The Untold Story
Two hours into the play, the audience shifted in their seats, anxiously glancing at the exit. The play had one fatal flaw – it was just too long. Dara, by the Ajoka theatre group, at the Arts Council last month, started half an hour late on account of the rains in Karachi and continued for two hours and 15 minutes, without an intermission. Celebrating the life of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Dara Shikoh – a practicing Sufi, scholar and painter – Dara explored a page of our history we probably never read when studying the Mughal empire at school. Writer and director Shahid Nadeem’s script tells the story of this unsung hero who won the hearts of the people on the streets, but was brutally beheaded by his brother in an infamous power struggle.
The playbill handed out to the audience at the door contained Nadeem’s reflections on the fate of the subcontinent had Dara Shikoh been emperor in place of his brother Aurangzeb. He believes that under Dara’s patronage and vision, the subcontinent could have turned into an empire where heterogeneous religions co-existed in harmony and there was social and scientific progress. Dara had, in his lifetime, translated Hindu scriptures into Persian for the benefit of Muslim scholars, enabling them to find a link between the two religions. He was widely known for his Sufi leanings and was a disciple of Mian Mir, Mullah Shah Badakhshahi and Sarmad. He spent his time in the company of Sikhs, Jesuits, Sadhus and Sufi saints while Aurangzeb concentrated on building his military might and was mostly locked in battles. Moreover, Aurangzeb prefered a stricter more literal interpretation of Islam, in which he was aided by two wily mullahs in the play.
It is this difference in the characters of the two protagonists that Shahid Nadeem’s script brings to the fore. Through the lifestyles of the two brothers, Nadeem opens the door to an ideological debate that is at the core of the centuries-old standoff between the Salafi and the Sufi interpretations of Islam. The plot is extremely pertinent to the Pakistan of today where religious extremism, intolerance and sectarian hatred are wreaking havoc. Through the character of Dara, the play seeks to highlight the importance of tolerance and the intermingling of cultures to ensure peace and harmony in society.
While the play tends to drag in the first half, it picks up pace when Sarmad, the half-naked Sufi mystic, takes on a more prominent role following Dara’s arrest on charges of blasphemy. A permanent fixture on the stage, Sarmad chants warnings to Emperor Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb’s Fatwah-e-Alamgiri, which he issued after occupying the throne, contained a series of regulations imposing Shariah law on the land. A part of the fatwah pertaining to the ban on music and dance was highlighted in the performance. The play ends with Dara’s beheading after a court comprising Aurangzeb and his clergy deliver the verdict of death on Dara. His head is sent to his father Shah Jahan, who loses his eyesight with grief at his son’s tragic end. Incidentally, the last scene, with the seven angles flying over Dara carrying red and black sheets as he is being his executed, was beautifully crafted. Aurangzeb eventually orders Sarmad’s execution as well, following a heated exchange between them on the concepts of liberty and freedom. The emperor asks the naked Sarmad to clothe himself in his rags lying nearby, to which Sarmad retorts that his rags are covering the emperor’s sin and subsequently lifts his rags to reveal Dara’s head.
A telling story indeed, but Nadeem’s portrayal of certain characters and depiction of certain events was unidimensional. The good vs. evil was so stark in the play that the autocrat Aurangzeb and the enlightened Dara appeared like Jekyll and Hyde. History is never black and white. Moreover, Emperor Shah Jahan, who is depicted as the helpless and heart-broken king pining for Dara Shikoh after his arrest in the play, was actually a ruthless ruler who murdered his own two brothers and at least six other relatives to ascend to the throne. Secondly, Aurangzeb did not initiate a sibling rivalry as alleged in the play. When Shah Jahan fell ill in 1657, the struggle for succession began with all the brothers declaring themselves emperors, including Shah Shuja in Bengal, and after his defeat, Murad Baksh in Gujrat. Aurangzeb’s armies supported Murad and eventually defeated Dara, who was the heir apparent chosen by his father. Eventually Aurangzeb’s armies surrounded Agra and Dara fled, leaving his father behind. What was also left out of the play was Shah Jahan and Dara’s alleged conspiracy to assassinate Aurangzeb, who was alerted by his sister Roshan Ara and thus saved. Also, more time should have been allocated to the critical court scene where Dara is brought to a Shariah court to disprove the allegation that he is a non-Muslim.
The acting in the play was near perfect. All the characters enacted their roles with the confidence that Ajoka prides itself on, but Usman Zia stood out. He played Sarmad with tremendous conviction. Unruly hair and dressed in jute rags, Zia was flawless in the role of the saint who shuns all worldly things. His whirling round and round on the stage left the audience gasping at his dexterity; additionally, his witty remarks, especially those directed at Aurangzeb’s two mullah advisers, drew peals of laughter – a stark reminder of how the public feels about the mullah and his ideology. Both, Eva Majid, who was cast as Aurangzeb’s manipulative sister Roshan Ara, and Tahira Imam, who played the good sibling Jahan Ara, displayed the talent and poise of seasoned actors. Majid’s expressions, in particular, left one convinced of her devious nature and stubborn personality. Jahan Ara’s attributes of great tolerance, wisdom and scholarly poise seeped through in Imam’s acting.
Another strong point of the play were the costumes. Beautiful, colourful and deftly tailored, they took us back centuries and made us feel part of the empire. In fact, they almost made up for the lack of a set, which comprised only two podiums that were never changed. The only change witnessed was in the visual screen which displayed slides from the Badshahnama. The Badshahnama is a history of the Mughal emperors written by them and has been challenged for its authenticity. By using the Badshanama as a visual backdrop to the story that was un folding on stage, the Ajoka theatre was possibly doing exactly that – questioning the veracity of the Badshanama.
Besides the impressive costumes, the music was a definite highlight of the play. Khawar Qawal and his party, who were perched on the right side of the auditorium, below the stage, rendered Amir Khusro, Sarmad, Dara Shikoh and Bhagat Kabir’s poetry with feeling.
However, apart from Sarmad’s dance, the choreography of the whirling dervishes, who featured in several scenes, left much to be desired, as did the sequence of the dancing girls, who after hearing about Aurangzeb’s ban on music, do one last dance for Dara.
All in all, Ajoka’s execution of a contentious topic was well timed in the context of present-day Pakistan. It drew attention to the dangers of religious bigotry and conservatism in contemporary society and built a strong case for Sufi Islam.
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