On January 1, his 58th birthday, the curtain will go up on a new act in Salman Khurshid's life. Sons of Babur, the first play penned by the Union Minister for Corporate Affairs and Minority Affairs, will open to its first public performance.
But the suave politician doesn't appear to be nervous about the debut. He may not have written a five-act play before, but Khurshid has grown up with the sights, sounds and smells of
theatre. Friends from college remember seeing young Salman's light blue Lambretta scooter parked outside the venue of many a university play.
In a way, Khurshid owes his marriage to theatre. "Yes, I met my wife for the first time during the production of Shaw's Pygmalion. My friend Marcus Murch of Shakespeareana persuaded me to join the play at Jesus and Mary College. Louise was one of their best actors. She played Eliza Dolittle and I enacted Professor Henry Higgins. We got to know each other here and married many years later."
Among the theatre directors who've left an impact on Khurshid is Terrence Rattigan. He also likes Peter Shaffer, who directed Royal Hunt of the Sun, about the tragic conquest of Peru by Spain. "I directed Ross, Rattigan's play based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, the inspiration behind the Hollywood classic Lawrence of Arabia," he recalls.
Hats politicians wear
Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal is an avid poet whose book — I Witness: Partial Observations — was published in 2008. Most of the 84 poems were 'penned' on a mobile phone during long flights.
Congress leader Oscar Fernandes is a trained Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer. He has also given mouth organ and Yakshagana performances.
Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling is a popular lyricist for Nepalese films.
Law Minister Veerappa Moily is a popular Kannada author and has also penned the epic poem Sri Ramayana Mahanveshanam.
At St. Stephen's, the maternal grandson of Zakir Hussain, India's third President, had the reputation of an all-rounder. He was the leading NCC cadet, a decent cricketer and presented programmes on All India Radio's Yuvvani service. But even in those days, Khurshid nurtured the ambition of writing a novel. "As a greenhorn, I used to go through old novels picked up at Sunday bazaars and dreamt of writing one. Those were the days when short-but-impactful novels such as Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull were coming out. After many false starts, I did write a novella in college and got it published by a friend."
Later, as lawyer and minister, Khurshid would go on to write non-fiction about Indian Muslims, his experiences with the human rights commission in Geneva and on Kashmir, but the creative bug resurfaced during a family vacation in Goa in 2000. That is when the idea of Sons of Babur hit him. "The screaming slogan for extremists those days was Babar ki aulad. I decided to take it head-on. In the play, it works in a positive manner. A PhD student from Delhi University wants to visit Bahadurshah Zafar's grave in Rangoon. Rebuked by his tutor, he dozes off and in his imagination meets the poet-king. He asks Zafar why he was liked even as Babar was disliked. ‘I, too, am a son of Babar,' Zafar tells him and takes him on a historical journey to meet Mughal emperors."
At the Sufi level, says Khurshid, the play is about overcoming your ego to be a part of a larger idea: whether it is god, humanity, peace or the universe. "Here it is the reality of the emerging Muslim identity: of being Indian despite being born or buried elsewhere."
Actor Tom Alter, who plays Zafar, says Khurshid was an involved co-passenger in their artistic journey. "During rehearsals he made a pertinent suggestion that we included in the script. He pointed out that despite imprisonment and age, Zafar's character shouldn't lose his grandeur. The challenge was to bring out his pathos while maintaining his dignity."
The playwright in Khurshid has some unfinished business: A production about a reunion of Oxford alumni. The minister says he hasn't found the right environment, to put it down on paper. "When you write, you have to be surrounded with things that relate to what you are doing. I don't have that much of Oxonia surrounding me here. I wish I were there. I want to finish it someday."
Khurshid says his theatre stint has helped him as a politician. "Public speaking and theatre were the first exposure that I got to communication. Theatre is an institution that gives you an opportunity to communicate with a larger people. It serves you well when you go into public life."
Along with his colleagues Kapil Sibal and Veerappa Moily, Khurshid has exposed his not-so-known facet to public scrutiny. Does this thought make him nervous? "Not at all, I am delighted. Ministers are not aliens from another planet. They are also human beings with many dimensions. Venturing into another field can actually enrich public perception," he says.