Ajitesh Gupta
Ajitesh Gupta is the writer-director and lead cast member of JO DOOBA SO PAAR, a musical dastaangoi performance celebrating the life of Sufi poet Amir Khusrau.

 By Divyani Rattanpal

Why did you decide to make a play on Amir Khusrau?
Ever since I was a child, I have loved music, especially qawwalis and sufi music. So Mohit, my co-director and I, were performing qawwali at a place and we didn't really know the history of it at all. We happened to make a statement that sufi music is also folk music. One boy came to us after the performance and said, qawwali is not folk music. When you don't know something, please don't speak about it. It's very wrong. And then he left. I didn't even know who the boy was. But that question stayed with me - what is sufi music? That's how our journey began. It was just that we were really interested in music, especially sufi music and we wanted to find out what sufi music is. We hadn't thought about making a play on it or anything of that sort.

From conceptualising to executing the play, what was the journey like?
When we were conceptualising the play, Mohit and I went to meet Manav Kaul to get his advice and ask him if he would produce it, if need be. He shut us down saying you guys are talking nonsense. Go out and research. Don't build air castles. That's when Mohit and I travelled to Delhi and Ajmer to meet scholars. Manav guided us to meet the right people. After two years of the process, I wrote the play and we once again went to Manav and he said, Okay I will produce it.

We are very lucky that we have a producer like Manav Kaul. I began my theatre journey with him and did production at Manav's aRANYA Theatre Group for 10 years. He said such a fantastic thing: if you make a loss, I will bear it. If you make a profit, you keep it. We worked on research in 2018 beginning, conceptualised the play in March 2019 and started getting the team along in September 2019.

Just after five-six shows of the play, COVID hit. Were there a lot of challenges to face?
When the first wave of COVID hit, we had to cancel all our tickets to Bangalore. That cost Rs 1.2 lakh, which was Manav's money. The challenges were many but we are very lucky to have someone like Manav.

This play is definitely blessed by Khusrau. When we hit roadblocks, we met the right people who guided us in the right direction.

Even Prithvi Theatre and staff have been very supportive. Initially, we opened the play in the Prithvi House space but it was so well received that the manager Lalit (Sathe) called me and said we have a few dates open for the main stage, would you like to perform?

They have seen me grow as an artiste. The first day I went to Prithvi, I was so clueless. I used to ask around that who should I work with if I want to do backstage. I used to just have chai and look around to see what I can do. Now after 10-12 years, they see that I am the writer and director of a play which is being received well. Stalwarts of theatre are coming and watching the play. We have discussions with people like Naseer saab and Vishal Bhardwaj. The process has changed my way of life.

What was the process of writing on such a great personality like Amir Khusrau?
I cannot just take credit for the writing all by myself. The scholars I met during my research have a great role in the writing. Even Manav Kaul has a great role to play in this. The first time I wrote the play, it was very flat. Manav told me, "You are making the character great from the beginning. When he was living, he was a normal living being like you and me. He too had self doubts on whether he would be able to make a sher out of the four words given to him. It's the process that has changed him. It's neutrality, the journey of a man."

Was it easy assembling such a stellar team of actor-singers?
We have a wonderful team which loves each other. To execute something like this, we needed singer-actors. We reached out to the theatre circuit, but some people were busy. So then we wondered what to do? We said let's trust Nizammudim Auliya and just put up a post on Instagram. That's how we found our team.

When did you learn dastangoi?
It's been a very interesting journey. I learnt dastangoi while researching on Khusrau. When I sat down to write the play, after writing four pages and reading it, I was like what am I writing? This is all preachy. It is not working. Then, some guiding force again told me, there is an art form called dastangoi. I typed it on YouTube and watched the dastangoi of Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain. But then I thought, they are people older than me in age and wisdom. When they are talking about Kabir and Khusrau, it makes sense. How will it be if I, then a 29-year-old, would talk about Khusrau and sufism?

Then something happened. There was a dastango called Ankit Chadha who passed away in an accident. I had never met him. The only thing I knew of him was a news clipping that said a young dastango had died in 2018. When I was writing the play in 2019, I remembered him and started watching Ankit's dastangoi performances on YouTube. It was something I absolutely related to. He was talking about big things, with so much rsearch, but speaking with such honesty that I could connect with him. Ankit became my guru afterwards. I watched him repeatedly, went through all his videos. And when I sat down to write, I thought, how would Ankit have written this line? How would Ankit have said this? Maybe he would write like this. In fact, now when I perform, some people come up to me and say I remind them of Ankit. And I have tears in my eyes. I never met him, he never met me. But after he passed away, the work he did as an artist is still driving me today. Something like JO DOOBA SO PAAR exists today because Ankit Chadha did that work when he was alive.

How did you arrive at the balance of humour in your writing?
When you really start expressing yourself, it comes naturally. This is who I am. I am a humorous person, who also talks serious. So the humour comes naturally when you really surrender yourself and start writing. There was also a very conscious decision on my part to keep it simple and accesible. I didn't want to use Urdu on my part which people will not be able to understand. Because Khusrau's philosophy itself is that it should reach the people.

As an actor-singer-director and writer, how did you hone all these crafts simultaneously for the play?
As a child, I had a knack for singing and a knack for languages. I don't know how, because the background that I come from, nobody in the family, even in the whole city of Sitapur, UP, is in the arts field.

Music is a gift to me, which no doubt, I have honed. Acting, on the other hand, is a skill that I have seeked, learnt and understood. If you ask me, holistically, I always wanted to be an artist. I had so much fire inside me to just be at that place where these skills can flourish. I had to leave so many things. I was selected to be a fighter pilot for the Indian Navy. I went to NDA, I stayed there for 10 days and I came back saying this is not me. And I came to Mumbai, I started doing theatre. I started attending classical music lessons, I started acting and reading literature. While doing all of this, nine years of my life went by. All those so-called achievements that you want to make as a professional, in terms of finances and other things, nothing was happening. I ended up running in the rat race of becoming 'an actor.' Then came a point, when a guiding force told me that this was not what you wanted to be. You want to be an ad actor after making abs? This is not something that I am. Who am I? I used to be that guy who would read Cinderella in Class 5 or 6 and think, can I make a play out of this? I used to read the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi and think, can I play him? Where is that guy gone? I am not just an actor. I have a gift: that I am a singer, I am a writer. I love arts, history, culture. I have a knack for acquiring languages. I love folk music. And what am I doing? I am keeping all this away just to fit into that structure of becoming 'an actor'

So I stopped what I was doing, which is not so easy because you have to fight with the whole ecosystem. That is when this journey of what is sufi music was also beginning. I stopped and looked inside to find out who I am. This play is written by me, directed by me, I am singing in it, I am also performing. Everything, my beliefs, my worldview, is reflected in the writing of this play. So this play is actually what I am..

In the present time that we live in, did you feel a sense of added responsibility through this play to change the social climate?
Social change is a by-product. I was like, what do I want to say. It so happens that I want to say this. It's the music that is the key, which is regardless of religion or sect. Music does not belong to anyone. It connects everyone. We wanted to make it more inclusive. We have quotes from Rumi, Khusrau, Bulleh Shah, Sant Kabir, Sahajo Bai, even Albert Einstein. As a humanitarian, no distinctions matter to me. When you understand sufism, you realise everything is one. The best thing is that after the natak, some people have come up to me and said, now when we go to Delhi, we will definitely go to the dargah of Nizammudin Auliyah. There is no bigger prize than this.

Author Bio:
Divyani has worked as a journalist for The Quint, where she was also among the Founding Team members. While there, she hosted and produced a podcast and fronted several standups. She’s also worked for The Times of India group and is now a theatre and film actor.

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