A powerful emperor rules from Delhi with passion, idealism, big dreams and an iron fist. His virtues become his vices when he announces a spate of measures that break the back of the economy, uproot people of a prosperous country and spiral him down to his tragedy. This is the story of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who ruled in the 14th century. It is also a story that that audiences have found parallels with in real life ever since Girish Karnad wrote Tughlaq in 1964.
Director Abhinav Grover staged an adaptation at Pune’s Jyotshna Bhosale Sabhagruha recently as part of theatre festival Rang Mahotsav, organised by the Maharashtra Cultural Centre. To a packed house, the two-hour-forty-minute play threw questions on several present-day anxieties around religion and politics.
“I was at Drama School of Mumbai (DSM), working for the annual student production as an assistant director in Rakt Kalyan, when we saw how director Sunil Shanbag kept the text of Karnad’s play untouched but gave the performance and presentation a contemporary touch so that the audience could connect to the story. After that, we decided to do Tughlaq as the script is very relevant in today’s time. It talks about complex issues, such as the relation between politics and religion,” says the 27-year-old Mumbai-based Grover.
The play begins with a scene of a newsroom debate, which replaces the chaupal of the original version, to show the power of the media. The emperor’s historic decision to change the currency from silver coin to copper coins finds resonance in the realities of a post-demonetisation country. With a persuasive text and powerful performances, the play kept the audience captivated all through.
Grover kept the lighting and music minimalistic and focused on the text in a realistic and contemporary way. “We decided not to make Tughlaq as a large-scale production as other directors before have presented it with heavy music and grand stages to showcase regal grandeur. As a young theatre group, we have to work with limited resources, so we kept on experimenting with each performance of the play. As we realised that the play became bland without any music after two or three performances, we added a musical touch to it,” says Grover.
It is to make strong theatre that Grover, an engineer, enrolled at DSM for his post-graduation degree. He started a theatre group BeTaal with his classmate Vaishnavi Prashant from DSM in 2016. The young theatre group has produced plays such as Raamji Aayenge, an inter-textual adaptation of Kishkinda Kand, and Waiting for Godot and Mere Abba Mughal-e-Azam, among others.
“I didn’t have any interest in engineering, and there were many like me. We did a lot of theatre during our college days. We took part in many stage plays, and street plays during that time. When I went to Delhi during my vacation, I worked with Arvind Gaur and Arvind Chaudhary. It made my resolution stronger to shift from engineering to theatre. My friend Vaishnavi also has a similar story. That’s how we started our theatre group BeTaal,” says Grover.
How does the group cope with the pressure to perform a classic text on stage? “As a new group, we have an edge as we can experiment. Our choice to not make Tughlaq grand gave us a lot of confidence,” says Prashant.
Grover is optimistic about the future of theatre as he believes that people will need more human connection as they will get bored from the OTT platform. Prashant adds that they would like to watch plays live rather than on OTT platforms. She expresses her concern over the financial aspect of theatre. In the past, artistes used to do theatre as a hobby while they had other jobs to earn their bread and butter. She argues that new artists approach theatre as passion and profession. So, they want to figure out a way to make money through it, which is very difficult.
When it comes to theatre’s impact on the society, Grover believes that its job is to hold a mirror to the society. “Theatre is not just an art form for entertainment, nor is it some form of activism. It’s somewhere in-between. Theatre can’t bring about a revolution but its job is to ask serious questions,” he says.