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‘Altar-ed’ Profiles

Three men and a festival


'ALTAR-ED' PROFILES: Actor Tom Altar, essaying the roles of (from l to r) the last emperor of Hindustan and the Persian poet 'Tafta', is the common thread that runs through the three plays

Three stalwarts of poetry and song, K L Saigal, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib, are being celebrated in a trio of plays


Unusual and unique, " is the experience Tom Altar promises for theatre buffs in Mumbai. The diverse personalities of three famous figures from the worlds of music, history and Urdu poetry - K L Saigal, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib respectively - will be presented at Nayaab: Rare Plays with Tom Altar, a festival of plays next month. As the writer and director of the plays, M Sayeed Alam of Pierrot's Troupe says, "We say they are different because, although the theatre scene in Mumbai is vibrant with modern English and vernacular productions, audiences there do not get a chance to see too many historical or Urdu-centric plays. Ghalib, a universally fascinating character, is the common thread that runs through all three. "

Altar, who has been "an almost regular feature" with the group since Maulana Azad in 2002, is sure the audience would "love to go back in time and have a better understanding and appreciation of the niche the three stalwarts created for themselves in history". While K L Saigal has been presented in the city earlier, Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaira and Ghalib ke Khat are being staged for the first time.

This is perhaps the only play on the life of the life of Saigal, who died early at the age of 43. The eponymous production is a virtual recreation of the good ol' years of Indian cinema and music. "I am sure that with this, Saigal will endear himself to the younger lot and take the older lot on a nostalgic trip, " says Altar. While the title role is being essayed by Yashraj Malik who "uncannily" looks and sings like the legendary singer, Altar plays the role of a buzurgwar (an elderly gentleman) telling his grandson about the great singer and actor.

"But the play does not focus only on Saigal's life as an actor or his film-music alone, but shows him singing works by Ghalib and Zauq, among others, " says Altar. "In fact, a huge credit for making Ghalib popular in the '30s goes to Saigal (and later of course, also by Begum Akhtar, Malika Pukhraj and Jagjit Singh), who often sang the poet's ghazals and nazms at musical gatherings. "

The second play Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaira recreates what Alam calls a "fictitious poetry-session" arranged by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, at Delhi's Red Fort just before the 1857 uprising. "This will be a treat for lovers of Urdu poetry as it will quote some of the greatest poets of all time like Ghalib, Ustaad 'Zauq', Momin Khan 'Momin', Bal Mukund 'Huzoor', Hakeem Sakhanand 'Raqam', 'Dagh' Dehlavi, Nawab 'Sheftah', Mufti 'Azurdah' Munshi 'Tishnah' and of course, Zafar, " adds Altar who is known for his proficiency in Urdu ever since he started studying it at the Poona Film institute in 1972.

"Zafar was a victim of politics, " he continues. "He was just pushed to the forefront by the time and circumstances he lived in. He would have been happy doing stuff he enjoyed like writing poetry and spending time with like-minded people. That's what the play shows - the human, gentle side of the monarch. Altar has also played the ageing emperor in another play called Sons of Babar. "Tom has essayed both - a pre-1857 Zafar looking grand as the last Mughal emperor, and a post-1857 Zafar, minus all his regal paraphernalia, dressed in a worn-out lungi and kurta spending his last days in exile in faraway Rangoon, " says Alam.

The last great poet of the Mughal era, Ghalib (1797-1896 ), doesn't make an appearance in Ghalib ke Khat, but makes his presence felt through the numerous letters he wrote to different people in his life. "He is among the most fascinating and complex characters I have come across. I am sure many would share this view, " smiles Altar who's happy the poet continues to be immensely popular, even among the young. Having been closely 'associated' with both Ghalib and Zafar (" who too has been romanticised a great deal through books and films" ), he nevertheless, finds the former a more dramatic and fascinating person. These letters were published by the grandson of one of Ghalib's friends in the early 1860s. "The earlier interpretations of Ghalib Ke Khat had solo readings of his letters, " says Alam. "This is the first time that it's being presented as a play. Also being introduced for the first time are Ghalib's wife Umrao Begum, their maid (Wafadar), friends and disciples like Mir Mehdi Majrooh, Nawab Ali and Munshi Har Gopal 'Taftah', an eminent but forgotten Persian poet.

'KL Saigal' (March 1), 'Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaira' (March 2) and 'Ghalib ke Khat' (March 3) will be staged at the YB Chavan Auditorium, Mumbai, at 7pm


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