The second of Girish Karnad's plays Tughlaq, intended as an allegory of sorts of the Nehruvian era and of the decline and disillusionment of India's first Prime Minister, has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the decades since it was first staged in 1969. Directed by B Chandrashekar or BC and powered by C R Simha's lead role, the production did not see more than three shows because keeping the huge cast together proved too big a challenge. Later, in the early seventies, Simha and his friends put together a smaller troupe
Nataranga and took up the play once more, with many variations. Whether the character of Tughlaq seeped into him or the character was affected by the actor's mannerisms, Simha and the 14th century Sultan became synonymous over the next two-and-a-half decades.
Previewing at Samprati, Ranga Shankara's annual theatre festival in 2013, Samudaya revived the play and has now completed 23 shows. At a discussion recently about this production at Suchitra Cinema and Cultural Academy, it was hardly surprising that the history of the play was retraced, and the present production pitted against the past. But it was also filled with a sense of nostalgia since artistes who were part of earlier productions and reviewers of yore shared experiences, sometimes volunteering dialogues feelingly, especially those of a cynical Tughlaq as he speaks of his youth to a 19-year-old guard at his Daulatabad fort:
"Nineteen...An age when you think you can clasp the whole world in your palm like a rare diamond. I was 21 when I came to Daulatabad first and built this fort...Another 20 years and you'll be as old as me. I might be lying under the woods there by then. Do you think you'll remember me then?" Yes, there was a longing for the seventies, 'the era of various movements' as someone called it.
Yet there was room for a constructive, if not a linear, discussion of the play. If theatre critic M K Baskar Rao chose to retrace the journey of Karnad's masterpiece from C R Simha's production, the other panelist, writer and theatre actor-director Mounesh Badiger gave a fresh perspective as he hadn't seen any of the others.
“I’ve watched four or five shows with Simha in the lead. In the last of them, he
was getting on in years and his body movements couldn’t match his enthusiasm,” he recalled. But he went on to say that the actor’s mannerisms overshadowed the character, and some serious dialogues were delivered with too much levity.
Tughlaq tells the Amirs in his court in one instance, “ You all are silent. The others only tell me what I should not do but not what I should.” He added, “There’s a sense of pathos in it, but the audience would start laughing (in Simha’s production), perhaps because of his delivery,” and commended Samudaya’s cast for the absence of such blunders.
Mounesh talked mainly of the sets and the music. “The chess board set, in the middle of the stage, limits the movement and the scope of the play and restricts visual flow,” he said. Even the music, according to him, especially Tibetan bells that play as background score while Tughlaq is planning chess moves, literally and metaphorically, and the masked figures dressed in black and green that symbolise Tughlaq’s mind, are misleading and distracting.
While some others present concurred with him, Venkatesh Prasad, who play’s Tughlaq in this production, proposed that, perhaps director Samkutty Pattomkari and co-director Sripad Bhat wanted to limit that effect.
“When we started rehearsing, the director told us that the play would be called Tughlaq: The Game,” he said. He also recounted how, after they decided on this play, members of the group had gone to visit the ailing Simha. “He went back to the old times and started going over the lines once more. There was so much enthusiasm, and he said he’d come for a show too, but that wasn’t to be.”
For someone who has not seen earlier productions of the play, it’s impossible not to feel its impact, acknowledge its effectiveness. There are moments of complete absorption and silence interspersed with lighter scenes where Siddharth plays Aziz — Tughlaq’s foil who takes on other guises.
The sound, especially the litany of Allah Ho Akbar that often plays in the background stays with you. Though a little long (two hours), it’s not a play that will bore you.