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A jihadi dialogue
A new Western opera written by Indian poet Jeet Thayil is currently on tour in England and is expected to visit India later this year. Babur in London narrates a fresh and original story about four British Muslims in contemporary London plotting a terrorist attack whilst having their extremist convictions challenged by the ghost of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur.
Sung by a mixed Western and Indian cast, it tells an imaginary tale about young disenfranchised suicide bombers living in a London suburb. Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur, the 16th-century warlord and poet, appears to them like a genie and questions their beliefs and morality, pitting his 'just' war on soldiers in India against their 21stcentury terrorist war on innocent civilians (which he sees as "sins against God" ). Babur contrasts his Islamic faith, based on his reading of the Koran, to their rigid beliefs, based on indoctrination and brainwashing.
The chamber opera, written in English, is Thayil's first libretto, and true to style, it explores drugs, alcohol, sex, death and religion.
Sipping a glass of red wine in a French cafê amidst Oxford's dreaming spires, where the production toured this week, the 52-yearold, who's first novel Narcopolis explores the drugs-filled underbelly of 1970s Mumbai, says: "Don't these subjects interest you? They are in my top ten topics to write about, yes. "
Staging an opera around Babur reappearing in the world today was Thayil's idea. In 2006, he had written a poem titled Letter from a Mughal Emperor, 2006, a fictional letter from Babur to a lover in the present day talking about himself and the contemporary world that included poetical lines taken from Babur's famous memoirs, the Baburnama. Thayil has long been an admirer of Babur's poetry and the Baburnama, saying he finds within it beautiful poetical lines that stand the test of time and that it is a "page turner".
"Babur is a military figure, a man of god, and a poet who writes as much about fields and flowers as battles, " says Thayil. "He is a compelling underrepresented dramatic personality. If ever there was a character made for opera, it was he. "
Explaining how the idea of a story about home-grown British Muslim terrorists came about, he adds: "If you think of Babur as the first jihadist who thought he was waging war for god, and if he was around today, would he not want to have a conversation with the modern suicide bomber, his direct descendant?"
Thayil did not want to set Babur in India or Pakistan but an unfamiliar place, so he chose Europe, which he considered apt because of the 2007 London terror attacks and the 2004 Madrid bombings.
He conducted extensive research among radicalised British Muslims to write the libretto. "I spoke to a home-grown British Asian terrorist who had left his terrorist outfit and I explored in detail how he was recruited, how he got radicalised and so on, " he explains.
What fascinated Thayil was how "easy" it was to join such a group in Britain and "how casually it happened" and how "natural" it was. "I saw in him a rage about Britain, racism and never really belonging, " he says.
Thayil rejects claims that the opera negatively stereotypes British Muslims.
One of his characters describes himself as a "28-year-old, disenfranchised, well-educated" second-generation immigrant whose father owns a corner shop whose nation is the "Republic of Islam". Thayil says his research taught him that such young Muslims are ripe for radicalisation.
"Part of what he says about himself is almost word-for-word what the former terrorist I interviewed said to me, although of course it has been put into elevated speech, " he explains. "The word stereotype has come up and I think that is because two of the female Muslim terrorists wear hijab. But this is opera: it's fiction, not non-fiction. It is not saying all Muslim women wear the hijab, nor is it saying all British Asians are suicide bombers. This criticism gets to me because the thing I tried very hard to do was to not stereotype the characters and if I hear those words, it makes me feel I failed completely. "
They are not one-dimensional villains, you find out what drives them and they become difficult to hate, he explains. When asked if he discovered what might prevent terrorism, Thayil, a self-confessed former addict, says "Nothing. You can't dissuade people - it's like asking an alcoholic not to drink. Something has to happen inside you to change you. Anyway I don't think you can find solutions in opera. "
In fact he does not say what the message of the opera is. "I think it is incredibly pretentious and belittles the viewer to do that, " he says.
Thayil is not particularly bothered that some people in the UK have found it difficult to understand all the layers of the opera. "I don't think this opera will be understood until it's been around a while. It would be terrible if people understood it in an hour and 10 minutes, " he adds.
Certainly, the contrast between the flamboyant wine-drinking opium-smoking art-loving life of Babur and the structured, rigid life the modern jihadists lead pervades the production.
The music has been performed by a sextet from the Switzerland-based ensemble fur neue music zurich. British composer Edward Rushton says the music he created to evoke Babur's exotic and sensual world of drugs, sex, wine, the arts, poetry and warfare, contrasts starkly with the music for the terrorists' world who have a restricted life. He admits his first thought was to deny the terrorists music because of the act of destruction they were planning but then he went deeper into the libretto and their human side and dynamics between them came through.
The project originated in 2007 when the Swiss Arts Council in Delhi asked Thayil to write a libretto and sent him on a residency to Zurich for three months. He met up with Rushton, who was living there, and they decided to work together.
So how was writing his first libretto? "It's easier than writing a novel any day of the week, but it's far less fun than writing poetry, " he says.
But as for whether he will write another, "I doubt it, " he says. "I am booked up for the next four-and-a-half years. "
Besides, he feels his image as a counterculture poet has been dented. "I have now written a novel and this libretto for the British Council, I think my street cred has gone down somewhat, " he jokes.
He is convinced the opera will play to packed auditoriums in India. "It's the first piece of contemporary opera coming to India and the transnational nature of the enterprise will mean a lot to Indians and, of course, the character of Babur is like a lightning rod. Yet there is barely any work of fiction in any art form on Babur. "
Western opera rarely comes to India, he says, pointing out he is only aware of three being staged in the past decade. "Indians will enjoy it;we love melodrama, " he adds.
Thayil was at the centre of a real melodrama this year when he was asked to leave the Jaipur Literature Festival after being one of four authors who defiantly read passages from The Satanic Verses to protest the fact that Salman Rushdie was forced to drop out after he was threatened by Muslim rightwingers. Four court cases against them have been dropped but there is still one case pending for allegedly "offending religious sentiments". "If you are going to worry about offending religious sentiments you might as well stay silent, " he concludes.
Produced by The Opera Group, a British touring opera company that engages with contemporary issues, 'Babur in London' saw its world premiere in Switzerland in March. It is now touring England and will visit India in the near future
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