusion of imperial grandeur is created. Properties add to the aura of magnificence. As we know Shahjahan had the peacock throne built, decorated with the costliest of jewels. An impressive prop has been created to give the illusion of the imperial throne. The action keeps shifting from one locale to another in a seamless manner.

The highlight of the production is the climactic scene. Undoubtedly Shahjahan’s love for Mumtaz is unbounded, but he has hardly realised and admired the role of Mumtaz in ensuring his victory. Now, through the game of chess she wants to assert her superior mind and strategy. In privacy they play a game of chess in a light-hearted mood. The emperor loses the game and according to the terms agreed upon, Shahjahan is forced to give the throne to Mumtaz. She occupies it and starts functioning like a legitimate ruler, and gradually the situation becomes tense. A flabbergasted Shahjahan is forced to carry out the dictates of Mumtaz as she occupies the throne. In the process, a fatal accident takes place.

The performers vividly portray their characters. Anju Chhabra as Nurjahan has an impressive stage presence. Her gait and style of delivery exude the air of imperial authority. Niti Sayeed as Mumtaz gives a convincing performance. Sayeed Alam as Shahjahan brings to the fore various emotional layers of a ruthless ruler, an adoring husband and a true lover. Alam and Niti make their scene in the denouncement memorable. Weeping bitterly near the body of his beloved Mumtaz, Alam’s Shahjahan is no longer an emperor; he is a true lover. There is sincerity in his heart-felt lamentation, offering the audience touching moments, moments that will stay with them for a long time.

A repeat show will be staged at Epicentre, Gurgaon on June 29.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 6:37:14 PM |

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