Tughlaq as an Existentialist Drama

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      Kamad’s Thghlaq tells the tragic story of an ideal, but over-ambitious 14th century Sultan of Delhi whose hopes, aspirations and pious intentions of establishing communal harmony, of shifting the capital from Delhi to Daultabad and so on, end in smoke because he employed cruel and violent means to achieve them. Muhammad Tughlaq is a complex character. He appears on the stage as an ideal Sultan, a dreamer, a visionary, a secular humanist who asserts his existence pour-soi for fame, glory and immortality, but the wrong way, the result, thus, is disillusionment and frustration — a divided self; the great ruler is tom between the ideal and the real. An intensive study of the play shows clearly that Muhammad Tughlaq’s tragedy lies in, what M. K. Naik says, “the curious contradictions in the complex personality of the Sultan, who was at once a dreamer and a man of action, benevolent and cruel, devout and callous.”

Tughlaq’s Idealism

      When Muhammad Tughlaq appears on the stage for the first time, followed by the chief Justice and other attendants, he addresses his beloved citizens with a sense of pride and achievement. While praising the judgement of the Kazi he claims to have given a clean and just governance in his kingdom: “you have heard the judgement,of the Kazi and seen for yourselves how justice works in my kingdom — without any consideration of might or weakness, religion or creed. May this moment burn bright and light up our path towards greater justice, equality, progress and peace — not just peace but a more purposeful life.”

      Furthermore, he declares boldly: “And to achieve this end I am taking a new step in which I hope I shall have your support and cooperation. Later this year the capital of my empire will be moved from Delhi to Daulatabad.”

      Muhammad claims to be an ideal king and hopes to make his capital an ideal one. His declaration makes the people bewildered. He tries to pacify them that “this is ho mad whim of a tyrant. My ministers and I took this decision after careful thought and discussion.” He puts forward two valid reasons: first, in view of a large empire embracing even the South, the Capital should be ‘at its heart.’ Delhi being too near the border, its peace is always under threat. Besides, Daulatabad is a city of the Hindus, therefore, as capital, it will further strengthen communal harmony between the Muslims and Hindus. This is another example of his idealism.

      Muhammad is so ambitious that he aims at building a unique empire - an extraordinary one. This is called going beyond the given situation. He adds -

      With their help I shall build an empire which will be the envy of the world.

His Subjectivity

      Doubtless, here is a man fully conscious of the subjectivity and uniqueness of human existence. The great Sultan seems to be a kierkegaardian man who stresses and glorifies the individual’s ‘act of choice’ and ‘will’, raising both to the moral level. He is a man of ‘free choice.’ He decides to shift the capital. He also knows that ‘act of choice’ is not enough; the use of subjective ‘will’ is more important, So he displays his strong ‘will’ power to create a new empire that will be the “envy of the world.” This is awareness of his primal subjectivity; so that he may live authentically as he bears the sole responsibility for his decisions.

His Choice and Commitment

      Nietzsche too, as we know, shares kierkegaard’s glorification of the human ‘will’ and advocates ‘authentic living.’ He also insists that an individual must exercise his ‘free choice’ in creating values for his own evolution into a Superman. He emphasizes upon man’s pride and transcendence and says he should seek to surpass himself to achieve greatness of ‘will’ and ‘being’. Interestingly enough, Tughlaq’s bold decision to move the capital and his ‘will to achieve something new, grand and extraordinary shows that he is a man who must strive not only to survive, but to remake and overpower the entire universe through myriad manifestation of his ‘will to power’.

      Muhammad Tughlaq is initially projected as a virtuous Sultan, “The Warrior in the Path of God, the Defender of the Word of the Prophet, the friend of the khalif, the Just and Merciful. “All day long I have to worry about tomorrow”. These words of the great Sultan show his commitment and concern to make the future of his citizens brighter and more meaningful. It is only when the night falls he tries to “step beyond all that”, avoids sleep and loses himself into the poetic world of Pleiades and Ibn-Ul-Mottazz and wishes “to climb up, up to the top of the tallest tree in the world, and call out to my people: ‘Come, my people, I am waiting for You’. Such is Muhammad’s great longing not only for self-transcendence, but for creating history by raising the entire kingdom to the topmost level. And further, while conversing with his step - mother he becomes lyrical. He asks his people:

Confide in me your worries. Let me share your joys. Let’s laugh and cry together and then, let’s pray. Let’s pray till our bodies melt and flow and our blood turns into air.


      This shows his sincerity. He is religious too and never went “against the tenets of Islam.” But at the same time he is so impulsive and impatient that he has put the best of the Sayyids and the Ulema behind bars in the name of justice as they had tried to indulge in politics. Sheikh Imam-ud din can quote scores of such transgressions and yet advises him to take the lead to continue the work of the Arabs for the spread of Islam because he (Muhammad) is endowed with extraordinary power and highlights Muhammad’s potential:

You are one of the most powerful kings on earth today and you could spread the kingdom of Heaven on earth. God has given you everything-power, learning, intelligence, talent. Now you must repay His debt.

      This is true. Muhammad is a gifted man and a capable one — a powerful and dominating personality. However, his immediate reply to Imam-ud-din, suggests the other side of Muhammad, the real aspect of his character, clashing with the ‘ideal’ Muhammad. He says -

No one can go far on his knees. I have a long way to go. I can’t afford to crawl - I have to gallop.

      Here Muhammad is impatient to achieve the goal at the earliest. He is over ambitious. Like Macbeth he is likely to suffer, on account of ‘vaulting ambition’ who also gallops, takes a leap, but falls on the other side. This is highly suggestive. But Muhammad is so dashing that he neither, cares for Imam-ud-din’s advice nor the secret reactions of the citizens. His sole concern is to expand, to grow, to appropriate, to gain in power, in short, the ‘will to power.’ He resembles here Nietzsche’s ideal of superman Zarathustra who speaks of man as the creator of values. Zarathustra also expresses that whatever comes in the way of man’s transcendence and progress such as reason, morality, politics and religion, should be abolished. Reason, he affirms, makes man ‘calculating’ and hence it becomes a mechanism of escape and withdrawal from action. Reason is inhibitive in the fulfilment of human ‘will’. Muhammad seems to be doing the same. Whatever comes in the way of his transcendence and progress is surely but secretly abolished. His conduct invites ironic comment from Sheikh Imam-ud-din in the form of a warning:

Beware, Sultan, you are trying to become another God. It’s a sin worse than parricide.

      And further,

Religion! Politics! Take head, Sultan, one day these verbal distinctions will rip you into two.

      The Sheikh knows the real Sultan, so he warns him. However, the Sultan always projects his romantic idealism, displays his learning, and romantic yearnings, his poetic sensibility and replies accordingly, as if he believes in himself and only he knows the correct answer:

You are asking me to make myself complete by killing the Greek in me and you propose to unify my people by denying the visions which led Zarathustra or the Buddha. (Smiles.), I’m sorry. But it can’t be done.

      Muhammad’s character is such that he can’t be denied the ‘visions that led to Zarathustra’ and in course of his transcendence and progress he must clear all obstacles. The poor Sheikh, couldn’t help being victim of Muhammad’s treachery. He is so crafty, so manipulating that he easily wins the confidence of the Sheikh who obeys his command, puts on the robes and the headdress that make “them look even more alike.” This ‘resemblance’ is used as a dramatic device to get rid of the Sheikh. The Sheikh was justified when he had earlier paid his compliment to the Sultan:

      You know, Sultan, I’m just beginning to understand why they say you are the cleverest man in the world.

His Craftiness

      The Sheikh had spread venom against him at Kanpur by publicly accusing the Sultan of killing his father and brother for the throne. Ain-ul-Mulk had revolted against Muhammad. Muhammad has always been crafty enough to turn the table and punish those who had intrigued against them. His step-Mother was stoned to death after her confession regarding the murder of Vizier Najib. His craftiness enables him to foil the conspiracy of the Amirs led by Shihab-ud-din. With the help of Hindu guards he gets them arrested to be beheaded and he himself stabs Shihab-ud-din repeatedly in a frenzy, and most wittily declares him martyr who had sacrificed his life while defending the Sultan against the treachery of the Amirs.

His Dualism

      We have seen Muhammad Tughlaq on the stage as a learned man, a great visionary and also an idealist who has failed miserably to translate his dreams into reality. He failed to find any support from his nobles as well as the common people, Instead, he has been facing uprisings from different quarters. People call him now “mad Muhammad.” Though he is fully conscious of his failures, frustration, and disillusionment, yet he exhorts a young soldier to stick to his ideals, ‘you can clasp the whole world in your palm like a rare diamond.’ He cites his own example. He himself has been doing the same since he was nineteen which is exactly the soldier’s age. Ironically enough, Muhammad’s romantic pursuits of life have proved to be mere shadows far removed from reality. He stands disillusioned now. This reminds us of his creator’s comment:

And within a span of twenty years this tremendously capable man had gone to pieces. This seemed to be both due to his idealism as well as the shortcomings within him, such as his impatience, his cruelty, his feeling that he had the only correct answer. Girish Kamad-Enact, June 1971.

      This also highlights dualism in Muhammad’s character which is responsible for his sorry state of affairs. In his Introduction to this play U.R. Annantha Murthy has rightly pointed out that “the dualism of the man and the hero” is in fact, “the source of the entire tragedy.” And further, the character of Tughlaq “has been realized in great psychological depth.” He adds:

But it would be unjust to say that the play is about an ‘interesting’ character, for the play relates the character of Tughlaq to philosophical questions on the nature of man and the destiny of a whole kingdom which a dreamer like him controls.

Existence and Essence

      Of course, the play has to be understood in terms of basic questions about Tughlaq’s ‘existence’ and ‘essence’, his ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ who is characterized by absolute individualism and power of transcendence. Throughout his political career he asserted his ‘being-for-itself’ for a meaningful ‘essence’, took drastic steps to be remembered as a saviour - monarch of his subjects, but turned out to be a cruel manipulator, a tyrant. This is not without reason. His pious intensions were not appreciated by the courtiers, rather abused. Shihab-ud-din’s treachery deepens his anguish that is reflected in his frenzied act of stabbing him again and again even after his death. He asks Barani, the historian “why must this happen, Barani? Are all those I trust condemned to go down in history as traitors? Will my reign be nothing more than a tortured scream which will stab the night and melt away in the silence?” Muhammad, in such a situation, makes a choice of tyranny and thus transforms himself into a tyrant from an idealist as Albert Camus’s existential character Caligula does when he faces alienation. Muhammad is mentally agonised when he declares: “They’ll only understand the whip.”

His Disillusionment and Alienation

      The scene eight of the play reflects vividly the horrible condition prevailing at Daultabad — the inevitable consequence of bloodshed, torture and hanging of the subjects on suspicion during Tughlaq’s tyrannical misrule. Here “night scarcely moves.” Darkness prevails. No hope for any kind of betterment. The hopeless old Man’s advice to the young Man: “A good sentry must forget that morning even exists.” And further, “And four years ago that snake (i.e. The road from Daultabad to Delhi) bit a whole city to death.” Muhammad is fully conscious of the fact that now he stands alienated from his courtiers, religious priests and the trusted ones and also divorced from his idealism. Muhammad, too, suffers darkness within. This sense of frustration is evident from his words spoken to the young man (one of the watchmen of the fort at Daultabad). The young man is just nineteen and that is the age, Muhammad tells him, “you can clasp the whole world in your palm like a rare diamond.” Naturally Muhammad is reminded of his own youth full of romantic dreams, holy plans and hope to build his “own history” when he had built this fort at the age of twenty-one. However; all his dreams have vanished now as he had failed to execute them the way he wanted, for want of clarity in vision and support of his nobles and subjects. He thinks the young Man is going to face the same, “All that you have to face and suffer is still ahead of you.”

      This kind of realization comes to him when one night, while gazing at the half-built gate touching almost the vast sky in a torchlight, suddenly something magical happened and objects melted away and merged into one. That was the moment when his romantic idealism, disappeared, all his visions vanished and dreams shattered into pieces, and he was left with the naked reality, that he is one with the earth, the grass, the sky, the smoke. His realization is that he is also, a human being whose “life is a mingled yam both good and ill together” - a man of contradictions, opposites: a pious visionary, as well as a sinner. This is the stage when his hopes and aspirations end in smoke and he is one with ‘smoke’. He emerges as a disillusioned romantic at the level of existential reality. We are reminded of the words of Norberto Bobbio who, after discussing the decadentism of Sartre concludes:

The existentialist is the Romantic stripped of his illusions. He is the disillusioned Romantic.

      The disillusioned Muhammad, deeply anguished as he is, expresses disgust with his own life when he thinks in terms of his achievement and wonders if he will be remembered at all after his death:

But in the last four years, I have seen only the woods clinging to the earth, heard only the howl of wild wolves and the answering bay of street dogs. Another twenty years and you’ll be as old as me. I might be lying under those woods there. Do you think you’ll remember me then?

Burden of Existence

      Still Muhammad has the feeling that he has not been understood. On the other hand, he is so distressed that he needs someone to confess his “self- pity.” He tells Barani that his romanticism is shattered into pieces now and Rumi, the poet, who once inspired him and transported him into a world of beauty and romance has lost his appeal, and his poetic lines are no better than mere arrangement of words. He apprises Barani of the present miserable condition of his state how it has become “honeycomb of diseases.” “I have tried everything. But what cures one disease just worsens another.” Fakr-ud-din has risen against him in Bengal, and “there’s been another uprising in the Deccan.” He continues: “In Ma’bar Ehsanshah has declared himself independent. Bahal-ud-din Gashtasp is collecting an army against me. The drought in Doab is spreading from town to town - burning up the country. Only one industry flourishes in my kingdom, only one - and that’s of making counterfeit copper coins.”.

      Badly tormented Muhammad cries out in despair: “What should I do, Barani?”

       Barani suggests though indirectly that Muhammad is a learned man who is known the world over for his knowledge of philosophy and poetry. So he should give up dirty politics. His proper place is in the company of scholars and not in the “market of corpses.”

Sense of Responsibility

      Muhammad in reply laughs, but behind his laughter lies hidden the painful realization of the burden of existence that it will be another crime if leaves his country, ‘the honeycomb of diseases’ uncared, as he himself is responsible for its present state of affairs. He asks Barani an unanswerable question if he wanted him to retire from his throne. Is it so easy as he thinks? He admits:

I have often thought of that myself-to give up this futile seesaw struggle and go to Mecca. Sit there by the Kaaba and search for the peace which Daultabad hasn’t given me:

      What an irony! Muhammad further explains his helplessness:

It isn’t as easy as leaving the patient in the ‘wilderness because there’s no cure for his disease. Don’t you see - this patient; racked by fever and crazed by the fear of the enveloping vultures, can’t be separated from me? Don’t you see that the only way I can abdicate is by killing myself? I could have done something if the vultures weren’t so close. I could have crawled forward on my knees and elbows. But what can you do when every moment you expect a beak to dig into you and tear a muscle out? What can you do? Barani, what vengeance is driving these shapes after me?

Nietzschean Enigma and Tragedy

      In such a helplessness lies Muhammad’s tragedy who is miserably “crushed by a burden one can neither bear, nor throw off?” (Friedrich Nietzsche). The observation of Rajesh Kumar Sharma in ‘Girish Kamad’s Thghlaq: A Nietzschean Enigma’ is convincing who, after having traced a parallelism between the above speech of Tughlaq and the statement of Nietzche comments: “Girish Kamad’s Tughlaq has Nietzsch’s venom and brilliance and like Nietzsche he is tortured by a blocked spiritual vision.” What a degeneration! Once honoured as the warrior in the path of God; the Just; His Merciful, he is now called ‘mad Muhammad’ by his subjects. He knows it. He tells Barani, “you know what my beloved subjects call me? Mad Muhammad! Mad Muhammad!” However, suddenly he pleads before Barani in the most pathetic words, trying to undo what he has done.:

      How can I become wise again, Barani?

      His step - mother, too, reminds him of his fall from height to dust and adds to his misery when she reveals that, in fact, she had killed Najib as his company was responsible for his degeneration:

It’s only seven years ago that you came to the throne. How glorious you were then, how idealistic, how full of hopes. Look at your kingdom now. It’s become a kitchen of death...

      The loss of Najib is his personal loss. He is so bewildered that he can’t find a better punishment for his step-mother than getting her stoned to death. One crime leads him to another till crimes become his punishment. He stands alienated from his dear companions, except Barani. His anguish reaches its climax. He finds himself on the verge of madness. He tells Barani; “I am teetering on the brink of madness, Barani, but the madness of God eludes me. (shouting.) And why should I deserve that madness? I have condemned my mother to death and I’m not even sure she was guilty of the crime.’

      The ‘disillusioned romantic’ is so vety broken that by way of becoming ‘wise’ again he starts a reverse journey in life. He knows that his alienation is complete as his only companion Barani is also going to leave him because he has to attend his mother’s funeral. He decides to go back again to Delhi with his people and embrace Delhi as his capital.

      In a moment of despair and isolation the great hero not only persuades but also convinces himself powerfully that he is not alone in this world..

But I am not alone, Barani.
Thank Heaven! For once I am
not alone. I have a companion
to share my madness now - the Omnipotent God! (Tired.)

      Barani seeks permission and finally leaves him alone. Tired and exhausted Muhammad sits on the throne with his eyes closed. Ironically enough, even at the time of prayer, he is asleep. It is only when the Muezzin’s call fades away; Muhammad opens his eyes, and “looks around dazed and frightened, as though he can’t comprehend where he is.” This is how the journey of an ideal and romantic Sultan ends at the level of existential reality. He can be safely called an existentialist because he has emerged as a disillusioned romantic. His moral dilemma makes the play existential.

Probable Questions

Consider Tughlaq as a tragic hero.
Discuss critically 'Dualism of the man and the hero, in Tughlaq,
Write a critical essay on Tughlaq’s moral dilemma.
Characterize Tughlaq and describe his existential alienation.
Discuss critically ‘Nietzschean Enigma ’ in Tughlaq.
Show how the play Tughlaq deals with disintegration of Tughlaq’s powerful personality.
Consider critically Tughlaq as an existentialist play.

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