In his introduction to his play Tughlaq, recently re-published in a new format, Girish Karnad writes, “Muhammad Tughlaq was one of the most brilliant sultans to ascend the throne of Delhi and one of its most spectacular failures as well.”
|Girish Karnad hasn’t quite managed to overcome the pattern of ‘court plays’ as his characters remain one-dimensional figures and Tughlaq is not fascinating
Looking for a subject for his second play, Karnad came across remarks made by a Kannada critic who said that no one had “made the effort to take up an historical event and explore it for the new layers of truth that it could reveal (about our contemporary political and social experience)…It is regrettable that not a single play of the calibre of Saint Joan or Caesar and Cleopatra has yet appeared in Kannada.”
So Karnad read whatever Indian history he could, starting with Mohenjodaro, and when he reached the 14th century he “came to a halt” in the reign of Tughlaq, because he knew he “had hit gold”. The man had many dimensions: he was a brilliant
calligraphist and mystic. He was a scholar, well-versed in Islamic theology and Greek philosophy. He was poetic, imaginative, and also unbelievably
barbarous. The reforms he introduced in his administration showed how deeply he had thought of economic and financial problems. Again, instead of kowtowing to the religious leaders for their support in keeping his subjects under control as most medieval rulers had done, he had repeatedly confronted them.”
The problem about writing “court plays” in India is that a pattern tends to impose itself. Inevitably, there is the scheming step-mother, the treacherous friend, courtiers who spend their time in intrigues of various sorts, and so on. It’s all entirely predictable. I’m not sure Karnad has managed to overcome these stereotypes.
They remain one-dimensional figures. Nor does Tughlaq himself emerge as the fascinating character Karnad describes in his introduction. Tughlaq announces his plans one by one, in a steady, stodgy progression: equality for Hindus and Muslims, freedom to criticize him, moving the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, introducing copper currency and so forth.
Perhaps, as Karnad seems to have been at Oxford at the same time that plays such as Look Back in Anger were produced, he should have read Kenneth Tynan on the subject of writing drama, instead of being dismissive about what was happening in British theatre.
Tynan writes, in 1957, “Would you know the shortest way to bad playwriting? I will tell you. It is to begin with a great theme, a Grand Purpose, in the hope that it will throw forth, of its own essential energy, such desirable by-products as character and dialogue… Useless, of course, to point out that the genesis of good plays is hardly ever abstract; that it tends, on the contrary, to be something as concrete and casual as a glance intercepted, a remark overheard, or an insignificant news item buried at the bottom of page three… Would you know the shortest way to good playwriting? Pause on the stairs.”
There’s a smugness in Karnad’s introduction which, though not unexpected in writers who see themselves as “bhasha” writers, which I find faintly nauseating. Karnad writes that he was looking for some source of inspiration in British drama.
“I was duly let down…I was depressed that the liberation from the Shavian drawin room, which I had gathered had been initiated by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, had meant only a substitution of the lower middle-class interior for the upper-class drawing room… Given the English weather, it was perhaps logical that so much should happen only indoors, but I had spent my childhood in Sirsi, a small town with no electricity, in the heart of the thick jungles of the Western Ghats, where you could run into a dramatic event at any street corner or in an open field at any moment.”
Fair enough. But then why choose to go to Oxford?
Foxtrot’s a good blast from the past
In your column ‘Tajmahal Foxtrot’ (PM, May 31), Eunice de Souza gave a lovely review of Naresh Fernandes’ book. This is one of the few times that I have read the book that Eunice talks about and I found my self agreeing to what she said.
If you’re looking for a racy novel that you won’t be able to put down, this is not your book, but then Tajmahal Foxtrot doesn’t read like a history textbook either. It’s well-researched and a real pleasure to go through, taking you back to a time where Bombay was indeed a place to experiment and grow, than what it has become today
- Melanie D’Souza