Guest Column – From Djinns to Pandavas

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From Djinns to Pandavas

My journey into the mysteries of Delhi.

[By Rudradeep Chakrabarti; picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

I stand on the banks of the Yamuna at Nigambodh Ghat. I reflect on my exploration of the City of Djinns – Making of a Theatre, a play I directed in the summer of last year. It was reverse osmosis; neither the journey of Bahadur Shah Zafar from Delhi to Rangoon nor Mirza Ghalib’s travel to Kolkata. Mine was the journey of a young man from Kolkata’s theatre hub, Academy of Fine Arts, to Delhi’s Mandi House. In 2002, I enrolled at the National School of Drama.

Growing up with Tagore, Satyajit Ray and that doyen of theatre, Badal Sarkar, I was a new migrant trying to understand Delhi in the cafes of Mandi House. Soon I found myself drawn to the elegance of Urdu and the earthiness of Punjabi. I was also enchanted by the extraordinary cosmopolitism of this city where Haryanvi, Bhojpuri and Purabiya Hindi were like second languages. I wondered if I could ever do a play that encompass the multiple aspects of this city.

In 2006, while traveling in Coromandel Express from Chennai to Kolkata, I found myself reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. By the time the journey finished, I had decided to turn the book into a play. But how? I had no idea. Soon things started happening on their own. One thing led to another. I got the budget. Dalrymple too agreed and Tom Alter and Zohra Segal became my actors. But the best part was my excursions into the cityscape while working on the script.

I gossiped with Sikh taxi drivers, dunked down chai after chai with the Muslim shop owners of Chitli Qabr, searched for the eunuchs in Turkman Gate, and listened to the Thursday qawwalis in Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah (and discovered a great Kashimiri dhaba in the adjoining bastee). Delhi was opening up to me and I responded back with an equally fierce passion.

I would walk nights and explore places Dalrymple had mentioned in his book: kuchas, bazaars, and havelis; all crumbling into ruins. There was a different world there once upon a time and I set about the task of recreating that lost era. But could I stir life in those old mansions, light up stories of forgotten streets and bring kings and sufis back to life? Could I paint the family life of Shahjahan from Manucci’s writings? Could I make the cake-and-tea life of Anglo-Indians look real? How would I do justice to the plight of the Sikh widows of Trilokpuri?

I was possessed.

And just where to find Dalrymple’s pehelwans, pirs and yunani hakims?

But stuff happened and things fell into place. We were a gang of theater actors and it helped that all of us were hungry to sup on Delhi to the full. The show was premièred in April and received rave reviews. Much has happened since then.

I’m now back in Nigambodh Ghat. This time I’m doing a play on Mahabharat. This is a new epic, a new world and a new city. This Delhi of Pandavas is completely different from the Delhi of djinns. The journey has begun.