The tale of Turram Khan

REAL ISSUES, GRAND PRESENTATION Mohammad Ali Baig Photo: P.V. Sivakumar   | Photo Credit: P_V_SIVAKUMAR

Already recognised as one of India’s best known theatre personalities and India’s youngest Padma awardee in theatre, playwright-director-actor Mohammad Ali Baig has received multiple national and global honours and awards. This time, beginning August first week, his well-known play, “Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada”, as well as his new production “1857: Turrebaz Khan” have both been invited to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016. While “Quli” has already seen several productions across the world, “Turrebaz Khan” will be premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, before travelling to London and then returning to Hyderabad.

Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your new play, “1857: Turrebaz Khan”, and its central character?

Turrebaz Khan was a heroic figure in Deccan history, known for his valour and courage. There is a slang in Hyderabad folklore, a positive one — “Turram Khan”. When you call someone that, you are calling him heroic. That comes from Turrebaz Khan’s name. He was a revolutionary figure freedom fighter, who revolted against the ruling design of the 4th Nizam of Hyderabad and the British. He attacked the British residency, which now houses the women’s college in Koti in Hyderabad, to free his comrade who was detained on charges of treachery without a fair trial by the British. He was caught and detained, but even the jail he was put in couldn’t hold him. After a year, he escaped, and then was caught in the forest of an area called Toopran, near Hyderabad. The man who caught him, Qurban Ali Baig, was the talukdar there. Turrebaz Khan was kept in captivity, then shot, and then his body was hanged in the centre of the city to prevent further rebellion. That is his story.

When you read about 1857, places like Delhi, Meerut, Lucknow, Jhansi and Mysore, all of them are mentioned, but Hyderabad isn’t. This is because the Nizams were allies of the British, and there was no reason to fight. But with Turrebaz Khan, there came a brief period when Hyderabad joined the struggle, the uprising.

Does the play follow Turrebaz Khan’s life?

No, the structure of the play is very interesting actually. It follows the last one hour of his life in captivity, and that one hour is also the duration of the play. It shows the difference between the man who has been captured, and his captor, Ali Baig. They are both sons of the same soil, are of the same colour, but they stand on opposite sides. Ali Baig has allied with the British. He is a man who is privileged in more ways than one, and he has no problem with who his allies are — Indians, British, French. His life is about his own family and prosperity. From his point of view, Turrebaz is “naïve”, and immature. For Turrebaz, Ali Baig has a self-serving agenda.

How does the play deal with this clear difference between the two men?

There are two people, one placating the system, another one going against it in the name of his motherland. Neither one is shown as the villain. Both are victims of their situation.

The play is about discrimination and about oppression, two issues that are relevant anywhere in the world. It can be discrimination of blacks and whites, of haves and have nots, east and west. The play brings both sides of the story out by bringing out both characters. There is very interesting wordplay between the two, philosophical debates which explore different sides of the story. At one point, Ali Baig says to Turrebaz that you talk about leaving your home to fight for your motherland, but what about your own mother at home? What about your aging father, who needs you? Before you, there have been so many others who tried to revolt against the British empire, and look what happened to them.

To this, Turrebaz replies that his motherland is more important to him than his mother; that if he is killed, the world will remember him. No one will remember Qurban Ali Baig.

There are many such debates and wordplay between the two characters and the play is an intense drama. I’ve used live percussion— marfa, dhol, etc.— to complement the dialogues.

The research must have been challenging. Do you supplement it with a lot of fiction?

A lot of research went into this play. It is definitely a challenge, because you can’t fictionalise plays like these too much. You have to pay due respect and maintain sanctity, when you portray these historical figures, since there is no one around to correct the errors. Forget political correctness, you have a responsibility of not putting them in a light that is not morally and ethically right. You can’t sit in judgement. For this play, we have picked the aspects of the story that are relevant to today’s global scenario, since it has to make sense to lot of audience everywhere.

My wife, Noor, who is also my co-playwright, has done most of the research, and a lot of it is also based on research by authorities who have written on Turrebaz.

You spoke about the need to make your play’s relevance to audience across the world. Tell us about the responses you get from these audience? How do you see them connecting to your work?

If you take “Quli”, which is the legendary love story on which Hyderabad is supposed to be founded, or “Spaces”, which is about the thought of sticking to your home and heritage, and about traditionalism versus modernism; both could be about people and lives anywhere in the world. We don’t stick to judgement; we don’t say who is right and who is wrong. Our purpose is to bring out an issue, and let the audience decide their own views.

I’ve taken these plays to English, Turkish, Romanian, Bosnian, Iranian, American audiences, to name a few. “Spaces” moves them to tears; many of them come backstage to me and tell me that this is their story. “Quli” too, sees the audience connecting to it. When they are moved, it moves me as a playwright; it shows me that the kind of theatre I believe in is working, that despite the barrier of language and context, people can connect with these plays. I hope that “1857: Turrebaz Khan” will do that same.

Your productions, held in forts and ruins, are known for usually being larger than life. How difficult is it to travel with these productions?

The earlier plays that I mounted were really huge and I was stuck with own vision of them, so we couldn’t travel. But since the last few plays, like “Spaces”, “Quli” and now “Turrebaz”, I’m still mounting them on a big scale, but I’ve tried to make them production sensible. I keep the portability in mind, so that now we are travelling light, but the end result is still grand. Of course, adapting a play I stage in forts and ruins to a festival setting is difficult, but so far, we have managed to do it successfully.

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Printable version | Sep 11, 2021 11:47:18 AM |

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