1659. Mughal India. A battle for succession between siblings. Prayas’ latest production retells the story of brothers Dara and Aurangzeb—one who had the love of the people and the other who merely loved the throne.

The Mughal empire history, spanning from the 1500s to 1857, brings the names of great emperors to the fore. The mind flips through the school history textbooks that narrated the legends of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, and Shah Jahan but seldom does it recall the names of emperors or their descendants who were not the main characters in the stories being written then. Prayas’ latest production highlights the life of one such prince.

In the crown-hungry Mughal Empire, where young princes eyeing the throne were slaying their own kin, Dara Shikoh—the beloved son of Emperor Shah Jahan—was a liberal-minded philosopher-prince.

His story, unfortunately, does not make it to the mainstream; many Indians still remain unacquainted with him. Had he made it to the throne, the course of history would have potentially altered drastically.

In Prayas’ Dara, this fleeting but enlightened figure comes to life. If you are not familiar with Indian Mughal history, don’t fret. Read the big boards next to the stage entrance to get a glimpse into the world you are about to set in and then leave the rest to the script and the convincing performances of the actors.

The play—originally written by Shahid Nadeem and adapted by Tanya Ronder—centres on Dara and Aurangzeb, two sons of Shah Jahan, with strikingly different personalities.

While one recited shayaris and scriptures from holy books, the other spoke the language of swords and spears. While one loved art, the other was a warrior. While one believed in recognising and respecting all religions, the other was a staunch believer of Islam. While one was the people’s prince, the other was hungry for power and prestige, and therein is where the feud lies.

Image: Shah Jahan ( played by Mustaq Missouri)

The play opens with a raging battle scene between Dara (Prateek Vadgaonkar) and Aurangzeb’s (Rishabh Kapoor) army. Well-known fight choreographer Alexander Holloway’s training is visible from the moment the ensemble cast enters the stage.

And the actors are wonderful to watch in motion; the ease with which they move, leaving room for only minor, pardonable errors, is commendable. To take a group of 23 actors—some familiar to the Prayas family and some new—and churn out a play would not have been an easy feat for directors Amit Ohdedar and Sananda Chatterjee.

An interesting character in this family conflict is Shah Jahan (Mustaq Missouri). The world knows about him and the story behind the magnificent marble sculpture that is the resting place of his beloved Mumtaz, but not many know the story of this ruler in the years that followed. Dara gives you a glimpse into this life, albeit in small—and sometimes comical—doses.

Dara is more than an intense domestic drama. Like Prayas’ last year’s production Swabhoomi, the play brings out a timely debate; in this case, it is the religious intolerance on rise in the world. And it is perfectly captured in the scene that unfolds in the court when Dara is questioned by prosecutor Talib—a role convincingly played by Aman Bajaj—who unabashedly questions Dara’s faith in Islam.

The conversation between the two reveals more about Prince Dara’s beliefs, his ideologies, and his way of life than the entire play itself. It gives Dara a voice the audience needs to hear: “Islam is the only path I follow; I just don’t reject the others.”

The court scene is long—20 minutes from what we were informed—but one of the finest in the play and it is the impassioned performances of the actors—Prateek, Aman, and Sahil Arora (Qazi Sayed)—and the effortless way in which they deliver their dialogues that makes it so engaging for the audience.

The scene is crucial to the story; it educates the audience on the lives of the two siblings when they were younger (watch out for the parable of the goat and the tiger) and leaves you with more than one question to ponder over. Biased as I may be to words, Dara’s dialogues leave an impact and while it is credit to the writer, the actor is the one who brings it to life on stage.

Other memorable performances are delivered by Sneha Shetty as the older Roshanara—the greedy and shrewd sister scheming with Aurangzeb—and Nona Shedde as the older Jahanara who stands by her father and Dara’s side. Also, watch out for Ram Manthry’s performance as Mian Mir in the second act. He is charismatic, witty, and wise.

Breaking the tension on the stage are also scenes depicting the lives of the siblings in their younger days—played by Aamir Kapasi (young Dara), Agustya Chandra (young Aurangzeb), Lajja Prajapati (young Roshanara), and Natasha Iyer (young Jahanara).

Dara, although a community theatre production, is an ambitious project. It is a challenge to acquaint an audience with a complex cast of characters but Dara shines through the 110 minutes of its runtime.

The set, designed by Bhavesh Bhutadia and Natasha Iyer, the elaborate costumes by Padma Akula, and, of course, the immaculate beards of the male members of the cast are just some of the ways through which Prayas recreates a slice of the 300-year Mughal rule in India.

The team successfully brings to light a piece of Mughal history that is now forgotten by most if not all. Whether you like to delve into history or not, Dara is a play that you could watch more than once. I certainly did.

Show dates: On until Sunday, June 24

Time: 7:30 p.m. on June 21 and 22, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on June 23, and 3 p.m. on June 24

Tickets available at www.tapac.org.nz.