'Dara': Pakistani play set to make waves at London’s National Theatre

22 Dec 2014

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A scene from play 'Dara'. – Photo courtesy: Shahid Nadeem
A scene from play 'Dara'. – Photo courtesy: Shahid Nadeem

LAHORE: The National Theatre has 960 seats and 36 shows. With a director who has previously won an Oscar, Ajoka’s play ‘Dara’ – the very first South Asian play to be shown there – may just create huge waves in London.

Help and collaboration with a British Pakistani platform of ideas, Samosa has pushed the news quite far within community circles. A conversation with ‘Dara’s’ playwright Shahid Nadeem, and Samosa’s Anwar Akhtar shows what they are thinking about this.

“We in the subcontinent are prisoners of history,” says Shahid Nadeem. “In our history, Sufis and moderate Islam are attacked, while the more radical version is glorified.”

Shahid, who is the writer of the Ajoka Theatre plays is referring to his play ‘Dara’ and what its story and plot encompasses.

The play is about the power struggle between Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s two sons, the elder Dara Shikoh – a humble prince who is locked in a battle for the throne against his younger brother Aurangzeb – who would later emerge victorious.

But it is not just a play about a struggle for the seat of power or a family feud. As with all of Shahid’s plays, ‘Dara’ looks at much more than that.

Read more: Ajoka’s Dara to be staged at National Theatre London

This play, so deeply layered, looks at the religious ideologies that have clashed in the subcontinent over centuries, at the disputes between the Salafi and Sufi forms of Islam, and at the extremist mullah ideology that till today overshadows the other more peaceful interpretation of Islam.

The play then also compares how the course of history may have been altered if instead of the radical and rigid Aurangzeb, his liberal and moderate brother Dara Shikoh had ascended to the throne, as Shah Jahan had originally wished.

In the play, directed by Madeeha Gauhar, with Shahid’s sharp and witty script writing and its awe-inspiring musical performances of Amir Khusro’s poetry to choreographed dances, it seems to be a downright winner for Ajoka anytime.

The music is mesmerising; the dances are enthralling. The main characters are captivating and never cease to become mundane or routine.

Shah Jahan’s four offspring – Aurangzaib, Dara Shikoh, and their two sisters are the main characters. Aurangzeb has sent his father to be locked away.

But most of all, there is Hazrat Sarmad, a saint that walks the streets half naked, a close associate of Dara.

But remove the fripperies of the Mughal era and place the same storyline in today’s milieu and one will find that the themes of the story are all too familiar.

And as Shahid says, “The story of Dara still rings true today… it is living history, not just a story.”

Ajoka’s plays may be banned by the government of the time (for example the 'Burkavaganza' incident during Musharraf’s rule), and some sections of society may label them dangerously liberal and outspoken.

But the truth is that these plays are always rotating in Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council and they receive the same kind of thundering applause that they always do.

Also read: Ajoka performs Burqavaganza despite PNCA's 'denial'

And from the Alhamra arts council ‘Dara’ has taken a giant leap and strode towards London’s National Theatre.

This is where Anwar Akhtar’s Samosa comes in. (No, not the fried treat). This is the ethnic name chosen for a platform of ideas, originally a blog, now also an organising group for activities for British South Asians, primarily Pakistanis.

Anwar was the one who got the National Theatre to watch a CD of ‘Dara’ being played in Pakistan.

“Samosa is a British Pakistani initiative,” explains Anwar. “Some of us who live in the UK got together with the idea of setting up links for 1.2 million British Pakistanis. We realised that we all have a similar heritage and culture but have no way to link it.

“A lot of people helped us in this initiative and we thank the efforts of Neelum Hussain from Simorgh, also the Citizen’s Foundation, and HRCP among others. We needed a platform to raise awareness of all South Asian activities in the UK.”

Samosa first started as a blog, then it became quite popular, especially the short films that they promoted made by the students of Karachi University, Szabist and Beaconhouse National University.

“Our thematic focus is on human rights and civil society, and social development. We want to change the image of Pakistan as seen in the western world, especially UK,” shares Anwar. “We wanted to highlight the kind of work Karachi Vocational Training Centre and Edhi Foundation are doing, for example, rather the negative aspects of the country.”

The need to form such a platform arose from the view that the Pakistani community, as well as other South Asian communities, were being more or less marginalised in the UK. And then, Anwar saw ‘Dara’ and thought of bringing it to London.

“To me theatre and art is a great way to explain culture, history and identity,” he says.

“Ajoka is one of the most impressive theatres to come out of not just Pakistan but the whole of South Asia,” he adds. “To be honest, in the UK, the British Asian population was being ignored until only some time ago. Ajoka’s plays, especially ‘Dara’, explains a huge amount of South Asian history. It’s a seminal story, and its ramifications are still there for us to see.”

 A scene from play 'Dara'. – Photo courtesy: Shahid Nadeem
A scene from play 'Dara'. – Photo courtesy: Shahid Nadeem

Anwar and Shahid approached the National Theatre together. Until now, they had mostly been showing plays with European history and themes.

“They showed countless Shakespearean plays like 'Macbeth' and 'Hamlet'; we had Bernard Shaw’s 'St Joan', and several French plays about the French revolution,” shares Anwar. “But there was absolutely nothing about Pakistan or India or any South Asian country, although today, a large chunk of people in Britain are South Asian and considering they have been colonised by the British for a long time.”

Anwar feels strongly about the lack of understanding of the South Asian region in the UK: “In fact, there is a very limited understanding given the level of obsession they have with Muslim world issues.

“Well, when I showed them a CD of ‘Dara’ being played out, Nicholas Hytner and Nadia Fall, who are eminent theatre directors of the National Theatre, were fascinated by it and said it was an incredibly academic piece of work. It was Nadia who would direct it later for the stage.”

Since the play was in Urdu, Shahid was to help give an English translation for a western audience. He ended up translating not just a play, but large scale South Asian history for the western stage.

“The potential of this event must be realised,” says Anwar. “This is the very first time that a South Asian play – a Pakistani one at that – is being played on the stage of the National Theatre – that’s a very big deal.”

‘Dara’ may help Samosa and Ajoka get more support from the British Council with regard to its Pakistani communities in Britain. The Council has had a very limited approach towards the community and is hardly in touch with them. With the play, it will bring a huge change for Pakistan’s artists across all forms of art to have a broad canvas to show their work.

“You see radicals want to culturally isolate the liberals, the civil society and artists. But this is the only way to counter them – through art,” says Anwar

Radicalism – one of the very main themes of ‘Dara’– was there then, and it is there today.

But in order to understand today’s chaos, it is important that generations of Pakistanis both living in their home country and anywhere else across the globe understand what happened centuries ago.

While ‘Dara’ was basically written and performed for the Pakistani audience, it is to be reinterpreted for others.

“We have ended up in vilifying certain characters and glorifying others,” says Shahid, seriously. “Dara was one such character who was made evil by our biased history writing. On the other hand Aurangzeb who was a version of a modern day Taliban was exalted. Much of this tampering was done in General Zia’s regime."

He continues: “In any case, through research we found out that ‘Dara’ was the one who was the real role model and his works were impressive: he was an artist, a poet, a scholar and the first in studying comparative religion. He was the first person, for example, who translated the Hindu Upanishads to Persian and through this translation it reached the west…we wanted to reclaim ‘Dara’ and pose a question about the course of history and how it changed things.”

Shahid says that while Aurangzeb always promoted a certain image of Islam, the Salafi Islam, it was the real moderate Sufi Islam that ended up being lost in the pages of the history book.

“Post 9/11, this message for the rest of the world is very important. We want to especially tell the western world that Muslim societies are not just 'mullahs'. They are far more complex than that and especially through theatre this message can be given quite strongly.”

‘Dara’, he says, is meant to be dramatic and volatile, and that is how current affairs are today.

Also, it is not all drama. In fact, it is based very much on historical records. Sadly, people on both sides still do not know much about this episode in our common history.

For example, in the collection of ‘Letters of Aurangzeb’, in his last letter the fallen Emperor admits what he has done wrong in power and for power and mourns his personal loss. He admits that he has used religion as a tool to gain strength and yet by the end of his rule, he has not established a very strong empire and it is in fact the end of the Mughal rule.

This use of radicalism and fascism became the key to the empire’s downfall that led to the Wahabi Salafi movement called the Khilafat Movement.

In the National Theatre, you end up being immersed in the European and American works in order to understand the world, says Anwar.

“You grow up with all that, even as a South Asian. But you do not sometimes realise that you have a huge heritage behind you too. Unfortunately, though, you do not have a cultural and academic outlet as such.”

He adds: “In Europe and America, there have been experiences similar to the kind of terrorism being faced by the Islamic world today. For instance, the Spanish Inquisition, the orthodox and strict regime of Queen Mary, the burning of the ‘witches’ in Salem, etc. And then in order to counter this, the drive to separate the church from the state. Our world too has seen the same things.”

In fact, in all of Ajoka’s plays there is a very layered and in depth explanation of history that is not generally shown in theatres.

“Adaptation is important, and in the National Theatre production, they have British actors doing everything,” says Shahid. “Tanya Ronder was the one who adapted it and Nadia Fall will direct it. But what impressed me was the preparation by the actors and the director. They actually visited Delhi, Agra and Lahore to capture the essence and feel of Mughal era. Even those actors who were only coming in for an audition were method acting.”

 A scene from play 'Dara'. – Photo courtesy: Shahid Nadeem
A scene from play 'Dara'. – Photo courtesy: Shahid Nadeem

Will this play’s themes bring about any societal change?

“I understand that one play or one season cannot bring a huge change,” says Shahid. “But it does have an impact. Is this not change enough that the National Theatre is playing a Pakistani play?

“We played ‘Bullah’ in the UK before and it had an amazing impact,” Shahid adds. “There were so many young people in the audience who feel that they have lost themselves and cannot find that link to their home countries. So when they saw ‘Bullah’ they were excited and proud. I am sure that ‘Dara’ will have an even more immense impact.”

Read through: Ajoka’s Bullah lives on

He refers to everyone’s favourite character in the play: “Sarmad is quite a remarkable man. His poetry, his wit, and in comparison, a stark contrast to the mullahs, he is perfect and creates a seamless balance in the play. At Sarmad’s wit and rhetoric, the audience always applauds.”

Pakistanis have reportedly been facing many issues of communal segregation, in the UK.

“Muslims for instance, are not given much place in the arts councils of the UK for some reason,” says Anwar. “Usually Muslims want to live together not because they cannot assimilate, but because they find things that they want in that certain community, and which are not available anywhere else. 'White flight' (a colloquial term pointing to British natives leaving their old places) then occurs because too many South Asians have moved in.

“’Dara’ may challenge this superior attitude of the British towards the history of our region,” he adds. “Very few British Pakistanis are working in the fields of expression and art. Samosa is working on that by creating a platform and providing opportunities. Art is about democracy and the battle of ideas.”

As for ‘Dara’, he says, the story is itching to be told.


Dawn readers can access discounts online for exclusive seats for £15 (usually up to £34), for 'Dara' performances from January 20 – February 9.


Xari Jalil is a features writer at Dawn. She is available both on Facebook and Twitter.