Tughlaq in the Library – Part I

Review
“Your Majesty, you’re out”,
“Am I?”
[Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay]

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Witnessing the sun rays dancing leisurely, peeking from this-that window, for days and days, it sat in dust amongst others, quaintly steady despite of its love for an extravaganza. Tughlaq – a play by Girish Karnad – captured in a petite white book, first published in 1972, sold at a humble (that now appears to be too little, too funny) price, steadily awaits the reader on the shelf in the library for that one chance.

But why so steady? Are you dead? Were you immured then?

Like a bright star in the darkness, it spreads its light when the reader opens the book first, without any promise – it may guide you, lead you astray or try nothing or try everything that you have cooked up in your head.

But be assured that it will stay with you, always, once you meet Tughlaq; a play in thirteen scenes, thirteen tricks, thirteen faiths, many murders and one Sultan.

Time’s moving, time has changed, many ruled and died, no more Sultans, no more sultanates, what’s in it for you? Has the power game changed too?

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What struck me absolutely about Tughlaq’s history was that it was contemporary. The fact that here was the most idealistic, the most intelligent king ever to come on the throne of Delhi… and one of the greatest failures also. And within a span of twenty years this tremendously capable man had gone to pieces. This seemed to be both due to his idealism as well as the shortcomings within him, such as his impatience, his cruelty, his feeling that he had the only correct answer. And I felt in the early sixties India had also come very far in the same direction – the twenty-year period seemed to me very much a striking parallel.

Introduction, Girish Karnad

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Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq (1290 – 1351) reigned the Delhi Sultanate (from 1325 to 1351) like no other; a visionary famous (less) for his political experiments, innovative ideas, (more for) tyrannical grandiose love for his public, the sultanate and history – he was the public’s beloved mad king.

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Painting depicting the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq. Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad.19th century
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

…I have something to give, something to teach, which may open the eyes of history, but I have to do it within this life. I’ve got to make them listen to me before I lose even that!

Sultan Muhammad, The Fort at Daulatabad, Scene 8

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Who is the Sultan addressing here, if not us?

Ahead of his time, this king spoke directly to his future listeners, galloping towards his ideals, desires and dreams, forgetting behind the world he was tied to, and while he fell several times on this journey, the world tied to him suffered more.

Shifting the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad (Maharashtra), he pined to make history in a jiffy, combine past-present-future hurriedly, uplift every life, even the one that was not his own.

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Guard 1: Was it hard, coming from Delhi to here?

Guard 2: I survived. But my family was more fortunate. They all died on the way.

Guard 1 (sympathetically): I am sorry. The arrangements must have been very bad.

Guard 2: Oh no. The merciful Sultan had made perfect arrangements. But do you know, you can love a city like a woman? My old father had lived in Delhi all his life. He died of a broken heart. Then my son Ismail. He was six years old – would have been ten now! The fine dust that hung in the air, fine as silk, it covered him like a silken shroud. After him, his mother.

The Fort at Daulatabad, Scene 8

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You begin with just one image – the mysterious cover design (by Vasudev), a chess-piece-like king wanting to seize it all – which challenges you, but not so much as the dramatic scenes in the play as they convert your imagination into a projector. You visualise as you read, only to find that the king is not where you placed him; he deceives you again.

Sultan’s sins grow faster than his glory and power; and we get a first-hand experience for the playwright makes us sit in the front row.

We witness it all – the king’s game, we take part in it, but what part do we play? Unknowingly, knowingly?

“Both Tughlaq and his enemies initially appear to be idealists; yet, in the pursuit of the ideal, they perpetrate its opposite. The whole play is structured on these opposites: the ideal and the real; the divine aspiration and the deft intrigue. Tughlaq is what he is in spite of his self-knowledge and an intense desire for divine grace.”

Introduction, U. R. Anantha Murthy

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Tughlaq, first published in 1964 in Kannada, received immense success on stage and amongst readers; it was translated into English by Karnad; capturing that era so well, he frees his work from limitations – time changes, but human emotions don’t.

Time, something the Sultan tried to play with, passing sleepless nights as if to overpower it, facing defeats, yet not accepting the fact that his public was not on his side, but Time’s.

For now, let us keep sitting in the front row, the classic play is about to begin –

“Announcer: Attention! Attention! The Warrior in the Path of God, the Defender of the Word of the Prophet, the Friend of the Khalif, the Just, His Merciful Majesty, Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq.”

Scene One, A.D. 1327

Also, read Tughlaq in the Library – Part II.


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