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‘Dara’ – fighting for the soul of Islam

‘Dara’ – fighting for the soul of Islam

January 16 2015

Set in the glorious time of the Mughal Empire, a new play at the National Theatre seeks to address the intellectual currents and challenges which are very much with us today in what is an epic production…

MANY commentators believe that there is battle for the soul of Islam – and that when terrorists fired their guns in the offices of French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, last week, they were making a particular statement.

That same battle between a more fundamentalist and uncompromising Islam and a more inclusive, less combative faith was fought out more than 350 years ago and will now take centre stage at the National Theatre in London.

Dara” takes us back to opulent court of the Mughals in 1659 and quite possibly the richest – in all senses – region of the world, with two princes vying for control of a vast empire that stretched from Afghanistan to far South beyond Delhi in India.

Originally written by Pakistani Shahid Nadeem (top picture middle) and first performed by his own Ajoka Theatre company, based in Lahore, it has now been adapted by Tanya Ronder (top picture right) for the National and opens on Tuesday. (January 20).

Both Ronder and Nadeem spoke to about the challenges and complexities of a production that will unquestionably help to deepen and further our understanding of Islam and its current fissures.

In the play, the two crown princes embody a notion and practice of Islam itself – Aurangzeb is tough, unyielding, determined and believes in Sharia law.

His elder brother, who has the favour of their father, Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal in memory of their mother), is a Sufi and believes in Islam as a faith of brotherhood, compassion and is all for mutual co-existence with other faiths (principally, but not just exclusively Hinduism, the majority religion of the region).

Ronak Patani as young Dara with Prasanna Puwanarajah as prosecutor Talib and Esh Alladi as Governor Khan in rehearsals for 'Dara'

While much of the history remains contentious and ultimately political, the broad contours in the play are obvious – at least to Nadeem as he told us.

“Although he (Dara Shikoh to give his full name) was Crown Prince of Shah Jahan and an important figure – in history books or in discourses about history, no one mentions Dara. He has been wiped out but Aurangzeb is known as the iconic Islamic ruler,” pointed out Nadeem.

In some Indian histories, Aurangzeb is portrayed as a destructive figure, intent on bringing Islam to India and is still presented as an ogre by the Hindu Right – but what is undeniable is that he was pious, and a brilliant military commander who expanded the Mughal Empire.

Nadeem explained the paradox – in Pakistan, Aurangzeb’s image is benign, even inspiring.

“In the last two decades, since Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (a military dictator and leader of Pakistan 1997-88), Aurangzeb was specially projected and promoted as a role model for an Islamic state,” explained Nadeem.

But as the play shows – and Aurangzeb’s own letters concede – the seeds of the Mughal Empire’s decline were sown in his own time (he died, aged 88 in 1707) and his almost relentless pursuit of territory and wealth led to the ultimate weakening of the family’s power.

Gurjeet Singh as the young Aurangzeb in rehearsals for 'Dara'

Nadeem was drawn to the conflict between the two brothers, the more he researched the more parallels he began to see with contemporary conflicts, which involved differing interpretations of Islam.

“We are committed to theatre for social change and sometimes we address contemporary issues through events in past history and my own work is very much devoted to the cause of peace and understanding between the country and the region itself,” he told us on the phone from Lahore.

In Dara and Aurangzeb, he saw two versions of Islam and the course of history might well have been very different had Dara triumphed, instead of his younger brother.

“When I started working on it, I realised it was a big and fascinating story and from a dramatic point of view it also had historical significance. And it was not just a story about Dara and Aurangzeb but there were other characters too.”

There are also two sisters who also play a pivotal role in the battle of ideas between Dara and Aurangzeb.

“This is a grand a story as any Greek Tragedy, that’s how I was motivated to trace the debate going on today between the Salafists (fundamentalists) or militant Islam and link it back to that important juncture in history when Aurangzeb prevailed and the course of Indian Muslim history changed.

“It was a juncture in Indian history that was so traumatic and it could match anything in British or American history.”

Nadeem said the play had been extremely well received in Pakistan when it first played there in 2010, but had faced challenges initially.

“Today people are clamouring for figures such as Dara, and a more acceptable and peaceful image of Islam.They are fed up of the heirs of Aurangzeb’s extremist ideology.”

The play had to get approval from the committee on culture in the Pakistani senate.

“A certain section of the establishment was not very happy. There was a problem, they took their time approving the script and allowing it to be performed. Aurangzeb has been promoted as an ideal Muslim ruler and the government at the time thought he might be portrayed in a negative light and it might create controversy and they didn’t want that to happen.”

The play was performed in Islamabad and Karachi and then transferred to several Indian cities, where it was rapturously received.

Nadeem stressed that his reading of the two men’s characters and ideas are based on historical records and their own writing – both were learned and expressed their positions in prose and verse.

Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb in rehearsal for 'Dara'

For Ronder, who has, more or less, rewritten the play to make it more accessible and easily understandable for British audiences, felt one element shines through, above many others.

“I hope that British audiences feel that their mind is opened up about Islam really.

“The fact is that Sufism is right at the heart of Islam and it is a really crucial offering to a British audience.

“People have a notion of Sufism but don’t link it to Islam and we largely live in ignorance about Islam. So, it would be the opening up of the mind about the different perspectives within Islam.”

Without giving away the plot, there is a court case that pits the two men’s versions of Islam against each other.

Ronder explained: “I felt we needed to really hear the arguments laid out and the very different interpretations – pitching one against the other in a courtroom is a really useful form for us to learn what those different arguments are.”

Ronder, a former actor, who is a highly skilled hand at adapting different works for the stage and probably best known for breathing a theatrical life into DBC Pierre’s Booker prize-winning novel, “Vernon God Little”, did a lot of reading and research and spent time in Agra, Delhi, Lahore (all important cities in the Mughal story) and saw the DVD of the original play and visited Ajoka in Pakistan, though not when they were performing “Dara”.

“It’s (Nadeem’s ‘Dara’) a very different style of theatre, they set out to make political theatre and our tradition is different and their situation is so entirely different.

Liya Tassisa as the young princess Roshanara in rehearsal for 'Dara'

“I used my own ignorance because that is how most of the audience will be.

“I was overwhelmed by the richness of the history and Shahid had pinpointed this moment, this fight between two Mughal princes with very different interpretations and understandings (of Islam).

“He led us to that moment and offered up some fabulous dynamics and I ended up deconstructing it and assembling it for our audience – who are coming from such a different starting point and their expectations of a drama are different (too).”

The original Ajoka production has singing and dancing in it, and while there is music in the National production, it does not form part of the narrative.

There is also a large cast – 22 in all, with some who have appeared in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”.

Ronder hopes the language will do its characters justice.

“The language is a bit heightened, it’s an epic story,” she said. “I loved Abraham Eraly’s book, ‘Emperors of the Peacock Throne’, it’s my personal favourite. It’s a great book and beautifully written and was recommended to me by Nadia Fall’s (the director) father.”

The play came about after a dialogue opened up between Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre and Anwar Akhtar, director of, a digital media project focusing on Britain and South Asia, which works with welfare, human rights, education and cultural groups in Pakistan.

Akhtar got in touch with Hytner after the Richard Bean 2009 play, “England People Very Nice” – which caused some controversy for the way it portrayed some immigrants groups. Akhtar is making a film about the Ajoka Theatre and is the former director of Rich Mix, a leading arts and culture venue in East London.

All pictures in the story: Ellie Kurttz

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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