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Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.

A 17th-century tale of what India was and what it became

The oft-forgotten Dara Shikoh.

Dara Shikoh barely received a footnote in our school textbooks. Eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, his mention was only to bring out the ruthlessness of his brother, and Shah Jahan's successor, Aurangzeb. The poet prince — being a king is easy, try going and discovering poverty — against the pragmatist, the religious bigot against the secular: Dara Shikoh's nobility was the foil against which stood Emperor Aurangzeb's ambition.

That this forgotten entity of history would be enacted on stage in contemporary London was surprising, astounding even, when you think that the stage is the National Theatre. What possibly could be the appeal of Dara to the audience that National attracts? Given the full house and the critical appreciation it drew, apparently a lot.

The play was first performed by the Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan and written by Shahid Nadeem. In its adaptation by Tanya Ronder, it became a meditation on religion and warfare, on empire and civilisation, on governing and the rule of law. So contemporary were the issues that my first reaction was that either we were living in the 1700s or nothing much has changed despite the onslaught of industrialisation and the ruinous march of capitalism.

Production consultant Anwar Akhtar says that the play is more than a succession war between Mughal princes. It is about what India was, what it became, and the beginning of Pakistan. The particular seeds for the later violent partition of Pakistan from India, he says, were planted by the events of Dara's life.

At a time when the arts are severely constrained, it is to the credit of National Theatre that it was willing to invest in the long process of research and writing. Ronder says that she came into the play from a position of unfamiliarity, which helped. "Because Aurangzeb's story has had a more generous outing in South Asia over the centuries than Dara's, Ajoka had the task of setting the record straight, whereas we have, broadly speaking, heard of neither brother, so our task was to give them both a fair outing. We also tried to get the voice of the people of India. There's a fascinating repeated figure in the Mughal empire of the eunuch, for example — these boys who were taken from their homes at a young age and castrated in order that they could safeguard the harems later, and there would be no danger of their impregnating the women."

Indeed, in the hands of Ronder, both Aurangzeb and Dara have an equal opportunity to present their case. If Dara dominates the first half, the Emperor and his ghosts take over in the second. But if the unfamiliarity leads to fairness, it also leads to somewhat surprising digressions, not least the story of the imperial eunuch, Itbar. Director Nadia Fall admits as much. "The history is just SO rich. One of the hardest things at the early workshop stage was to decide which strand to follow..."

Along with the digressions, there is that pressure to make it contemporary. Dara, in the courtroom scene where he pleads both his allegiance to Islam and to secularism, must thus mention the veil. It is an issue that is translatable to the British audience and the politics is easily grasped.

If, on one hand, the task of familiarising requires somewhat easy translations, it also, in this context, elevated the play to a grand Shakespearean tragedy. There were the soliloquies and the ghosts, there were the grand speeches and patricide. An audience that knows the grammar of King Lear and Hamlet would embrace the slow unravelling of family drama against the backdrop of national politics that leaves the victor as vanquished as his victim.

Dara, despite the seeming incongruity of its relevance, was the most obvious play. It spoke of the contemporary issues of religious fanaticism and the violence it breeds, it spoke of Empire and ambition and its consequences. But the reason Dara worked most was because it was universal theatre, a high and sublime drama.

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