Girish Karnad, Tughlaq & I: How Pain & Anxiety Brought Us Together

My reaction to Karnad’s Tughlaq was similar to his own reaction to a performance of Strindberg’s Miss Julie.

6 min read
‘My reaction to reading Karnad’s Tughlaq was similar to the playwright’s own reaction to a performance of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.’

My study has many book titles in duplicatesometimes triplicatemuch to the amusement of some friends, who I actively discourage from presenting me physical books citing lack of space. Mostly, one edition of such books is dog-eared, with brittle browning pages (sometimes with a smattering of food stains), often bearing the name of previous owner/s; while the other one is almost pristine.

The new editions were bought to save the older ones from the everyday exploits of my life as a lecturer. Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq is one such example. When I was asked to teach this 1964 play to the undergraduate students at Lady Sri Ram College, I jumped with joy and simultaneously felt a protective instinct, almost maternal, toward my tattering edition. I bought a new edition and maintained a purely professional relationship with it.

As Karnad leaves us mourning, today is a good day to tell the story about the frail, ‘second-hand’ book I wanted to protect and what it meant to me more than a decade ago.


Searching For a Favourite Genre

As students of literature, my classmates and I often brainstormed over the possibility of having one favourite genre our literary aspirations were but a bricolage of different forms and genres. One night, however, I had an epiphanic moment.

“Drama is my favourite genre,” I told myself, clutching my copy of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq.

I could not sleep that night for a steady stream of tears brought with it an avalanche of memories with sniffles of bitterness and joy.

Much has already been written about the play but no personal essay involving it can do without some exposition of Tughlaq’s literary and cultural worth. This early play, written in 1964, from Karnad’s repertoire was essentially a poetic act in retaliation for the West’s imposition of their version of intellectual engagement with our history.

Karnad sought to remind his compatriots of their historical agency by picking up a moment in Indian history that had unmistakable contemporary parallels. He perhaps also hoped to understand how India’s pre-modern, or even imagined, past could be invoked to draw lessons for the present.

Prime Minister Najib, Aziz (posing as Ghiyas-ud-din Abbasid), and Aazam at the fort in Daulatabad. This Ebrahim Alkazi production of Tughlaq by the National School of Drama Repertory Company was presented at the Old Fort in Delhi in 1974. 
Prime Minister Najib, Aziz (posing as Ghiyas-ud-din Abbasid), and Aazam at the fort in Daulatabad. This Ebrahim Alkazi production of Tughlaq by the National School of Drama Repertory Company was presented at the Old Fort in Delhi in 1974. 
Picture Courtesy: National School of Drama Repertory Company, New Delhi

Tughlaq, Nationhood & Vengeance

Long before reams were written on the play, Karnad had clearly stated in 1971 in an interview that he saw a striking parallel between the story of Tughlaq’s reign and the first two decades of Nehru’s premiership after India’s independence. In Tughlaq’s failures and despair we see the collapse of the Nehruvian vision. For the immediate audience, this must have been an even much closer experience.

Tughlaq decides to move his capital to Daulatabad because, per his own admission, “Daulatabad is a city of the Hindus, and as the capital it will symbolize the bond between Muslims and Hindus which I wish to develop and strengthen in my kingdom”.

He comes under fire for this decision and the Muslim clergy and nobility get united in a conspiracy to assassinate him.

They can’t bear to see the Sultan giving equal treatment to the Hindus at the cost of their interests. The clergy also decries his profaning of Islam through his allegiance to humanism.

Tughlaq is initially nonplussed by the criticism meted out to his secular ideas based on pluralism. “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 Zarathustra or the Buddha ... I'm sorry, but it can't be done.”

The assassination plot, however, changes it and the decision to move the capital, then, becomes an act of vengeance to teach a lesson to the inhabitants of Dilli.

Karnad’s Tughlaq problematised the very idea of secular nationhood of India. It showed that religion and politics (and nation-building) could not be reconciled despite the intellect and best intentions of India’s leadership. Nehru and Tughlaq were not very different from each other in this regard. The most important takeaway from the play, however, is that secularism can only be an outcome of love and nobility of intent, and not noblesse oblige or, vengeance.


Enduring Nature of Karnad and Tughlaq

Tughlaq has turned out to be a literary work for all times. The Sultan’s eccentricities were later comparable to Indira Gandhi’s way of governing, too. His ruthlessness found easy parallels with the Emergency-era excesses.

In a rather meta turn of events, Prasanna, one of India's noted theatre directors and a pioneer of the Kannada theatre, alleged in 1982 that at the behest of the government, the Director (BM Shah) of National School of Drama had cancelled his directed version of Tughlaq from the schedule of Festival of India at London.

A miffed Prasanna noted that the NSD repertory had already commissioned this production and spent Rs 50,000 on it and the performance got critical and popular acclaim.

He wrote in Economic and Political Weekly, "It is very clear that in this case, the Director of the National School of Drama with his ever-too-eager-to-please-the-authority attitude has succumbed to political pressures. When a work of art is produced especially by someone known for his anti-establishment stance, it faces even more severe odds."

Aparna Dharwadker notes that Karnad showed in Tughlaq, “That in India the incompatibility of religion and nation is not just a modern problem”. Even if we choose to not talk about the bits dealing with religious fundamentalism, the play has many contemporary parallels even today. The most significant being the adventures of Adam and Aziz. The cunning duo have sworn to turn every scheme launched by the Sultan on its head for personal profiteering.

Does it not remind us of Modi’s ambitious— and noble-minded—GST scheme that has fallen prey to many an ingenious hack employed by the tax thieves?

And just like the relevance of his play, Karnad's popularity and politics never went out of vogue.

Pain: What Brought Karnad, Tughlaq And I Together

But let’s go back to my midnight epiphany. Why was Tughlaq’s appeal unique for this 20-year-old literature student? I have often wondered about my extreme, almost hysterical, reaction to the play.

The answer was found much later when I revisited Karnad’s 1989 essay ‘Theatre in India’ published in Daedalus, a prestigious journal of Academy of American Arts and Sciences.

I was rereading it to prepare lecture notes but ended up a finding a bit more about myself.

My reaction to reading Karnad’s Tughlaq was similar to the playwright’s own reaction to a performance of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. “I felt as though I had been put through an emotionally or even a physically painful rite of passage,” Karnad wrote about this experience in the essay. Strindberg caught Karnad unawares who, in turn, caught me unawares.

“By the norms I had been brought up on, the very notion of laying bare the inner recesses of the human psyche like this for public consumption seemed obscene.” Karnad’s lines about Strindberg’s play could very well have been written by me. But that’s not all. There was an even stronger upheaval that Tughlaq caused in me. Again, I’d like to turn to Karnad to explain it.


Our Respective Forts and Wastelands

Karnad wrote his first play, Yayati, just before leaving for England after receiving a Rhodes scholarship. Reflecting on that phase of his life, Karnad has written, “But, looking back, I am surprised how accurately the myth (of Yayati) reflected my anxieties, my resentment at the elders who seemed to be demanding that I sacrifice my future for their peace of mind”.

Tughlaq reflected my anxieties the way Yayati reflected those of Karnad’s. It also reflected my sense of loss.

I was an enthusiastic drama student and practitioner during my undergrad days. I had to sacrifice it at the altar of others’ notions of propriety. I never quite outgrew that pain.

That night my tears were not owing to the collapse of secularism or noble intentions of mighty leaders. I sobbed because I knew that my engagement with the genre was limited to text and theory: I had firmly shut the doors at praxis. Just when I had begun to understand the gory and sinewy aspects of drama, I had been wrenched away from it. Worse, I had let myself to be uprooted.

Yayati’s story from the Mahabharata had a deeper personal connotation for Karnad; Tughlaq’s words to the young sentry in Karnad’s play were personally addressed to me:

“In the last four years, I have seen only woods clinging to the earth, heard only the howls of wild wolves and the answering bay of street dogs”.

Both Tughlaq and I were overlooking our respective wastelands.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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