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A new play, Tale of the Taj, presents the "beautiful and dutiful" Mumtaz Mahal as an astute political player
If ever there is a pilgrimage for lovers, its path would wind towards the Taj Mahal in Agra, where lie Emperor Shah Jehan and his queen, the beautiful Mumtaz Mahal. Their legendary tale of love has fed imagination and folklore for centuries, but history — which paints grand pictures of the emperor's military prowess and architectural zeal — is strangely silent about Mumtaz. In the 1970s, London-based author and playwright, Dilip Hiro attempted to fill in the gaps through his fictional work, To Anchor a Cloud, in which he casts the queen as the protagonist, more powerful than Shah Jehan himself. This week, the play — which had Saeed Jaffrey essay the role of Shah Jehan — premiers in Delhi in the version, Tale of the Taj, presented by the city-based Pierrot's Troupe.
"We know that Mumtaz
Mahal was beautiful, that she
accompanied the emperor on his expedition and that she died in childbirth. Beyond that, however, she remains an unknown figure," says M Sayeed Alam, who has directed the play with Ashok Purang. In Hiro's script, Mumtaz emerges as an astute manipulator who conspires
actively to kill Shah Jehan's brother and rivals, Pervez and Shahryar, to secure the throne. Conflicts drive the plot ahead, explains Hiro, whose "other life" involves authoring non-fiction works such as Iran Under the
Ayatollahs, Inside India Today and the recent Jihad on Two Fronts: South Asia's Unfolding Drama. Unlike most other works on the royal couple, the play
depicts a conflict between Shah Jehan and Mumtaz.
"There's more strength in one cannon than in 100 prayers," says Mumtaz, breaking the image of Muslim women resorting to religion in crisis. At another time, she tells Shah Jehan, "Let us not confuse means with ends. They are inseparable like day and night". "In her, I see glimpses of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the mistress of realpolitik who was once dismissed as a gungi gudiya (dumb doll)," says Alam, while Hiro adds, "Did Mumtaz deserve the wonder of the world? She did, for if she had not plotted and conspired on his behalf, Shah Jehan would have never become the emperor and the Taj Mahal would have never been built."
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