Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

'Once Upon a Time There Was an Emperor': A reading of Tughlaq, a modern Indian play by Girishi Karnad

R. P. Rama

One way of indicating the position from which Tughlaq [2] is seen in this paper is to recall the great archaeology of knowledge under way in the field of cultural discourse in India since the sixties. 3 It may also be recalled how Adya Rangacharya and Girish Karnad, two modern Kannada dramatists who have made searching explorations into Indian dramatic traditions, see the history of drama and theatre in India. Adya Rangacharya in Drama in Sanskrit Literature (1947), The Indian Theatre (1971), and Girish Karnad's essays on the subject - "Theatre in India," "In Search of a New Theatre" - present two different theoretical perspectives. Adya Rangacharya follows the accepted historical view. He traces the classical Sanskrit drama from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D., and examines the folk and Bhakti theatre during the Medieval period, the modern professional theatre beginning with the Parsi Natak Company in the nineteenth century, and the rise of realism in the 1930s (the theatre of the Ibsenites in which the themes of social reform and national freedom movement dominate).

Girish Karnad questions this monolithic view of Indian culture and the performing arts, and proposes a continuity of culture in which "conflicting philosophies, historical situations, and cultural attitudes may have shaped these different forms and may motivate them still today." 4 In Bharata's Natya Shastra he envisages the possibility of the Brahmin theoreticians overlooking the folk and tribal arts.5 Karnad, it appears, views the folk theatre as a great continuity, the main stream which was disrupted by the introduction of Western theatre in India, at least in the metropole of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras - the seaports built by the British for the maritime trade - none of which had an Indian past of its own, a history independent of the British. The cultural amnesia for Adya Rangacharya refers to the loss of the art of Classic Sanskrit drama which flourished from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D., and which is justly regarded one of the glories of Indian art, whereas for Karnad the folk theatre in Indian languages was most vulnerable to such a loss of memory because in the folk theatre only the songs and music were handed down traditionally; the dialogue part was always an improvised one. The Parsi Natak (1850-1930) introduced Western theatre concepts in India like the proscenium stage, box office and entertainment value, concepts which were alien to our dramatic traditions. Karnad, however, has observed that the techniques of integrating music and dance in the Parsi Natak, the elements which were originally borrowed from Indian folk theatre, were readily absorbed later by what we call "the Bombay film."6

And now a look at the idea of history. Though Tughlaq is an historical figure, a fourteenth century Sultan/Emperor of Delhi, the play can be seen as historical only in a very special sense, that is, it could be seen as embodying the Muslim idea of history as biography. Like Babarnama and Akbarnama the serial enactment of the twenty years reign of Tughlaq could be seen as Tughlaqnama. To reinforce the sense of the mirror of history a character has also been introduced by Karnad, a court historian called Barani. But perhaps more importantly, the play can be read as an enactment of what the Indians call "the projective memory," the past viewed as a projection of the present. The tremendous popularity of Tughlaq and its reception as a classic in Kannada literature is mainly due to the sense of the contemporary which informs the play as a whole. Tughlaq in fact enacts an Indian situation (it would be more accurate to say "situations"), a recurring Indian situation of an alien emperor, a dream of cities and empires, subjecting the culture of the people to colonial strain.

Ananthamurthy has attributed the stage success of Tughlaq to such elements of Parsi theatre 7 as an interesting story, an intricate plot, scope for spectacle, the dramatic conventions like the comic pair, Aziz and Aazam, to which theatre audiences respond readily. But more significant from our point of view - in fact loaded with significant resonances - is the Parsi stage convention of dividing the stage into "deep" and "shallow" scenes. "The shallow scenes were played in the foreground of the proscenium stage . . . in the deep scenes the entire stage space was used to present elaborate palaces and gardens in which heroic characters emoted in lofty rhetoric."8 It is obvious that Karnad is playing with the Parsi theatre form. He manages to drop the most prominent elements of Parsi Natak, songs and dances, and gains by it. Besides, in his play the front stage starts impinging on the "deep" scene till it overwhelms the interior totally. The last scene in which the monarch lies asleep on the throne while a servant wraps a shawl round him, is a very powerful theatre sign: of the Sultan's ultimate vulnerability as a human being, or - as some would interpret it - of the absorption of the folk and the popular into the main structure of the play. Apart from the tightly knit melodramatic narrative of the twenty year reign of Tughlaq, the deracinated monarch, whose absolute individualism alienated him from his people and who was called "mad Muhammad," are the visual and sound images which work in this semiotic fabric of the Parsi Natak. The oral rituals, the public announcements, the community prayer meetings function as dramatic situations of great cultural and historical resonance. In fact the social and cultural complexity of these "gestic" scenes9 which project the present onto the past bring to mind a concept like the semantics of history, if one could coin such a phrase, for how else is history, memory to be made tractable? In what is the social meaning constituted? The historical facts are used figuratively - could we call them historical metaphors? - since they wrench meaning out of historical facticity. These gestic scenes, such as the announcement about the change of the capital (the centre) of the empire, death in a prayer meeting, the tragic relationship with a step mother, the dreams of new cities constructed and abandoned, are all extremely resonant to an Indian audience.

Much more resonant is the transformation of an historical legendary emperor into an existentialist hero of the sixties who, having been reduced to a bare bald one word Tughlaq, having lost all the religious discrimination values and all the community values and support, re-enacts - by incessant chess player's moves - his insomnia, his hyperconsciousness and utter isolation after he kills his father and brother in a contrived accident and then orders the step mother to be stoned to death. His eccentric acts on the stage culminate in an endearing irrationalism when he appoints the clever comedian, a Muslim dhobi-turned-Brahmin-turned-pickpocket murderer to the post of a civil servant.

A change of interpretative light would reveal the figure of Tughlaq in yet another posture: a compulsive speaker, a demagogue, a clever rhetorician masking his real moves as an emperor flaunting high romantic schemes to secure individual immortality. Karnad's Tughlaq has been compared to Camus' Caligula and Eisentein's Ivan the Terrible, but the polysemic present which is condensed in Tughlaq makes it a whirlpool of meanings, images and references, and points mainly to the Indian experience of the sixties, the disenchantment with Western values and the resistance to an alien culture. This monarch is trying to impose a liberal humanist secular mindset on his people because in doing so he hopes to secure an immortal place for himself in history, and he fails miserably. It is in this light that Tughlaq is both colonial and contemporary. It is this colonialism which, as Nandy puts it, "has survived the demise of the empire."10 According to Karnad, it is the tyranny of the absolute individualism of the West over the Indian view which sees man in multiple social and cultural relationships.

Karnad's "colonial" ruler is aware of his isolation, the immense cultural distance between himself and the people he rules. He rhapsodizes:

I still remember the days when I read the Greeks - Sukrat who took poison so he could give the world the drink of gods, Aflatoon who condemned poets and wrote incomparably beautiful poetry himself - and I can still feel the thrill with which I found a new world, a world I had not found in the Arabs or even the Koran. They tore me into shreds. And to be whole now, I shall have to kill the part of me which sang to them. And my kingdom too is what I am - torn into pieces by visions whose validity I can't deny. You are asking me to make myself complete by killing the Greek in me and you propose to unify my people by denying the visions which led to Zarathustra or the Buddha. (21)

A little later he murmurs: "They are only cattle yet, but I shall make men out of a few of them" (21). No wonder the clever schemes of the monarch all flounder and the counterfigure of a comedian impersonator at last overtakes him. This is the reason why the play, which (regardless of what the Natyashastra lays down) enacts numerous killings and brutalities, does not depress the audience. Tughlaq, then, might almost be read as a melodramatic folk tale enactment of the mythical Andhernagri.

University of Rajastan, Jaipur


1 Girish Karnad (b.1938), one of the foremost modern playwrights in India, writes in Kannad, one of the modern Dravidian languages. He has translated most of his plays including Tughlaq (1965) into English. The other plays by him Yayati (1961), Hayavadana (1975), and Naga-Mandala (1990) are based on myth and folk tale. He is also a renowned filmmaker, actor and screenwriter.

2 Tughlaq was originally written in Kannada in 1964, and was staged in the English translation by Alyque Padamsee in 1970. It was first published in 1972 in English translation by the author. In our discussion all references are to the text published in Three Modern Indian Plays (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989). Tughlaq was first produced in Kannada in 1965 by INT in Bombay, the second producton was by Kannada Bharati, directed by R. M. Karanth, in 1988 in Delhi. Around the same time Om Shivpuri produced it for the National School of Drama. Bengali and Yarathi productions followed.

3 According to G. N. Devy, this might include the research by M. N. Srinivas (sociology), Thapar and Guha (history), Anil Seal and Partha Chatterjee (political science), Sudhir Kakar (psychology), Ashis Nandy (cultural history and psychology), Meenakshi Mukherjee and Nemade (literary criticism). After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1992) 3. We may add that it is significant that Naipaul's An Area of Darkness and Nirad Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian were published in 1964.

4 Girish Karnad, "Theatre in India," Daedalus (Fall 1989): 336.

5 Karnad, 339.

6 The other view of song-and-dance sequences in Bombay films goes back to "the grammar of narrative as articulated by Bharata in his Natyashastra" and is proposed by Mukund Lath in his "Bharata Muni and Hindi Films," Jijnasa (Jaipur) 2.2 (April, 1975): 84-106.

7 U.R. Ananthamurthy, Introduction to Tughlaq, in Three Modern Indian Plays (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989). Elkazi, however, in his first production of the play in English, ignored the Parsi theater scheme and used the ramparts of the old fort instead.

8 Girish Karnad, "In Search of a New Theatre." Offset copy of the article made available by the author, but no publicaton details are given.

9 As used by Brecht in "On Gestic Music," a gest "conveys particular attitudes adopted by the speaker towards other men. " Brecht on Theatre (Indian reprint New Delhi: Radha Kamal, 1979) 104.

10 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983) xi.

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