A musical tale of an old Delhi

Shahjahanabad: Purani Dilli Ki Dastaan, a musical narrative to be staged this weekend, recreates life in nineteenth century Shahjahanabad through its language, music, culture, festivals and attire
Standing: Syeda Hameed, Lokesh Jain; Seated: Zakia Zaheer and Rene Singh. The four are part of the musical on Old Delhi.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Standing: Syeda Hameed, Lokesh Jain; Seated: Zakia Zaheer and Rene Singh. The four are part of the musical on Old Delhi.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Apr 20, 2018 07:33 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByRana Safvi

Rakhha tha Dilli ka logo’n ne naam

Magar afsos ba misle khana e aashiq wo ho gayi barbaad

(People had named Delhi, the land
of love
Alas! It was destroyed like an
unrequited lover’s heart)

As I walk into Zakia Zaheer’s Hailey Road apartment one April evening, I am greeted by the sound of classical music and the recitation of Urdu verses. It is so evocative that I can almost feel and visualise the scenes being described – the fragrance of the cuisine seems to waft in the air, I can inhale the heady mix of attar and actually see the ladies dressing up in their finery. The poems sketch a bygone era and with each line, I am transported back in time.

It was in 2011 that Begum Zakia Zaheer, a well-known Urdu litterateur, writer and translator, along with her sister Dr Syeda Hameed, social and women’s rights activist, educationist and writer and Rene Singh, a classical singer (who has trained with Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya and Shanti Hiranand and who conducts music workshops in conflict areas), came up with the idea of Humari Urdu Mohabbat (HUM), an organisation aimed to promote Urdu shayari and literature through narration, dastangoi, dance, music and multimedia shows.

Their latest offering, Shahjahanabad: Purani Dilli Ki Dastaan, is a musical narrative to be staged at the India Habitat Centre this weekend.

It features Zaheer, Hameed and Singh, along with Avni Sethi, an Ahmedabad-based dancer who is a student of Kumudini Lakhia, and Lokesh Jain, a theatre artist who has studied under Ebrahim Alkazi and has been doing theatre for the past 20 years. Born and brought up in Shahjahanabad, he is a ninth-generation Dilliwala and a natural raconteur.

Zaheer, who has written the play, describes Purani Dilli Ki Dastaan as tasweer kashi – a new genre that creates images with words, music and dance. The sets and lighting for the performance have been designed by Himanshu B Joshi of the National School of Drama (NSD). He has used archival photos to create the right atmosphere. The actors’ costumes add to the old-world feel – the women are dressed in gorgeous ghararas with dupattas covering their heads. The lone male member, Jain, sports a chikankari kurta, with a dopalli topi perched on his head.

A sketch of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose reign saw a cultural renaissance in Delhi. (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
A sketch of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose reign saw a cultural renaissance in Delhi. (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Purani Dilli ki Dastaan describes life in Shahjahanabad – better known as Old Delhi today. One of the seven historical cities that make up modern-day Delhi, Shahjahanabad was built by Shah Jahan on the banks of the river Yamuna between 1639-48. The city had a unique and vibrant culture, much of which was lost after Delhi fell to the British in 1857 (who inflicted terrible punishments on the city’s populace), and then in the Partition of India in 1947.

The language of the people was rich in idioms and referred to as karkhandari. There was bonhomie among all communities, actively promoted by the emperor through his own actions.

The musical describes a day in the life of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and the people of Shahjahanabad. It showcases the culture, language, syncretic customs and festivals of those bygone days. We are told of how Bahadur Shah Zafar woke up to the sound of Raag Bhairav, and Rene Singh’s rendition of Jaago Mohan Pyaare is a delight to the senses.

At a time when we are forgetting our Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, the musical recalls one of the most beautiful festivals of Shahjahanbad, the Phool Waalon Ki Sair, during which the emperor made floral offers of thanksgiving, first at the Yogmaya temple in Mehrauli and then at the dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki.

As Zaheer, Hameed and Jain described scenes from the celebration, I could almost feel the festive air, smell the savouries being fried for the feast, hear the girls giggling on the swings and the peacocks calling out to each other. This was followed by a song written by Bahadur Shah Zafar in Raga Malkaus:

Jhoola kinne daala re amriya’n
(Who has put up these swings on the mango trees)

Even the recreation of the calls of the vegetable vendors that were used to sell their wares elicited a “Wah! Wah!” from everyone. It seems as if there was a hidden poet in every person back then.

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign saw a cultural renaissance and some of Urdu’s best shayars or poets flourished under his patronage. There are beautiful references to them in the recitations and songs in Purani Dilli Ki Dastaan.

The play ends on a tragic note – the failure of the 1857 uprising and the Mughal emperor’s exile to Rangoon by the British. An empty spot still awaits him in Mehrauli’s Zafar Mahal next to his ancestors.

Yaa mujhe afsar-e-shahaana banaaya hota
Yaa mera taj gayayana banaaya hota

(Either my crown should have
been royal
Or mine should have been the crown
of a beggar)

– Bahadur Shah Zafar

Zaheer has based the story on contemporary and near-contemporary accounts of Shahjahanabad and as someone well versed in the idioms, food, dress, culture and clothes and jewellery of Old Delhi, she brings them to vivid life. The musical is directed by Hameed.

What: Shajahanabad: Purani Dilli Ki Dastaan

Where: Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road

Nearest Metro Station: Khan Market

Call: 2468 2002

When: 7.30pm, April 22
Tickets available on BookMyShow and at India Habitat Centre


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