UC Santa Cruz’s theater department peeks into one of history’s many overlooked love stories in its upcoming November theater performance.
“Mughal Miniatures: Tales of Love” shows Nov. 8-17 on the Second Stage of the Theater Arts Center. The performance will consist of three short play, or love stories, originating from Iran and the Indian subcontinent.
“All of the poets that have created these pieces were using the metaphor of human love to also talk about spirituality,” said theater professor and director Kathy Foley. “These [stories] are major and wonderful pieces of literature and poetry that should be known by all students. But because we cut out particular portions of the world, people don’t pay attention to some of the greatest stories the world has known. They know Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and Ophelia, but these are stories that have had resonance for a thousand years for millions of people.”
The first story follows the journey of Majnun, translated to madman, and his undying quest for love from childhood friend Layla despite her father’s refusal for Majnun to marry her.
The second story, which many scholars argue is an antecedent of Romeo and Juliet, follows the tragic story of Shirin, the haughty Christian princess of Armenia, and Khosrow, the heir to the Persian throne. Seeing each other’s picture from their own distinct homelands, the two lovers run off in search of one another. Their journeys to find each other trace the width of the world as war and other situations cloud their quest.
The third story follows the Indian god Krishna as he falls in love with the human cowherd maid Radha.
“The stories are all love stories,” said performer and third-year Ashley Tran. “They’re all very different so you get three different points of view of how love comes across.”
From the 16th to 19th centuries, the Mughal Empire ruled over large parts of the Indian subcontinent by a Turko-Mongol origin. One of its many cultural aspects was Mughal painting, a style of South Asian painting commonly found in miniatures, or small paintings, as book illustrations. Mughal miniature painting derived from Persian miniature painting, with Indian Hindu and Buddhist influences.
“[Mughal Miniatures are] short versions of stories that were popular in the North Indian Mughal courts of Arabic, Iranian and Indian love stories,” Foley said. “The Mughals were a dynasty that ruled India and developed a style of miniature painting, which has inspired aspects of the books these stories were composed in. They were usually performed with dancers, puppets, screens and shadows by millions of people around the globe and are considered among the greatest stories ever told.”
Last year, the artistic crew participated in a workshop that helped them to build the backdrops and other elements of the performance. Design setup started last June. Auditions were held on the first day of fall quarter and since then rehearsals have been constant.
The Mughal performances being shown at UCSC are adapted from the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, who included the Majnun-Layla story and the Shirin-Khosrow tale in his poetry collection “Five Jewels” or as it was originally known, “Khamsa” in Arabic and “Panj Ganj” in Persian.
Turning the Mughal miniatures from artwork to theater performance took a lot of thought and consideration. A donation by Merrill College alumnus James Gunderson, who was interested in supporting work about Indian and the Middle East, was the first step, Foley said.
“A fellowship at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music allowed me time to explore some of this poetry by Sufi mystics,” Foley said. “Amy Trompetter was a wonderful artist who worked with the 280 students from my Muppet Magic class making ‘story cloths’ and masks for the set. She was the next impetus. My own background in puppets, mask, dance drama was another.”
Other than its historical significance, Foley said this performance is also about the intriguing stories of lovers with many unique roles for students to play.
“I’m very excited,” said performer and third-year Ashely Tran. “It’s always great having the energy from sharing a space with an audience. We’ve been working so hard to have this story to share and we hope very much that they will appreciate our performance as much as we appreciate them supporting us.”