Creating The ‘Muslim’ Tragic Hero: Ahmed's Shair-e-Mysore

Creating The ‘Muslim’ Tragic Hero: Ahmed's Shair-e-Mysore
The other day, I was invited by the Government College Dramatics Club (GCDC) at GC University Lahore as Guest of Honour to watch an original period play called Shair-e-Mysore (‘Tiger of Mysore’). The play was presented at the historic Bukhari Auditorium of the university from the 4th to 8th of May 2023. The first day of the performance coincided with Tipu Sultan’s death anniversary, as Tipu was killed by the British on 4 May 1799. However, the play was not a traditional commemoration of the sultan, rather it centered on the living realities of the protagonist, Fateh Ali Sahab Tipu, son of the 18th-century Mysore Sultan, Hyder Ali Khan. In any case, my presence gave me a chance to analyze Shair-e-Mysore’s chronological veracity, as well as its historiographic vitality. Before we get into further details, one fact we all must know about GCDC itself is that it is one of the oldest venues for performing arts in the north of India. It holds this credit to date as a post-Partition citadel of creative arts in Pakistan. It has produced some of Pakistan’s biggest names in the field of drama, theatre and music.

Drama is taken as an art form that presents fictionalised facts. But the process that takes the word from page to stage is a long and complicated one. It grows to be a critically complex journey involving dramaturgy and theatricality simultaneously. We, the audience, also become a participant of this complexity when we experience the action, enjoy the entertainment, or absorb the instruction. My review mainly explores such complex historical, dramaturgical, and theatrical entanglements exploited by the writer of Shair-e-Mysore and his team. It is also important to note that this particular play was staged in an atmosphere where plays written by Pakistani dramatists are not encouraged. But GCU has given a fair chance to the writer of the play to exercise his dramaturgical and theatrical skills. It is hoped that this original work will encourage healthy debate and vigorous discussion.

Shair-e-Mysore has been written by one of GCU’s own faculty members, Sameer Ahmed. It is obvious from the play that Ahmed has thoroughly researched Tipu Sultan’s history (1750-1799) before putting it in dramatic form. To my understanding, Ahmed’s play seeks to question the dichotomies of conventional historiography when it comes to the legacy of Tipu Sultan. Ahmed’s own research on Tipu Sultan, published in the September-December 2022 issue of the South Asian Review titled “Postcolonial Prisms” investigates Tipu Sultan as a part of the “‘master commemorative [state-sponsored, national] narrative’” in Pakistan. Subsequently, Shair-e-Mysore invites the audience to engage with Tipu Sultan through their pre-colonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial ambivalences. The play depicts Tipu as a revered and courageous Muslim tragic hero, but also opens debates about memorializing him in various contentious capacities – Tipu emerges as a freedom fighter, an idealist, a warrior par excellence, a politician and an economist with limited acumen, a despot, a fanatic, a dreamer, a byproduct of a confrontational psyche, a victim of circumstances, or all of the above and more.

The stagecraft of the production team was able to create and complement the literary and interpretive narratologies of the script with all the congruences and contradictions of Tipu’s life. The theatricality of the heroic and of the pathetic connects us effectively to the essential human tragedy of Tipu. Since the personal, in Tipu’s case, is intertwined with the historical, it reminded me of what Professor Emerita Phyllis Rackin highlights as the generic formation of Western tragic drama: “tragedies frequently took their subjects from history.”

Shair-e-Mysore is well-constructed on a plot that toys with semiotics. The playwright materialises a theatre engendering viable links between philosophies of drama and melodramatic psychologies. Its fact-gathering efforts associated with a consciousness for theatrics, the play represents a hurl of court-treacheries that overlap with the protagonist’s frustrations by portraying him as a perpetually struggling soul, a Sisyphus emboldened with grandeur. Tipu is simultaneously shown as a child suffering from and fortified by nightmares. Tipu grows up strong under paternal patronage to dream of his innovative horticultural and weaponry interests in 18th century Mysore. The hero of Shair-e-Mysore moves through haunting images of failure and the hypocritical clamor of his courtiers as the treacherous troika – the British, the Marathas, and the Nizam of Hyderabad – creep into the Sultanate like hissing snakes. Tipu oscillates between different objectives, a professional warrior’s admissible hubris gets pollinated with his (extra- and non-) marital affairs to delineate him as a murky star and a flawed human who is unable to understand the idiosyncrasies of hamartia and its ancient cosmologies. The court is cordoned off and chaotic transgressions overwhelm the habitation of Mysore, foretelling disaster.

There are many scenes in the play that foreground the captivating tricks of invisible dark forces, so that, overpowered by a web of hallucinatory intrigues and charms, Tipu’s logic is swayed by his love for land and lust for power, winning him presumably a moral victory in his military defeat. Nevertheless, a tragic hero of the Muslim world, South Asia in particular, Tipu’s tale, as told in this play, inverts the iconographies of the West, allowing him to live universally as a symbol of defiance, fortitude, and courage.

Given the limited resources at their disposal, the production team of GCDC deserves appreciation for not only imagining, but also managing Shair-e-Mysore from page to stage. With some nominal variance here and there, the play won laurels from the young Pakistani audience. The cast, including minor characters, performed aptly. From production to direction, and editing to acting, the overall performance was superb! The costumes and sets earned spontaneous praise. Even if the singly centralised set stayed static, which it did most of the time, the props moved, and the lights flickered or kindled, which made a huge difference in the audience’s perception of transitions between acts, scenes, timeframes and durations. These techniques not only helped make the presentation remarkably enticing, but also aided to keep the representation and its modalities and tonalities effective.

When it comes to costumes, those of Tipu, Lord Wellesley and Mir Sadiq were awesome. The other cast members were also adequately presented on stage, though there was some commonplace touch about their dressing and appearance. But even in this case, the lighting and sound effects were used efficiently, supported by placid background music, which created a specific percussion. The exploitation of these light/ music/ sound effects added to the presentation and helped the production moderate moments of excitement and flare. Within this context, the use of marked and measured stage space for interludes between scenes and between actors was well-balanced. The dramatic presentation of Tipu’s resistance to the troika with his famous and much-adored holy-cum-heroic sword was a powerful symbolic demonstration. Elaborated through laser lights, the scene lent a goosebump effect. In contrast, however, one wishes that the bedroom scenes could be less melodramatic.

To suggest as a spectator, Tipu’s tamed tiger-like gesticulations could be improved. Some more meaningful connections could have been added by showing a prop mechanical tiger on stage instead of just the background roar of a real one. Or, to offer more meaningful signatures in the final scene, Tipu could have been half-wrapped in tiger-skin fabric in place of the monotonous white one. Yet, the decision to let British forces mount the stage through the aisles, a sort of Brechtian-Pirandellian epic-theatre technique, brought in the “alienation” effect for the audience. In sum, Ahmed himself portraying Lord Wellesley, and the famous closing rumble of Tipu roaring about living one ideal day of liberation rather than a hundred years of subjugation, were the most impressive twirls of the play. One must also mention a highly engaging symbology presented in the form of the confrontation between the British Lion, as an emblem of colonial power, versus the Bengal Tiger, as a sign of Mysore challenging this power (implying simultaneously India versus England, East versus West, Muslim versus non-Muslim). This contained momentous climactic significance.

Witnessing the diligence in writing, directing and managing the Sultan’s complex though legitimate dreams, one feels the need for more comparative studies of the museology of Tipu Sultan – Pakistani, Indian, British, Eastern, Western, colonial, postcolonial, or decolonial. Tipu has been picked for movies in Pakistan in 1977 and 1978, Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali respectively, telecast as a soap in India in 1991 with the title The Sword of Tipu Sultan, popularised as a Pakistan television serial Tipu Sultan in 1997, and then staged as Girish Karnad’s 1997 “The Dreams of Tipu Sultan,” based on the Sultan’s own writings about his thirty-seven dreams. Tipu’s split between swords and dreams warrants a post-, de-, and anti-colonial monumentality for more chronographic realizations.

To conclude, while Shair-e-Mysore might reflect a weakened tragic emotion affianced through sensuous encounters, the play’s aesthetic judiciousness carries more weightage for a true tragic sorrow and its entangling element of guilt. Whether for its spiritual appeal, or for its animal cravings, a (re)viewer of the play like me feels like inquiring: Can this South Asian hero be equated to Greek tragic models and be offered international forums like Hollywood, Broadway, or the National Theatre? Can Tipu’s universal cogency of today be revisited from a more global perspective? Can Tipu’s dreams that disperse for free, and his legendary Wootz steel sword with golden hilt (that was used as a bedchamber weapon and that sells expensive for its antique value), be dramatised further for the protagonist’s rapturous heroism? Will a shift in our understanding of historiography this way make a difference in terms of our representation and perception of Tipu? Controversially transparent or transparently controversial, Tipu continues to be a divided hero of the tragic world for his bravery, stubbornness, sagacity, and solitude.