As it closes its first season, Jagriti Theatre revives its 2004 production of Girish Karnad‘s “The Dreams of Tipu Sultan” with a mostly new cast. Karnad wrote the play for BBC radio in 1997, as part of the UK’s ‘celebration’ of India’s fiftieth year of Independence. In order to explore the earliest moments of this colonial encounter, Karnad turned to a little known historical document — Tipu Sultan’s record of his dreams. While many believe that Tipu’s dream register was a sign of a man who, facing certain defeat, resorted to various means of divination of stave off the inevitable end, Karnad uses the dreams to fashion a play that is layered and complex, about historiography as much as it is about history.
The opening scene is a conversation between two men who lived along side Tipu: together, they are writing the ‘history’ of a moment that they have witnessed. The English historian speaks of objective evidence and fact, the Indian chronicler speaks of subjective memory. Through that running conversation, a picture of a noble Tipu, his small-minded and treacherous allies and the devious and ambitious Englishmen he had to deal with, is vividly created.
Tipu Sultan surely remains one of the unsung heroes of our past, most especially in the state where he was born, consolidated a kingdom full of marvels and died, fighting for a larger idea of indigenous rule. A small example of Karnataka’s denial (or rather, rejection) of Tipu is the long-delayed naming of Bangalore’s new airport. Tipu was born in Devanahalli, where the new airport now shines in all its 21st century glory, but we considered naming it after Dr. Rajkumar before we settled on remembering Kempe Gowda as we land and take off. Tipu’s contribution to what we take for granted in this part of the country – whether it be Lal Bagh or the silk industry or the toys of Channapatna – is all but ignored.
Karnad’s play presents us with a far-sighted ruler and an introspective man. Concerned as Tipu, the ruler, was with securing and expanding his geographical territories, he equally had an eye on the increasing importance of international trade and the kind of power that was begnning to wield in the political arena. Long before any of his contemporaries and so-called allies, he understood the need for a united front of Indian rulers and satraps against the British, that this trading company had imperial designs which could only be achieved by playing off local rulers, one against the other. As Kirmani, the chronicler, says at the end of the play, “It was not Tipu’s dreams that came true, it was his predictions.” Pushed into a corner by the capitulation of his allies, paralysed by a brutal treaty that gave his young sons as hostages to the British and ultimately betrayed by his own nobles, Tipu was killed in battle as he defended the fort of Srirangapattnam, one of the first to fall, fighting, for what would later become a united India.
Karnad uses the content of the dreams to get past the public monarch, even past the considerate husband and loving father. Tipu interprets the images in his dreams and we see that they reveal hope and fear, ambition and aspiration, guilt and remorse. Of course, this gives us an unexpected intimacy with the historical Tipu, but it also provides a lens, a magnifying one, through which the minutiae of history can be viewed. Karnad masterfully juxtaposes this against the chronicler’s lament about the lens through which he sees history — the equally personal lens of memory.
Jagriti’s production of “Dreams” stays close to the script, presenting us with a series of tableaux and vignettes, beautifully lit and enthusiastically performed. With enormous attention paid to costume details (and a fine looking cast), each scene is like a painting. Raja exploits the lack of movement in the script fully, making us feel as if she’s turning the pages of a richly illustrated book before our eyes. While one could argue that this play works strongly enough on the page, there is little doubt that the dramatic visuals provided by a richly-staged production stay with us long after we have left the auditorium. Because of this production, Karnad’s finely drawn minor characters (Nana Phadnavis, for example) become more memorable, his scathing indictment of British rules of engagement and his acerbic comments about the Indian rulers ring louder, his challenges to the ways in which histories and historical figures are constructed more fully demand our attention.
In short, “The Dreams of Tipu Sultan” is worth seeing because it gets us thinking about the idea of history – what is left in and what is taken out, who tells it and how, whose agenda is served and why. We’re still fighting for the right to tell our own stories in our own voices in our own time in our own country. “Dreams” reminds us that we may not be heard until much later.