A Matter of Prestige: Dara Staged at the National Theatre

Ajoka Theatre is known for addressing social issues and giving a strong message through their plays, but with Dara which was first shown in 2010 at Lahore; they took on an immense challenge which makes it unique. That is probably the reason why it has made its way to London’s National Theatre, as this is the first time any Pakistani play has been staged there, also making Ajoka the first Pakistani theatre to get recognition.


The Story

It is set in Mughal India, the year is 1659. The story traces the lives of the two sons of Emperor Shah Jahan i.e. the crown prince Dara Shikoh and the youngest, Aurangzeb Alamgir, from birth till death. The plot focuses on the conflict between the two not only with regard to the throne but their religious viewpoints as well. Aurangzeb was a staunch believer of Shariah and wanted to impose that on the Kingdom. For him there was no room for other religions other than Islam.

In comparison, Dara was moderate and compassionate, who believed that the essence of Islam was living in harmony with all existing faiths. For that very reason Aurangzeb’s advisors twisted his ideology of love and peace, making it seem blasphemous which ultimately led to his execution. Other characters that played important roles are Shah Jahan, his two daughters Jahan Ara and Roshan Ara and Hazrat Sarmad Farsi who is a sufi saint as well as close companion of Dara.

It not only has a gripping narrative, but is also a visual treat that showcases the splendor of the Mughal court. The highlights are the lavish costumes and enthralling musical scores based on poetry of Amir Khusro, Dara and Sarmad along with Qawalies.

The Challenge

What sets it apart from other historical plays is the depiction of a very significant yet, rather inconspicuous chapter of our past. Also the core of the story holds great relevance even in present times; because it gives us insight into what may have been the origin of this issue of global proportions i.e. what is the true character of Islam. Furthermore it gives rise to a very interesting hypothesis; how the fate of the subcontinent might have been very different had Dara been the Emperor.

[ Related: Historical art in Pakistan ]

Dara’s Journey

It has originally been written and directed by Shahid Nadeem (who is an award-winning playwright, co-founder and currently the Executive Director of Ajoka Theater as well as Director of PTV Academy). He disclosed that Sir Nicholas Hytner (who is the Director of National Theatre) got in touch with Ajoka and showed an interest of staging this play. Once it was commissioned, for two years the team worked in close coordination with him, Ajoka and Anwar Akhter (a British-Pakistani who is a production consultant for both Ajoka and the National Theatre, and the Executive Director of this play).

This version has been adapted by Tanya Ronder (who having trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, has a 14 year career as an actress and is now a renowned playwright). She has done extensive research, and has presented it in a style that would capture the interest and be easily understood by the British audience. Also she has tried to fulfill the objective of creating awareness about the reality and different aspects of Islam here in the UK, which is very important today.

It has been directed by Nadia Fall (who having done an MA in Theatre Directing, has won critical acclaim in the past decade, for a number of her plays). And it has been performed by professional British actors.

[ Related: The Pakistani way to comedy, a laa Saad Haroon ]

Staging of the Play

The play is being staged at the Lyttelton auditorium for a total of 36 shows. The screening began on 20th January and will run till 4th April. The response till now has been quite good, and it is being much-admired for the bold attempt of delivering a story of epic proportions in just a little over two hours.