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Girish Karnad's play

King of whim

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UNEASY LIES THE HEAD: Yashpal Sharma plays the tragic and eccentric Muhammadbin-Tughlaq

Girish Karnad's 'Tughlaq' is being staged after 40 years.

The Pandavas and Kaurvas haven't gone anywhere. They are very much around - in us, " says Bhanu Bharti. "The human follies, weaknesses and whims, loneliness and solitude are all very much a part of us as they were in the characters in the Mahabharata and in rulers at different points in history, including Tughlaq. " Indeed, the director is talking about Tughlaq, the play written by the eminent playwright and actor Girish Karnad on the eccentric 14th-century sultan of Delhi, Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq. It will be staged in Delhi next week. 

Bharti has chosen the same venue where he'd staged his last production Andha Yug - the ruins of the historic Feroz Shah Kotla fort. It's particularly significant for Tughlaq, says the 65-year-old director. "Because Feroz Shah, who built the fort was the uncle of Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq, and because he did not marry and have a legitimate heir, the throne went to Feroz Shah. "

The play promises as much of a spectacle as its earlier avatars - it was first staged by Om Shivpuri in 1964 and later by Ebrahim Alkazi in '72. While the first was performed near the Delhi Ridge at the Talkatora Gardens, the latter production became part of theatre folklore - staged as it was against the backdrop of Delhi's Purana Qila (Old Fort) with Manohar Singh essaying the role of the tragic emperor. "Ah, that was the stuff legends are made of, " smiles Bharti, who, as a young student of the National School of Drama played the role of Sheik Imamuddin, a religious leader, in the Alkazi production.

So did the idea to stage Tughlaq take root all those years ago? The Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee shakes his head. "No. As an idealistic youngster, I was drawn more towards the theatre of the absurd. And started with Ionesco's The Lesson (which was my diploma production) in which Naseeruddin Shah acted. Later, I did political satires like Ras Gandharv by Mani Madhukar. It's only in the last few years, that I have come to realise and appreciate the value of the classics. As you grow older, you start accepting things as they are. You realise that change is the one constant in life. Human remains essentially the same, no matter which chapter of history you belong to. And Tughlaq is one play that illustrates this so well. "

Karnad's Tughlaq has an important place in the history of modern Indian theartre. "It made a huge impact on the psyche of theatrebuffs, " says Bharti. "This one, together with productions like Dharamvir Bharti's Andha Yug, Mohan Rakesh's Ashad Ka Ek Din and Aadhe Adhure, Badal Sircar's Ebong Indrajit, and of course, Vijay Tendulkar's Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe, heralded the arrival of modern Indian theatre on its own terms. " Before that, the Indian theatre scene was dominated by Bhartendu, translations by Moliere, Rabindranath Tagore, Bernard Shaw, etc. "It survived on translations and adaptations mainly, but these plays gave it its own distinct identity, with many reflecting the disillusionment that had set in post Independence. These plays are as relevant today as they were in the '50 and '60s. " For instance, he says, Tughlaq deals with the trials and tribulations of a ruler who was far ahead of his time;an idealist who wants a system that was humane and just, but who ends up disillusioned and alone, a pawn in the wasteland of politics where his subjects use him to advance their own interests. "Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq was one who strived to abolish the jaziya (religious tax) - something that's attributed to Akbar - because he wanted politics to remain free of religion and vice-versa, " he says. "Tughlaq also started the use of copper coins in place of silver ones saying they'd carry the same value. Look what we're using now - paper and plastic money! Of course, this king was eccentric too - and this was evident in the way he decided, much to the dismay of his people, to shift his capital to Daulatabad (Aurangabad) because he felt Delhi was too close to the north-west borders and hence too easily accessible to the Mughals. Till today, we use the word 'Tughlaqi farman ' which means an absurd order, the whim of someone in power. "

While Bharti concedes that comparisons with the earlier "grand productions" of Tughlaq will be inevitable, he is confident that his version - with the immensely talented Yashpal Sharma in the lead role - will hold its own. "I've made my Tughlaq a more humane king. It's a tragedy of a human being who is a dreamer, one who is committed to his ideals but is left disillusioned and lonely. " Of course, the play remains essentially the same. "I was just forced to shorten it because a three-and-a-half-hour production is no longer all that feasible now, " says Bharti, who's hoping that Girish Karnad might come to Delhi to see the play that's being staged after 40 years. "He's promised to do so. I'm keeping my fingers crossed because his views will be something I'm going to treasure immensely. "

'Tughlaq' will be staged at Kotla Feroz Shah, New Delhi, from October 26 to November 2, at 7 pm

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