Published in the theatre pages of Time Out Delhi, 2007.
M Sayeed Alam’s Maulana Azad looks at the man behind the freedom fighter icon, says Trisha Gupta.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a great Indian nationalist, but he smoked only Turkish cigarettes and drank only Chinese tea. “Despite being nationalist to the core, there were some Hindustani things that he hated – Hindustani doodh wali chai, yeh jo patti hoti hai, like dust; cigarettes, Hindustani oil and scent,” revealed M Sayeed Alam, writer and director of a play about Maulana Azad, which returns to Delhi this fortnight. “These are the things that make the play entertaining, and they are not of academic interest. Ab woh uthte kaise the, baithte kaise the, baatein kaise karte the, chaar baje uthte the ki teen baje uth jaate thhe, this no book will tell you,” Alam said.
An academic historian writing about Maulana Azad might mention that he smoked a lot of cigarettes, but it takes many conversations with people who knew him to find out which brand of cigarettes it was. Alam managed to track down a few such people – Aruna Asaf Ali, fellow-Congress party member and wife of the barrister Asaf Ali, Hasan Sani Nizami, whose father Khwaja Hasan Nizami had been a great friend of Maulana Azad’s, and finally, Ausaf Ali, who had worked with Maulana in the ’50s as a young journalist. It was Ausaf Ali who told Alam that Maulana’s brand of cigarettes was a Turkish one called Abdullah. And that he always drank the highest quality white jasmine tea.
Alam’s research for the play stretched over some five years, but during that time he had a day-job and was also working on a PhD. It was in a burst of enthusiasm over ten days in 2002 that he actually wrote out the script from beginning to end. His search for the private Maulana was aided by an Urdu biography written by Abdul Razzaq Malihabadi, who had been Maulana’s personal secretary for many years. Alam was clear from the beginning that writing a dramatic monologue in the voice of Maulana Azad was completely different from writing a play about his place in history. He wanted to answer the question, “Who was Maulana?” with something more than the usual trite clichés, like “a great freedom fighter” or “one of the main colleagues of Gandhiji, the fourth name after Gandhi, Nehru and Patel”.
The main source for Azad’s own take on his life and times was, of course, his autobiography, India Wins Freedom. But Alam wasn’t satisfied with simply using this account as the basis of the play. “This book is a huge disappointment for a reader who has read Maulana in Urdu. Maulana was a great writer. He had a command over history, over literature, over politics. In his newspapers, Al-Hilal and Inquilab, woh in cheezon ke bare mein bahut khubsoorat tareeke se likhte thhe.” Since that felicitous turn of phrase, or indeed any sign of the engaging conversationalist described by Aruna Asaf Ali, was completely missing from India Wins Freedom, Alam decided to construct the play not as an oral version of the autobiography, but as a series of conversations that Maulana has with Humayun Kabir the poet, his friend and one-time secretary.
This allowed Alam to do two things – one, to be historically accurate in his choice of language (it is known that Maulana actually dictated to Kabir in Urdu, and Kabir transcribed his words in English), and two, to return to Maulana something of the erudite, anecdotal quality that he had when speaking Urdu.
Urdu may have been Alam’s reason for casting Tom Alter, who he believes has done “a brilliant job”, but Azad’s own relationship with the language was more complex than we might imagine. His family of Muslim theologians and scholars had moved to Mecca soon after 1857, and he himself was born there, to an Arab mother.
When he was five, his family returned to India, but his education in Persian and Arabic as well as his family background meant that he always thought of Arabic as his mother tongue. But in India, writing in Arabic or Persian meant isolating yourself from the very possibility of a readership. “The status of Urdu in those days was like that of Hindi today. It may not have been seen as the highest language, but it had readers,” said Alam. It was a similar desire for readers, this time for an international audience, that Alam believes made Azad publish his autobiography in English. (In the book, and therefore in the play, however, it is Kabir who suggests that he write the book in English.)
Maulana may have made tactical compromises on the question of the language he wrote in, but in other matters, he stuck to a position once he had taken it. The greatest example of this was his principled and firm opposition to Partition, which makes up some part of the play. “You have a right over the whole country, and you want to claim only one corner of it? And then too, you want to claim an area where you are already a majority?”, he once said in a rhetorical query to Muslims who supported the League’s claim for Pakistan. He foresaw the splitting of East Pakistan into two countries, and predicted that Hindu-Muslim riots would not end with Partition, that they would in fact resume on a greater scale.
“He was prescient in both regards,” Alam said. “But I am not here to make judgements. Mine is a retelling of history, but interspersed with poetry, wisdom, anecdotes – all those things that make up Maulana, the man.”