Zia Mohyeddin’s distinguished career ranges from his critically acclaimed performances on television, stage and film in Britain and the United States as well as his mesmerising renditions of Ghalib and Faiz in Pakistan. His dynamic role as the chairman of National Academy of Performing Arts has given a new focus to Pakistan’s rich cultural traditions, particularly in the performing arts. His ability to translate his extensive experience into immensely readable, enjoyable and informative essays has made his writings, including his fortnightly newspaper columns, a pleasure to read.
Mohyeddin’s third essay collection, The God of My Idolatry: Memories and Reflections, is a selection of work written over 30 years; it provides fascinating insights into his career, as well as theatre, film and the written word. Mohyeddin’s book is framed by two essays which refer to A Passage to India. The first — ‘Morgan Sahib’ (Remembering E.M. Forster) — begins with a brief description of the novel and Santha Rama Rau’s stage adaption, which led to Mohyeddin’s famous, greatly applauded performances in the 1960s as Dr Aziz at the Oxford Playhouse, the West End, Broadway and BBC television. But at the heart of the essay are vivid descriptions of Forster, including Mohyeddin’s first visit to Forster’s apartment at King’s College, Cambridge. The details of Forster’s spacious drawing room filled with artefacts, rare chinaware and paintings, Forster’s alertness, his engaged interest in the conversation that followed leads up to Mohyeddin’s comment “I realised I had been in the presence of the most civilised man I had ever met”.
Zia Moheyddin’s recently published collection of essays is a rewarding volume
Mohyeddin and Forster met on numerous occasions thereafter. At one point Forster told Mohyeddin to stop calling him “Sir” and address him by his first name. Mohyeddin answered, “I can’t Sir, I’d feel embarrassed but if you would allow me to I’d be happy to call you Morgan sahib”. This combination of respect, warmth and friendship runs through Mohyeddin’s account which includes brief but rare insights into A Passage to India. He also tells of Forster’s active engagement in the Broadway production: Forster insisted that Mohyeddin should have the lead role as Dr Aziz. Incredibly (or so it seems today), the American producers had Hollywood stars in mind such as Sal Mineo — or Ben Gazzara, as Mohyeddin reveals in his final essay ‘Fifty Years Ago’ which looks back at that Broadway production.
The real significance of his success as Dr Aziz (he played the role in the 1965 BBC television production directed by the 24-year old Waris Hussein) was that at the time South Asians were not given leading roles, in mainstream productions in the West, on stage or film. His career and his reminiscences provide an important comment into this change and new directions in Western theatre and film.
In 1962, Mohyeddin appeared alongside a star-studded cast in David Lean’s great classic Lawrence of Arabia in which he played the guide to Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence. His lively essay ‘Peter O’Toole’ captures life on the film set in Jordan. This was preceded by a training period during which O’Toole and Mohyeddin had to learn to ride a camel — “a bizarre business and painful” which Mohyeddin describes in entertaining detail. Of O’Toole he says “Peter was ambitious. More ambitious than any actor I had ever come across … he wanted to pluck the stars and put them in his pocket. He wanted to own the world and that is not a bad thing for a young actor to desire.”
The title essay revolves around Sir John Gielgud, an actor whose performances Mohyeddin rarely missed, and who, “more than anyone else … created the English theatre as it now exists”. Mohyeddin’s memorable sketches include ‘Get on your Bike, Mate’ which focuses on Judi Dench, her craft and her remarkable career; ‘The Emperor’ tells of Laurence Olivier “who brought a dash and bravura to everything he touched” and who was described by the legendary Dame Sybil Thorndike as “absolutely an actor … born to it”. The flamboyantly titled ‘Rasipurnam Krishnaswami Ayyar Narayanaswami’ refers to that great Indian writer, best known as R.K. Narayan: his novel The Guide was adapted for the stage and performed at the Oxford Playhouse with Mohyeddin in the title role in 1968.
“Judi Dench was not born into a theatrical family. Her father was a doctor and her mother, a sweet-natured creature, who may have had strong ambitions about her daughter, but wasn’t a pushy woman like some American mothers. They were a close family; and they made it a point to be present wherever their daughter performed. On one occasion — Judi told me of the incident herself — they were watching their daughter playing Juliet. During the scene when the Nurse informs Juliet about Romeo killing Tybalt in a duel, Juliet, overwrought, cries out, “... where is my father and my mother, nurse?” Dutifully, Judi’s mother stood up from the stalls, “Here we are darling, Row M, seat 29 and 30”. It is one of the most hilarious stories of recent theatre history. Judi Dench was (and still is) — the pluckiest actress I have ever come across. I have seen actresses (actors too, for that matter) who are cocky, overblown, over-confident, daring but lacking the gumption to be plucky. Her determination to overcome her physical limitations was outstanding. I met her in the balmy days when I was working with the Oxford Playhouse Company. She was a dumpy, tomboyish girl with a wicked grin. You certainly couldn’t call her beautiful, but her tenacity and resoluteness to play all kinds of parts stood her apart from all the other ingénues of the time. In the early ’60s, Frank Hauser, the brilliant, vivacious artistic director of Oxford Playhouse, had assembled a strong company including Barbara Jefford, John Turner, Alan MacNaughton, Simon Ward, Norman Shelley and many other talented people. He soon added Judi Dench to the list. She had already played the prized role of Juliet at the Old Vic. We struck up an immediate rapport because we laughed at the same kind of off-beat jokes. Also, we both had a penchant for understatement (‘Shakespeare was not the world’s worst dramatist’ etc.). She was an inveterate giggler and it was infectious. I called her Jude and she called me Zee. Our efforts to make each other corpse on the stage earned us baleful looks from the stern Elizabeth Sweeting who managed the Playhouse. Little did I realise then that this puckish girl who seemed to spend all her time in sending people up was, inwardly, busy refining her talents.” — Excerpt from the book
‘The Munshi’ describes a role that Mohyeddin made entirely his own, that of Munshi Abdul Karim in Farrukh Dhondy’s 1984 one-man television play The Empress and the Munshi. This draws on historical record and revolves around Queen Victoria and her young Indian servant and Urdu teacher, Abdul Karim, who becomes a great favourite of hers, to the rage, fury and resentment of her children and her household. Mohyeddin describes it as “one of the juiciest parts I have ever played on television”. The play begins with Munshi Abdul Karim burning, on the order of new king of England, Edward VII “every letter, every note and memo that the [late] Queen has sent to him over the 13 years he had served her”. In the process he reminisces of the time he had spent with her.
The God of My Idolatry is a varied collection in which almost every essay deserves detailed attention, including discussions on writers, ranging from Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, W.H. Auden to Virginia Woolf, Edna O’Brien, W.B. Yeats and Moniza Alvi. There is a particularly stimulating sequence of five essays which examine classical literary texts and their significance.
‘Tamburlaine’ explores Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, which Marlowe wrote at 23 and “which is full of imagery related to war and the tactics of war, but it also contains exquisite passages fraught with tremulous passion”. Mohyeddin writes of the historical and ahistorical tales and legends that Marlowe would have drawn on; he reproduces stunning passages from Marlowe’s poetic text including those which capture the romantic relationship between Timur and his wife Zenocrate, a fictitious character Marlowe invented.
‘Libation’ compares the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes and describes Greek tragedy as “one of the greatest legacies that the Western world has inherited in the sphere of literature”: Agamemnon, Orestes, Oedipus, Electra and Clytemnestra are all interwoven into Mohyeddin’s clear, lucid text, as are references to the Trojan War, the Peloponnesian Wars and legendary battles.
‘The Malignant and Turban’d Turk’ gives both a historical and a contemporary context to the stereotyped European notions of dark-skinned turbaned men or “the noble savage”. He goes on to discuss Shakespeare’s treatment of the subject, in particular his portrayal of Othello and the racial politics involved. He points out that over the centuries British and American audiences were “happy to accept a black Othello on stage as long as it was a white man (using burnt cork to imitate a Negroid complexion)”. However, in 1833 when talented black American actor Ira Aldridge played the title role, there was great outrage “in the name of propriety and decency” and it was considered an insult to Ellen Terry who played Desdemona. ‘The Hidden Meaning’ continues with Mohyeddin’s exploration of Shakespeare and the Shakespearean era, while ‘An Insignificant, Inartistic and Immoral Writer’ adds to the discourse with an interesting note of dissent: Tolstoy’s low opinion of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly King Lear and Hamlet!
As a man who is deeply immersed in the cultures of both the West and the subcontinent Mohyeddin also brings to his writing a great awareness of the theatrical traditions of both, which he compares in ‘A Seedbed for Ideas’. He goes on to discuss the process of translation in ‘The Battle of Karbala’ which revolves around David Mathews’s translation of Mir Anis’s famous marsiya by that name. This remarkable and insightful essay focuses on different 6-line stanzas, the linguistic strategy involved and the rhyming pattern adopted by Mathews to approximate the original as closely as possible.
‘Remembering Daud Rahbar’ recalls Mohyeddin’s late friend, the memoirist, essayist, academic, translator, who lived in the United States but grew up with Mohyeddin in Lahore and shared his love of subcontinental music and Urdu literature; Daud Rahber also played the tabla and tanpura and translated Ghalib. In ‘Music — a worthless study for boys’ Mohyeddin writes of childhood attempts to play the tabla. He pays tribute, too, to his father’s great love for music. He goes on to write of the great ustads in ‘Music and Musicians’ which includes references to the princely courts of India such as Baroda.
This book has much to offer the general reader as well as those engaged in a more serious academic study of theatre, literature and culture.
The reviewer is a writer and a critic.
The God of My Idolatry: Memories and Reflections
By Zia Mohyeddin
Pakistan Publishing House, Karachi