Dolly Thakore's 'Life in the Theatre'

Last Month, I was invited by Oxford Book Store to read from the book 'VICTORIA AND ABDUL' by Shrabani Basu.

The book takes us into a world of love, companionship, untamed ambition, colonial grandeur, petty human emotions, and fall from grace that leaves a broken heart.

Shrabani weaves the last ten years of Queen Victoria and her relationship with Abdul Karim, her Indian Secretary (also called Munshi). The love the Queen bore Abdul caused great deal of fur-flying not only in the household, but also became a cesspit of gossip for the Court, and a source of irritation for the top brass of the British bureaucracy ruling India.

But the image that kept dancing before me was of Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal. Every time I saw or read the words Queen Victoria, Mahabanoo’s avatar as Queen Victoria kept jumping out at me from the pages of the novel.

Mahabanoo did it under a double bill called “Two Hot to Handle” about the relationship between an older woman and a young man in 2002.

The first piece was 'VICTORIA AND ABDUL' set between 1887-1909. And Mumbai saw its World Premiere in 2002 with Mahabanoo as Queen Victoria and Darshan Jariwalla as Abdul Karim.

And Mahabanoo “fits the bill as Queen Victoria to the T – she walks the walk, talks the talk”. It was one of her best performances – till she did Shirley Valentine!!!!

I was not aware at that time that this was a play written by my childhood friend Farroukh Dhondy. Subsequently I have been corresponding with him about the play he wrote in 1984.

He wrote 'VICTORIA AND ABDUL' for one of London’s best Shakespeare voices and actor Zia Mohyeddin as a one-man show to do on TV. It was a monologue at that time. And was performed on Channel 4 in UK.

For the non-cognescenti, Zia was in Mumbai recently for the Times of India Aman ki Asha celebration at the open air theatre next to Taj Landsend in Bandra -- where he recited Faiz Ahmed Faiz meticulously . He shared the evening with Amitabh Bachchan reciting his father Harvanshrai Bachchan’s famous Madhushala.

The historically based play depicts Queen Victoria and her relationship with her Indian teacher, her Munshi as she called him. Mahabanoo’s play starts years after Victoria’s death. The Munshi has been left to dwindle on his own, discarded by the Empire like a useless servant. Abdul, the Munshi, is burning some very important letters, papers and documents that he has collected while working for Victoria. As he does so, a life-size portrait of Victoria comes to life, and she begins to reminisce with Abdul about the years they spent together.

Farroukh Dhondy brought to life the story of upward mobility.

“All the incidents used in the play are real. My sources are Victoria’s biographies and the notes of Sir Henry Ponsonby and Harriet Phibbs, her Secretaries,” says Dhondy.

The play is about political intrigue, about the relationship between a queen and her servant, about England and India, and above all it is about a very unique friendship between a Queen and her most intriguing servant. Certainly a part of history not taught to us in our history lessons!

Abdul arrived in England as a ‘gift’ from Lady Dufferin to the Queen, but rose swiftly to have his say in State matters. Along with Buxsk, Abdul Karim had entered the Queen’s service three days after her Golden Jubilee in 1887. But while Buxsk remained at the rank of bearer, Abdul Karim became an influential and hated figure in the Queen’s household as an astounding choice for Royal company. The Queen wrote: “Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is of great interest to me, for both the language and the people”.

“Victoria and Abdul” was not staged in London or UK then. But they revived it at TARA ARTS this year – long before the book . Now Art Malik and one of three Star actresses want to do a big stage version.

There is a great deal of film interest too. And Farroukh Dhondy has been commissioned to write the film version on the lines of his play.

He also wants us to know that Mulkraj Anand’s daughter Sushila Anand wrote the proper historical book published by Duckworth in 1996.