Monumental dilemma

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Scientist and artist Niranjan Pedanekar tells us why he chose to translate and stage American playwright Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, during Pune Natyasattak

Shahi Paharedar, a Hindi-Urdu play, will begin with Hindi poet, scholar Uday Prakash’s quote — Iss Kahani Mein Utna Hi Itihas Jitna ki Dal Mein Namak. Directed by Niranjan Pedanekar, the play will premiere on Sunday night at the ongoing Pune Natyasattak theatre festival. 

Pedanekar bought the rights for Guards at the Taj originally written by US-based playwright of Indian origin, Rajiv Joseph, and its performances too. This is the second play of Joseph’s that Pedanekar will be staging for Pune audience. The first one, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo had premièred at Pune Natyasattak last year.

When asked what was it that he liked about Joseph’s writing, Pedanekar said, “I was trying to get hold of some plays which could be considered new by our audience here. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was one play which came under consideration. I found it to be extremely exciting because there was a strange mixture of absurdity and imagination and extremely peculiar circumstances under which normal characters behave in a certain way. 

“I also found that Rajiv’s writing was very immaculate. He had taken several years to write plays; there is a certain amount of craft put in there. A lot of plays, especially those in Marathi, rely on text and the text sounds as if it’s coming out of a playwright’s mouth and not from that of the character. So I wanted plays which essentially reflected character’s, not the playwright’s language. That’s what I found in Bengal Tiger... 

“Also, I felt that I had not explored Rajiv Joseph’s writing enough, so I looked at other plays of his. This one, Guards at the Taj, fit the bill. It was rooted in India and Indian circumstances, but also written in such a way that although, the characters speak like characters, they convey more than what they said.

Gained in translation
Pedanekar decided to write the play into Hindi-Urdu, because it made sense to have a play about the Taj Mahal in these languages. While he was writing, Pedanekar was sure that he did not want to change the play or adapt it in anyway. “But,” says he, “when you translate the play from English into Hindi-Urdu, it becomes a different way of talking; as if the characters have become different. The way Rajiv has written Guards at the Taj, it can be easily be performed by two stand-up comedians. When you take it into the Hindi-Urdu domain, the humour becomes different, the way the characters carry themselves becomes different. It became something specific in time, history and space for us in Indian context.” 

The play has two guards, Hooma and Babu, guarding the monument, on the eve of its opening. Both of them are itching to have a look at the grandiose monument, but if they do, a harsh punishment awaits them.

Commentary on power vs common man
Having said all that, Pedanekar and his team of actors — Suvrat Joshi and Omkar Govardhan — wondered that certain situations, based on an apocryphal story in the play, will fuel a certain thought process. “We then took care to remove the emotional attachment to the Taj Mahal and its surroundings through our design. Other productions that I had had a look at, had the monument in their stage design. Shahi Paharedar will be staged in such a way, that we make it more generalised. It is less about Mughals and Shah Jehan and the Taj Mahal, and more about commoners caught in a web. We will talk on what is duty, creativity, power and how does a commoner relate to all these. The play will have necessary disclaimers and some amount of fact finding too,” he adds.
Would it have made sense if he had written a new play in that case, we ask. To this Pedanekar responds, “There are certain advantages of using the context that Rajiv has used. If I had changed it, maybe I would have used Statue of Unity, for example. What I thought was that Rajiv’s characters are really interesting, the setting is familiar. I wanted to concentrate more on the characters and less on the  specific political scenario. This is where we have decontextualised it.”

Experiment in arts
Pedanekar, who is a scientist, says, “Experiment to me, means to make a hypothesis and to see if it is a hypothesis. Essentially, what I try to do, is take techniques, or take dramatic devices and see whether they can be used for a particular set of actors with a particular script, with some sort of framework. In research, you try to create something that adds to the body of knowledge; here, an experiment adds to the body of theatrical knowledge. In Shahi Paharedar, we are trying to find out whether the decontextualisation happens or not through our design.”

ST Reader Service
Hindi-Urdu play, Shahi Paharedar to be staged on January 20, 9.30 pm at Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha. Tickets are available at the venue and also at

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