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The Day they killed Beauty

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Shah Jahan was a member of the Mughal dynasty that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid 18th-century. After the death of his father, King Jahangir, in 1627, Shah Jahan emerged the victor of a bitter power struggle with his brothers, and crowned himself emperor at Agra in 1628.

At his side was Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”), whom he married in 1612 and cherished as the favourite of his three queens.

In 1631, Mumtaz Mahal died after giving birth to the couple’s 14th child. The grieving Shah Jahan, known for commissioning a number of impressive structures throughout his reign, ordered the building of a magnificent mausoleum across the Yamuna River from his own royal palace at Agra.

Construction began around 1632 and would continue for the next two decades. The chief architect was probably Ustad Ahmad Lahouri, an Indian of Persian descent who would later be credited with designing the Red Fort at Delhi. In all, more than 20,000 workers from India, Persia, Europe and the Ottoman Empire, along with some 1,000 elephants, were brought in to build the mausoleum complex.

According to one gruesome story, Shah Jahan had his minions cut off the hands of the Taj Mahal's architect and his workers after the structure was completed, ensuring they would never build another of its kind.

Enter Babur played by the witty Mancunian John Afzal and Humayun portrayed by the brilliant Indian actor Diljohn Singh.

Humayun and Babur are the two Imperial Guards being posted to keep watch night after night in front of the Taj Mahal so no one can see the Taj before its completion only to feast their own eyes on the forbidden view as the sun rises for the first time on the newly-completed building. Babur, a lively character bursting with imagination comes up with an invention of a flying Palanquin to reach the stars he had watched nightly from his post. Humayun worries that they may fall off during the flight so Babur invents the seat belt. “Brilliant!” applauds Humayun. Fired on Babur invents a portable hole as a vehicle to travel (“wormhole” theory in the making?) and muses whether a hole could fall through its own hole.

Both dream of promotion. Babur in particular envisages only one place he would like to serve his Emperor “before he dies” as being heaven on earth: the Imperial Harem! Humayun agrees that there was nothing more rewarding for them than to stand guard just behind the Emperor, to his right and to his left, as he performs his Imperial business.

But there is still the problem of the 40,000 hands, which had to come off ensuring that no one ever would build another work of beauty! “I killed Beauty!” screamed Babur after the bloody deed was done. The problem of what to do with the 40,000 severed hands appeared to be in this context less pressing.

This was our fourth visit to the Theater Drachengasse. What an experience and joy to be back! The Meet & Greet of the actors after the show was expertly (what else!) moderated by our Vice-President Ambassador Dr Alexander Christiani (and his Indian accent was quite convincing). Excellent Hochriegl Sparkling Wine and sumptuous Canapés (I know my food and drink but who am I telling that?), as always in ample supply, courtesy Café Ministerium, rounded off a most successful evening. If you had not been there last night, bad luck, you missed a very good event!

Wolfgang Geissler

 

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