6 August 2008

Maulana Azad: Theatre Review

M Sayeed Alam’s dramatic monologue is not an easy play to sit through. It’s a solo performance with not a lot of action and many meandering stories about Congress politics before independence, and it’s two and a half hours long, with no interval. It’s also in a chaste Urdu that is often difficult to understand. (May we suggest a brochure that provides translations, at least of the Urdu couplets with which each scene begins?)

Two things make the play watchable: the fact that the script is peppered with little titbits – Azad’s taste in tea (white jasmine), or how Nehru mumbled in his sleep – and a fluid, measured performance from Tom Alter, who plays Azad. It’s fun to listen to Alter dismiss British-Indian style tea as “liquid halwa”, propose that Ghalib’s Persian ustad Abdus Samad was an imaginary figure he invented for himself, or reminisce about how he taught himself English as a young man after reading Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s statement that Muslims could never progress if they did not take to Western education.

But such trivia only makes an occasional appearance – most of the play is concerned with Azad’s views on his contemporaries, his responses to charges laid against him or the Congress, which he represented for much of his political career, or his fears about the future of Muslims in the subcontinent – what most people would consider the stuff of politics proper. Here the script takes its lead from Azad’s autobiography, India Wins Freedom, and doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, like that of whether the Congress could be said to be a “Hinduon ki jamaat” (party of Hindus), or the role that Nehru and Patel – and in Azad’s view, Gandhi himself – played in letting Partition happen.

Maulana Azad’s firm opposition to the very idea of Partition – and his inability to ever reconcile himself to it – lies at the heart of the play. We hear Azad’s meditations on the absurdities that Partition involved – the fact that Allama Iqbal, the poet who wrote “Sare Jahan S e Acchha”, eventually became the much-feted national poet of Pakistan, while Jagannath Azad, who wrote the Pakistani national anthem, came to India in 1947 and eventually found a job in the government’s publication division. We hear his almost rhetorical – but grief-laden – question about what was to happen to the mosques and madarsas on this side of the border if the Muslims were all to leave for Pakistan, and his sad description of a mosque which had become a halwai’s shop.

The politics and history is competently handled, though the play tries to pack in way too much and several references remain just that – scattered references. What stays with you after the play is a faint whiff of the man – a man who may not have had the much-mythologised elegance of a Nehru, the flamboyance of a Jinnah or the hot-headed oratory of a Bose, but who was still a titan of the sort that no longer populates our political universe. Trisha Gupta

Source : Time Out Delhi ISSUE 9 Friday, July 25, 2008

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