What was the motivation behind Maulana Azad ?
I am an avid student of the political history of India. As a young undergraduate student I felt the need to study Maulana Azad as post 1947 textbook history written by supposed secular socialist historians revolved around Gandhi and Nehru. I realized that the real Maulana was different from Indian National Congress show-boy he was made out to be. He was in the league of the tallest leaders of the Indian freedom movement and yet differed on many points like the partition issue, from the likes of Nehru or Gandhi. Yet his multifaceted personality as a statesman, scholar and educationist was undermined despite his stint as the longest serving INA president and even post independence his contribution as the Education and Cultural minister of India was not appreciated enough.
I read his work in Urdu, and became an ardent fan of his writing and his vibrant personality. Later as a playwright I felt compelled to tell his story and I felt that as many people do not have the time to invest in reading his extensive work, nor access to Urdu, his language, and therefore this play, for those who would like to know the real Maulana.
There are several other Muslim political figures in Indian History, like Jinnah and Sir Sayyed Ahmed, who played a crucial role in the freedom movement and later the partition, what inspired your interest in Maulana Azad?
Well, it is not just his role in the freedom movement, nor his anti partition stance that in the view of many sets him apart from other Muslim politicians of the time, which drew me towards him. He was a practicing Muslim and favoured informed choice of faith as against inherited religious allegiance, yet his politics was consciously secular. He called himself a nationalist leader.
Ironically he is often viewed as a Muslim politician and rejected by many as not being a good Muslim. Such striking paradoxes and his vast storehouse of knowledge fascinated me. The real persona behind the statesman was a warm, erudite and colourful figure, a point I have brought out in the play. It veers constantly from the main issue- political, to the personal, ranging from his interest in tea, his special relationship with his wife and even with his contemporaries like Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru.
Was there any particular reason to write the play as a solo act?
It is a solo act in the format of a dictation, where the Maulana’s close associate Humanyun Kabir’s presence is indicated by a prop and through the actor’s (Tom Alter) gestures, language, expression and dialogue. Maulana dictated the notes in Urdu, which Kabir took down in English, and much was lost in translation. In the play the digressions, the conversational flow, the anecdotal tone of the narrative has been maintained to emphasize the lively spark that the Maulana’s thought had. He had varied interests ranging from poetry to tea and I wanted to call attention to this. Allowing the character to speak to a scribe made it possible to do so.
Don’t you think setting the character alone would have allowed for a deeper access to the character for the audience, in a more intimate manner?
Well, the idea to introduce the scribe was conscious decision. You see, the format of the script is a monologue, but in effect it is a dialogue. Firstly, the play is about a real historical figure based on his writing, so there was no room for inventing facts through speculated personal rumination. Moreover I wanted to avoid controversy by interpreting the character, as then the point of the play would be lost. The idea was not to interpret the Maulana but to present him to the audience as he comes across in his writing.
The first performance of the play was in 2002, and you have taken it across India and also abroad.
What has been the reaction to the play? How did it differ across different sections?
The play has been received very well and many people have engaged intelligently with the play. Critics and enthusiasts alike have come across with informed comments. I remember one particular screening in Bikaner, where many older members of the audience received the play enthusiastically as they were aware of the context and the historical background. It is a pleasure even to find a critical audience if their comments are well informed.
Tom Alter has also received rave reviews for his performances. How has the association been?
Tom is one from that rare breed of actors who are scholars. One major reason why I chose him was that not only does he speak but also reads and writes Urdu…, which I think was essential for any actor who was to play the Maulana. Moreover his (Urdu) diction is sans any influence of regional varieties and I was looking for the same. He read Maulana’s work and that added to his performance. Last but not the least the performance is a two hour-long solo act, and not many actors have the gut for such tedium. A well known senior actor who I approached for the role liked the script so much that he said he would be willing to watch repeated back to back performances of the play but performing it was not an easy task. Tom, on the other hand, was game for the grind of the solo performance, and the play has 95 performances to its credit.
The play, Maulana Azad will be performed at the Sri Ram Centre, Safdar Hashmi Marg, New Delhi on September 5th (Sunday) at 7 pm.