Adancing girl has just learnt of Mughal prince Aurangzeb’s ultimatum to all dancers: Marry within the next 24 hours or leave the capital. Dejected, she goes up to a group of commoners in the village, who comfort her by talking about the other prince, Dara Shikoh. Dara, a lover of the arts, a poet and Sufi, an ally of the masses, a face of Islam so different that his political success might have charted an entirely different course in the subcontinent’s—and potentially world— history.
At a time when Pakistani liberal society finds itself—yet again—under attack, a failed Mughal prince might just be the hero it needs to cling on to for survival. Dara, the latest offering from the Lahore-based Ajoka theatre group, is the story of Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan, who lost the battle for supremacy to his brother Aurangzeb. Travelling to India for the National School of Drama’s (NSD) ongoing 13th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the play is a constant counterpoint between the two brothers, two ways of viewing the arts, two ways of interpreting Islam and two ways of being.
Moves of history: Dara uses qawwali and other musical forms from the subcontinent as vehicles for action.
“While Mughal history is always a fascinating subject for dramatic exploration, the contemporary—and more pressing motivation—to doing this play was the situation in present-day Pakistan, in fact all of the Muslim world,” says playwright-director Shahid Nadeem. “This is the struggle between Sufi Islam and Wahabi Islam; and that the latter seems to be overpowering the former in influence. Extremists are interpreting it, contrary to how Sufis or moderate voices interpret it. The recent assassination of governor Salman Taseer bears prime testimony to this form of extremism. The real battle is one within Islam itself, not Islam and Western civilization,” says the founder of the Ajoka group, which is known for its anti-establishment work.
Nadeem talks of how, in the past few decades, there has been an organized attempt in Pakistan to erase the secular prince from history books. “Muslim clerics justify the creation of Pakistan based on the fear of the enemy, more specifically, the fear of India,” he says. “Having figures like Dara Shikoh or Bulleh Shah, who spoke of universal brotherhood and syncretic cultures, will hamper their project. There is, naturally, the need to obliterate them from public memory.”
Dara was a champion of religion and cultural syncretism who constantly strove to bridge Hinduism and Islam (he translated 50 Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian and suggested that the Kitab al-maknun, or hidden book, referred to in the Quran was in fact the Upanishads). Dara’s journey, meeting scholars from Christianity and Hinduism in order to develop his philosophy, is one of the critical scenes in the play.
Although popular with the masses and his father’s favourite, Dara lost out to Aurangzeb. While the play ends on this factually accurate note, it does suggest that had Dara won, the subcontinent’s history might have been very different; in fact, Islam itself might have been viewed differently.
“Islam is a religion of peace, love and understanding, and a promoter of the arts and harmony between different classes and communities,” says Nadeem. Given that the protagonist and his interpretation of Islam both favoured the arts, music and dance are integral to the play. “A lot of qawwalis, dance and other subcontinental musical forms are vehicles for action in the play, especially since culture is also a tool for communal harmony,” says Nadeem. The scene between the dancer and the commoners, for instance, ends with the group breaking into a song.
Dara, according to Nadeem, is a “role model for the true face of Islam” that Pakistan and Islamic society as a whole need. “He needs to be brought back into the history books, and that is the only way forward for Muslims in Pakistan and Muslims everywhere,” he says.
Dara will be staged on 21 January at Kamani Auditorium as part of NSD’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav. The festival is on till 22 January. For details and bookings, log on to www.nsdtheatrefest.com