View from abroad: Did Shah Jehan chop off 40,000 hands?

Updated May 22, 2017

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DANNY Ashok (Humayun) and Darren Kuppan (Babur) in Guards at the Taj.
—The Guardian
DANNY Ashok (Humayun) and Darren Kuppan (Babur) in Guards at the Taj. —The Guardian

“I WAS just following orders” is the perennial justification for participating in atrocities. When imperial guards Babur (played by Darren Kuppan) and Humayun (Danny Ashok) carry out the command to chop off the hands of all 20,000 workers who built the Taj Mahal, they try to find solace in this ancient mantra. According to urban legend, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan decreed that after the completion of the magnificent mausoleum, nothing as beautiful would ever be built again. To ensure this, he ordered that the hands of the entire workforce be amputated.

This is the myth the recent play Guards At The Taj is built upon. An award-winning production from New York, the play is currently being staged at London’s Bush Theatre before packed houses, and has received rave reviews. With a cast of only two actors, the performance is taut and often terrifying, with a few flashes of humour to relieve the tension.

Written by Rajiv Joseph, the play examines the concepts of duty, beauty and power. If, as Babur asks, nothing more beautiful than the Taj is ever to be built, then is beauty not dead? And if this is so, is he not guilty of having destroyed beauty? Humayun reminds his friend and comrade that they were only carrying out orders. After the bloody deed is done, the two are promoted to harem guards where they would accompany the Emperor to the inner sanctum. Humayun points out that this is the reward for having carried out their task so efficiently.

But Babur — the one who actually chopped off 40,000 hands while Humayun cauterised the wounds — cannot erase the bloody memory, and begins talking about killing the Emperor. Humayun tries to silence him, and finally locks him up. In one terrifying scene, he is about to chop off Babur’s hands when the stage goes dark. We see them next in the forest, but it is not clear whether we have entered the realm of fantasy.

Perhaps the most shocking part of the play comes when, without warning, the lights come on to reveal a stage turned into a virtual abattoir with blood everywhere, including on the two actors. Babur observes bitterly that not only did the two have to perform the horrors of the night, but they were expected to clean up as well. As they wash the floor, they talk about what they have done. Babur can barely contain his revulsion at his own actions, while Humayun reassures him that they were only carrying out orders. Babur recalls one mutilation in particular, that of ‘Ustad Isa’, the architect and supervisor. Earlier, he had talked admiringly of the “most intelligent man in the empire”.

For me, theatre has the power to manipulate emotions in a way that cinema does not: the stage becomes a metaphor for the real world, while the screen distances us from the words and actions of the actors, no matter how accurately and brilliantly depicted. Perhaps the suspension of disbelief comes more easily when we see flesh-and-blood actors before us. From pre-Shakespearean days, theatre has entertained generations of Londoners, so it is no surprise that London should become the theatrical centre of the world.

For some reason, the Subcontinent has failed to produce world-class theatre despite being home to many outstanding poets and novelists. And as Guards At The Taj demonstrates, some of the actors and writers who have roots in South Asia have done very well abroad. My personal theory is that our society is uncomfortable with confrontation and facing up to painful personal crises — themes that are at the heart of meaningful theatre.

Plays with just two actors are very demanding for the playwright, the director and above all, the players. To be convincing and keep the audience’s attention over an intense 90 minutes requires powerful performances, and in Guards At The Taj, they have succeeded brilliantly. Humayun is a believable soldier, carrying out orders with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Babur is a dreamer, forever thinking of new inventions including a flying palanquin, and concerned about abstract concepts like beauty.

The Bush Theatre has traditionally staged edgy, experimental plays. I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog as well as Disgraced here, and after its recent refurbishment, it is more comfortable than it was earlier. Danny Ashok acted in Disgraced, a shattering play about a successful Muslim lawyer in New York who conceals his Pakistani background at the Jewish law firm he works in by taking on an Indian persona. His life unravels once his true identity is revealed.

The story about Shah Jehan ordering the amputation of 40,000 hands has entered folklore. Even though no contemporary account confirms this incident, the fact that it is still widely believed is proof of the unchecked power wielded by the Mughals, as well as by other monarchs of that period. The Taj took some two decades to complete at the cost of a fortune. But obviously, emperors were not held to account, and even if the legend of 40,000 hands chopped off had been true, nobody could have questioned Shah Jehan.

Aspects of this unaccountable power linger on in the 21st century: witness Kiml Jong-il of North Korea, and the country’s mounting misery under three generations of his family. Or the evil excesses committed under despots like the Saudi royal family. So clearly, power — unless checked by strong traditions and institutions — has a habit of turning the heads of rulers.

Guards At The Taj, while constructed around a 17th century legend, examines very contemporary concerns. The ascent of strong and ruthless leaders is happening around us today, whether it is Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan or Egypt’s Sisi. They may not chop off hands, but they exercise virtually unchecked power. Perhaps they should learn from Shah Jehan’s fate: the emperor was imprisoned by his son in a tower near the Taj from where he could see the magnificent edifice he had built in the distance.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2017