I remember it too well. Every time I was in an history class or of Pakistan Studies in my school while reading through history of Mughals, there was the mention of Aurangzeb Alamgir as the last strong Mughal emperor and the last Muslim to have ever be on throne of the whole Hindustan. It always went something like this: ‘He imprisoned his father and killed his brother, but he was very Islamic and reciter of Holy Quran’. I do not remember many sentences about any one else which had both ‘imprisoning father’ and ‘being Islamic’ in them. As far as Dara Shakoh is concerned, hardly any one ever bothered to talk much about him except for the fact that he was Aurangzeb’s defeated and slain brother and an incompetent crown prince who could not protect his throne.
But school text books are hardly an account of proper history. Textbook history for children are always selective in a way that governments like their future generation to know. Like how evil Hindus were and how innocent we always were for example. Not that such thing is restricted to Pakistan. Almost every nation has a bit share in it. Every nation needs a natural enemy, so as part of history young minds are tamed in a way that they should consider their natural enemy as the evil ones and themselves to be offspring of generation who spent their lifetime bathing with holy water. And such notions in young minds grow as they themselves grow till the point of such delusion that any other face of reality seems unacceptable and lie. After all, what else one needs to hear if not that they are totally awesome. And not only children but adults can easily get fooled by constant propaganda of how bad the enemy is. Sometimes spewing hatred against others and and exposing their ‘evilness’ can result in a war. But who needs to go in petty details of verifying the claim. So it does not really matter if Aurangzeb imprisoned his father. What matters is his strong connection to Islam and hence, being on our side of the fence.
But in a society there are always people who do not really close their eyes and accept what is fed to them. There are sceptics who always try to get into the depth of things. This is most prevalent with artistic minds and those who like to challenge the norms just because it really is fun. Seriously! But sometimes such people go into too much shocking evidences that they totally change the sides and counter propaganda with one of their own. You see human mind likes to judge every thing from right and wrong instead of contemplating the possibility of grey area and we like to join one team which we think is totally right and other which is wrong. Because by nature we like to chose tribes and stick with them.
So when a sarhi clad elegant looking Madiha Gohar in front of an audience in Alhmara said that in play of Dara, her team would be shedding light on that aspect of history which is not normally told and people have been deliberately kept in dark about it, I thought ‘interesting’. I was there with my lovely wife to watch the play with intentions of curiosity and watching something as an art lover.
The play started with sufi music and dance with face covered artists possibly lamenting over the success of Aurangzeb and future danger to music. After some really heart touching music and chatter of different citizens and guards who through their song make no mistake in telling their King is Dara, we are interrupted by royal announcement that rebel Dara has been captured and citizens of Delhi should rejoice at this moment and chant for King Aurangzeb. During all this time, I am intrigued by the presence of half naked man sitting at left side of the stage. The suspense is short lived as the man gets up at the arrival of royal forces who bring Dara in custody to be marched through streets of Delhi. The man announces that the day in fact is not about the capture of Dara, but of his royal crowning and prophecies that Dara will be made The King. And that basically signifies the whole theme of the play. That Dara was by all accounts the true king of the hearts of the people and that is what matters.
The man being depicted here is Sarmad; the Muslim/agnostic mystic (of Jewish descent)of 17th century during the time of Aurangzeb and Dara. How he got to be this way? In his own words (which are told in the play) he was a very rich and successful merchant and when he came to India he saw Abhai Chand (his future mureed) whose beauty, curl of his hairs, shine of lips and magnificent face structure made him think that if he is that beautiful, what would his creator be like. And since than he has been in search of that creator. If that is not the most gay mystic statement ever made, than I do not know what is. But that is neither here, nor there so we move on.
In the play the Aurangzeb is depicted as the cruel dick (which he pretty much was as well), music hater, who uses religion for his political gains. Like on the suggestion of his official Qadhi Mullah Qavi, tries to use apostate argument for punishing Dara in order to be saved from the public wrath and possible allegation of killing his own brother just for political power. Dara on the other hand is shown as the merciful prince who was champion of human rights and religious harmony, who lives in the hearts of people of Hindustan and especially among art loving circles who is actually betrayed by his men and was not a weak person as projected by history. Fragile condition of Shah Jahan is depicted as he sits under his house arrest in Agra being cared by his daughter and slave eunuch waiting for death and wailing due to condition of himself and his sons and cursing Aurangzeb.
“There is no safer way to blacken a person’s reputation in the estimate of following generations than to attribute a wanton holocaust of wasted beauty to him.”
– Antonia Fraser on Oliver Cromwell
While many things mentioned were true, some were definite exaggeration, distortions, some out of content and others: blatant lies. It is true that Aurangzeb was not as art admirer as his predecessors. If by art admirer, one means enjoying wine and courtesans openly at royal gatherings. There is no undisputed evidence whether he banned music or that he imposed shariah. What is reported is his hand written Fatwa e Alamgiri (which was his personal opinion about fiqh and was never imposed as a law) and some folk stories of how musicians of Delhi took out the funeral of music after he came to the throne. If ‘bazars’ of Delhi were enjoying frequent visits to royal palace previously and not at his time, than this does not mean he actually banned music. However this does explain how folk lores of his ban on music erupted. A thing about history is that mostly two kinds of history are remembered. One is state sponsored. And the other in ways of songs and legends. While sadly, truth is always somewhere in between, forgotten and only to be known by book loving history geeks. Influence of legends and songs in history is always undeniable as stories and poetry are powerful tools and can turn myth into a complete fact so that over the years people see such things as the obvious truths. That is why half naked Sarmad holds the power to see other people naked because apparently his capability of seeing right through others metaphorically was a difficult message to be shown to the audience. But as historian Katherine Brown notes 1, there is no undisputed report to suggest that this banning-muic-thing holds any truth at all. Not only that, artistic work during reign of Aurangzeb pretty much increased, if not steadied as noted by Professor Allison Busch.) 2 Also, if it helps knowing, it should be noted that Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years. That is almost half a century. If he was so unpopular a good chance is he would not get pass 49 months. Why? You see if he really did ban music there would have been a problem because hindus use music in almost all of their religious rituals. And you can not really push down a huge chunk of population for half a century and keep them away from following their rituals and expect to live that long. Ironically play somehow tries to sideline this point by showing that after Dara’s execution, his reign was filled with rebellions. But the lie in this part is that Aurangzeb kept trying to do what others could not do before him i.e capture whole Hindustan. Which he did as well. And in such a big land there were bound to be some rebellions. It happened all the time of his predecessors as well. And mostly he was away from Delhi to conquer one area or the other. So if was that unpopular, leaving the capital so often was not really a good idea. Or may be this unpopularity thing is just an exaggeration. So why did people find the need to attribute things to Aurangzeb when his original resume would still suggest that he was a douche? You saw A Fraser’s quote up there? Pretty much thats why. Because apparently killing your own brother does not make you evil enough. Just like state sponsored murder of Sarmad for uttering ‘La Ilah Haq’ (a Kalima he completed at his execution ‘La Ilah Haq Illallah’) would not strike as much as the stories that after execution his head kept on proclaiming the completed Kalima would. Also, there is very much a possibility that had Dara been in Aurangzeb’s position, he would have done the same to him. It was not like Dara was made crown prince and Aurangzeb did a Pakistani-Army-General on him and removed him from the throne buying his advisors and Dara had no idea about it. Call it Shah Jahan’s short sightedness or Dara’s bad luck, while Shah Jahan wanted Dara to be future King, he pretty much made Aurangzeb more powerful by sending him to various expeditions in charge of the army. When Dara was chit chatting with religious folks of different religions, Aurangzeb was sweating his body conquering different parts of the country. So he became more able politician and a military man. The play suggested Dara was defeated due to betrayal of his aid who hands him over Aurangzeb otherwise he was as able as his brother and his heart was troubled as he was in constant fight between his two identities i.e a prince and a mystic. Problem with that of course is that he himself first had fought with his brother Shuja for the throne. Than he had to endure defeat in not one but two battles against Aurangzeb. Which shows two things i.e One; He was persistent in his desire for the throne and he did not went to seclusion after the first defeat. I mean if one is really struggling to chose between his two identities and a failure gives him a chance to reflect more on his positive side, one should really cash on this opportunity right? Second, this pretty much left no chance of forgiveness for Dara because Aurangzeb knew he would again try to regain forces once he gets the chance like he previously did. So he did what any king at that time would have done.
As for his father Shah Jahan, well he was not kind of a role model himself. During first ten years of Aurangzeb’s life, he pretty much live with his grand father Jahangir, partly because his father Shah Jahan was busy in a revolt against grand dad Jahangir. So you see, karma never fails to bitch slap you and you reap what you sow. I mean, the whole family seems like a stereo typical power hungry soap opera kind.
But art is not just about history. Even though while watching I was disagreeing with many parts of the play itself, I was moved by the performances and the way the whole play carried itself. And I could even relate to the message. The music was marvelous and the actors looked really good. The guy who played Sarmad and portrayal of Aurangzeb in particular were great. Although they could have had a better Dara Shakuh who looked younger than his son. With the exception of starting dance which felt not coordinated properly, at all other occasions performers were up to the peak. Sarmad’s trance dances through out the play were mind blowing and I wondered how he was able to stand and concentrate afterwards.
However as far as conveying the message itself, I felt the play lacked doing so due to two reasons even though audience could relate to the message due to the current situation. Their target audience was the one who was already on the same page as they are. This problem can be judged better by their depiction of shariah court n which Dara’s case is being heard. When asked about his alleged apostasy writings and works, he gives example of other sufia karam doing similar things. Problem with that is that if you want to change people’s opinion you need to give examples from their own belief. In this case, if you are trying to change a wahabi approach to Islam, you need to mention any example of any act of Muhammad SAW or word of Quran instead of telling what Mian Mir did to Sikh guredwara. Other failure was the moral bankruptcy of the message itself since it was based on many distorted facts as I mentioned earlier. Coming back to the shariah court, there was an allegation against Dara that he declared Budhism and Islam the same thing in one of his works with no difference, which never gets clarification from Dara, rather we get emotional speech. This is simply something which is not true.
All this does not mean that Aurangzeb was right. His misuse of Islam to find the excuse or murdering his brother and hypocrisy of mullah advisors was depicted beautifully in a way that audience could relate it with current times. A scene where his sister appeals for mercy on behalf of Dara was particularly impressive as Aurangzeb declares he can have mercy for his brother and announces pardon. As her sister’s eyes are filled with joy and her mouth filled with praise, Aurangzeb in a move of being such a big dick that he should get noble prize for dickery, informs her that although he can pardon his brother as a king, but he can not pardon an apostate as a Muslim. But the problem here is that hating Aurangzeb does not mean Dara was right. Or that we should scrap history altogether and portray version which we like. It may sound appealing as the idea that someone was good is better than no body was good. And we are inclined to chose a tribe due to our evolutionary trait. But that does not solve the problem. In a society wit extreme right or left wings, we need to chose a middle path. Problem with this play is the same which is with Pakistan. Every one seems to chose the extreme side. I have always been a skeptic of how fiqhi rulings were made as Islam evolved so I might have some reservations of fiqh. But questioning the ban of music does not mean Islam is ok with belly dancers in a sexually hybrid environment. Idea of sword dominating religion might be scary but that does not mean the idea that all religions are the same with zero difference is true. That would seem beautiful in appearance, but morally and technically it would be a lie. Just like this play was.
1 Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of his Reign.Modern Asian Studies, 41 , pp 77-120
2 Allison Busch, Brajbhasha Poets at the Mughal Court(2009), p.29