Word Is The World: Tumhaari Amrita Completes Twenty Years On Stage

February 27, 2012 at 9:15 AMFeb (Letter, Literature, Media, Theater)

It was two decades ago that the play Tumhaari Amrita was first staged. It was in Prithvi Theaters of Mumbai, the then Bombay. A recent report in The Hindu reveals that Feroze Abbas Khan, the director of the play, while preparing the play for its first show, thought that the play wouldn’t go beyond four shows. But after two decades the play still continues to pull the crowd and today the play is being staged in Mumbai after yesterday’s show in New Delhi, to mark the completion of twenty years.

Tumhaari Amrita is a play telling the story of two individuals Amrita Nigam and Zulfikar Haider through the letters exchanged between them for 35 long years. Amrita and Zulfi sit on the stage with a pile of letters and read out the letters. This play with no stage movement unfolds before us and enacts itself in the realm of our minds through words. Experimental in its own way the play actually challenges the traditional norms of staging a play and succeeds in giving a fresh and euphoric experience.

Amrita and Zulfi are not just different individuals belonging to two different religion but are also different in terms of their outlook, approach, intensity, temper and also taste. But these differences stop them neither from loving each other nor from writing letters to each other. They pamper each other, they play pranks with each other, they advise each other, they fight with each other, they criticize each other they encourage each other. In one sentence, they live with each other through the ups and downs of life, through letters. Though they do not come together they do not stay apart too for they cannot stay apart.

Two worlds meet through words. At one point of the play Zulfi says that writing letters to Amrita has become an essential part of his life. Amrita once after meeting Zulfi writes to him saying she loves him more in letters than in real life. It is not just two worlds meeting through words but two worlds coming to life, for themselves and for each other, through words. In the play where the ‘word’ is the king, the worlds of Amrita and Zulfi get unfolded before the audience through words and thus the word becomes the world, in the moving tale of Tumhaari Amrita.

Through these words what unfolds is not just the tale of Amrita and Zulfi but also the tale of the times in which the play is set. The play begins in 1940 and goes to the time of Emergency in India. The pains of partition, the insecure position of Muslims in the post independence India, the communal riots in Meerut, the turbulence of the 70s and the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi cuts through the lives of Amrita and Zulfi and thus becomes a part of the narrative of the play, which while encapsulating the lives of Amrita and Zulfi in words also encapsulates the tale of the times.

Feroze Abbas Khan, in the recent interview to The Hindu, said that a friend from Gujarat gave him a copy of A.R. Gurney’s play Love Letters which he thought was not a play for the Indian audience, even though he liked the play. Being at the peak of his theater career then he thought of staging the play for the Prithvi festival and contacted Javed Siddiqui to write the very same play with Indian context. Javed Siddiqui, who says that he liked the form of A.R. Gurney’s play but not the content, went on to write a play with the same form in mind but a play of his own. Thus flowered Tumhaari Amrita which though started off to become an adaptation of A.R. Gurney’s play went on to become an independent play which Javed Siddiqui prefers to call a play by him ‘inspired’ from A.R. Gurney’s play.

The play has not been published yet and all the rights of staging it is with the Feroze Abbas Khan team. But interestingly the play has not just been translated into Kannada but also published. As the Kannada translator Jayanth Kaikini mentions may be this is a unique incident in the history of literature and publication where the translation is published first and not the original. It was translated by Jayanth Kaikini, in the year 2002, for the Saket team of Arundathi Nag who wanted to stage the play as a precursor to her major project- Ranga Shankara. The play was directed by M.S. Sathyu, who incidentally was the person who, in 1992, had escorted Feorze Abbas Khan to Javed Siddiqui. The play won the hearts of the people of Karnataka and so did the play, in written format, when Manohar Grantha Maala in the year 2003 published the play. The beautiful translation of Tumhaari Amrita as Iti Ninna Amrita, for many a Kannadigas, has made the play a play of Kannada itself. So, when Tumhaari Amrita is celebrating twenty years Iti Ninna Amrita is also celebrating its decennial.

Shabana Azmi, who plays the role of Amrita in Tumhaari Amrita once said that the original pile of letter to be read out on stage had increased from 100, during its first show, to 300 now for the change in eye power over the time. This also speaks of the amount of river water that has flowed into the sea from the time of the first show of the play. She says that often she jokes with Farooque Sheikh, who plays Zulfi in the play, that the play will follow them even after their death and that the two will have to perform the play in the other world too.

The play follows the audience throughout their life by moving them deeply and by pulling the chords of their hearts. It lives with them. It can also be read like a novel or a novella being alone in silence, without being staged. I know of many, including myself, who with friends read out the entire play. They live out the play, while reading it either in a group or in seclusion.

Amrita at the moment of death pleads Zulfi to keep writing to her even after her death. She commits suicide and asks Zulfi to keep writing to her! She lives her death. This passion, this intensity, this eccentricity captivates! It could even scare death. So, the death is also lived. The play also continues to live- on stage, through words- even after two decades when it was assumed that it wouldn’t go beyond four shows.

1 Comment

  1. malathi S said,

    Very well written Samvartha!! next time round am not gonna miss the show!!

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