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A little peek into history

ROMESH CHANDER

Nadira Zaheer Babbar’s play “1857: Ek Safarnama”, stood out for its content but suffered from a weak cast.


The play managed to expose many historical myths about the Uprising.



Powerful act A scene from the play.

The second stage of the golden jubilee celebrations of the National School of Drama unfolded recently with the presentation of a play, “1857: Ek Safarnama”, directed by Nadira Zaheer Babbar and presented by the NSD Repertory, at New Delhi’s Purana Qila for eight evenings. The selection of the venue itself has an interesting history and as Anuradha Kapur, Director, NSD, said at its opening, the initiative to make a historical monument a site of performance was taken in the 1960s. In the ’70s the Purana Qila was first used as a backdrop for theatre when three of the School’s productions – “Tughlaq”, “Andha Yug” and “Sultan Razia”, directed by Ebrahim Alkazi, were performed against its ramparts. “The event has for us an importance that goes beyond the grandeur and history of the monument. It is for us a site for invoking, enlivening and commemorating one of this city’s most beautiful buildings by summoning the past on which the present is built,” she added.

The play, written by Javed Siddiqui, opens with the annexation of Awadh by the East India Company. It shows Nawab Wajid Ali Shah being forced to move to Kolkata from where he plans to go to England to personally put his grievances before Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, the lights focus on Ram Sevan. A labourer, Sevan, to escape the atrocities of the East India Company’s troops in Awadh, flees to join hands with Shamsuddin, a rebel subedar from the Company’s forces. Circumstances, however, force them to change their plans. Mama Saheb opens hostilities in Kanpur and captures the treasury, and many British officers and their families are thrown into prison.

To throw in an element of relief enters Azeezan, a courtesan, flirting with an officer of the Company. Shamsuddin, her lover, strongly objects to it and almost breaks up with her till she reveals that she is working against the Company.

Yet another very powerful scene and beautifully handled by the director is the massacre of Satichanra Ghat, where the British officers and their families agree to go to Allahabad by boat under Nana Saheb’s protection.

Historical myths

Thanks to Amaresh Misra, a close friend of the director, and considered to be a walking encyclopaedia on the Uprising of 1857, the play managed to expose many historical myths, including the defamatory portrayal by the British of Wajid Ali Shah, the depiction of Bahadur Shah Zafar as a weak and reluctant revolutionary, the blame on Nana Saheb for the Bibighar massacre in Kanpur, etc. It is amazing how the British and Indian historians with a colonial hangover have destroyed the real picture of 1857.

By and large, the play tries to underline the role of the common man in the fight against the British. The interpretation of the Bibighar massacre, that it was the British who killed their women and children to defame Nana Saheb to get the sanction for mass killings of Indians, was interesting.

The cast, by and large, was weak and their Urdu was atrocious. However, there were a few like Sanjay Mapare in Tantya Tope’s role, Sameep Singh playing Ramsaran, Abdul Kadir as Bahadur Shah Zafar, Sadanandan Patil as Nana Saheb and Chinmoy Das in Major Briggs’ role who held their own on the stage. Other saving graces wereBhanu Athaiya’s costumes, Kajal Ghosh’s music, some of Nadira Zaheer’s lyrics and Ashok Bhagat’s light design.

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