Begum Mahal was both a woman and her house. The two are embodied as one in Freedom Begum with a haunting melancholia.
I once lived in an old whitewashed house beneath a pink cassia tree, at 58 St. Mark’s Road, Bangalore. A limitless house that was home to artists for nigh on 80 years. When we were forced to leave, we painted on its walls the names of everyone who had passed through its blue doors. Today it houses Zumba and yoga classes. This play, thus, cuts close to the bone.
Presented by Raahi and supported by the India Foundation for the Arts’ Project 560, Freedom Begum is about the loss of inclusive public spaces in the city, specifically Bangalore. While the mourning for such spaces often centres around heritage buildings and is expressed through nostalgia for colonial architecture, very rarely do we hear from people whose lives and culture have been erased by gentrification. Through the metaphor of a house that was open and inviting, Freedom Begum mourns the death of a certain liberalism in the city.
The play begins with a ritual establishment of space. Actors convert the four homogenous boards on stage into a buzzing multi-verse of people, colours, genders and languages. Tamil, Dakkhani, Kannada, Telugu and English rub shoulders, replicating the Cantonment patois familiar to me.
More specifically, this multiplicity is the true lingua franca of Ulsoor, where the legendary Begum Mahal once stood, alongside the Gurudwara. Ironically, all that remains is an eponymous bus stop used only by the working class and a five-star hotel that will never be used by the working class. Except in the capacity of servants.
The photographer, Ranjit Chettur, once said “I spent two years in Begum Mahal’s shadow. Eventually, I saw an open top, lurid blue Impala and the lady herself!” This was the Bangalore I grew up in, home to myths and mavericks. The play, in its attention to multiple histories, reminded me of this.
To stage right, at a desk, is the ubiquitous “social researcher” who begins an enquiry into the mystery of Begum Mahal. Who was this woman? How do we comprehend the space she offered the trans community? To stage left is a platform for the influencers of history, Begum Mahal’s step son, an affluent neighbour. The rest is occupied by the “small” people: hijras, tangawallahs, autodrivers, vendors.
The story from the influencers is as old as power hierarchy itself. As the ones who profit from gentrification, they describe Begum Mahal in terms of immorality, notoriety and comeuppance.
The son says to the researcher “She thought she was Queen Victoria. Fat and round, she tried to dress up like that statue in Cubbon Park, wearing white gowns…” But the trans community describe her poetically, calling her mother, singing paeans to the Friday evening parties where her doors were thrown open. The ethical question posed to the audience is this: which account is more democratic?
The form of the play echoes the freedom and inclusivity that is yearned for by the “small” characters. They tell us: “Big people, small stories, small people – BIG stories.”
Mariamman or Renuka, the pre-Vedic deity beloved of the trans community is invoked. The semiotics of the Ulsoor Karaga festival, which has historically been intersectional and inclusive of a large Tamilian and trans population is juxtaposed with the main narrative about the fascinating Akhtar Begum of Hyderabad.
Aktar Begum was the second wife of the owner of Liberty Talkies on MG Road in the city. The trans people hail her rebirth as “Freedom Begum,” Queen of the Underdog. Actors sing, dance, mock the influencers and parry about globalisation. The onstage energy evokes the quality of her Friday night revelries and this fervour is extended to the audience.
The actors break the fourth wall and share glasses of panakam, a jaggery sweetened drink with us. There is no divide, the theatrical form seems to say, let us enjoy our oneness.
The death of Begum Mahal is the tragic epicentre of the play. Begum is gone and her people, the small people, are not allowed to see her body.
Actors donning white satin skirts seem to multiply Begum. They pick up their Karagam pots filled with rice and run over hot coals, keening her death. In that moment — their voices, the visual, text and song coalesce in a heartbreaking plea for the city. “Where is our Begum Mahal? Where is our mother?” the actors weep. “Where are our inclusive public spaces? Where is diversity?” I hear.
From the lyrical script to the robust direction, this play is cinemascope in vision. It recognises that at the root of gentrification lies fear and upward mobility. Both progress on a war footing. There is no space for everyone, the “small” people shall be excluded and eliminated, it says.
The dramaturgy veers between contemporaneity and tradition, keeping the action in play. The ode to beef biriyani, food of the poor worker and itinerant, is one such example. “Beef biriyani, beef biriyani!” the actors joyously sing and flip a bird to political correctness. Simultaneously, this moment clearly frames the beef lynchings as an attack on the lower class.
In one of life’s double whammy’s, Begum Mahal was mysteriously burned down over night and the “small” people kicked out. As the narrator, Shilpa Mudbi says: “Our kitchen, our heartbeat. Thousands have filled their souls in our beloved Mahal. Where is she now?”
Kirtana Kumar is artistic director of Infinite Souls Artists Residency/Little Jasmine Theatre Project.