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A prince more sinned against

This new edition of Gopal Gandhi's 1993 play rides the crest of a high wave of international dramatic interest in Shah Jehan's crown prince.

books Updated: Feb 12, 2011 01:00 IST
Ananda Lal

Dara Shukoh: A Play in Verse
Gopal Gandhi
Tranquebar
Rs250 pp 204

This new edition of Gopal Gandhi's 1993 play rides the crest of a high wave of international dramatic interest in Shah Jehan's crown prince. A few years ago in Delhi, MS Sathyu directed Danish Iqbal's identically titled play, which tanked. Then, The Trial of Dara Shikoh (sic) by Pakistani-American academic Akbar Ahmed premiered in the US in 2008. Recently, Lahore's Ajoka Theatre performed the critically acclaimed Dara Shukoh written and directed by Shahid Nadeem. This sudden fascination should not surprise, given the worldwide spotlight on Islam and debate between its extreme and liberal factions.

The enlightened and syncretic Dara, like his great-grandfather Akbar, is a natural subject in such conditions, and Gandhi anticipated its topicality, for he authored the play before the Babri fiasco, though it appeared the following year. He upholds Dara as a role model of religious integration — "We were meant to unite/ Those we have taught, now, to fight" — as well as of unfulfilled promise for India staunched by Aurangzeb's manipulative triumph in the brothers' war of succession: "I will always be seen/A forever might-have-been." As a sub-theme, he presents a warning to governments in Delhi, prone to take the rest of India for granted, that they must consider the needs and aspirations of all citizens.

Gandhi composed this tragedy in seven acts, which makes it over three hours long — probably why nobody has had the courage to stage it as yet. He takes Dara from being an heir apparent in Shah Jehan's durbar to his assassination in prison under Aurangzeb's orders. Dara's wife and sons enter the dramatic nucleus, along with the fictional creation of his loyal but critical jester, while the powerful figures of Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb remain in the background. Gandhi's literary style is unique, rhyming the entire script in verse of various kinds, mainly robust tetrameter couplets and ballad quatrains. The tight-lipped Aurangzeb speaks mostly terse trimeter. An example of Gandhi's poetic metaphor, as when describing the Taj:

Time's silent oyster-womb
Will, in its hidden room,
With gentle love, fashion
A pearl of perfection
So it shall ever rest
Unflawed, on Sorrow's breast

He does not neglect humour. One catty harem girl tells another: "This is the Diwan-i-Khas/Not the place to swing your…" (ellipsis Gandhi's).

Tranquebar has published the book aesthetically, in bicolour printing with names and stage directions in blue. But the copy editing is not perfect. For instance, ‘Mughal' in the author's note becomes 'Moghul' in the text; ‘Acharya' in the stage directions changes to ‘Acharj' in the text. Nevertheless, Dara Shukoh displays a genuine dramatist's hand. Could we expect more plays from Gandhi?

Ananda Lal is a professor of English at Jadavpur University and has edited The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre.