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Delhi based Pierrot Troupe’s laudable efforts in Theatre

Dramatising History


From the play, Sons of Babur

Pierrot’s Troupe’s plays, presented in different languages, get them standing ovation from the audience.

Delhi theatre lovers have often complained that they have to choose between good and not-so-good plays to spend their weekends with a “worthwhile feeling”. That’s why ‘Andha Yug,’ being staged after 50 years due to the Delhi Government’s effort had an overwhelming response.

In these times, amid several mushrooming theatre groups in Delhi, which often resort to slapstick comedies to sustain themselves, there is one group that stages plays with history and literature as their mainstay. Formed almost two decades ago, Pierrot’s Troupe’s plays have always got a standing ovation for two significant reasons: One, the language – that is – most of their plays are in Urdu (not chaste though), hence, comprehensible to even those with a fleeting interest in the language and the same plays are done in English with consummate ease by the same actors, and two, the effortless performance by its actors.

The audiences are also drawn repeatedly to the hilarious but no-nonsense approach to even the most difficult of subjects such as Ghalib and Munshi Premchand. The troupe has been able to write its success story with more than 3000 shows of its plays in India and Europe. It has also earned the reputation of being the ‘Purveyor of original plays’ in India.

Tom Alter is the key role player as well as the major support system to the troupe with his expertise in Urdu, Hindi and English language. He also hones the language skills of the troupe’s actors. Salman Khursheed (strictly as a writer), Saleem Shah (actor Naseeuddin Shah’s nephew), author Professor Ather Farooqui and a team of 15 loyal members form Pierrot’s team.

The troupe has made a name with plays such ‘Mirza Ghalib’, ‘Ghalib Ke Khat’, ‘Ghalib in New Delhi’, ‘Big B’ (Munshi Premchand’s ‘Bade Bhai Sahab’), ‘1947,’ ‘Malulana Azad,’ ‘K L Saigal,’ ‘Begum Akhtar’ and ‘Sons of Babur’.

Interestingly, most of these plays have been staged by school children under the guidance of Dr. Sayeed Alam, the troupe’s main playwright, director and dialogue writer.

This past week, it had bagged a prestigious space in The President’s House to stage ‘Sons of Babur’. The following week, it was presented by the Vivek High School children in Chandigarh.

Here is a bit about its most popular plays:

‘Sons of Babur’, written as a drama by Salman Khursheed and translated into Urdu by Farooqui is directed by Alam. The two-hour play is largely about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, languishing in exile in Rangoon. It travels back to the present, in which an ardent admirer of Zafar and a student of history, Rudranath Mitra, is seeking a grant to visit Zafar’s grave in Myanmar (Burma) for his research work. He has a supernatural experience, in which he meets Zafar in person. From there, the play swings between fantasy and reality, past and present, logic and emotion, fact and fiction. In response to Rudranath’s quest and explicit admiration, he is taken on a guided tour by Zafar through various milestone events of the Mughal era. They effortlessly slide into the world of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb, all seen directing the course of medieval India.

Khursheed had a reason to write this play. He says, “From childhood I had an interest in theatre and history. The term “Babur Ki Aulad” is an important theme of my identity. It is often used in an uncomplimentary sense (for Muslims) so a theme of identity, national unity, secularism and emergence of India plus my interest in politics all merged to trigger this drama from me. It is turning some of the negative impression (read: of Muslims) to positive.”

In the play, Khursheed tries to showcase the benevolence of the Mughals at the same time make the audience feel disgusted at their ambition, become fearful of their cruelty but also admire their ability to unite diverse populations into an entity called Hindustan.

Another prestigious presentation of the troupe is ‘The Tale of the Taj,’ a powerful play set in 1600 on love, power and intrigue. It questions whether Mumtaz Mahal deserved a monument like the Taj Mahal or not. Through several twists and turns that establish her supremacy over Shah Jahan, it argues, she did. For instance, it portrays her “emotionally behind Shah Jahan and intellectually ahead” of him. It shows her as far-sighted, who hatches plots to kill other successors to the throne without his knowledge and helps Shah Jahan to rule. After becoming his princess, she asks him for a pay back and Shah Jahan builds the Taj for her. She, however, dies before seeing it during childbirth, which is historically true.

‘The tale of the Taj’ was written as a book in 1972 by Historian Dilip Hiro as ‘To anchor a cloud.’ It was published by Oxford University Press in London. It saw two shows in London that made its protagonist, Sayeed Jaffery, a household name there. Alam has revived the play in Delhi.

‘Maulana Azad,’ a two-and-a-half hour monologue in English and Urdu by Tom Alter, is another play that is being staged repeatedly despite its duration. Maulana Azad is relatively lesser known as a scholar of unparalleled calibre. Most of the published material is about the ‘apolitical’ side of him and is available in Urdu, hence inaccessible to a majority. The play endeavours to bridge this gap.

In his foreword to Maulana Azad’s ‘India Wins freedom,’ historia and author Humayun Kabir mentions the Maulana as a “wonderful conversationalist”. The play evolves in the backdrop of Maulana Azad dictating notes to Humayun Kabir for ‘India Wins Freedom.’ While talking about the book, which is largely political, Maulana often digresses from the subject. As a result, he discusses at length an entire gamut of issues, largely ‘apolitical’ – ranging from white jasmine tea to Taj Mahal, music to Mecca and cigarette to Cheeta Khan. Maulana’s narrative includes numerous entertaining anecdotes characterising his personality as well as his personal relations with Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Jinnah.

Pierrot’s also portrays the life and times of the personalities one hears so much about but knows so little of: Ghalib, Begum Akhtar, K .L Saigal and Raja Nahar Singh.

‘Mirza Ghalib’ reveals various facets of Ghalib that one didn’t see in the Hindi tele-serial in early 1990s. The longest running comedy serial, ‘Ghalib in New Delhi,’ is a comment on the status of Ghalib in modern India. While ‘Ghalib Ke Khat’ is the troupe’s latest labour of love, which establishes that Ghalib was a prolific writer of letters. He wrote more than 800 letters to his friends, disciples, relatives and even government authorities, which provide a peep into the day-to-day socio-political and cultural affairs of the country in those turbulent times. The play hints at the end of Mughal era and beginning of the British Raj.

‘Begum Akhtar,’ another gem from the troupe, addresses the classical ghazal singer and her varied roles as woman, lover, mother, teacher, wife and companion. Her lonely existence, surrounded by pain and anguish, is seen from the socio-cultural perspective.

The musical, ‘K. L. Saigal,’ is a rare presentation on the life and times of the singer, who became a rage in the Hindi film industry. It revisits Awadh and its distinct culture, Calcutta, its commercial theatre, HMV, Bombay, its old film world, and, also, the Durbars and Rajwaras scattered all over the country those days.

The play ‘1947,’ a satirical monologue takes a fresh, non-academic, non-political look at the partition of the country in 1947. The story unfolds in the form of an 85-year old man as well as an Alzheimer’s patient, Ghazanfar Hussein, recalling the Partition, its immediate and long-term aftermath juxtaposed with the loss of memory that he suffers from. In the process, the old man’s non-academic non-descript and also factually incorrect memoirs question a range of stereotypes about the incident – its genesis, its causes, its worth, its effects.

Hussein is deftly played by Saleem Shah who has already earned laurels in films like ‘Mammo,’ ‘English August’, ‘Naseem’, ‘Sarfarosh’, and ‘Fanaa.’

The troupe, because of its spectacular plays, after a few initial financial glitches was fine with its finances. Founding member and the first director of the ‘Tale of the Taj’ Ashok Purang says, “Pierrot’s Troupe never loses as a production house as it always has a dozen plays in its backlog. It never had to hire costume. Moreover, most of its actors are loyal that makes our job easier.”

Sayeed Alam, a doctorate in history, makes it a point to do historical plays with a world view. He adds, “Such plays allow us to relive an era we haven’t seen. Recapturing that time, costume and language is magical. It tests our imagination and skills to bring back the times on the stage convincingly.”

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