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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

What Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq says about India’s politicians

Watch out for the revival of veteran actor Girish Karnad’s ’60s classic play Tughlaq in Delhi this weekend.

art-and-culture Updated: May 27, 2017 08:36 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
At the rehearsal of Tughlaq at the Shri Ram Centre, Delhi
At the rehearsal of Tughlaq at the Shri Ram Centre, Delhi (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

In the mid-’60s, Girish Karnad was a 22 year-old playwright in search of a subject. He had just completed writing about the whim of a king (Yayati) when he came upon the statement of a fellow Kannada litterateur’s dissing existing Kannada plays as costume drama. Karnad decided to rise to the challenge. His ‘Tughlaq’ is a theatrical representation strong in rhetoric of the 14th-century king who destabilised his own kingdom; marched his people from the north (Delhi) to the west (Daulatabad) to set up a new capital and marched them back; went on a killing spree; struck coins in one metal and then another – all in the name of good governance. Watching a powerful man crack up, whenever it occurs, is a bad time in history. It’s great for art though.

Tughlaq was first staged in Urdu in 1966 as part of a National School of Drama student production directed by actor Om Shivpuri, then a student. Its more famous outing was Ebrahim Alkazi’s grand set-piece at the Purana Qila, Delhi, in 1972; veteran actor Manohar Singh played the lead. A revival of the play in Delhi this weekend comes at an interesting point when books are questioning older books about dead rulers with bad press -- such as Aurangzeb – and the appropriate way to look at figures of history.

‘Tughlaq is not just about Nehru’, says Girish Karnad.
‘Tughlaq is not just about Nehru’, says Girish Karnad. ( Hemant Mishra / Mint )

Home truths

So, was Muhummad bin Tughlaq mad or brilliant? Should one laugh at him or listen to him? Was he a visionary or an insecure politician? Were his projects an expression of madness or driven by political calculation? The answers to these questions, says Karnad, may perhaps be set aside for the most important question -- is the play still contemporary or not.

“Written in the ’60s, everyone latched on to UR Ananthamurthy’s comment of it being a critique of Nehruvian socialism,” says the actor-playwright. “The point about a play is that it cannot simply be about its own time. Tughlaq is not just about Nehru. There are lines in the play when two guards talk to each other and one of them says ‘Oh, this is such a strong fort!’ The other guard doesn’t agree. He says ‘This fort will crumble due its inner weaknesses.’ An 80s’ audience watching it, interpreted it as the aftermath to Indira Gandhi’s assassination… Every audience interprets a play according to his own sense of reality. The question is whether it will connect it to Modi….”

When curtains go up

K Madavane, the director of Tughlaq that will be staged this weekend, seems to have taken forward Karnad’s aesthetics in the way he has developed the play visually. “K Madavane is a meticulous planner. The throne is not a static piece of furniture, its movement to indicate a shift of capital,” says Veena Soorma of Shri Ram Centre of Performing Arts.

The stage is bare except for a huge wooden throne atop a pyramid whose base is made up of stairs. Tughlaq climbs these stairs to issue his orders; his minions positioned at various levels on the staircase fight it out for his attention. The courtier (Najeeb), who is all hot air, grand postures and bad advice, is the one who has the king’s ears. Those who are temperate don’t stand a chance. Tughlaq’s subjects also make hay feeding into his fickle impulses to be seen as inclusive.

A scene from the play between a dhobi and a thief.
A scene from the play between a dhobi and a thief. ( Raj K Raj/HT Photo )

One of his Muslim subjects, for example, takes on the identity of a Brahmin to benefit from the king’s generosity to his Hindu subjects. The Daulatabad move, says Sandeep Singh, the Shri Ram Centre repertory chief, was, in fact guided by the motive that Daulatabad [in Maharashtra] was a centre for his Hindu subjects. “And the coming of his Muslim majority population from Delhi would make it a place of religious harmony…But it was also to secure his capital from Mongol invasion,” he adds. “Tughlaq got the people packing and everyone hated the idea.”

There were three things that were fighting for Tughlaq’s soul, says Singh. He quotes from the play to make his point: “Khuda ki azmaat (Allah’s greatness), riyaya ki bhalayi ka khwaab(the dream for the good of the people), aur zaati khwaishey (my personal desires) – jab teeno main kashmakash ho rahi ho toh mujhey soney ka waqt kanhan hai…”

Veteran actor Ayaz Khan who is playing Tughlaq for the sixth time in his career, says the character is open to various readings. Tughlaq’s mistakes, he says, “unlike today’s leaders, was not for power. He thought he was building a new world. He was rash and driven by idealism. Even if he did badly, he was a brilliant failure. To me, he is a positive character.”

What: Tughlaq (Hindi/Urdu)

When: May 27, 28, 7 pm

Where: Shri Ram Centre, 4 Safdar Hashmi Marg. For tickets go to

Nearest metro station: Mandi House

First Published: May 26, 2017 18:06 IST

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