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Flashback : Tughlaq
Tyrant Or Visionary?




Deepa Gahlot



This week, Flashback looks at one of Girish Karnad's finest plays, originally written in Kannada, but translated and performed in several languages, some of which can be watched online.

Published in 1964, Tughlaq was Girish Karnad's second play, after Yayati, a feat of brilliant political analysis by the then 26-year-old playwright. Alyque Padamsee, who directed the English production with Kabir Bedi in the lead called it 'the best play written in English by an Indian.'

Its most celebrated production remains Ebrahim Alkazi's Urdu version staged against the backdrop of Delhi's magnificent Purana Qila starring Manohar Singh in the eponymous role.

The play is about 14th-century emperor Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who, in his desire to do good for his people (though history records his devastating tyranny), created havoc. It has been interpreted as a critique of Nehruvian socialism, but could well apply to any ruler whose idealism turns him into a tyrant.

Without adequate thought or planning, or bothering about the hardship imposed on the people, he shifted his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, and forced everyone to move or be killed. He caused economic havoc by having new coins minted and declaring that the all coins would have an equal value, whether they were made of gold and silver or copper and brass, leading to a ruinous glut of fake currency.

As it is often seen, a whimsical king, surrounds himself with sycophants, who not only betray him, but also fill their own coffers. Tughlaq, who had murdered his own father and brother to grab the throne, slowly starts losing his grip on reality, leaving the kingdom open for rebels like Ain-ul-Mulk, who marches against his old friend with a superior army and Sheikh-Imam-Uddin, who incites the people against their eccentric emperor.


Inevitably there are plots to murder Tughlaq-when one group of dissidents is caught, they are given the death sentence and hanged in public. When he suspects his stepmother for poisoning a close confidant, he has her stoned to death. With revolt and treachery all around him, Tughlaq eventually descends into madness.

Karnad had said about the play (in Enact, June 1971), '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.'

Over the years, the play has been staged to make parallels with current events quite obvious-and every fresh production of Tughlaq is bound to have something new to say.

(Deepa Gahlot is a journalist, columnist, author and curator. Some of her writings are on deepagahlot.com)

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