A simple premise: what if the 19th-century Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Ghalib was reincarnated in the present day in Delhi, the city that was his home for most of his life? This idea forms the crux of Ghalib In New Delhi, which has been staged in the Indian capital since 1997, performed more than 500 times over 26 years, making it one of the longest-running comedic plays in the country. The play is satirical, with a dynamic script that changes to reflect the political and social shifts in the capital and the country. Inadvertently, Ghalib in New Delhi has charted Delhi’s transformations over the last 26 years, acting almost like a chronicler of the city’s recent history.
It is fitting that the play’s principal character is Mirza Ghalib, an iconic Delhi-ite who lived between 1797 and 1869. Ghalib was born in Agra, some 250 kilometres from Delhi, and witnessed the decline of the Mughal Empire, which ruled much of Southasia between the 16th and 19th centuries. Ghalib witnessed the rule of the East India Company, and then direct administration by the British government after the Indian uprising of 1857. He began writing at the age of 11 and moved to Delhi at 13 years old, and was there to see and later record the city’s ruin as British forces stamped out the 1857 rebellion. While Ghalib’s work in Persian is much more voluminous than his work in Urdu, and appeared dearer to him, it was his Urdu work that has fed his fame after his death.
Ghalib in New Delhi captures Delhi’s changes in the last 26 years under three overarching categories – politics, geography and language.
The play has always begun with Ghalib’s rebirth at an inter-state bus terminal, where he meets a paan-seller and comes face-to-face with the behemoth that is inflation when he tries to buy paan. The play then follows his initial attempts to get to Ballimaran, the mansion where he once lived, located in what is now known as Old Delhi. On his quest he comes across characters ranging from auto drivers and rickshaw pullers to an alcoholic and a corrupt police officer. The play explores his interactions in a comical manner, while sprinkling in dialogue about what is currently happening in the city.
Eventually, Ghalib finds refuge at the rented accommodation of a Delhi University student living in his landlord’s servant quarters. Here he learns about his enduring popularity in the modern day and quickly adapts to the demands of today’s consumerist culture – he translates his poetry, puts out ads about his skills and finds success. The last act of the play shows Ghalib out of his traditional attire and lounging in a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, on a phone call with someone from heaven, recounting his experiences while making several quips about modern Delhi. In the final scene, he makes a remark about a new book he is working on – a running joke of Ghalib in New Delhi. In the latest version of the play, it is titled “Romance in Ghalib’s Poetry: A Post-Independence, Post-Modern, Post-Congress, Post-BSP, Post-Samajwadi, Post-Notebandi, Post-GST, Post-370, Post-Sunak Perspective”.
M Sayeed Alam is the director and writer of the play, and leads the theatre group Pierrot’s Troupe, which performs it. Currently, he also plays the titular Ghalib. According to Alam, the script was born out of love and appreciation for Ghalib and the Urdu language. The work’s dynamism can be attributed to Alam’s knowledge of current events, his PhD in political science from Aligarh Muslim University and his knowledge of Urdu literature. Recounting the many changes in a script that has been constantly morphing, he reminisced on some scenes past. “When the play began, we had a scene where Ghalib becomes the Urdu tutor of H D Deve Gowda, then prime minister of the country,” he said. “That government collapsed, so we removed that scene.”
Ghalib teaching Urdu to Deve Gowda can be interpreted in two ways. First, Gowda was one of the few Indian prime ministers hailing from the south of the country, while Urdu is a tongue of the north. The scene could be taken as a comment on the country’s linguistic and cultural politics – linguistic identity is especially fierce in the south, and anxieties about northern imposition on the south run high. In that scene, Ghalib actually ends up learning Kannada, Deve Gowda’s mother tongue. A second, more straightforward read is that the scene references the fact of Ghalib being a tutor to rulers in his day. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, appointed Ghalib as his tutor for poetry and, later, as the royal historian of his court.
According to Alam, Ghalib in New Delhi captures Delhi’s changes in the last 26 years under three overarching categories – politics, geography and language. Several of the scenes initially included and later removed remain eerily relevant today – for instance, one where Ghalib is unable to take possession of his mansion, even after the government agrees that he is indeed Ghalib, because he does not have any modern-day proof of his identity. Another scene that was later removed involved a press conference called by Ghalib, which served as an opportunity to cover political developments and cinema from the late 1990s. There was also once a scene where Ghalib was considered a prime ministerial candidate – a reference to the coalition politics of the time. After Independence in 1947, India had mostly seen one-party rule at the national level. It was after 1989 that coalitions began to see success in national elections. In the 1990s, these governments were very fragile, and several did not complete their full 5-year term. The Deve Gowda government, which was in power when the play was first performed, lasted less than a year.
Once the play begins, there is an atmosphere of raucous laughter, a feeling of an inside joke shared between one of Delhi’s most revered icons and the audience.
“I have to think about what recent developments I can add,” Alam said, “what will not get a response from the audience and what is still in the audience’s subconscious.” In the most recent performance at the time of writing, staged in late December 2022, quips about the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress party’s march to “unite India”, were a big hit with the audience. Alam chuckled and said that mentions of Pathaan, the latest Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster, will probably find a place in the next script.
In later adaptations, Ghalib’s roommate, the Delhi University student, becomes his conduit to learning more about Delhi and the country at the time the play is being staged. Before his conversation with his roommate, Ghalib knows little to nothing about recent political developments. By the last scene, he is well-versed on the political and social fronts.
Recent performances have seen mention of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the protests against it, the farmer’s protests that reached Delhi’s borders, and the pandemic. While the CAA and the Shaheen Bagh protests were referenced most in 2019 and 2020, including in the play’s opening scene, the latest iteration still references the protests a couple of times.
Ghalib In New Delhi has been performed all over the country, and even the world, but regular performances take place on weekends in Mandi House. Centrally located, Mandi House is the nerve centre of Delhi theatre, housing the National School of Drama and most of Delhi’s influential indoor theatres.
Once the play begins, there is an atmosphere of raucous laughter, a feeling of an inside joke shared between one of Delhi’s most revered icons and the audience. The set design is simple, with props like beds, chairs and a street-side paanwallah’s stall that are changed between scenes as needed. Ghalib’s costume stands out and is designed in the style he wore when he was alive – mainly a long kurta and a topi.
Beyond the jokes, the play masterfully succeeds in breaking the fourth wall. This happens when Ghalib, once played by the legendary theatre actor Thomas Alter, breaks into one of his shayaris, or couplets, and pauses for the audience to finish it, which they eagerly do. During some performances, Ghalib, in a fit of curiosity, walks off the stage and between the aisles, interacting with the audience and asking questions.
The final scene, where Ghalib is stripped of his traditional attire and forgoes his signature beard for a modern, clean-shaven look, almost feels like a conversation with the audience. This is Ghalib metamorphosed into a modern Indian, monologuing about his experiences as the audience intently listens, often bursting into laughter, in recognition.
Beyond changes of government, the play has also captured many social and cultural landmarks, including major ideological shifts in the last eight years following the arrival of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in the national capital. Geographically, too, Delhi has changed and grown. It now includes the National Capital Region, an urban conglomerate that takes in the cities of Gurgaon and Noida, each in a different neighbouring state. The reincarnated Ghalib struggles with the language now spoken in the city. In the 26 years that the play has run, this has changed from a composite mix of Hindi and Urdu to one that also has strong accents of Punjabi and ‘Hinglish’, a mixture of Hindi and English. All of this is reflected in the way the play’s contemporary characters speak.
As a playwright, Alam asserted, he is a neutral observer, and the play’s script includes comments humourously criticising both the current regime and the opposition. In this sense, the play avoids making explicit political judgments. Satire will always be directed against the current establishment, Alam said, and his play simply reflects what is happening in the city.
During the government of the Congress, Manmohan Singh, the troupe was invited to perform for the Lok Sabha, the Indian legislature’s lower house. “We got a call from the Parliament asking that none of the political comments be removed,” Alam recalled. “The then prime minister wanted to hear what was being said against him.”
Shaista, who goes by the stage name Bhoomi Nighat Siraj, is an actor from the troupe and performs the role of Alka in the play. Alka is an advertising agent who comes up with several campaigns with her partner for Ghalib, and is often rebuked by the poet.
For Bhoomi, the play owes a lot of its success and longevity to the ever-changing script. “This play is not just a comedy, but a satire,” she said. “It is a mirror of the world’s political scenario. Anything from the smallest issue to the greatest issue is portrayed in such a light-hearted manner that the audience can’t help but feel happy, or feel sad. It is a mirror of society. It is a contemporary play, an evergreen play, and even after the next 10 or 15 years, it will be the same.”
Notwithstanding the success of Ghalib In New Delhi, all is not well for Delhi theatre. Sudhanva Deshpande, a theatre director and actor who has been a part of the Jana Natya Manch theatre group since 1987, and the author of Halla Bol, a biography of the communist street theatre stalwart Safdar Hashmi, feels that the current political dispensation and ideology is heavily impacting the theatre scene.
Beyond changes of government, the play has also captured many social and cultural landmarks, including major ideological shifts in the last eight years following the arrival of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in the national capital.
“The theatre centred around Delhi’s Mandi House area has always been largely impacted by the National School of Drama, and the NSD has seen a real and dramatic decline where one finds that the kind of openness, however limited, that the NSD had earlier, is kind of under threat,” Despande said. He pointed to the example of the play Titumir, which was scheduled to be performed at the NSD in February but was cancelled at the last minute.
“The director of the play has come out in the open saying that they received a call and nothing was communicated in writing,” Deshpande said. “The director says that he was explicitly asked if the play was critical of the government. This kind of question being asked by the NSD is absolutely shocking. This is just one example but it brings into focus the sort of ideological narrowness that has gripped the NSD.”
Speaking to The Wire, the director of Titumir, Joyraj Bhattacharjee, explained, “To me it is very clear why this has happened. The hero of this play is Titu Mir, an unsung hero of the freedom movement. He is a perfect fit with the theme. But because he is a practicing Muslim, it is very evident that the authorities, the NSD, the Ministry of Culture and this government got scared and suspicious.”
Bhattacharjee was asked to provide a video recording of the play, even though the Bharat Rang Mahotsav national theatre festival committee had initially invited him to stage it. He was unable to do so until after it had been staged, on 17 January. The NSD said the play was cancelled as the director had not provided the script and video of the play in advance.
According to Deshpande, undergraduate students at Delhi University are doing good work in theatre but are facing similar administrative blocks to their freedom of expression. “Increasingly one finds that young people are having a problem in making the plays that they want to make,” he said. “For instance, if you bring in any reference to Kashmir, then you won’t be allowed to perform the play. Just the word ‘Kashmir’ is enough for your play not to be allowed to be performed. The openness where students could put up plays and express what they wanted to about what concerned them in the country is just harder and harder to do.”
Ghalib In New Delhi has cemented itself as an indelible part of Delhi’s threatre culture, but one has to wonder whether plays that are critical of the establishment, or even simply commenting on, will come up against administrative oppression in future.