Play shows B'luru through people's memories of city's iconic Akhtar Begum

Through anecdotes surrounding Begum Mahal, the play tells the stories of the working class and trans communities, who were also part of the cast and crew.
Play shows B'luru through people's memories of city's iconic Akhtar Begum
Play shows B'luru through people's memories of city's iconic Akhtar Begum
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“She was a rowdy woman,” a wealthy old man says, recounting with disdain how the woman he is referring to would recklessly park her Buick in the middle of MG Road, defiant even of the police. A working class transgender character on the same stage fondly recalls, “I’ve heard she would drive around the city in her big car like a queen.”

Both the characters are talking about Akhtar Begum, namesake of the play ‘Freedom Begum’, an oral history project on a part of Bengaluru which came to life on stage on July 30.

Begum Mahal was an old controversial bungalow in Ulsoor, now survived only by a bus stop by the same name. The story of such monuments disappearing from urban landscapes amid shady real estate deals and redevelopment plans may be a universal one across cities, but director A Mangai says what sets Begum Mahal of Ulsoor apart is the personality of Akhtar Begum inextricably interwoven into it.  

Begum Mahal is believed to have been destroyed under mysterious circumstances overnight nearly 25 years ago, and Akhtar Begum’s son Raheem’s suspicious death adds to the cloud of mystery around the property. The play does not attempt to offer a definitive explanation about what happened to the building or the family. Instead, as oral histories tend to do, it muses over the interviewees’ experiences through their memories and perceptions of the past. In exploring a small part of a fast-changing city’s landscape, it tells us as much about its present as about its past. 

At first it was just supposed to be a research project by Rumi Harish, Sunil Mohan R and Radhika Raj, who set out to understand the complex story of Begum Mahal, the person and the place. “There are so many versions of the story that it became difficult to capture in an academic paper. So, we wanted portray it in a play,” Mangai says.  

The play tells Begum Mahal’s story as a ballad, through the memories of people who lived and worked around the Begum Mahal area. The play uses Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Dakhani, Urdu, Hindi and English to tell the story through diverse voices. Karagattam, a folk dance performed to appease the rain goddess Mariamman, is employed as a performative and narrative device, which, according to the director, stands in for the migrant Tamil labourers who migrated here a hundred years ago and now have descendants settled around the Begum Mahal area.  

“In the Ulsoor Karaga, it’s primarily the Tamil people and the trans people who participate,” says Mangai, explaining that the art form was chosen for the play as it was practiced by intersectional communities. “For me, the music and the karagam survived to tell the tale, when you don’t have anything else,” she adds. The music has been composed by Sathya Sharath N and Bindhu Malini, who has composed music for films like Aruvi. The Karagattam was choreographed by Rosi, a trans artist, and Shabari Rao, a dance educator and researcher.  

The play depicts the way people hold on to certain ideas of a place or a person for solace, particularly members of communities who have historically faced violence and oppression. For instance, some of the workers and trans persons in the play reminisce about the former opulence of the palace, the huge number of cars, the feasts (involving beef biryani, as is repeatedly and fondly noted), and the Begum’s charm and warmth. “She was beautiful, like a heroine,” one of the characters says at one point.

In another instance, a seemingly well-to-do man tells the researcher that his father fell in love with Begum and married her, giving her the prime properties of ‘Freedom’ Theatre and Begum Mahal. As he whines about how she ‘ruined’ the first-rate property by giving it away to workers at cheap rates, berating her repeatedly, the others doing Karagattam in the background either mock his high handedness, or jump to Begum’s defense. The dance form is used to portray resistance, Mangai explains.

“They have their own way of resisting. With Karagattam, they could offer commentary upon the stepson’s version. It was like being held in a people’s court,” says Mangai. 

The play also pokes fun at the way history is largely told and retold by cisgender heterosexual upper caste men, rehashing cliches and deliberately excluding alternate narratives. When the person playing the researcher asks a man to talk about Begum Mahal, he instead tells her about the perfect weather in Bengaluru in the past, and the glory of MG Road in the colonial era. 

In such a context, the play underlines the significance of creating alternate histories, narrative, icons and symbols. The characters’ nostalgia for the heritage of the bungalow therefore, is not as a vintage, private property, but as a collective public space, physical and virtual. 

With the characters putting on the karagams – a pot full of rice, decorated with flowers – on and off as the play switches between Karagattam and interviews, at one point, the venue is literally transformed into a jatre (fair). As the audience is served panakam (jaggery lemonade) and the actors invite them to dance along, it feels like we are celebrating Begum Mahal, or her memories, rather than Mariamman.  

Delighted with the audiences’ response to the Bengaluru premiere of Freedom Begum at Ravindra Kalakshetra on Tuesday, Mangai says, “Towards the end, one of the karagams fell mid-performance and the rice spilled out. Everyone from Begum Mahal had talked about how she always (Akhtar Begum) fed people. It felt like a sign from her. I felt very emotional.” 

The play, which has received support from the India Foundation for the Arts, is presented by Raahi, a Bengaluru-based group of sexual and gender minorities. 

“When you talk about queer stories, we still mainly talk about their identity, about being violated or coming out. Now, I think we need to hear them talk about other things beyond their identities. I think even the community members in the audience were happy because you don’t have to really open out your cupboards to everybody all the time. You don’t have to take on that responsibility. If you happen to talk about it, it’s fine, but your life consists of other things as well. Here, for instance, are these people, worrying about a heritage building, gone for profit reasons,” says Mangai. 

Freedom Begum will next be performed at the Chennai International Queer Film Festival on Sunday.  

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