Of Bare Backs And Butterflies

Sometimes, there is a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico because a butterfly has fluttered by somewhere on the coast of the South China Sea. The butterfly is doing what a butterfly naturally does, little knowing that its delicate movement of the air has set something bigger in motion. Something like that happened on a sultry August night in 1970, at the Bhulabhai Desai auditorium in Bombay.

Once upon that time, Alyque Padamsee decided that he wanted to direct a play called Tughlaq by an up and coming playwright, a 27 year old named Girish Karnad who lived, at the time in Madras, and wrote in Kannada. The play had so far been performed in its original language, in Marathi, and in Urdu as a student production at the National School of Drama. Alyque was one of the country’s leading advertising men, bold and innovative, but he had been a name to contend with on the Bombay theatre scene for several years already. His company, Theatre Group, was made up largely of his colleagues, friends and extended family but as a cast and crew, they brought a boundless enthusiasm, exuberant talent and a robust professionalism to the amateur English stage in the city.

In his memoir, “My Double Life,” Alyque tells of how his production of Tughlaq came together.

But he doesn’t tell us what led him to the playwright and the script which, at the time, might have come to his notice through his brother-in-law, the formidable Ebrahim Alkazi, Director of the NSD, who would surely have seen the Urdu student production in Delhi. In any event, Alyque got in touch with Karnad and asked him to translate his play into English. Karnad was reluctant,  but Alyque’s powers of persuasion are legendary and before long, a translation was ready. With Karnad’s permission, Alyque added a two-minute monologue to open the play and he was was ready to go.

Alyque cast a strikingly handsome young model, Kabir Bedi, as Mohammad bin Tughlaq, the complex and tormented fourteenth century Muslim emperor who tried to radically change the world in which he lived. With no acting experience to speak of, Bedi was groomed – posture, diction, voice, body work — for a stage where he would be surrounded by the best and the brightest of the city’s English theatre stars.

Tughlaq opened at the Bhulabhai Desai Hall on Marine Lines with the usual excitement that attended any Theatre Group production. But no one was prepared for what they saw when the stage lights slowly came on. Ecce Homo, “Behold, the Man!” Before their astounded eyes was a beautiful male body facing away from them, strong and powerful but oddly vulnerable, naked but for a bright red langot, in a pose that resonated vividly with Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Even as the audience gasped in shock (and with an embarrassed appreciation of the director’s audacity), the body was being elaborately and ceremonially clothed. When the attendants on stage placed a turban on it’s head, the body turned around and there, before the audience stood Mohammad bin Tughlaq, Emperor of Hindustan.

Perhaps the angels were watching that night, perhaps the butterflies heard about it in the morning, but a flutter began. Quietly at first, unnoticed, but persistent.

Theatre Group’s Tughlaq was a huge success, the buzz around it carried a nudge and wink that whispered ‘don’t miss the opening scene!’ Alyque was delighted, revelling in the ‘scandal’ that had both shaken and stirred Bombay’s bourgeoisie and brought more and more people into the auditorium to see his play. His jaw-dropping introduction of Kabir the man and Tughlaq the monarch combined the daring pizzazz of the ad-man and the instinctive theatricality of a director at the top of his form – this was the moment where the two worlds he inhabited came together, both at their unabashed best.

But the fluttering of butterfly wings created more than an epiphanic opening scene and a scandal. Even before the play closed, Kabir had become a Hindi film star. Within a few short years, he was an international ‘sex symbol’ playing the swash-buckling pirate, Sandokan, in the long-running Italian television series of the same name. That series led to various smaller roles for him as an exotic villain in Hollywood films through the 1980s and 90s, establishing him as one of the first ‘crossover’ artistes in international cinema. Truly, a star was born on that hot August night in Bombay.

Soon after Alyque’s production in 1972, Alkazi, with all the talent and resources available to him as Director of the National School of Drama, as well as his own towering vision of what a play should be, staged a majestic Tughlaq on the ramparts of the Purana Qila in Delhi. The impact of Alkazi’s NSD production in the nation’s capital so soon after the success of the English version of Tughlaq in Bombay catapulted Karnad from being a regional playwright into someone who was writing “Indian theatre.” The restless monarch of his Tughlaq would soon speak in other languages across the country, remaining authentic in each, appealing to a generation that was fighting the past and tradition for the changes that would represent their aspirations and ambitions.

The success of the Tughlaq script in English gave Karnad the confidence to continue translating his own plays into that language, thus, widening their reach. BV Karanth, Karnad’s linguistic and cultural sibling, had translated Tughlaq into Urdu, into the script that went to NSD in Delhi. By doing so, he lit the slow fuse that led to the play’s explosive success. That translation cemented a partnership between Karnad and Karanth that galvanised both theatre and cinema in the 1970s – together, they created films such as Vamsha Vriksha and Godhuli which propelled the growing parallel cinema movement in the country. The utterly brilliant and deeply layered meditation on the divided self,  Hayavadana, was born from an alcohol-fuelled conversation between them.

Ah, those butterflies that fluttered by. . .

. . . they touched more than the great ones. In the summer of 1976, I was travelling in Europe with my mother. I was thrilled to be wearing the anonymous uniform of my generation, newly acquired jeans and a leather jacket. My always elegant mother wore saris, impractical to our travel realities and hugely embarrassing to me.  When we reached Italy, she was, suddenly, a star. Everywhere we went people hailed her, they wanted to touch her, they gave her flowers, a table at a crowded cafe, free beverages and gelato. “Sandokan! Sandokan!” they said as they admired her, acknowledging that she was a vision, a little piece of stardust in their midst. She was, after all, from the same country as their beloved television pirate.

Arshia Sattar writes about and teaches Indian literatures here and abroad.

This piece was commissioned by Bhasha Centre.

Arshia Sattar
Arshia Sattar

1 comment

  • Beautifully written. Arshia I can imagine Ma in her lovely sarees n several admirers hovering around. She maintains that charm even at this age! 🩷

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This website stores cookies on your computer. Cookie Policy