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India@75

1964: Girish Karnad writes satire on Nehruvian era ‘Tuglaq’

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

1964: Girish Karnad writes satire on Nehruvian era ‘Tuglaq’

A scene from “Tuglaq” staged at Purana Quila in Delhi.

A scene from “Tuglaq” staged at Purana Quila in Delhi. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The politics of the 1960s is told through the story of the 14th century Sultan.

In 1964, Girish Karnad, then a young playwright, wrote Tuglaq in Kannada as a challenge to show the theatre world that there was more to stagecraft than costume drama. Karnad apparently sent the play to Ebrahim Alkazi, who was then the Director of the National School of Drama. Alkazi’s interest in the powerful script led to the play being translated into Urdu and to its first staging as a student production at NSD.

Also read: 1967: Vijay Tendulkar breaks new ground with ‘Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe’

Girish Karnad.
Girish Karnad. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Alkazi’s decision to set the play against the magnificent backdrop of the ruins of New Delhi’s Purana Quila in 1972 was a defining point for not just Tuglaq but for Indian theatre. Yet, it was Tuglaq’s content that set it apart. It was essentially a satire on the Nehruvian era and the politics of the 1960s told through the story of Mohammad-bin-Tuglaq, the 14th century Sultan whose dystopian reign is documented as a spectacular failure in India’s history. Karnad captures Tuglaq’s life, his insecurities, his cruel and violent nature, and the deranged thoughts that drove the king into making decisions that failed miserably. The playwright juxtaposes Tuglaq’s idealism with reality to prove his spiralling madness. The subtext was clear — Tuglaq was an allegory for a statesman who was losing his grip in post independent India. 

“It was written and staged at a time when the magic of Nehru was waning. There was clearly a historical parallel. It was an important play because of Karnad’s ability to use a historical story and contextualise it. This format had never been seen,” says Feisal Alkazi, a theatre director and Ebrahim Alkazi’s son.

Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1960s

Documentation from the Alkazi Foundation of Arts on the play says: “ Tuglaq has unfolded as a timeless play, where an episode from history has drawn significant insights into contemporary realities. The playwright depicted the polarities of the protagonist’s characteristics and completed a full circle of the narrative, from the monarch’s rise to power to his downfall, drawing on secondary characters and leitmotifs through his dramatic interventions.”