Why I want to see the Taj Mahal more than ever

“Guards at the Taj” now playing at The La Jolla Playhouse

This piece, closing the 2015-2016 season, is Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda’s Directorial debut. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), “Guards at the Taj” is performed by two actors: ManuNarayan as “Humayun” and Babak Tafti as “Babur.” 
Manu Narayan (left) and Babak Tafti

I have always wanted to go to India and visit the Taj Mahal as well. With pieces like this one, it makes you think even more, question more and get even more curious.
Ok, let’s get into historic context first:

Shah Jahan was a member of the Mughal dynasty that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th-century. At his side was Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace” or “Jewel of the Palace”), whom he married in 1612 and cherished as the favorite 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.
Rajiv Joseph takes us to those times when the great mausoleum was about to be unveiled. Takeshi Kata’s minimal yet transporting set design, creates the adequate atmosphere for audience to follow. Two guards stand proud at the front. They cannot turn to see the beauty that lies a few steps away, it is forbidden. Humayun is a guard by lineage. Afraid of his father and a completely straight rule follower, he also has love and great knowledge for birds and… life. His co-guard Babur, is another story. Always late, rule breaker and tremendously curious. Too curious. You could say they balance the situation until a painful and difficult to understand order comes their way. 10,000 workers who help built the Taj Mahal will have their hands cut off; reason being, they asked to see the majestic building. What an insult! For that, they must pay. Babur confused by it all, follows the disturbing task alongside Humayun.    

Manu Narayan (left) and Babak Tafti in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of GUARDS AT THE TAJ, by Rajiv Joseph.
Amongst a pool of blood, there are baskets of hands and the two guards almost catatonic at the site. Humayun has temporarily lost his sight and Babur cannot let go of his sword. He is in denial. How could somebody bring such an ‘order’ upon them? How could they follow? How did they follow through?
Humayun being his personality, completes the cleaning task and awaits another day of commands. That is, before Babur plans to kill the emperor and yell it to the thousand skies. His friend tries to stop the blabbering and decides to proceed with an arrest in order to protect him. That arrest will bring him three days of jail time. Humayun did not take into account the higher orders that came with the jail time: to also cut Babur’s hands. As a ‘strong willed’ and law enforcer, he proceeds with the task letting Babur know, he is not week like him and that he must obey. We are left with an old scene, a memory perhaps, a dream of the two friends enjoying life and their surroundings. Proving who in reality is the strongest in that pair.

Legend says the emperor did order the cutting of the workers hands so they could not build a great masterpiece again. There are several versions but no facts that prove this really happened. The one act play goes by slowly at times, marked by four pauses in order to change costumes and scenery. At the beginning both actors stumbled their lines a little bit seaming nervous. Maybe due to opening night. Still, this is a piece I recommend seeing. Thought and reflect provoking.

Creative team for Guards also includes: Playhouse Costume Shop Manager Sue Makkoo, costume designer; Thomas Ontiveros, lighting designer; Cricket Myers (Playhouse’s Sideways, The Nightingale), sound designer; and Gabriel Greene, dramaturg.

Guards at the Taj is now playing at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. Tickets on sale at LaJollaPlayhouse.org or by calling (858) 550-1010

Babak Tafti (front) and Manu Narayan
For all of you Twitter fans:

Manu Narayan's Twitter: @manu_narayan

Rajiv Joseph's Twitter: @RajivAJoseph

What to read this review in Spanish? Click HERE

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