Home » Emperor

Who’s afraid of Dara Shikoh’s ghost?

Raza Rumi (published in TFT this week)

Madeeha Gauhar
Prince Dara at the feet of his
Sufi saint
Emperor Aurangzeb
Dara Shikoh
Dara reading the Upanishads with Hindu priests
Maulana Maududi
To present a play on a prince who argued – with reason and reference – that there was little difference between the Upanishads and the tenets of mystical Islam is no ordinary feat. After all, this is a country where powerful forces within the state and society are hell bent on turning the Land of the Pure into a haven for cultural fascism
The Ahmedis are hounded on a regular basis, the Shias are being murdered and even the Barelvi majority feels unsafe given the high profile murders of their leadership
The propagation of Islam in the subcontinent was the handiwork of the Sufis who showed the path to a large number of people through the message of tolerance, harmony and reconciliation. Recognising the roots of our indigenous cultures is now the only weapon that Pakistan’s intelligentsia possesses

It is now a given that the Pakistani state is a playground for Islamism and extremism under various guises and forms. Since the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949, the state by design and sometimes by default has surrendered to the phantoms of the orthodox Islamic interpretation of the world. It is true that religion was central to the sloganeering for Pakistan, but the post-1947 architecture of the Pakistani state was meant to be secular and democratic. Whatever the proponents and apologists of a jihadi state might have to say, Jinnah’s words and deeds were clear. Iqbal’s vision, inspired by Islamic philosophy and strands of mystical thought, was also clearly anti-Mullah.

This was hardly surprising, as a majority of Indian Muslims, not unlike South Asians of today, were averse to orthodoxy. From the Bhakti movement to folk and Sufi traditions, mullahs and pundits have not enjoyed popular legitimacy, as their alliance with power was resented and rejected by the populace. It is also well known that Mr Maududi and his ilk were bitterly opposed to Pakistan and accused the Muslim League leadership of being un-Islamic. Even stranger is the fact that this essential truth is rarely discussed in the public domain, and excessive coverage and importance given to the orthodox champions of Pakistani nationalism in the media and in textbooks, betrays how the age-old nexus between Pakistani monarchs and the Mullahs has survived the test of time.

Ajoka theatre based in Lahore has been attempting to challenge the status quo. Its plays rooted in the folk and street traditions of the subcontinent have raised political themes and placed political mobilisation at the centre of any discussion for social change. Recently, its play Dara Shikoh was staged in Lahore, and this marked a watershed in our cultural and political landscape. Dara Shikoh, the elder son of Emperor Shahjehan, despite his brutal murder at the hands of his Mullahesque brother Aurangzeb, continues to represent a fault line that runs through the past and the present of South Asia, especially in Pakistan.

To present a play on a prince who argued – with reason and reference – that there was little difference between the Upanishads and the tenets of mystical Islam, is not an ordinary feat in a country where powerful forces within the state and society are hell-bent on turning the Land of the Pure into a haven for cultural fascism. Above all, Dara’s stiff resistance to a militant version of Islam and its exclusionary theological constructs is perhaps most relevant in these times.

However, Ajoka’s effort to take the play to our culturally desertified and politically bankrupt Islamabad, for a presentation at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), has been thwarted by officialdom, as it challenges the state complexion and orientation. One wishes that such a comment were merely speculation, but it seems that there is enough evidence to suggest that a female MNA from the Jamaat-e-Islami wrote to the PNCA earlier. Apparently, she believed that Ajoka was guilty of making fun of Islamic values and represented a threat to the republic of the believers and munafaqeen alike.

How ironic that this is no different from the late 1970s when a senior bureaucrat, now a media personality and scholar (of sorts), authored an article where General Zia ul Haq was compared to the austere and God-fearing Aurangzeb, and Dara was portrayed as a precursor to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The maverick civil servant argued that in the clash of ideology, Zia’s coup was symbolic of religious power. Pakistan suffered from Zia’s assumed divine right to rule in the name of Islam for eleven long years, during which intolerance, bigotry, sectarianism and dictatorship shook the foundations of this country. Intellectual voices and activist groups such as Ajoka have to constantly contend with Zia’s legacy, and the wily servants of the state are always eager to provide legitimacy to retrogression.

Ajoka’s earlier play Burqvaganza explored another explosive subject, that of purdah, and its literal interpretation at the expense of the metaphorical and spiritual meaning. The female MNA referred to above, who also happens to be the daughter of the former Amir of the Jamaat, even raised the issue in the National Assembly and protested that Ajoka’s legitimate questions about the burqa were tantamount to demeaning Islam. History and politics move in cycles, and this outcry in the Parliament was not different from the earlier assaults on the secular vision of Pakistan. All our rulers, except perhaps Ayub Khan, pandered to the orthodox lobby. Under General Zia ul Haq, Islamisation became an official policy and its instruments the un-uniformed part of the national security apparatus.

A small theatre group therefore is pitted against far larger forces of orthodoxy and regressive medievalism. This is shameful, given that an elected government is ruling Pakistan, and the ruling party has been hostile to the ideology of Zia ul Haq. But Zia seems to be alive as much as his nemesis Bhutto. Whilst the jiyalas may chant zinda hai Bhutto, the institutions are pretty smug and happy to articulate zinda hai Zia. Small wonder that JI, whose lack of electoral worth has time and again been exposed, has the audacity to become a guardian of our faith and nationalism.

When Ajoka’s executive director Madeeha Gauhar called the other day to share the recent phase of her ‘struggle’ in the democratic era, she was obviously disturbed. And given her penchant for speaking the truth she was also not too charitable about the Mullah brigade. While she was talking on the phone, her voice faded and a recording of a Hamd (a eulogy for the Almighty) emerged from nowhere. This was amusing, yet quite unnerving. Our Constitution and laws prohibit anyone to monitor citizens’ expression and speech in the public and private spheres. And, to experience this intrusion was not pleasant at all.

Interestingly, the minions of Big Brother played a popular Hamd, that begins with the verse Koi tau haye jo nizam-e-hasti challa raha haye. Muzaffar Warsi, who apparently was Zia ul Haq’s favourite poet, had composed these verses. In view of his special place in the Zia kingdom, he was accorded with various state honours and also a cushy state job. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan later rendered this piece in his magical voice.

I clearly remember a discussion that took place in the presence of the late Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, a twentieth century literary giant. Many senior poets critiqued this Hamd for being a problematic hymn for God Almighty, since it did not express absolute belief in God but worked through an inference: there must be Someone who was managing the universe! Thus the element of doubt marred a believer’s chant in praise of his Creator.

More importantly, the bugged phone line sent a clear message: that la-deen (irreligious as secularism is understood by the clerics) Madeeha Gauhar had to be ‘censored’ even in a private conversation, and reminded that there is a God. And, the chosen, self-appointed representatives were managing the show in His name.

This is not limited to the minions of the state apparatus. Such attitudes are now embedded in our curricula, modes of instruction, thousands of madrassas and more dangerously, elements of the media who were trying to convince us of the glories of the Taliban until the Pakistan Army valiantly took on the miscreants.

A journey that commenced with the Right’s struggle to capture political space in the 1940s, and with the state’s cynical support, has culminated in capitulation to such forces. The gradual erosion of Jinnah’s Pakistan has also led to the ascendancy of all that Pakistan was not supposed to represent. The Ahmedis are hounded on a regular basis, the Shias are being murdered, and even the Barelvi majority feels unsafe given the high-profile murders of their leadership. What we have is a curious mix of a Wahabi-Salafi variant of Islamism with several local offshoots, which are not averse to using violence and butchery as weapons.

The propagation of Islam in the subcontinent was the handiwork of Sufis and sages who showed the path to a large number of people through the message of tolerance, harmony and reconciliation. Violence simply did not deliver in this part of the Islamic world.

This is why recognising the roots of our indigenous cultures is important. It is now the only weapon that Pakistan’s intelligentsia possesses. To encourage the airing of alternative messages and interpretations such as Dara’s worldview, and challenging the burqa’s form […]

Ajoka’s new play on “Dara Shikoh”

It is absolutely a significant cultural landmark in Pakistan. Ajoka has decided to stage a play on a personality that has been neglected by India and Pakistan. His views and role in history challenges the myths of Indian and Pakistani nationalism and confronts religious militancy rampant in the two countries. Had Dara – the visionary, sage and believer in humanism – lived, we may have avoided blood, carnage and violence that defines South Asia of today. Those interested to explore the hidden history, removed from textbook propaganda must watch this play. The venue and timings can be found at the end of this post. Now the formal introduction to the play:

Dara – A play on the life and times of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh

Ajoka’s new play “Dara” is about the less-known but extremely dramatic and moving story of Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Emperor Shahjahan, who was imprisoned and executed by his younger brother Aurangzeb. Dara was not only a crown prince but also a poet, a painter and a Sufi. He wanted to build on the vision of Akbar the Great and bring the ruling Muslim elite closer to the local religions. His search for the Truth and shared teachings of all major religions is reflected in his scholarly works such as Sakeena-tul-Aulia, Safina-tul-Aulia and Majma-ul-Bahrain. The play also explores the existential conflict between Dara the crown prince, and Dara the Sufi and the poet. […]

Sultana Begum, the great grand daughter-in law of last Mughal emperor

Jahane Rumi is grateful to Shivnath Jha for this contribution..

Stiching words together to restore glory to the lives lost in oblivion may not be an easy task.
But eminent journalist Shivnath Jha and wife Neena have successfully launched the ‘Andolan Ek Pustak Se’ movement in 2007 to help those who did the country proud in the past. […]

May 11th, 2009|History, India, India-Pakistan History|41 Comments

Why Jodhaa Akbar is a disappointment?

The challenge of translating a historical era into a cinematic endeavour is daunting, especially when it concerns historically contested subjects such as the fabled love between 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jodha Bai, the legendary princess from Rajputana who later ruled India as Empress and symbolised the Hindu-Muslim accord of the times. However, it is not historical accuracy, or lack thereof, which defines the rather exasperating cinematic narrative of an otherwise glorious period of the subcontinent’s history. It is the facile treatment of history, its interpretative variants and its actors that makes the Bollywood film Jodhaa-Akbar a disappointment.

Akbar’s reign symbolised the zenith of the Mughal Empire and also some of its unique attributes. Whether it was the secular, tolerant governance based on the Sulah-i-Kul (peace with all) policy, opening up the frontiers of theological discussion, effective administrative systems or promotion of Indo-Mughal art forms, Akbar was a pioneer in most respects.

Jodhaa-Akbar attempts to capture the essence of that particular moment: the Indianisaton of the Mughal court and most importantly, the royal household. Whether it is to do with the grafting of a temple within the Agra fort or the introduction of vegetarian meals, these were significant markers for centuries to come, enabling a tiny Muslim minority to rule the non-Muslim majority. But the film fails to handle this momentous phase of history appropriately and instead churns out a masala mix that, despite the massive budget, results in mediocre film-making.

This is not to say that the film is without merit. It is visually stunning in places and A R Rehman’s music is outstanding. The two stars Ashwariya Rai and Hrithik Roshan provide glamour and unreal beauty. The settings are competently improvised and yes, the feel of the whole cinematic experience does convey the cliched Mughal aura of splendour, excess and a hybrid aesthetic. Rai and Roshan exude that enigmatic chemistry which makes them an attractive pair on screen.

But it is the treatment of the subject, characters and nuances that disappoints, especially when one remembers director/producer Ashutosh Gowariker’s earthy and under-your-skin rendition in Swades . In the pursuit of commercial success, Ashutosh relies on soft plagiarism. The battle scenes remind one of the Hollywood blockbuster Troy; the inanimate army contingents resemble those in Gladiator; and the sword fighting sequences re-enact the visual tricks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . But these are all still pardonable. […]

The other side of Emperor Babar

Babar, the founder of Mughal dynasty in India was an unusual character of his times. A poet, writer and a free soul, he was so modern and some would say post-modern in an era otherwise categorised as medieval. I was delighted to find this piece authored by Ashfaque Naqvi.

An interesting book has landed at my table. As the title, Zaheeruddin Muhammad Babar, is about the person who laid the foundations of the Mughal Empire in the sub-continent. Written by the eminent Indian educationist, Qamar Rais, it gives a different picture of the man from what we gather about him from his self-written, Tozak-i-Babri…..

As Prof Qamar Rais says in the foreword, he had for long been studying the works of Ali Sher Nawai and such other classical poets of Uzbekistan but realized during his stay in that country that those people revered Babar more for being an intellectual and a lyrical poet. In fact, even during the Soviet era, he saw Babar’s pictures hung in most homes showing him holding a book and sunk in deep thought. As a consequence, he directed his studies in that field.

… even today, Babar is held in esteem and considered a hero both in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. He even quotes Pandit Nehru as having said that the greatness of Babar lay not in capturing India but in capturing the hearts of Indians. […]

Sahir Ludhianvi’s Taj Mahal


Sahir Ludhianvi’s immortal poem Taj Mahal has always fascinated me. It takes a most unconventional take at this beautiful monument where the poet protests at the choice of a romantic rendezvous.

Today, I found a lovely translation of this poem. I am reproducing it […]

Fate Of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Descendants

I had recently posted a few verses from the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Read this story by Indscribe that spells a heart wrenching denouement to the dazzling Mughal Empire.

Full entry here >>

April 20th, 2007|History, India-Pakistan History|14 Comments