Guards at the Taj: Exceptional acting enhances brilliant production by Rasa Theatre

Rasa Theatre’s production of playwright Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Guards at the Taj’ is directed by Rahul Thomas, with Rahul and Sidharth Varma playing Babur and Humayun, two guards at the Taj Mahal.
Rahul Thomas and Sidharth Varma as Babur and Humayun
Rahul Thomas and Sidharth Varma as Babur and HumayunInstagram / Rasa Theatre Collective

For most tourists who have visited the Taj Mahal, there is one frame that remains unforgettable — that moment when you first get a full view of the mausoleum, just as you step inside through the main gateway. It is nearly impossible to not be moved by the beauty in that moment, sunlight reflecting off the white Taj in the distance, framed against the red sandstone of the arches.

The first scene of Rasa Theatre Collective’s latest production Guards at the Taj ends with Babur and Humayun, the only two characters in the play, overcome by a sense of the sublime as they see the Taj Mahal for the first time at dawn on the day of its unveiling. It is this beauty and its potential death that the play explores, along with other major themes like power, duty, and friendship.

This brilliant production of playwright Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj (2015) is directed by Rahul Thomas, with Rahul and Sidharth Varma playing Babur and Humayun, two guards in the ‘Imperial Guards of the walled city of Agra’. The play opens with Babur and Humayun standing guard at the Taj Mahal on the night before its unveiling.

Babur and Humayun are ‘old pals’, yet there couldn’t be two men who are completely different from each other. Babur is the romantic among the two, with an imagination that is as big a part of him as his curiosity. As for his job, there is nothing he could care less about. Humayun, on the other hand, is pragmatic, and is neither imaginative nor curious like his friend. The son of the ‘chief top boss man’ of the imperial guards, Humayun is very particular about fulfilling his duties and doing no wrong in the eyes of his elders. While Babur adores beauty, his pal Humayun struggles to name a single beautiful thing.

The play is premised on the urban legend that upon the completion of the Taj Mahal, emperor Shah Jahan ordered that the hands of the 20,000 men who worked on it be chopped off, “so that nothing as beautiful may ever be built again”. The job falls on the lowliest of the imperial guards, Babur and Humayun. Through an entire night, Babur chops off 40,000 hands, while Humayun cauterises the stumps. When it dawns on him that by the emperor’s logic, the Taj Mahal will be the last beautiful thing to ever be made, Babur cries helplessly, “I killed beauty.”

The Taj is certainly not the only thing of beauty in the play. There is beauty in Babur and Humayun’s friendship, the extent of which is shown when the latter knows exactly how to keep Babur calm as guilt tightens its grip on him. Yet, at a later point, Humayun is forced to put duty and obedience to the emperor above their friendship. The conflict in the characters’ minds is poetically presented on stage.

But can an autocrat’s diktat forever kill beauty? Will beauty find a way to re-emerge, no matter how many hands are chopped off to suppress it? The play ends on the note that beauty never dies and instead, triumphs over all else.

I had gone for the play with a friend – a teacher of English Literature – and so, the drive back was, unsurprisingly, spent uncovering the literary references woven into the play. But even if the audience was to miss the references, it doesn’t take away from the viewing experience.

There is Hamlet’s “Who’s there?”, a question that, like the watchmen of Elsinore, the guards at the Taj also are expected to pose. But it is also a question that Humayun seems to constantly ask, a caution bordering on paranoia as he tries to appear dutiful in the eyes of the elders. Then there is Lady Macbeth, when Babur obsessively washes off the blood from his face after the hand chopping, unable to bear the burden of having “killed beauty”. The play is also similar to both Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with two central characters driving it. There are striking resemblances to Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon in some of the exchanges between Babur and Humayun.

The play stood out not just because of its subject and writing, but also because of its actors, music, technical finesse, and neat production design.

Rahul as Babur proves to be an actor par excellence. Literal tears roll down his cheeks, seemingly effortlessly, as Babur first takes in the beauty of the Taj. An equal match to him is Sidharth as Humayun.

The lights, shadows, and complete darknesses of the minimalist stage and the limited number of props were perfectly showcased by Sidharth’s light design. Scene transitions meant the lights went off but the music in the background continued on, the play never pausing. The transitions were kept alive, for instance, by Humayun humming to Babur off stage, or the sound of hands being chopped — metal grinding, followed by a dull thud.

While the premise of the hand chopping order sets up the background for the themes that the play focuses on, it is difficult to ignore the fact that it is a mere urban legend. The claim is neither backed by evidence, nor recorded by any historian. Rasa could have, for the benefit of the lay viewer, included a disclaimer to this effect.

Over the past decade during which the BJP has ruled India, the myth of Shah Jahan’s infamous orders have been used by prominent party leaders as well as cadres to sow the seeds of polarisation. The myth plays neatly into the hands of the Hindutva right-wing that has declared war against India’s Mughal past. The question that remains for Rasa is — could this further villainisation of a Mughal emperor have been avoided in today’s communally charged atmosphere?

Guards at the Taj contains parallels to the current political climate — sedition, which only the emperor can define, can cost you your life. I remain undecided over whether the fact that the parallels are quite obvious and not very original reflect poorly on the play or the country.

Guards at the Taj premiered at the Ala Centre for Culture in Mulanthuruthy, Ernakulam, over the February 24-25 weekend. The play was the third production of Rasa Theatre Collective, a Kochi-based theatre group. 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the play. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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