[Tales from the Taj Mahal]
“What shall I do?
I know not what I am,
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor heathen, nor a Muslim.” — Dara
Set during the Mughal Empire, India, 1659, Dara is Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of the original play written by Shahid Nadeem. Based on true historic events, Dara recounts the fierce sibling rivalry and battle for the throne between the crown prince and heir apparent Dara (Prateek Vadgaonkar), and his ambitious younger brother Aurangzeb (Rishabh Kapoor). Dara has his father, the emperor Shah Jahan (Mustaq Missouri) — widely known for commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal in Agra for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal — on his side.
This tragic tale contains all the elements required for an epic tale — an aging emperor unwilling to give up his throne, warring siblings, a visit from an impoverished prophet who foretells that Aurangzeb will seize the throne, the use of cunning and murder — and weaves in the key elements of politics and religion as embodied by the two warring princes. With strong characterisations by both Prateek Vadgoankar and Rishabh Kapoor, Dara and Aurangzeb each represent and embody the extreme spectrum of views in regards to the interpretation and understanding of Islam. When Aurangzeb and his accomplices conjure up a plan to get rid of Dara, they decide to accuse him of apostasy. Instead of defending himself, Dara stays true to his version of Islam, believing in harmony amongst all religions. Forever the Sufi poet and philosopher, the trial of Dara is one of the most poetic and moving moments in the play.
Directed by Amit Ohdedar and Sananda Chatterjee, Prayas’ cast of twenty-four give strong performances throughout; the flashback scenes are cleverly conducted and provide a childhood background and understanding to Aurangzeb and his sister Roshanara’s (Sneha Shetty) plans to seize the throne. Roshanara shines as the brilliant, greedy and strategic mastermind, and her relationship and subsequent fallout with Aurangzeb is an interesting one to watch. To my surprise, Shah Jahan is comically portrayed and provides some light-hearted relief to the more serious issues at stake.
There are various fascinating characters and relationships that appear in the play, such as the love scene between Aurangzeb and Hirabai (Gayatri Adi) which is sensually portrayed through music and slight gestural movements. The court eunuch’s story and dramatic ending is also touched upon, but not delved into. Dara is an ambitious undertaking that encompasses a lot of important themes, characters and interlinked relationships; yet perhaps not all of them are explored in detail, thus making some of the smaller scenes feel a bit ‘patchy’. All in all, I was impressed with the performance of this epic tale; the Taj Mahal has always held a fascination for me since visiting the elegant white mausoleum more than a decade ago, so it felt great to be able to learn some history through the beautiful art-form of theatre.
Dara is presented by Prayas Theatre and plays at TAPAC until 24 June.