THAT L.K. Advani and some other leading lights from the Hindutva repertory were praising an Urdu musical play made me sit up. They always undermined it as a language of Muslims, deliberately linking a language with a religion. Now in a video promo of the musical shot not very recently they were singing a different tune.
Then came Mukesh Ambani, the tycoon who sponsored Urdu-baiting Narendra Modi’s candidature to become prime minister in 2014. He said the play showed India could now stage shows like Broadway. There was lyricist Javed Akhtar and his actor wife Shabana Azmi praising the musical to the skies, followed by a familiar gaggle of cheering journalists.
Cut to last week. It was 31st National Street Theatre Day in India on Friday. A clutch of theatre groups, inspired by the late Safdar Hashmi, were performing in a corner of Delhi to celebrate the occasion. A group called Bigul (clarion call) staged Hathkande (sleight of hand’), about false promises made by people in power. The language was what Delhiites speak, a ready blend of Urdu and Hindi, occasionally with a Punjabi slant. The group Navrangg played Well Done, a critical look at India’s pervasive patriarchal system. The players encouraged a shift from ‘empowerment’ to ‘equality’ of women.
The group Ankur ribbed the miracle of economic growth that doesn’t create jobs, and The Players staged Karya Pragati Par Hai, a satire on the wave of ultra-nationalism.
So what was this Urdu musical that had mesmerised Messrs Advani and Ambani?
Everything immediately connected to the swirling reality around us. Theatre guru Ebrahim Alkazi would be proud. The groups wrote their own scripts, sang their own songs and used minimal props to keep their mobility intact.
Alongside lies an older tradition of folk theatre that has existed in India. Nautanki in Uttar Pradesh, Jatra in Bengal, Tamasha in Maharashtra and Yakshgaan of coastal Karnataka come to mind. Shakuntala of Kalidas and Mrichhkatika by Shudrak among others linked the contemporary theatre scene to an ancient legacy traversing different Indian regions and languages. Qudsiya Zaidi with her Hindustani Theatre Group translated Mrichhkatika (The Little Clay Cart) into Urdu/Hindi to enrich thriving arena of Indian theatre. This was in the 1950s. So what was this Urdu musical that had mesmerised Messrs Advani and Ambani? Urdu? I’ll need to row back a bit.
Music composer Anil Biswas introduced Dilip Kumar to Lata Mangeshkar in a Bombay local train, saying she would be singing for their next movie.
Kumar, an experienced actor and an aesthete, politely probed Lata’s cultural background. She was from Maharashtra’s Konkan region from a family of renowned singers, Dilip Kumar was told, and he welcomed her with the caveat that her pronunciation of Urdu would probably need to be rescued from a possible aroma of daal-bhaat gruel, a regional meal of rice and lentils, but here a cultural idiom.
Lata would later confide how she took the hint and engaged a maulvi to polish her Urdu with flawless diction. That diligent training elevated her talent and was to reflect prominently in her singing be it Ghalib or Sahir, Majrooh or Shailendra, something that Mohammed Rafi couldn’t equal although he read and wrote in Urdu by heritage. Often in his singing the Punjabi tendency to pronounce waqt as wakt was discernible, not with Lata.
There’s nothing parochial in this. Nehru spoke better Urdu than Jinnah and he propagated it too without a false religious context assigned to it by the Hindu right in India and the Muslim right in Pakistan.
This could be just one of the problems with the Urdu musical that’s been showing in Delhi for the last few days. It purports to promote the language but does the opposite, leave the pronunciation issue alone for the moment. The larger problem with the stage production of Mughal-e-Azam is a moral one, that it’s not a nice idea to lift a landmark movie script and its divine songs, and turn it into an inevitably mediocre stage show by changing a few nicer Urdu words like hujra into kamra, a room.
As Majaaz Lucknavi had said, which reads like an argument on behalf of Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, K. Asif, Naushad and Lata Mangeshkar: “Jo ho sakey mujhey paamaal kar ke aagey badh, na ho sakey to hamara jawaab paida kar.” (If possible, defeat me and move on, if not, then at least measure up to me.)
So let’s figure out what director Feroz Abbas Khan was trying to do with his musical. He has obviously got the heirs to the original financiers of the movie Mughal-e-Azam to sponsor the musical Mughal-e-Azam. “K. Asif’s timeless epic now a musical play,” said the brochure. Two TV monitors installed on either side of the stage — an indoor stadium used for Commonwealth Games — carrying simultaneous translation of the script in English. Why? Have the audience gone dense since 1960 when there was no such facility or need to translate the ornate Urdu script of the movie? If anything, it was loved by the masses, regardless of any language handicap.
It was in the 1970s when Sheilah Bhatia ruled Delhi’s theatre scene when she got Begum Akhtar to compose music from S.M. Mehdi’s play, the only time she did for a musical. The play, Jaane Gazal, delineated the evolution of Urdu poetry through historical phases. Indira Gandhi came to watch it as she loved Urdu like her father.
Madanbala Sandhu stood there, tall, beautiful, with a voice that wove magic, singing Mohsin Kakorvi’s lines in Raag Megh Malhaar with motifs that alluded to Lord Krishna’s frolic on the banks of the Jamuna river. That was a cold breezy evening, and the Shriram Theatre had no air conditioning, and the windows did not have glasses installed yet. The warmth of the evening glowed in the winter chill. And the magic stayed true, unwavering, bereft of pretensions and easy claims.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2019