Shahid Nadeem’s story of two Mughal princes plays differently on three countries’ stages

01 March 2015

IN 1978, on an oppressively hot day several months into his sentence at the Mianwali central jail in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem received the letter that would change his life. Earlier that year, Nadeem and a handful of producers and cameramen had donned black armbands and occupied the Pakistan Television Corporation, the government station where they worked, as part of a union protest. This was considered treason under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s autocratic regime, and Nadeem, as the leader of the PTV union, was sentenced to a year of hard labour. The letter, from a member of Amnesty International in Texas, assured the 32-year-old that the human rights agency would support him.

Nadeem recalled the moment in an interview for the book Amnesty International: The Human Rights Story. “Suddenly I felt as if the sweat drops all over my body were drops from a cool, comforting shower,” he said. “The cell no longer was dark and suffocating.” After Amnesty’s letter, which significantly changed the prison authorities’ behaviour towards him, Nadeem became regarded as a prisoner of conscience. In 1980, not long after being released, he went into exile in London with the organisation’s help. Nadeem returned home to Lahore eight years later, but has also spent time in the United States and Hong Kong—and flourished creatively in each of these places, with the support of a variety of international human rights and arts organisations.

The Ajoka theatre company uses music and dance to explore Sufi themes in Nadeem’s orginal Dara.
Courtesy Shahid Nadeem / Ajoka Theater

In late January, I met Nadeem in London, at the National Theatre. He had just flown in from Washington DC—where his play Amrika Chalo was being performed—for the debut of an English adaptation of his play Dara, which dramatises a seventeenth-century war of succession between two sons of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan: the half-brothers Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh. Seated across from me in a quiet office backstage, Nadeem seemed far removed from the intensity of his past. Beneath a halo of thinning gray hair, his expression remained gentle and his tone even as he spoke of the events that had propelled him from the squalor of a jail cell in Pakistan to this elite cultural venue in London.

Nadeem drew a parallel between his experiences and those of the production’s protagonist, Dara Shikoh. He pointed out that Dara Shikoh cared deeply for the arts, and was imprisoned and killed by Aurangzeb, who is typically characterised as a fervently religious and dictatorial ruler. “I consider Dara as my soulmate,” Nadeem said.

The themes that first drew Nadeem to Dara’s story, in the early 2000s, also attracted the attention of the National Theatre, when Anwar Akhtar, the head of the British-Pakistani arts organisation The Samosa, brought the play to the Theatre’s attention. Akhtar told an interviewer from the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that he hoped the play would spread awareness of South Asian Muslim issues in the United Kingdom. “Here is a very limited understanding given the level of obsession they have with Muslim world issues,” he said. Additionally, as Akhtar told TheGuardian, “Britain has two million descendants of partition, so this represents so much of our British Asian communities’ own history and still has such relevance today.”

Dara, which is scheduled to run until 4 April, is the first adaptation of a South Asian play to be staged at the National Theatre. (The theatre is also currently running another production focused on the subcontinent—the adaptation of the bestselling non-fiction book Behind the Beautiful Forevers—and the two plays share several cast members.) While this version of Dara, adapted by the playwright Tanya Ronder and directed by Nadia Fall, departs significantly from Nadeem’s Urdu original, the central conflict remains the same in both scripts. Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh embody two contrasting interpretations of their religion: the first, in Nadeem’s words, a “militant, extremist and narrow-minded Islam,” and the latter a “tolerant, moderate and enlightened Islam.”

Nadeem’s gentle demeanor doesn’t betray his time in prison.
Courtesy Shahid Nadeem

Dara humanises the conflict between these two streams, and presents, again in Nadeem’s words, both “everything that is wrong with Pakistan” and “the unfulfilled potential of South Asian Muslims” in the form of an unchecked sibling rivalry. Nadeem shows the petty personal competition behind seemingly irresolvable ideological issues, and reminds us that the struggle against extremism has been going on for centuries. Yet the play’s didactic mission, though well-meaning, can undermine its creativity and scholarship; in its efforts to add nuance to contemporary understandings of Islam, Dara sometimes tends to simplify historical actors and events.

LIKE MANY OF HIS SOUTH ASIAN contemporaries in theatre, Nadeem is as much an activist as he is an artist. If he sometimes presents the world in black and white, his idealistic perspective is understandable. Repeatedly imprisoned for his outspokenness during his youth, he is a strong and unapologetic proponent of what he referred to several times during our conversation as the “Western secular form of human rights.”

Nadeem’s faith in this credo has perhaps been bolstered by his supporters over the years. After leaving Pakistan, he worked for Amnesty International in London until 1988, as a campaign organiser and communications specialist. During this time, he began writing plays and sending them back to Lahore, to the actor, playwright and director Madeeha Gauhar. Building on earlier efforts by Nadeem and others to establish a theatre company in Lahore, Gauhar founded Ajoka in 1984. With its very first production—an adaptation, titled Jaloos, of the Bengali dramatist Badal Sircar’s Michil, or “Procession”—the group established a strong political identity, rooted in South Asia but still looking outwards.

In London, Nadeem wrote plays such as Barri, or “The Acquittal,” and an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, titled Chalk Chakka. Gauhar directed Ajoka to stage these and some of Nadeem’s older plays—Marya Hoya Kutta, or “The Dead Dog,” and Teesri Dastak, or “The Third Knock”—in Pakistan. After Zia-ul-Haq died in a plane crash in 1988, Nadeem returned to Lahore. He and Gauhar got married, and started running Ajoka together. The company, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year, is considered one of Pakistan’s foremost cultural groups, and has performed all over India as well. Nadeem has won accolades from both sides of the India–Pakistan border, and beyond, for his plays. These include the president of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance Award, the Gursharan Singh Award for Theatre Commitment in India, and fellowships from the National Endowment for Democracy and the PEN Institute in the United States.

It was in 2001, while he was a researcher at the Getty Institute in California under the auspices of a Feuchtwanger Fellowship—a grant for artists persecuted in their home countries—that Nadeem began to explore the story of Dara Shikoh. Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Dara was first in line to inherit the throne before he was usurped by Aurangzeb. Nadeem, as a child of the early years of post-independence Pakistan, said he had been taught that Aurangzeb was “a model ruler.” He called this propagandistic characterisation a “very unreal image of Aurangzeb as a pious ruler … No one realises that he killed three of his brothers, he killed one of his sons.” He added that “Dara is mentioned as just a footnote, as a strange and tragic figure.” The more Nadeem delved into the story of the tragic prince, who “loved music and dance” and was “a secular person for all intents and purposes,” the more he wanted to spread his story. In December 2001, he staged a reading of an early scene of Dara in California.

Vincent Ebrahim plays a tortured Shah Jahan in the National Theatre’s production of Dara.
Courtesy Ellie Kurttz / National Theatre

The play’s creation was shadowed by the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in September 2001, while Nadeem was living in the United States. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times just a week after the event, Nadeem expressed a hope that his host country’s subsequent war on terror would be an opportunity for the United States and Pakistan to build mutual trust, rather than perpetuate the use of the latter as a buffer and a base for operations against neighbouring Afghanistan. But his note of caution also betrayed an artist’s understanding of the power of imagery. “Islamic people must not be humiliated,” he warned, “by a prolonged war that forces them to absorb images of cities filled with other Islamic people being destroyed.”

With Dara, Nadeem hoped to project—for Muslims in Pakistan and other nations, but eventually also for non-Muslims in the West—an image of Islam different from the one that largely took hold in the global imagination after the attacks. “Dara’s message of an all-embracing form of Islam is something which is very close to how the West sees the world,” he argued. “Western secular” human rights and the view of Islam espoused by Dara Shikoh, Nadeem believes, share an embrace of “basic human values, and freedom of art and culture, and the freedom of expression.”

However, the play’s varying receptions in the different places it has been performed, and the particular ways in which it has now been adapted for the British stage, reveal the challenges of communicating this espousal of universal values through a story that is specific to a particular history, which may not be understood in the same way by every audience. Some of England’s finest classics—Shakespeare’s histories, for example, have long been enjoyed around the world and are often seen as transcending the need for accompanying exposition. On the other hand, the perceived need, in the English production of Dara, to translate South Asia’s past, illuminates certain prejudices of the present.

DARA TOOK NEARLY TEN YEARS to reach the stage. Ajoka first performed the play, to a packed hall in Lahore, in 2010. In Nadeem’s treatment, Dara Shikoh appeared as a poet, mystic and leader of mythical status, who could have altered the course of South Asian history if only he had become emperor. The reviews of the show were positive, praising Nadeem’s attempt to revive the memory of the neglected prince, as well as his use of poetry by Dara Shikoh, Amir Khusro, Sarmad and Kabir. Dawn called it “relevant and thought-provoking.” The journalist Raza Rumi, who later tried to trace Dara Shikoh’s footsteps in his Delhi travelogue Delhi by Heart, blogged about the play, declaring it a “significant cultural landmark.”

The play was received well but resonated slightly differently when it travelled, over the next year, to Amritsar, Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Jaipur. India’s official history demonises Aurangzeb, and several of its scholars and writers have toyed with narratives that valourise Dara Shikoh. The prince’s story has also been explored in numerous earlier plays, including Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s 1993 play in verse, and a 2004 script that has been staged by the eminent film director MS Sathyu. Other prominent productions have also featured Dara Shikoh as a hero; most recently, a former Indian diplomat’s Dara was translated from English into Urdu and performed at the National School of Drama’s annual festival in February.

So Nadeem’s reclamation of Dara Shikoh was perhaps not as radical in India as it was in Pakistan. But, Nadeem argued, Dara could be significant in India in another way, by promoting a new appreciation for Islam among anti-Muslim members of the country’s Hindu majority. He recalled Ajoka’s 2008 performance, in Kerala, of his play Bullha, which is based on the life of the poet Bulleh Shah and has similar themes of religious acceptance. Nadeem described to me how, at first, members of the Thrissur branch of the Bharatiya Janata Party protested the performance, but eventually came to watch it. They were so moved after seeing the play, he said, that they came onstage to hug the theatre company. The following year, when Ajoka returned to Kerala with Nadeem’s Burqavaganza, a satirical play that was later banned in Pakistan, the protestors were in the audience.

Some Indian Muslims reacted defensively to Dara’s portrayal of Aurangzeb, Nadeem admitted. He explained, “They are living in a minority-Muslim country, where they are being told, ‘You are the sons of Aurangzeb and you are against Hindus and you have committed atrocities.’”

For them, a subtler approach to the past might have been more palatable. The historian Rajeev Kinra, whose work on Mughal intellectual history includes an article titled ‘Infantilizing Baba Dara: The Cultural Memory of Dara Shekuh and the Mughal Public Sphere,’ told me over email that the characters of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb tend to be exaggerated. According to some court accounts, he said, Dara Shikoh was childish and arrogant, and his interest in other religions was not as unique among the Mughal court as it is often made out to be in the more reverent descriptions. Neither was Aurangzeb’s brutality. After all, Aurangzeb was not the first Mughal—nor, for that matter, the first imperial ruler—to kill family members or engage in violent conquest. And linking Aurangzeb’s religious views to his ultimate failure as a leader, Kinra said, was problematic. He explained that it isn’t entirely clear, “to me at least,” that Aurangzeb’s “piety was the reason for the decline of the empire after his death. I’d say that his unhealthy obsession with the Deccan was far more consequential.”

One Lucknow newspaper applauded Dara’s “non-deviation from history,” but, if anything, the shifting interpretation of Nadeem’s play from one context to the next demonstrates that history is shaped as much by the person recounting it as by the people listening to the story. As the British critic Michael Billington wrote in a review of the English adaptation for The Guardian, it is clear that Nadeem’s “motive in writing the play was to correct the historic imbalance by which Aurangzeb is seen as an Islamic role model and Dara as an unworldly heretic. But what in Pakistan is a brave, moral choice becomes, in Ronder’s version, a one-sided deification of Dara.” In India, Aurangzeb is already well-established as a bad guy. In the National Theatre adaptation of Dara, he risks becoming a stand-in for the well-established Western liberal stereotype of the “bad Muslim.” While the play seeks to acquaint us with an alternative model, in insistently presenting this model as a saviour and hero, it could equally reinforce the ingrained ideas of Islam as a threat, and its more orthodox followers as villains.

Anjana Vasan plays the courtesan Hira Bai, Aurangzeb’s Hindu lover whose tragic death turns his heart to stone.
Courtesy Ellie Kurttz / National Theatre

NADIA FALL, who is directing Dara for the National Theatre, didn’t want the play to feel “like a tandoori version of India,” she told the weekly British Asian newspaper Eastern Eye. Though Fall and her team eschewed the Bollywood glitz of productions such as the musical Bombay Dreams and other curry-tinged visions of the subcontinent, they have certainly served up a feast for the eyes. Two-dimensional set pieces composed of huge, delicately constructed panels representing the Agra and Delhi forts; and elaborate costumes sewn from intricate textiles, evoke the tasteful opulence of Mughal miniature paintings. This imagery, combined with live qawwali music, could well contribute to a more complex understanding of the visual and musical cultures of Islamic South Asia.

When I met her at the National Theatre, Tanya Ronder told me that she travelled to Pakistan and India as part of the research for her adaptation. This was her first visit to either country, she said, and before working on Dara she did not know much about the region, Islam, or the Mughal Empire. She immersed herself in books about the Mughals, and learned about spiritual debates within the Muslim world. (One of her key informers was Fall’s mother, the Delhi-based writer Sadia Dehlvi, who has written a book on Sufism.)

Ronder’s adaptation goes back and forth between different stages in Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh’s lives. The play opens with Dara as a struggling military commander, shortly before Aurangzeb captures and imprisons him. A flashback shows the hero as a handsome and playful teenager, beloved by all except his jealous younger brother. Interspersed with these scenes are events that shed light on Aurangzeb’s cruelty and cleverness. By way of introduction, the character is shown poisoning his brother Murad. In a flashback scene, we learn that his ruthlessness stems from a sense of neglect by his father, who preferred Dara. His involvement with the Hindu courtesan Hira Bai, who died tragically during their affair, also contributes to Aurangzeb’s political shrewdness, his stony personality, and his iron piety.

Yet Dara is not a period piece, in which history is presented as familiar and context requires no explanation. “All the education that I was giving myself, I knew our audience would need as well,” Ronder told me. “Which is why there’s so much information crammed into the play.” This includes dialogue to fill in gaps in knowledge about religion and history. Nadeem’s Dara incorporated Sufi themes mostly through the use of qawwali, dance, and the character of Sarmad—based on an Armenian mystic who mentored Dara Shikoh and was put to death by Aurangzeb. Ronder used an amalgam of different Sufi mystics; the adaptation  features a character billed as “Faqir” (Ronder told me she was uncomfortable with Sarmad’s reported obsession with a young Hindu boy who accompanied him everywhere—not something Nadeem incorporated in his play either.) The adaptation also relies more on dialogue-heavy debates, in which characters use parables to illustrate their arguments and educate the audience about Sufism.

Dara works best when it sticks to the human level of family drama. In one of the most emotional scenes, near the end of the play, Aurangzeb sends Dara’s severed head to the nearly blind Shah Jahan. The fallen emperor unwittingly engages in a bit of macabre but poignant wordplay when he tries to guess the contents of the heavy package. “I think it’s watermelon,” he says, referring to both his favourite fruit and, according to the play, his nickname for his favourite son.

This personal rivalry between the brothers effectively colours the climactic trial scene, in which Dara—already doomed to execution by Aurangzeb, who watches on from behind a curtain—argues passionately for religious moderation before a Sharia court. (This episode is an emotive one—it also inspired a 2008 play, The Trial of Dara Shikoh by Pakistani-American academic Akbar Ahmed). The trial is the play’s most memorable scene, yet at times, the dialogue wavers from genuinely fascinating debate into overly earnest lecture. The questions presented are almost entirely a product of Ronder’s research; she told me she drew inspiration for the scene from books such as Reza Aslan’s No God but God and Dehlvi’s Sufism: The Heart of Islam.

Unlike Nadeem, Ronder said she was “not interested in the modern-day politics” of Islam, but rather “the heart of the religion.” Yet present-day politics do creep into the dialogue, sometimes in pedantic ways that hamper the otherwise compelling acting. During Dara’s trial, the prince digresses from his own defense to point out why the veil was ever deemed necessary:

The Prophet, may peace be upon him, never dreamed women would end up obscured behind screens, beneath veils ... His wives needed privacy, their home was filled with people so, commensurate with his situation, he suggested the hijab.

“That bit about the women and the veil in the trial scene doesn’t drive the drama forward so you could argue that it  needn’t be there,” Ronder told me. “But for me, it was really, really important to discover that it doesn’t say in the Quran that women need to cover up. It was really important for me to know that, so I wanted the audience to know that too.”

Dara Shikoh argues passionately for religious freedom during a climactic trial scene.
Courtesy Ellie Kurttz / National Theatre

This moment doesn’t take one out of the drama so much as it takes one out of the past—and into the contemporary discussions about the veil that serve as proxy debates about Islam in general. Such discussions inevitably influence Ronder’s adaptation, which seems to equate political tyranny, religious extremism, and what many audiences have come to understand as symbols of those things, like the veil.

The National Theatre’s Dara was most compelling when it functioned as a work of epic drama rather than a history or theology lesson. The dramatic premise that Aurangzeb’s religious extremism and political brutality stemmed from the same root, of paternal rejection, is gripping—but can also be misleading if the audience tries to read too much of the present day into it. While Dara’s creators are within their rights to conflate Aurangzeb’s tyranny with modern Islamic fundamentalism, their choices hint at the relative constraints on their own artistic expression. In the United Kingdom today, a sixteenth-century English monarch, say Henry VIII, can be presented irreverently, even cartoonishly, lopping off heads and throwing people into the Tower of London (see the BBC’s Wolf Hall miniseries). But two warring seventeenth-century Mughal rulers must deliberate on behalf of all modern Muslims, representing two positions that still polarise the world.

Hannah Harris Green Hannah Harris Green is living in London this year as the 2014-2015 recipient of the Fulbright-Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism. She has studied Urdu intensively in Lucknow. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Vice and Open.