An epic set in Ahmedabad recounts the 606-year history of the city
Kadak Badshahi 2.0 draws on the bigger-is-better Broadway formula to go beyond tedious taught histories in its celebration of the city.art and culture Updated: Jan 28, 2018 09:52 IST
On a placid lake in Ahmedabad, the deed that gave the East India Company the right to trade in India was quietly signed. Historical records suggest this happened in 1618, during a boat ride hosted by Mughal emperor Jehangir for the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe, on either the Kankaria or Sarkhej lake.
“Exactly two centuries later, in 1818, the Union Jack was hoisted in the city for the first time as the entire nation came under colonial rule,” says historian and architect Yatin Pandya.
The meeting on the lake is one of the pivotal scenes in Kadak Badshahi 2.0, a multimedia, Broadway-style production being staged in Ahmedabad this fortnight. Named after an extra-strong and very popular tea preparation, the play uses giant props, elaborate sets and a cast of 105 to tell the 606-year history of Ahmedabad.
The drama begins at the entrance, where viewers must make their way to the amphitheatre through a maze that mirrors the beautiful old pols — enclosed, residential settlements with a network of narrow, winding lanes — within the walled city. Along the way, there are garba dancers, chai stalls and the iconic stone lattice window of the Sidi Saiyyed mosque recreated in zardozi.
In the lake scene, the sound of ripples builds to an ominous hiss across the 3,000-seat Shrirangam Amphitheatre. Two royal guards row a giant mechanical boat against a video projection of a lake.
As the firman or royal decree is signed, the stage blacks out and spotlight turns to a vagabond sitting under a tree.
“For 20 years, I’ve been stopping anyone who tries to commit suicide at Kankaria lake,” he says. “But Jehangir’s deed with East India Company proved suicidal for all of Hindustan.”
Mughals to Marathas
History unfolds in intriguing ways on stage. Through the two-hour show, there’s history, fables and folk lore; choreographed dance scenes and live music; a 20-ft-tall transistor radio, burning torches and a real horse. The play is being presented by the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, run by the danseuse and activist Mallika Sarabhai.
“The idea behind Kadak Badshahi,” she says, “was to go beyond boring and tedious taught histories and celebrate the city. We wanted to make the audience understand and fall in love with the people who played a role in the making of Ahmedabad. The show also reminds everyone that we’re much more than a centre of commerce.”
An initial scene harks back to the foundation of the city — in a chase with dancers dressed as hares and dogs. With swift movements, the hares drive the dogs away. “According to folklore, Ahmed Shah [of the Muzaffarid dynasty] founded Ahmedabad on the banks of the Sabarmati River in 1411 after seeing this astonishing sight,” says historian Shirin Mehta. “Ahmedabad is a rare early example of a planned city, developed for trade and commerce.”
Founded as the capital of the kingdom of Gujarat, it was built in stages. At the centre was Bhadra Fort; ranged around it were settlements for the soldiers and traders. The walled city had 12 gates where armed guards protected the riches within, earned mainly from the export of cotton and silk, and later indigo and opium.
By 1572, when Gujarat was annexed by the Mughals, Ahmedabad was an important trading hub connecting the Silk Route with the Spice Route. From 1758 to 1817, it was ruled by the Marathas, after which it was integrated with the Bombay Presidency under British rule.
Harking back to a period of strife during Maratha rule here, a hushed silence greets Sarabhai as she takes the stage, dressed in a traditional chaniya choli, with a dozen women in tow. Together, they represent the women of the Bhat community, who have gathered to protest against ‘slander gangs’ that fabricated tales about residents as a means of extortion. As a result, a woman named Saduba asked her husband to kill her after she was wrongly accused of being of immoral character. As actors march through the aisles holding burning mashaals, Sarabhai calls out that Saduba’s sacrifice should not go in vain.
“I was in tears by the end of that scene,” says Preeti Shroff, dean of management institute MICA, who was in the audience. “Broadway can be jarring because it’s trying too hard to impress. I liked this version for its impactful yet real-life feel.”
Shroff also watched the production in its previous avatar, in 2014-15, when it was staged at Darpana’s intimate amphitheatre, Natarani, with the Sabarmati River as the backdrop. Back then, it was a 90-minute play with a cast of 70.
This time, Sarabhai decided to venture out, scale up, and tell lesser-known stories about the city. “We’ve added to the script in a non-linear fashion,” says Pinakin Thaker, actor and part of the initial research team with Sarabhai, film and theatre artiste Nisarg Trivedi and filmmaker Yadavan Chandran. Chandran has also directed the play; and Sarabhai, Trivedi and Chandran co-scripted it. There’s a feature film, titled Kadak Badshahi, in the works too. “We’ve been doing research on it for two years,” says Chandran.
On stage, it’s not all earnest and historical. A chat between two typical Ahmedabadis had the audience in splits as they talked about how they live life to the fullest despite having not a penny in their pockets, and of how betting was their favourite pastime..
As one puts it: “An Ahmedabadi can calmly make a deal worth lakhs, with just fifteen rupees in his pocket.”
Even non-Ahmedabadis can relate, says Sarabhai, referring also to segments that explore its textile trade history, evolution under British Raj and the city as the base of Gandhi’s satyagraha. “That’s why we end with a song that goes, ‘Nai maaru nai taaru, aa sau nu Amdavad [Neither mine, nor yours, it’s everyone’s Ahmedabad].”
(Kadak Badshahi 2.0 runs till February 1 in Ahmedabad)