By Anwar Akhtar
That was my response when Nicholas Hytner asked, where do we find stories about what is happening in Pakistan and that also affect us in Britain? Where are the Muslim writers that tell their stories and bear witness?
I had just taken part in one of the National Theatre’s platform talks in relation to the play England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. Conversation turned to the stories that link communities in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Britain across religion, culture, history and ancestry.
There then followed a two year journey where the National Theatre director Nadia Fall and writer Tanya Ronder immersed themselves in the events depicted by the play Dara, written by Shahid Nadeem, to make the National Theatre adaptation of the play.
At the play’s core is a power struggle and war between the two sons of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal)—the elder Prince Dara Shikoh and younger Prince Aurangzeb—for the great Mughal throne of India in 1659. It was a war to rule an empire that covered the lands we now call South Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, ruling approximately 150 million people, about a quarter of the then world’s population.
Mughal or Mogul is a corruption of the Persian word for Mongol. The Mughals came from Central Asia, via Afghanistan, and were descended from the all-conquering pair of Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame, aka Tamerlane or Tamburlaine. They were great lovers of Persian arts, which they imported to their Indian Empire, and went on to build an empire that gave birth to a great period of culture. There was magnificent architecture, including the Taj Mahal, Lahore Fort, The Red Fort Delhi, Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens. Literature flourished, including the poetry of Asadullah Ghalib, and Emperor Akbar himself oversaw the production of Razmnama, a Persian translation of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata.
The great Mughal Schools of miniature paintings still influence artists across South Asia today, and of course they championed Calligraphy. The Mughals’ love of the arts has left a living legacy.
The play Dara is about more than a succession war between Mughal princes. It is also about what India was, what it became, and the beginning of Pakistan.
It was perplexing at times to differentiate the immense issues in the play as the adaptation was underway; the tensions that have always existed between personal religious life and state power… Render unto Caesar… Empire’s price and its consequences… Is there any relevance in a story over 350 years old to today’s horrific events in Syria, Iraq and Gaza? Does Dara’s story say anything about arguments today over religion in schools in Britain?
It is a view amongst some historians and writers in South Asia that particular seeds for the later violent partition of Pakistan from India were laid during the events of Dara’s life.
The partition in 1947 led to one of the greatest mass migrations in human history (which included my mother and grandparents) when one of the most violent events of the 20th century took place. India divided on religious grounds, a division that was carried out with a disgraceful lack of responsibility and duty by the British Government’s then Viceroy in India, Lord Mountbatten, as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and Jawaharlal Nehru, president of India, called each other’s bluff in their deadly game of chess.
The break-up of Britain’s Indian empire involved the expulsion of over 12 million people. Over five hundred thousand people were killed, thousands of children disappeared, thousands of women were raped and abducted.
Was the 1947 demand for a separate state for India’s Muslims, led by Jinnah and the Muslim League, also Dara and Aurangzeb’s legacy?
Or is Dara just a play about love, sibling rivalry, family squabbles and a slighted brother’s revenge?
What role did their powerful and competing sisters, Princess Jahanara and Princess Roshnara play in the conflict? Could they have between them prevented the war between their brothers? Or were they also part of the reason for the war?
It speaks volumes to the power of Dara’s story, that like many great history plays, it is about our present, not just our past. Most educated girls or boys in today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will probably know the basic Dara story.
Two Mughal Muslim princes. Dara, the older brother, wanting to rule for all Indians—Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist—as God’s children of equal value, looking to truth, enlightenment and value in all the religions, traditions, cultures and scriptures of India.
Dara was a Sufi – Sufism, the search for spiritual guidance and enlightenment, is the esoteric school of Islam. Sufism involves the view that all religions can offer a way to awareness of God. It is a culture deeply embedded into South Asia across language, poetry, literature, saints, shrines, ritual and religion. Dara was a devout Sufi philosopher immersed into this world.
One could argue that Dara was an enlightened multi-culturalist who championed good communal relations among all faiths.
Until Aurangzeb, Mughal Emperors broadly ruled with peace between Muslims, Hindus and also the newly emerging religion of the Sikhs. Hindus and Sikhs were appointed to high positions in the court and military – wise and fair counsel, given the Hindu population was by far the largest in India. The younger Prince Aurangzeb fiercely opposed this. He was determined to subjugate and enforce his Salafi-leaning religious beliefs over all his subjects and persecute other religions, especially Sikh and Hindu. To him there was only one true religion.
After a long war of attrition, Aurangzeb emerged victorious over Dara through both superior military tactics and political cunning. Dara, heeding his father’s instruction not to kill his brother, seemed to hesitate at key moments in both battle and politics, resisting going for the jugular when events were in his favour. Aurangzeb showed no such hesitation and, after victory, attacked Dara’s Sufi beliefs, seeing him as a heretic.
Aurangzeb had Dara executed and went on to rule over a period of violence, from his victory in 1659 to 1689, with persecution of Hindu and Sikh communities. This period also saw the decline of Mughal power, leading India to disunity.
A weakened nation emerged, susceptible to colonisation by Britain, then a rising industrial empire in the West through its trading subsidiary The East India Company.
The adaptation has a powerful trial scene that debates scripture, religion, state authority, individual freedom and conscience, as Dara faces his accusers in court, overseen by the victorious Aurangzeb’s appointed clerics and judges. Watching the rehearsals, I thought of Joan of Arc facing her accusers, as brilliantly acted by Anne-Marie Duff in the 2007 NT production of Bernard Shaw’s play.
Ajoka Theatre was set up in 1983, led by the renowned actress Madeeha Gauhar and writer Shahid Nadeem. Theirs has been no easy journey, given the antagonism from some powerful groups towards performing arts in Pakistan. Ajoka has become one of Pakistan’s most precious cultural institutions, a depository for the culture, literature, folk tales, heritage and history of the lands, peoples and cultures that make up Pakistan. A great achievement in the face of a year-zero attempt to rewrite and simplify history into a single cultural narrative by sectarian organisations and a powerful military establishment, happy to champion a state-enforced cultural identity.
Ajoka’s repertoire includes Mughal history such as Dara, Bulleh Shah, the story of the Punjabi poet and philosopher, the lives and landscape changed by Partition in Border Border as well as comedy in BURQAVAGANZA and America Chalo.
Their work shows that Pakistan may be a young country, but it is on land with a very old history made up of all the different civilisations, cultures and people that have trodden on it: Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, British, Greek and—older than all of those—the settlements of the Indus valley.
The relevance of Dara’s story for today cannot be overstated.
The love of and beauty of religion for those, like Dara, who see it as a path to justice, piritual and emotional fulfilment.
The need to separate Islam—the religion of love and peace, the religion of Dara, and also my own family, all orthodox practising Muslims—from the corruption of religion by those who seek power, empire, wealth and territory.
This sadly, has always been part of the human experience with the axis between religion, empire and exploitation. It was ever thus. For the power games in South Asia and the Middle East today, we can see some of the religious schisms and tensions of 15th Century Europe with Elizabeth, Walsingham, Drake, Mary and Spain.