Art & Culture

Inside Track: Would Dara Shikoh have changed the course of Indian history?

Rajiv 'Bobby' Saigal
Rajiv 'Bobby' SaigalApr 26, 2015 | 09:45

Inside Track: Would Dara Shikoh have changed the course of Indian history?

I recently watched Dara, an adaptation of a Pakistani playwright's script at the National Theatre in London, about two brothers, one murders the other and goes on to become emperor Aurangzeb of India. The heir apparent to the Mughal throne, the older brother, "Dara Shikoh", hardly remembered in Indian history was a unique and marvellous personality among the Mughal royal family.

I couldn't help being captivated by his beliefs and revisit his life. Dara had a mystical turn of mind and loved the company of Sufis, mystics and Hindu mendicants. He was deeply interested in comparative religions, universal brotherhood, humanism and peace between Hinduism and Islam and the fusion of different religions, cultures or philosophies. Dara's mind was influenced by Akbar and Humayun and he spent his early years in studies and came out with an extremely remarkable book known as Majma-ul Bahrain, or the mingling of the Two Oceans. It was a pioneering attempt to find out the commonalities between Sufism and Hindu monotheism. Dara believed that the "great secret" of the Upanishads is the monotheistic message, which is identical to that on which the Quran is based. He had the 50 Upanishads translated from Sanskrit to Persian, but was a true Muslim who prayed regularly and chanted Allahs' name.

The play, Dara, was written by Nadeem Akhtar from Pakistan, adapted by Tanya Ronder, directed by Nadia Fall and was the brainchild of the director of the National Theatre Nick Hytner.

The play therefore had an awful lot of ground to cover in two-and-a-half hours, history, religious arguments, romances including a scene between Aurangzeb and his Hindu lover "Hirabai". The play grapples with disputes between the strict and puritanical approach to Islam (Salafi) and the Sufi forms and explores the extremist mullah ideology. The play does not shy away from the issues of ISIS, Lashkar-E-Taiba and other such extreme organisations currently overshadowing much of the Arab and Asian Muslim world. The action in the play flits between eras. As Shah Jahan falls ill, a power struggle ensues between the sons and the play opens with a scene where "Dara" is on the run after losing to Aurangzeb at Samugarh in 1658. He seeks refuge under Malik Jiwan an Afghan chieftain, whose life he had saved more than once, from the wrath of Shah Jahan (Dara's had lost in Samugarh because he inadvertently descends from his elephant's howdah during battle. The elephant flees and Dara's troops mistook that for his death and surrendered to Aurangzeb).

Dara is brought to Delhi, placed on a filthy, sick elephant and paraded through the streets of the capital in chains. His fate is then decided by the political threat he poses as a prince popular with the common people – a convocation of nobles and clergy, is then called by Aurangzeb in response to the perceived danger of insurrection in Delhi. Dara is declared a threat to the public peace and an apostate, or one who had renounced Islam.

The central and finest act in the play is "the sham trial". Dara is tried for and sentenced for apostasy, due to his beliefs and writings, in a Sharia court. He gives a hugely passionate and compassionate speech on why all religions are but paths to god: "Who cares which door you open to come into the light?" With eyes flashing, Dara preaches tolerance, love and understanding of our shared humanity. It is an invigorating scene and a wonderful message. Dara is imprisoned and is then assassinated by four of Aurangzeb's henchmen in front of his terrified son, on the night of August 30, 1659. His severed head is served on a platter to Emperor Shah Jahan, who is in prison along with his daughter Jahanara Begum. Aurangzeb went on to rule from 1659 to 1707, a period of violence and division in India, which led to the decline of the Mughal empire.

The play's script doesn't deal with this enough and it ends on a rather disappointing and abrupt note. Good direction, plush costumes and live music with brilliant lighting and sets design of slick "jaali" screens conceal and reveal the space and characters, the corners of marble arches typical of Mughal architecture allow for rapid scene changes and move the play at a fast pace - credit goes to the National Theatre for attempting this play and trying to depict a story from India and Pakistan. Was this the big turning point in India's history? The Mughal empire had thrived, in part, thanks to its acceptance of its colonised peoples' varied religions. What if Dara had become emperor instead of his fundamentalist brother Aurangzeb? Would a Sufi form of Islam have spread over India with the view that all religions can offer a way to the awareness of God? Would Hindus be learning the Gita and the Quran, and Muslims appreciate the concept that one universal God precedes there arrival here?

If the Mughal empire had remained, would India have been colonised by the British? If Aurangzeb was not revered in Pakistan would the Taliban or Lashkar be less relevant? Would there have been no partition between India and Pakistan had the leaders representing India in discussions with the British been grassroot politicians instead of lawyers whose focus was on winning briefs? Would grassroot politicians have focussed more on the aspirations of the people rather than of those educated in Western ways, which the British felt more comfortable with?

Would India and Pakistan be divided on religious grounds?

Last updated: April 26, 2015 | 09:45
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