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Culture

Tale of Taj: Machiavellian Mumtaz

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In Dilip Hiroo's play, Shah Jehan's favourite queen can give Lady Macbeth a run for her money.

It's a play that does a volte face on the legendary love story of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal. The London-based playwright Dilip Hiroo's take on the beautiful queen, who has been portrayed as the embodiment of a dutiful wife and mother, could best be called Machiavellian. In his play Tale of the Taj, currently being staged in Delhi, Mumtaz is a political animal who believes in "outfoxing the foxes" to get her lover Shah Jehan onto the throne.

Of course, there's no trace of this scheming Mumtaz in history books. "But this is not a history lesson, " counters Hiroo who's had a "double celebration" in Delhi recently - with the launch of his book Jihad on Two Fronts (HarperCollins) and the staging of Tale of the Taj, a play that he wrote 40 years ago "after a 21-month long research". It is being staged by Pierrot's Troupe and directed by M Sayeed Alam and Ashok Purang.

"I've weaved in fact and fiction, so the play could well fit in the genre of 'fact-ion', " smiles the playwright, taking advantage of the fact that the Mughals never really gave their queens a place in history books. "Other than the three basic facts - that Mumtaz Mahal was very beautiful, she bore Shah Jehan 14 children and that she died in childbirth, very little is known about her, " says Hiroo who took this "absence as a blessing to create her from my imagination, and give her character a very contemporary flavour".

Hiroo strives to get under the skin of the young Arjumand Bano Begum, who later came to be known as Mumtaz Mahal, right from the time she's introduced to Shah Jehan by her aunt, the empress Noor Jehan. Once the prince is smitten, she sets her eyes on the throne. "Ambitious to the core, Mumtaz is a pucca feminist, more so than the feminists of today. She's one who has no qualms in eliminating all those who came in Shah Jehan's way to becoming the emperor of Hindustan".

And through a game of chess in Burhanpur in 1631, Mumtaz goes a step further - when she seduces Shah Jehan to put at stake not just his riches but even his throne, should he lose to her. He loses, not because he wants to, but because she's the one who is smarter.

Once seated on the Peacock Throne, there's such a discernible change in her demeanour that even Shah Jehan gets apprehensive. Seeing his empire almost slip into the hands of this strange woman, he is forced to resort to a trick - one that takes his much-pregnant wife straight to her grave. That's when the grief-stricken emperor promises to build the Taj in her memory.

"Imagining Shah Jehan in this situation is what forced me to raise the question - was the Taj Mahal a symbol of his love, grief or guilt?" asks Hiroo. "After all, being a dreamer and an artiste, he was a complete antithesis of his conniving queen. Yes, he did want to become emperor but not by killing his brothers. That is what Mumtaz does with the help of her father Asaf Khan. And when Mumtaz dies, he wants to 'anchor a cloud' and bring it down to earth as the Taj. "

In fact, the play was originally titled To Anchor a Cloud (" to cater to a British audience" ) and was staged in London four decades ago, with the legendary Saeed Jaffrey essaying the role of Shah Jehan. "Back then, many people likened it to a Shakespearean play saying it captures the various moods of human life, " says Hiroo. "I've enjoyed working on the conflict at various levels, between different characters - the simmering tension between Noor Jehan and Shah Jehan, between the princes, and then, between husband and wife. And finally, when Mumtaz is seated on the throne, leaving the audience flummoxed - whether what is happening is real or imaginary? After all, who would ever imagine that a supposedly dutiful wife would take on such a vicious avtar?"

The industrial management student who worked briefly in the US, moved to London in the mid- '60s. "My passion lay in writing and that's what I've been doing since, " smiles Hiroo who has over 33 books to his credit besides plays and serials including Padosi, starring Roshan Seth, for the BBC.

'Tale of the Taj' will be staged on Nov 19 & 20 at the Shri Ram Centre in Delhi at 7 pm.

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