When Tom Alter speaks Urdu on stage, the audience strains its ears to catch every nuance, every lilt.
“I love Urdu,” says the actor. “But I am not a missionary for the language. We need Urdu, Urdu doesn’t need us. ”
According to the theatre thespian, there is only one way to promote a language. You need to make people fall in love with it.
“For that, you need to keep producing lovely work in Urdu, lovely plays and books and mushairas,” says Alter. “At Pierrot’s Troupe, this is what we have been trying to do.”
Led by playwright and director Sayeed Alam, the Troupe is known for its period productions that bring together history, poetry and crisp dialogue.
Alter’s own love for Urdu dates back to childhood. He calls Urdu his “pidri zubaan” or father tongue. “My father was a padre and used to recite the Bible in Urdu. The language has no religion,” he says.
In the Mussoorie of 1960s and 70s, where he grew up, Urdu was widely spoken and read. “I read poetry in Urdu, Hindi, English and Latin. If you love beautiful poetry, you don’t restrict yourself to one language,” he says.
While he prizes purity in any language, the way it is spoken in day-to-day life is equally important. “I respect people who speak pure Urdu, but we have to make it easy for our audience,” he says.
The plays are an important step in making Urdu accessible to new audiences. This Sunday, however, is a rare treat for Delhi’s theatre lovers. Long-gone legends of Urdu poetry come alive in two back-to-back performances of Ghalib and Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaerah.
While he is well-known for his role of Mirza Ghalib, Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaerah resurrects a mythic mehfil of what Alter calls the “starting eleven” of Urdu poetry, including Zauq, Momin, Shauq, Daagh Dehalvi, Sheftah, and of course, Ghalib himself. Alter essays the role of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, on whose invitation the august gathering assembles.
All through the play, rivalries play out as the poets trade rapier-sharp repartees and finely crafted bits of poetry. The narrative gives a glimpse of a Delhi gone by, a last look at art and culture that thrived in the Mughal court before the city’s fortunes changed with the First War of Independence in 1857.
For Alter, the play has led to a personal discovery of Zafar, poet, patron of arts and a pauper king living on East India Company’s allowance. “I was familiar with the works of Ghalib, but I am finding Zafar through this play. There’s a lot of pain in his poetry, a lot of mayoosi,” says Alter.
This mayoosi or pathos is a leitmotif of Zafar’s poetry, a mixture of disappointment and despair at his lot in life. “At the end of the play, there is a beautiful ghazal by Zafar. It is full of pain and sadness. He wrote it much before he was exiled to Rangoon, when his Delhi was falling apart,” says Alter. “The last verse says aisi basti se toh veerana banaya hota. (It was better to make this city a lonely desert).”
When: 4.30 pm (Ghalib)
7.30 pm (Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaera)
Where: LTG Auditorium, Copernicus Marg, Mandi House, New Delhi.