India Fired: How ‘Fire’ Always Featured Majorly in Indian History
On World Theatre Day Celebrations, an exclusive excerpt of a play which connects the over’whelming presence of fire across Indian history — Rama killing Ravana with an ‘agni’ ban, Sita being asked to give ‘agni’ pariksha, Kauravas trying to burn the Pandavas during their vanavas, Gandhiji asking people to burn British clothes, Chauri-Chaura, Partition riots, burning of Sikhs during riots, self-immolation incidents during the anti-Mandal agitation to the candle lights we burn today in civil agitation….. India was always a bit ‘fired-up’.
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A School Play: Scripted & Directed by Anurag Yagnik.
When the screen lifts, the stage has a familiar setting of Ramayana. Ravana, the ten-headed demon king, is facing Lord Rama, the ideal man-god, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who has been sent to punish evil and establish the reign of good on earth.
“Rama, you are no God; you are a charlatan, with nothing divine about you. Get ready to die,” the monster king screams. Lord Rama, supremely confident, smiles, and takes an aim at Ravana’s chest with his final divine arsenal, the agni baan.
The boys had arranged for a real fire-lit arrow for Ravindra, who was playing Ravana, to shoot at Chirag, who was playing Rama, who collapses, laughing.
Fire spreads throughout the stage.
Shabbir, the best-looking boy in the class, plays Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five brothers in the epic, Mahabharata. The scene is where his evil cousins, the hundred Kauravas, burn down his house which is made of wax.
Shabbir, made up as the gambling addict Yudhishthira, delivers his dialogue with pain in his heart: “Is this all there is left of Dharma, of ethics, of righteousness in power . . . O Duryodhana, my brother? Will you evoke such hatred for your brothers for vain, futile power?”
The fire, actually just a flickering yellow light cast from the sides, along with the thunderous sounds created by the drums of dilettante musicians, did a good job. Well-rehearsed players moved behind quickly, changing the scene from mythological to historic times.
Kartik, short but strongly built, stood with a resolute look, his head held high, leading his undefeated Greek Army as Alexander the Great, ordering the vanquished emperor Porus to be held and dragged in chains, and be brought in front of him. Sushant — dark, tall, with longish straight hair, and huge eyes — as Porus, did exactly as Anurag had instructed him — walking slowly and reluctantly, thereby making the efforts the soldiers dragging him visible.
“How would you like to be treated, O Porus?” Alexander disdainfully challenges. Porus, jaded with the weight of gold ornament and bloody from the scars, replies with equal disdain, “As an emperor should treat another, Alexander.”
The Greek destruction of India with fire was largely recreated with background verbiage, Anurag’s voice reflecting upon the significance of the saga, emphasizing the role of fire across India’s fifty centuries of being.
Babur, an Afghan warlord and the founder of the Mughal dynasty, arrives in India to conquer the divided, petty kingdoms with firepower never witnessed before in wars in the country. His cannons minced infantries and cavalries of the Delhi king Lodhi, and this cannon fire changed the course of history.
“Break every temple, build a holy mosque in its place,” thunders the mighty, intolerant Mughal ruler aka Chirag, who was back on stage in his new costume, hoping his sword would not fall off. “These barbaric idol worshippers must be taught a lesson. Uproot this kafir race from their routes till they accept the enlightenment of Islam.”
Shabbir, this time a supreme devotee and priest of Lord Rama, dares Babur at the most famous of Ram’s temples, at his very birthplace, the mythological Ayodhya. “Burn our temples, break them, O vain, proud, intolerant warrior, but be aware, this temple shall spring up again and again. No mosque you build, not out of reverence for your own belief but disrespect for another religion, can stand. The temple of our Lord Ram at Ayodhya will come back, O Babur, replacing your mosque a thousand times.”
Quick snippets from history followed: friends dutifully abiding by a strange new boy’s whims and directorial dictates; playing roles of heroes and villains from ancient times to medieval to modern, while school audiences marvelled at the integrating theme of fire and the destruction unleashed every time in Indian history.
Sushant looked a bit stupid as he forgot part of his dialogues, their sequence, and timing, as the last, old decaying Mughal emperor, while he symbolically united the country for its first real war against the British in 1857. “Let us march to Delhi: from Meerut to Lucknow, from Aligarh to Jhansi, from Cawnpore to Calcutta. Hindus and Muslims, united, against the white man’s unjust rule.”
Fire from guns and the torching of forts. Of rebellious kings, their queens and children, even as patriotic Indians torch British families. Fire springing from strange sources to change a nation’s destiny. All this while school boys rushed — changing roles, dying and killing, rushing to change garbs, switching between centuries. . . all at the call and instruction of an uncompromising new boy’s sense of drama.
“He actually set the stage on fire. And some firing we got from the teachers and the principal later on,” reflected Chirag with a laugh. “Worse was what he replied to all of them: ‘a fire within will spark one outside’. Fire within, indeed.”
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Excerpts from Autobiography of a Mad Nation — the only Indian novel set in the backdrop of a passion for theatre.