Published as “War of Ideas” in the March 2015 edition of The Herald magazine.
History celebrates the crowned. It is therefore ironic that the first South Asian play to be staged at the National Theatre of Great Britain tells the story of Dara Shikoh – the man who wouldn’t be king.
At first glance, a play based on an obscure character, lifted from an alien time and place, seems to be a tough sell for a British audience. But when theatre Director Sir Nicholas Hytner was looking to move the cultural discourse beyond stereotypes, he struck upon the Ajoka Theatre. Originally performed in Lahore, Shahid Nadeem’s “Dara” does not simply depict a war of succession – it is about the clash of ideas, in particular of mystical and right-wing interpretations of religion.
“What difference does it make what path I take to step into the light?”
The play begins in 1659, when Dara and his son are captured and turned in to a victorious Aurangzeb. As the scenes shift, anecdotes from their personal lives add nuance to the characters. Aurangzeb’s puritanical streak is visible from his early days – yet his love for a Hindu dancing girl strikes an incongruent, human chord. Dara’s inclinations are also clear; in spite of being his father’s protégé, he would rather be a fakir than a king of the Mughal court.
Eventually, Auranzeb’s political and military prowess trumps the popularity of Dara the intellectual. The verdict is already known when Dara is sent to trial for apostasy, in the most powerful scene in the play. Zubin Varla’s caged agitation is almost palpable. As Dara, he struggles to make the bearded jury understand why he commissioned a translation of the Upanishads. There is frustration as he tries to make them rise above variations in practice, and trace the common roots of spiritual longing. “What difference does it make what path I take to step into the light?”
That is the reverberating question that brought “Dara” to this particular stage. The struggle between spiritualism and dogma is not new, and can be found in the history of every religion. The struggle for the identity of Islam, however, is centre-stage today. So when Dara defends his identity as a practising Muslim, while acknowledging the beauty and validity of other paths, he represents a much-needed voice in a fragmented society.
The production itself is elegant – there is none of the flashy appeal of Bollywood. The set is at once simple and sumptuous, the grandeur of the Mughal court being conveyed through white marble and latticed screens. For someone familiar with the sights and sounds of the subcontinent, there is an authenticity to the scenes, particularly the qawaali scene at the Sufi shrine. This could only have been possible for writer Tanya Ronder and director Nadya Fall through full immersion in the context, while adapting the play.
At the same time, those less familiar with the background may have found the history lessons slightly overwhelming. There is a lot of jumping back and forth between times, which gets dizzying even for those who took Pakistan Studies as a mandatory pill. The script can be stilted in parts, as if consciously trying to get the audience up to speed on the era. After the climactic trial, the play seems to trail off, ending with a focus on Aurangzeb rather than Dara. Perhaps the impact of the message might have been greater had the story been carried by the characters, with less overt narration of history.
Of course it is not an easy undertaking, building such bridges between times and places. Like Dara, the team of visionaries behind the production sought to bring about their own mingling of oceans, touching upon themes that resonate with a multi-ethnic modern audience. London may be a truly cosmopolitan city, but even here, communities exist within their own silos; the deeper cultural insights provided by “Dara” are rare on this scale.
For Muslim and South Asian members of the audience, the play represented a moment for introspection. “At the centre of every blossom is honey,” said Dara at trial. “The rest, frankly, is ritual.”
They were bold words then, and perhaps even bolder now. Indeed, they leave one wondering how just such a trial would play out in Pakistan today.