March 3 2015
Once regarded as the richest empire ever established on earth, did the Mughals lay the seeds of their own destruction through needless religious and sibling disputes?
by Suman Bhuchar
IT’S AN ENTERTAINING premise of the play – “Dara” currently on at the National Theatre – that the reason why the Timurid Mughal dynasty founded by Babur went into decline was because of a predication.
Shah Jahan or ‘The Great Mughal’ (played as larger than life by Vincent Ebrahim), asks a wandering Sufi mendicant, called Fakir (Scott Karim) – based on the real Sufi Mystic poet, Sarmad Kashani – who brings some apples to his sick daughter, the killer question, ‘Which son of mine will destroy my blood line?’
We have all learnt from reading our “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” that such questions are asked at our peril and the answer that Aurangzeb will be the instigator of this decline predictably makes him furious.
He then humiliates the sensitive teenager by shoving his face into the palace pond and thus creating an everlasting feeling of jealousy in the boy towards his older brother, Dara Shikoh, a popular, liberal and charming heir designate. (That’s what a psychiatrist might say).
The show gives us a bit of Mughal history, sibling rivalry, and different interpretations of Islam.
“Dara“, directed by Nadia Fall is loosely adapted by Tanya Ronder, a British writer, from the Urdu play by Shahid Nadeem originally performed by Ajoka Theatre Company, from Pakistan. (Read our interview with both here)
Dara (played by Zubin Varla) is drawn towards a tolerant Sufi leaning of Islam, whilst his bro, Aurangzeb (Sergon Yalda) favours a more austere form ( both Varla and Yelda are outstanding as the two rival siblings).
Nevertheless, Aurangzeb is open to other temptations: he doesn’t drink but is in love with a Hindu dancing girl who, sadly, dies in his arms (this is not a spoiler) but another psychological reason why he turns out to be the person that he is, and as a consequence of his grief he decides to shut down music and wine.
The centerpiece of the play is the trial scene where Dara and Prosecutor Talib (Prasanna Puwanarajah) have to battle is out, is masterful and is a full thirty-one minutes long.
Here again, the dilemma for Aurangzeb is whether to pardon his brother or have him executed?
Aurangzeb takes his cue from his imperial eunuch, ‘Itbar’ (Chook Sibtain) observing how he deals with his parents who arrive to claim him after originally selling him into slavery and it’s not pretty.
The scenes in this play are many and constantly changing. They are illustrated by the use of the Mughal ornamented lattice sliding screen structures that open and close.
There are a lot of flashbacks signposted by dates screened on the stage wall. The set is designed by Katrina Lindsay (who has also designed the play, “Behind The Beautiful Forevers“).
There are many moments that remind one of “Horrible Histories“, elements of “Game of Thrones” with a smattering of the classic 1960 film “Mughal-e-Azam“.
As an introduction to the Mughals, it makes you want to delve deeper into this fascinating period as well as marvel at a fine cast of 24 actors doing considerable justice to the powerful and eternal themes within the play.
Aurangzeb does emerge as a complicated character who did end up ruling for 49 years and yet you do wonder what the current state of the subcontinent might have been had it been Dara instead.
The show music is composed by Niraj Chag, and performed by live musicians with vocals by Nawazish Khan – you get a hint of a Qawwli but I wished they had launched into a full blown one on stage.
Try not to miss this show – I have seen it twice already as it is running in rep until 4 April. Alas, there does not seem to be an National Theatre Live screening for this one so a visit to the theatre is a must.
Main picture above: Courtroom scene, in foreground Dara (Zubin Varla) and prosecutor Talib (Prasanna Puwanarajah)
All pictures Ellie Kurrtz
Available dates (at time of posting) 7.30pm (check times for matinees):
Friday March 6; Saturday March 7; Sunday, March 8; Monday, March 16; Tuesday, March 17; Wednesday, March 18; Wednesday, March 25, Thursday March 26; Friday, March 27; Saturday, March 28; and Sunday, March 29
Thursday, April 2 and Saturday, April 4 Tickets from £15 see booking availability
Talks – director Nadia Fall and writer, Tanya Ronder on Wednesday, March 18 at 6pm, Lyttleton Theatre (where the play is). Tickets from £3
Box Office: 020 7452 3000