The mutiny of 1857 is an important and enduring period in Indian history – the rebellion led to the dissolution of the East India Company the following year. While heroes such as Mangal Pandey found prominence in theatre, film and literature interpretations, the sacrifices of many others were lost in time. Turram Khan was one of these. Mohammad Ali Baig, who has received a Padma Shri for reviving Urdu theatre, took on the task of resurrecting Turram Khan’s (and playing him) last few moments with his captor, with his production 1857: Turrebaz Khan. The production premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August and will now be staged at the Qadir Ali Baig theatre festival in Hyderbad on November 12.
You’ve been reviving slices of lost Deccan history and heritage. What led you to staging a play on an almost forgotten revolutionary, Turram Khan?
Martyr Turrebaz Khan was one of the foremost freedom fighters of the country during 1857, who displayed exemplary courage and valour, and yet is unknown. Imagine a soldier taking on the regime of His Highness Nizam IV and the mighty British Empire with a group of 500 people. To create a theatre piece out of his story, and to play the fiery person tied for the entire duration of the performance onstage, with his eyes and voice telling the tale, is a challenge for an actor.
Given that the play takes from the 1857 mutiny, what kind of research did this entail? Did you resort to fiction for the bits that weren’t documented?
A lot of research was done by us, especially my wife Noor, on getting authentic details and facts. As very little material was available on him, except a few repeated narrations by historians, I did fictionalise it, but within the confines of authenticity that would make for compelling theatre. For me, the structure of the play is very important as rest of the elements depend on this. I based the entire play on an imaginary last hour that he had with his captor, who belonged to the same region and ideology but a different sociological-economic milieu. It created a contrast of the privileged and the deprived, the powerful and the oppressed. This could be referenced even today anywhere in the world with two people; one who caters to the establishment for his own agenda and the other whose agenda is a larger cause, benefiting the rest of his country.
How was the response at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the London premiere?
Overwhelming. For a play of such intensity in performance and verbosity in content, it was extremely reassuring that for the hour of its duration, people seemed to connect with the two characters almost breathlessly, and to see a large turnout for its premiere was heartwarming. Some Indians in the audience later shared how they were not aware of this part of the rebellion from the Deccan during the Sepoy Mutiny.
Like Turrebaz Khan, many of your other plays have been successfully presented to foreign audiences in the past. Given their characters and storylines, do you face any challenges in achieving a universal resonance?
I was born into theatre and grew up watching my father in various makeovers in green rooms, witnessed the grandeur of towering sets and the feel of crisply tailored costumes accompanied by lines of Moliere, Vijay Tendulkar, Krishan Chander and Samuel Beckett. Such a universal perspective of situations becomes an inherent part of your temperament. While my roots are Indian, particularly Hyderabadi, my work canvas is universal. What I learnt from Baba, my father late Qadir Ali Baig Saheb, is what I practise; that ‘theatre should transcend barriers; linguistic, cultural and geographical’. While the premise of these plays is heritage, the essence is contemporary, period yet timeless.
Quli : Dilon ka Shahzaada in Urdu touched audiences in even non-English understanding French and European theatre festivals. Spaces moved audiences to tears and they would come backstage to say that it was their story, whether they were from America, Turkey, Bosnia, Iran, or from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore.
While your father was renowned for his positive influence in the landscape, you did not think of pursuing theatre until you were 20. Why did you wait that long?
I was never attracted to theatre in my childhood, except that I loved designing the posters of his plays and sitting at the box office for the fragrance of freshly-printed tickets. In fact, I would be pained to see them disappearing before the third bell rang, not knowing that that was a good sign. Baba’s 20th death anniversary commemoration in 2005 was a turning point. When his associates and luminaries paid a tribute to him with moist eyes and choked voices and spoke about his work and persona, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t done anything to carry on his legacy. Until then, I was a jetsetting ad filmmaker visiting Hyderabad and accompanying my mother to the occasion. That’s how the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation was born. I’m touched that a son’s tribute to his father became a revival movement for a city, and placed it on the global map as he had envisioned.
Your productions have been staged in iconic historical monuments like the Golconda Fort, Charminar, Chowmahalla Palace and are quite elaborate in display too. Is this a challenge when you perform abroad?
It certainly is a challenge because they are conceived, designed and blocked for a 60-feet proscenium opening or multi-level performing areas. My first production, Taramati - The Legend of an Artiste, had a cast of 40, including horses and camels onstage, and 150 lights atop a 250- year-old hillock monument and thus, could not be staged anywhere else, though many theatre fests wanted it. So I had to make my later productions adaptable and portable to be able to stage them at intimate spaces like NCPA, Rangashankara, and Habitat Centre. It’s a great learning when you are orchestrating skills of local technicians and stage craftsmen overseas to execute the design. It’s also thrilling when your space is the four-century-old Golconda Fort, the modern 5000-seater Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, the medieval Van Gogh Castle in Europe or the state-of-the-art Kagithane Theatre in Istanbul.
Your wife, Noor Baig, is actively involved in your work, in various capacities.
We met in a very dramatic situation at the Durbar Hall of Falaknuma Palace at the launch of a book on the last Nizam. A year later, we got married at the same venue. She has a natural ease with words in her writing and is an intelligent modern-day writer. As a co-writer, she brings in the element and energy of the present day. That helps in keeping me grounded in our life too. As an actress, she’s naturally talented and focused. She’s a bright addition to the family legacy of meaningful theatre. Also, her organisational skills ease up the stress while we are curating the annual Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival. Thankfully, we are well-tuned in our thoughts about work. The only flipside is we never ‘go back home’ from our work.
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From HT Brunch, October 30, 2016
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