By Taha S Siddiqui
People say Lahore is rich with cultural treasures and that if one starts digging into the past, every street, lane and neighbourhood in this city contains in it a whole new chapter of history. And that is exactly what I felt after watching Dara, a play by Ajoka Theatre that has revisited the Lahore Arts Council. Written and directed by Shahid Nadeem, the play is about the power struggle between Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s two sons, the elder Dara Shikoh – the humble prince who is locked in a battle for the throne of India with his younger brother Aurangzeb – the emperor. But the play is not just about a power struggle or a family feud; it is also about the religious ideologies that have clashed in the subcontinent over centuries. It looks deeper into the disputes between the Salafi and Sufi forms of Islam, a fight that continues in this region even today. It is about the extremist mullah ideology that, even today, overshadows the religion of peace – Islam. The play tries to highlight a part of our history long forgotten by current generations. It explores how the course of history may have been altered if Dara Shikoh had ascended to the throne, as per the wishes of Shah Jahan. The play not only has a compelling storyline, but the production is also crisp and uniform. With elements ranging from live musical performances of Amir Khusro’s poetry to beautifully choreographed dances, there is theatrical perfection in every scene. As the scenes change, the audience is treated to a performance by colorfully dressed dancers, and the sounds of qawaalis echoes across the auditorium, mesmerizing the crowd. The main characters of the play include Shah Jahan’s four offspring – Aurangzaib, Dara Shikoh, and their two sisters – one lives with the emperor Aurangzaib, and Badshah Begum, who lives with her father in Agra where he has been sent by Aurangzeb to live out his last days. Finally, there is Hazrat Sarmad, a saint that walks the streets half naked, who is a close associate of Dara. The play captures the essence of the power struggle between the two brothers on an ideological basis. Aurangzaib is shown as the fanatic Islamist who wants to impose his strict interpretation of Shariah on the subcontinent, whereas Dara is the benevolent prince who wants to dwell in the hearts of public by bringing about inter-faith harmony. The play focuses on how the mullahs of Aurangzeb’s court were schemers, just like the mullahs of today. There is an ironic similarity between them and the Zia regime where we saw Pakistan being forced once again into an abyss of extremism, the consequences of which still reverberate though our society today. Even 400 years ago, the mullahs succeeded in silencing a man who wanted to spread Islam through peaceful means. Dara Shikoh is beheaded, and his scholaship on the subject of inter-faith harmony is twisted by the mullahs to make him look like someone who advocated blasphemy. Perhaps the best-produced part of the play, this scene features angels flying around the stage with blood-red sheets symbolising what is happening as the prince is beheaded. After the beheading, Shah Jahan receives a gift from Aurangzeb – it is the head of Dara Shikoh. He screams upon looking at it, and cries to God to take away his eyesight. Suddenly, the Taj Mahal, which is projected onto the background in all of Shah Jahan’s scenes, disappears, declaring his blindness to the audience. The projected images, in fact, lend an extra element of ‘place’ to each scene, and are used to beautiful effect throughout the play. Sarmad’s character is also very thought-provoking. His conversations with the people, his poetic interjections, his conversation with the emperor Aurangzeb all have an admirable depth. The striking thing about his character is his half-naked appearance, which is also the cause of his execution. In a discussion with Aurangzeb, Sarmad is asked to justify his clothing and there is a debate about liberation and nudity, which is scripted masterfully. Concise yet hard-hitting, Sarmad defends his appearance and the king, frustrated by his defeat, orders his execution. The critically acclaimed play concluded its three-day run at the Alhamra Arts Council on Sunday.