Meeting Mirza Ghalib through his letters

Meeting Mirza Ghalib through his letters

Ghalib Biwi aur ghulam

Sau kos say ba-zabaan-e-qalam baatein kiya karo aur hijr mein visaal kay maazey liya karo” (Enjoy the tongue of the pen from a 100 miles and experience the joy of meeting even when you are separated).

Asadullah Khan Ghalib wrote these lines in all honesty without knowing that a century down the memory lane his letters will be staged as a play Ghalib ke Khat by Pierrot’s Troupe.

Ghalib’s penchant for letter writing is known to have substantiated Urdu literature with more than 800 letters. How did these form inspiration for director-playwright, M. Sayeed Alam? Well, we bet that this is exactly what the audience which thronged to Shri Ram Centre to witness the play wondered as well. Few would have have wanted to miss Tom Alter anyhow.

As the play began, the well-written script and enactment swayed the audience. The mystery of “how will they conceptualise?” was solved when the abundant treasure trove of Ghalib’s letters were read and reviewed from the poet’s book by his wife Umrao Begum, his maid, Wafadaar and his disciples and friends, including the legendary poet Har Gopal Taftah, played by Tom Alter.

Thus the director brought alive characters who had received the poet’s letters and showed their perspective and circumstances.  

The dramatic presentation of these personal letters also revealed Ghalib’s personality as an ordinary man who had extraordinary wit, humour and intelligence. His simple yet conversational style of letter-writing is wisely used by the director to connect one letter with another and present the sequence in one go.

However, the only means to change the scene was used by the curtains that were often brought down and rolled up and merged within the performance. Especially in the scene where nawabs desire to play chess and the curtain adds to the essence of the play, indicating the significance of purdah in Islamic culture.

Alam confesses, “I copied this experimental style from the days when I was in Aligarh and saw that theatre performances in Aligarh Muslim University use the whole auditorium as their performance area.” The technique worked well in this case as the loud entry and exit of chess lovers infused curiosity and laughter in audience.

Ghalib’s letters also presented the relationship between Ghalib and his wife where their maid Wafadaar, played the crucial role of communicator. The actress, Puneet Sikka excellently portrayed Wafadaar - a loud mouth and live wire.

Perfectly lisping her long dialogues Puneet’s character was loved by the audience as she played the communicator between the couple, who had been staying apart because of the poet’s drinking habits.

“Wafadaar is wise in her own right. At a time when wo­m­en were not educated, she reads letters which implies th­at she was educated. Also, she was brought up in the household not as a servant but as their daughter since the couple lost all their seven children,” Puneet explains.

At the end of the play, Tom Alter praises the director’s ability “to have combined Ghalib’s letters in a slow motion in a time when things get wrapped up in 20 overs.”

Alam says in all modesty, “This is the first play which shows ordinary personalities of Ghalib’s era, to whom the poet wrote letters during one of the most turbulent times in  history. Also, Ghalib’s wife is not a butt of jokes but emer­ges as a heroic example of what it takes to cope with such a life and such a husband.”

Having explored Ghalib through a number of plays, Alam says, “Ghalib fascinates me as a man of controversies,” which hints at more treats for Ghalib lovers in future.

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