Empress Nur Jahan has been hailed as a powerful personality with many historians referring to her as “the real influence behind Jahangir’s throne”. She was a shrewd administrator, a beautiful empress, an art connoisseur, and Mughal emperor Jahangir’s consort as well as favourite wife.
Through his play Noor, theatre director Feisal Alkazi of Ruchika Theatre Group forays into the life and times of this dynamic figure who wielded enormous political influence in an era of entrenched patriarchy. “Noor intrigued me. Who was this woman who rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a brutal first marriage?,” writes Alkazi in the concept note of Noor, which is also the first play written by him—it took him 12 years to write it. The play was performed in English in the city for the first time at the India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Estate, on Sunday afternoon.
A classic tale of power
Set in India during the early 1600s, Noor has explored crucial questions related to matters of family, gender, power, and love in the Mughal era. A suitably-designed set depicting architectural features of the time—arch-shaped doorways, delicate ornamentation with motifs, marble lattices—brought to life the aura of the Empire quite convincingly. Conscious use of colours through lighting further enhanced the complicated set of emotions that were explored on stage.
Alkazi has focused on the plot of Noor through the lens of Nazakat Khan (played by Sanjiv Desai), a eunuch who serves as the narrator. Desai’s strong stage presence and commendable timing makes this character almost like a companion to the audience. Alkazi treats Nazakat with dignity, devoid of any elements of caricature. Every once in a while, the focus of attention would move from matters of the throne only to put Nazakat’s character at the centre, as though delving into the psyche and problems of the eunuch community.
Focus on alternate history
The plot traverses through the rocky relationship of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, which is ensnared in dilemmas of power, masculinity, and religion. However, at the heart of this 140-minute-long play are the female figures of the Mughal empire; Nur Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal (Shah Jahan’s second wife), and Ruqayya Sultan Begum (Akbar’s first wife). For the first time, we see these women as humans, with lives of their own and not just in context of the men they were associated with.
Noor (played by Radhika Alkazi) is a daughter of political refugees. Oppressed and maltreated by her first husband (Sher Afgan Khan played by Ritvik Mohann Bhagat), we are exposed to her identity beyond a subjugated woman. She is a decision maker and a headstrong leader. On the other side is Mumtaz (played by Smita Mazumdar Rajaram), vivacious and lively, whose innate rightness dominates her persona. As much as the play follows events of history with accuracy, it also makes it a point to explore the ‘grey’ facets of these characters’ personalities. Both Rajaram and Alkazi do a fine job in letting the audience understand the characters in depth.
By all means, Noor is a timeless take on society. “We know the names Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, but know nothing beyond that. Even though it is set in that time, [Noor] is a contemporary story, there are many parallels that one can build with the present situation,” shared Alkazi.
Vedant Sharma (18), who was there to watch the play, concluded, “This is the first time I have watched a play in English. It was a good experience. I wanted to watch it because Alkazi sahab has directed the play. I really liked the sutradhar [narrator] and the English man also left an impact on me.”