Interview with famous Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem

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Riyaz Wani

Your play Dara on the Sufi crown prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, has been staged at the National Theatre in London. Tell us about the response it got.

Dara at the National Theatre has been a smashing success both with the critics and the audience. The play got an overwhelming media coverage with excellent reviews in The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Express, The Mail, The Observer, Times and also on BBC Radio and TV and Channel 4 as well as theatre magazines. There was also good coverage in Pakistan- and India-based papers. The shows were sold out from the opening in January 2015 through to the last shows in early April.

One significant feature of the staging was the unprecedented number of South Asian audiences at the National Theatre, which is known to be an exclusive White domain. There were several panel discussions about the story of Dara and its contemporary significance. The original Dara (Urdu/ Hindustani) has been performed by Ajoka Theatre throughout Pakistan and quite widely in India as well. We have performed in Delhi, Amritsar, Lucknow, Jaipur and Hyderabad. The response everywhere has been excellent.

Dara dramatises the historic battle for the control of Mughal empire between Dara Shikoh and his Sharia-favouring brother Aurangzeb. The play is thus pitched as one of the first major historical clashes between Salafi and Sufi strains of Islam, which relates it intimately to the ongoing ideological battles in the Muslim world.

Indeed, Dara-Aurangzeb conflict has a very strong contemporary relevance. Until recently, Aurangzeb was projected as the ideal Muslim ruler in Pakistan while Dara was dismissed as a heretic and relegated to a footnote in historical accounts. The struggle between an intolerant and violent Salafist interpretation of Islam and an inclusive, peaceful and loving Sufi interpretation is raging in Pakistan and most of the Muslim world. The media in the region and the West tends to portray Muslim fundamentalists as a dominant force in the Muslim world. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of Muslims detests this version of Islam and practice and prefers Sufi Islam. There is a need to support this popular and peaceful interpretation of Islam. Violent extremism cannot be defeated by foreign invasions and Islamophobic propaganda assaults. Muslim majority has to speak up forcefully and challenge the minority which uses the name of Islam for diabolical actions such as the 9/11 attacks and the IS (Islamic State) crimes in Iraq and Syria.

The play revolves around the trial of Dara Shikoh by Aurangzeb that pits their respective versions of Islam against each other.

The trial of Dara Shikoh on charges of blasphemy and apostasy was a deplorable example of the use of Islam for opportunistic political objectives. Aurangzeb got rid of Dara using Islam. Zia-ul-Haq got rid of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on similar grounds. Pakistani governor Salman Taseer was killed by a fanatic guard because of trumped up blasphemy accusations. The trial scene provides an opportunity to put the arguments for or against the two versions of Islam against each other and hence has become the pivotal scene in the play. It was the most talked about scene at the National Theatre. There were some sensitive references relating to the sayings of the Holy Prophet, the rising Sikh religion and the Sufi aversion to rituals and exploitation in the name of Islam. There were concerns that the Muslim members of the audience might feel uneasy about these issues being debated on the stage but fortunately the discussions were very well-received and the British Muslims of South Asian origin felt proud that a story from India and a play from Pakistan are receiving such appreciation in Britain.

You trace the seeds of the Partition of India to the ideological conflict between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb during which Hindu- Muslim relations in India took a significant turn. So, speaking counterfactually, if Dara had triumphed and taken over as the Mughal emperor, do you visualise Partition may not have happened?

What would have been the course of Indian history if Dara had won the war of succession? This fascinating question has been the inspiration for writing the play. One thing is certain. With Dara’s victory, the gulf between Muslims and other faiths would have been reduced considerable and sectarianism within Islam would not have become such an issue. Emperor Akbar’s vision of an inclusive and eclectic version of Islam would have been strengthened. Possibly, Indian Muslims would not have been made insecure by a resurgent Hindu leadership and not exploited by opportunistic Muslim leaders. They could find security and equal opportunity within the fold of a greater India. Yes, we can say that, in a way, seeds of Partition were sown when Aurangzeb triumphed over Dara Shikoh.

The play, in many ways, addresses the ongoing crisis in the Muslim world. As you mentioned in an earlier interview, the play is as much about contemporary debate in the Muslim world as it is about events of 300 years ago.

As I have said earlier, the play has strong contemporary relevance but we don’t stress this very crudely. In fact, the audience makes the connection themselves (the audiences like to do that on their own rather than be spoonfed). The way they applaud Dara and his mentor Sarmad (the naked mystic, buried on the steps of Jama Masjid in Delhi after he was beheaded on Aurangzeb’s orders) and show their appreciation by prolonged standing ovations is very inspirational. Dara-Aurangzeb struggle is still on and has caused great damage to the Muslims and the region.

In recent times, Dara Shikoh with his inclusive intellectual outlook has emerged as a fascinating historical figure in India. You say your play is an attempt to resurrect him for the present and “to reclaim our heroes”.

Dara is the real hero. He has to be reclaimed by all Muslims, especially the Pakistani Muslims. The Aurangzebisation of Pakistan has wrecked the country. The Pakistani establishment and its ideology are a legacy of Aurangzeb while the masses are much closer to the Sufi Islam of Dara Shikoh. Dara, the scholar prince, the artist, the poet, the expert of comparative religion, the translator of the Upanishads and the writer of the Mingling of the Two Oceans (i.e.. Islam and Hinduism) represents the true spirit of South Asian Islam. He is very much a part of our present.

How was it like to adapt the play to Western audience, which has now gotten used to a certain stereotype of Islam and to play this three-centuries-old Sufi-Salafi conflict from Mughal history before them?

Adaptations are always a challenge, especially when they are cross-cultural. The British audiences obviously were mostly unfamiliar with Mughal Indian history and the debate between Sufi and Salafist Islam. Tanya Ronder, who adapted my play into English, worked hard and handled complex and sensitive matters very well. She along with director Nadia Fall visited Pakistan and India to get the feel of the story. Some adjustments had to be made to reach out to the average National Theatre audience. Some scenes were expanded, some were cut down. I was disappointed to see Sarmad’s character reduced in view of the white British audience sensibilities and English theatre traditions. But in the end we had a play which was well-received and understood by the mainstream British and South Asian audiences.

And how was the play received in Pakistan, where, for a significant section of the population, Aurangzeb is an icon.

We have been performing the play since 2010. Initially, the government-controlled Pakistan National Council of the Arts refused to permit the staging of the play but after a Senate Culture Committee ruling and pressure from the media, they relented. The audiences are very much a part of the play. They respond as and when they feel like showing their appreciation. They don’t wait for the end. Sometimes we have to wait for a couple of minutes for the (appreciative) noise to die down until we can resume. Recently, we staged Dara in Karachi and Lahore and there was an emotionally-charged response. Aurangzeb had beheaded Dara and got him buried secretly in an unmarked grave. But through Dara, we have literally resurrected and reclaimed the Indian Muslim icon. Dara has to prevail for the sake of the moderate and true Islam and to fulfil Sarmad’s prophecy that “Dara will be the King”.

Riyaz Wani, ” ‘Seeds of Partition were sown when Aurangzeb triumphed over Dara Shikoh’,” in Tehelka, May 2, 2015. Accessed on May 2, 2015, at:

The item above written by Riyaz Wani and published in Tehelka on May 2, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 2, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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