Across centuries and countries, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan has been seen as the ultimate lover against whom all heartbeats are measured. Other kings have come, ruled and passed away; their brave deeds now fill brittle pages of history books and lyrics of poet-singers. Shah Jahan alone lives on in the imagination — a pop cultural icon for every generation — in a way even his predecessor Akbar the Great does not. The tale of Shah Jahan’s love has fired many storytellers, and now a play, Shah Jahan-o-Mumtaz, merges fiction with recorded data to explore his “ideal” marriage and even suggest that Mumtaz Mahal’s death may not have been natural.
“Shah Jahan’s passion for Mumtaz is as important as his conquests and consolidations. Based on historical documents, we know that Mumtaz was beautiful, shrewd and devoted to her husband. She was instrumental in poisoning Shah Jahan’s brother and rival to the throne, Pervez, and running a well-regulated network of intrigue,” says director M Sayeed Alam of city-based Pierrot’s Troupe. He had first taken up this story, based on London-based author and playwright Dilip Hiro’s script, in the English-language play Tale of the Taj in 2011. Shah Jahan-o-Mumtaz is its Urdu version, transliterated by Alam, and will be staged at Shri Ram Centre on May 23.
“When we staged Tale of the Taj, the audience feedback was that a play on Mughal history should be in a language of the era,” says Alam. Unlike other Pierrot works, especially Ghalib in New Delhi which has been staged more than 350 times since 1999, Tale of the Taj has had only nine shows as Alam began work on the Urdu script. The one-and-a-half-hour play stays true to the Pierrot signature of lavish sets and costumes.
The play recreates Delhi of the 17th century as a cauldron bubbling with schemes, counter-schemes, real and fake deaths, blindings and bloodshed. Against this backdrop, Shah Jahan and a pregnant Mumtaz Mahal indulge in their usual pastime of chess. “One evening, the emperor wagers nothing less than the throne of Agra and loses. Mumtaz was always a better player,” says Alam. The moment she ascends the throne, Mumtaz reveals herself to be a ruthless regent, and Shah Jahan — the king who loved art and architecture — feels his queen needs to be stopped. That night, Mumtaz dies at childbirth. “The play does not scream murder, we juxtapose the suggestion with a parallel storyline that involves folklore and superstition. The play is open-ended and we leave the audience to make its own decisions ,” says Alam.
The play will be staged at Shri Ram Centre on May 23 at 7.30 pm. Tickets are priced between Rs100- 500 and available at booking counter from May 10.
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