The stage of London’s National Theatre, has been graced with the presence of a talented group of artistic directors, actors and musicians to welcome Shahid Nadeem’s and Ajoka Theatre’s story of Dara. Tanya Ronder’s and Nadia Fall’s adaptation of Ajoka original play, which has been translated from Urdu, opened to a full house on Tuesday 20th January, in the 960 capacity Lyttelton Stage and with a primarily British Asian actor ensemble, and is to run for 36 shows until April 4th.
Dara allows the audience to follow the life and tales of Dara Shikoh, the crown prince of Mughal India, 1659. Through the use of dance, poetry and song we are introduced to tales of opulence, puritanical rigor and different branches of Sufism and Orthodox interpretations of Islam. The play is set around the lives of two brothers who fight ferociously to see who will become the successor to the Mughal Empire after their father’s death.
"To Allah belongs the East and the West. Wherever you turn there is the presence of God" [Al Baqara 2:115]
Whilst we are graced with an aesthetically pleasing set and a great use of creative intelligence, Dara addresses underlying issues challenged by many people in contemporary Islamic society. Through documenting an intense domestic drama of global consequence, the National Theatre and a family of partners, including British Pakistani journalist Anwar Akhtar, as production consultant from UK based Samosa media project have accurately addressed poignant issues relating to our past and contemporary world.
The play revealed that Dara was a student of philosophy and followed the Sufi branch of Islam; the “inner Islam”. Through this liberal minded approach he has become sympathetic to other religions, exploring them for inspiration. He views religions as an understanding of humanness:
“We cannot force our religion upon others. Our duty is to allow other faiths to flourish” (Act Two).
Through this somewhat progressive view of Islam, according to the prosecution court, Dara has strayed from the pure path of Islam and is thus subject to the crime of apostasy, punishable by being beheaded. This introduces a foreboding reality, which is prevalent across some Islamic countries that practice a harsh reading of Sharia law.
The opening scene of Act Two is set in a Sufi shrine with Qawalli singers surrounding a respected piir (spiritual leader). This scene accurately captures certain elements of Sufism which often insight conflict amongst the more conservative followers of Islam who believe only Prophets and God should be highly revered. Aurangzeb, Dara’s brother, plays a character who embodies the more Orthodox view of Islam. He follows the Sharia law which sees Dara’s relationship with Sufism as a deviation from Islam, and labels Dara as the “worshipper of idols”. Through this imbalance the audience become familiar with poignant issues which are prominent in contemporary Pakistan. The prevalent religious intolerance in Pakistan coincides with its additional problem of extremism. The attacks of religious intolerance are not only carried out in the form of physical violence, but these are also incited by intangible words.
Not only does this play explore prominent issues on a collective level, but it addresses deeper subjective struggles such as the personal ‘jihad’. Whilst watching this play there were scenes and notions which I could relate to on an individual level, as a young British born Muslim of Pakistani heritage. Throughout the play there was a Hindu lady who was twirling around in a silk scarf. My interpretation of her hypnotic, almost ethereal character was to symbolise how Muslims in the West, who are faced with challenges of identity and modernity, are constantly battling a fundamental struggle with an omnipresent reminder. Although they may want to fully immerse themselves in core Islamic beliefs and cultural dimensions, they are constantly influenced by Western ideals and social pressures which are seen as injurious to their own culture and identity.
Dara acknowledges that through these struggles it is important to not miss Salah in the face of hardship, and to “grapple our passions through prayer”. This core, underlying message of the play highlights that whilst young Muslims and diaspora communities who are brought up in Western societies may experience a conflict of identity or a consistent pressure from society (be that through alcohol or sexual relationships), Salah is an act which one can always turn to in times of hardships and happiness.
Dara has addressed some vital issues which are often misrepresented through media channels. It provides a platform to express an alternative message of Pakistan through a different artistic lens. By using a visual and literary medium it has projected a diverse perspective of struggles within Islam and it has tackled poignant issues which also underline in Western culture.
It should be recognised that an extensive amount of time and effort has been put in by all at the National Theatre, especially Tanya Ronder and Nadia Fall, the cast and external collectives including The Samosa media project and those involved in the Royal Society of Arts “Pakistan Calling”. It is vital that we use alternative visual platforms, such as these, to challenge the current stereotypes and negative rhetoric of Islam often projected through mass media. Most importantly Dara arrives at the UK National Theatre at an important moment. It is a coming of age and celebration for all of Britain, not just its Asian communities, that a play of such great historical and contemporary relevance, is playing in our National Theatre. A moment of arrival, integration and cultural achievement. A reflection in Britain of both where many of us came from and where Britain also went in its colonial adventures.
Through artistic choreography, creative sword dance scenes and lavish art and design the production team have used the set and management of the stage to visually encapsulate the artistic culture of South Asia. Accompanied with soft lighting and sounds of crickets and sitars an authenticity is added, which creates a harmonious backdrop. This backdrop contrasts with the powerful core subject matter and violent language. Dara in London is a triumph. All those who have the chance, should most definitely go see it.
Tickets are available here.