Acts from the Eastern Stage: Love Stories
Romeo and Juliet as well as Antony and Cleopatra are among several famous love stories that have left their mark in our collective cultural conscience. Here is a curtain-raiser over more love stories crafted in the Eastern hemisphere of our globe.
Act I, Scene I: Salim and Anarkali
Blood cakes the stonewalls that silently witnessed the unfair sacrifice of a beautiful young woman, crushed alive between them. A few paces away, a young prince cries silent tears. He witnessed the brutal execution with anger roaring in his veins. But he was too helpless to do anything to stop their love from ending tragically.
Their story made famous by Indian writer Abdul Halim Sharar, Salim and Anarkali’s only sin was falling madly in love with each other; but, their respective statuses (his noble, her common) did not allow that. Salim revolted against his father, Akbar, but could only stand a mouse’s chance to the mighty army elephants of Emperor Akbar. Anarkali ultimately had to give her own life to save Prince Salim’s, causing the prince to be forced to witness her execution.
Act I, Scene II: Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal
A mighty structure stands in Agra, carved of ivory-white marble. All the laborers who skillfully put each brick of this mausoleum together had their hands chopped off so that they could make no parallel of the building. The Taj Mahal stands mighty and proud, a symbol of pure love and longing. Not so long ago, a beautiful princess had passed away in childbirth, leaving her lover, the prince, in tears and agony.
You’ve walked into the story of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his Empress Mumtaz Mahal, who died while delivering their 14th child. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in the memory of his beautiful wife. After her demise he was no more than a broken man. Ultimately, in his grief over their lost love, he lost the throne to his son Jehangir. Still, their love is immortalized in a statue more famous than the story itself.
Act I, Scene III: Bajirao and Mastani
A heart-wrenching rumor poisons and paralyzes the Maratha Empire. It makes a beeline to the Hyderabadi princess’s ears — slicing her heart to bits. Forty-one battles. Not a single folly, not a single arrow sliced through the Peshwa’s (Prime Minister’s) skin. Bajirao always won, but a fever got the better of him and sucked his life dry. Without Bajirao, Mastani is incomplete, so she poisons herself, believing life is not worth living anymore.
The love-smitten, 18th century couple Bajirao and Mastani had to endure great obstacles to be together. Born part Muslim, Bajirao’s Brahman community did not welcome their Peshwa’s second wife; she was gifted to him by her father as a gesture of gratitude for helping him in a battle. So great was the contention between his household and his new beloved bride that Bajirao had to build a separate accommodation, called the Mastani Mahal, to house Mastani out of their sight. However, their love endured until the bitter end, when he died and she committed suicide at the news.
Act I, Scene IV: Layla and Majnun
When he first lays his eyes on her, she makes poetry stir deep in his soul. He ends up reciting his poetry for her in every nook and corner of their small town. Due to this brazen act, Qays comes to be known as Majnun, the madman. When he asks for Layla’s hand in marriage, her parents refuse, calling him mad, and the love of his heart is wedded off to another man.
With anguish flooding his nerves, Majnun departs to the deserts to live a life of solitude, singing poetry to the sands. Some time later, Layla’s husband dies, but tradition calls for her to grieve after him for two years. Wretched, Layla can’t take the distance from Majnun anymore, so she dies of all the heartache. Upon learning of this news, Majnun rushes to Layla’s grave only to weep his way to his own death.
“One glance from her is the chance
of an encounter, another’s almost dying.”
The heart-rending love story of Layla and Majnun, born of ancient Arab lore, needs no further words.
Act I, Scene V: Heer and Ranjha
Under the dark cover of night, a young lad secretly plays a love-struck tune on his flute for his love who listens, mesmerized. The moon and the fireflies witness their secret meetings but keep mum.
The tale of Heer and Ranjha is a famous Punjab tragedy that many compare to Romeo and Juliet. The son of a wealthy tribesman, Ranjha left his town after a quarrel with his brothers over land. Heer’s is the only charm in this new town by the river Chenab that he settled in. They meet while she listens to him play his flute, and the two fall in love. One treacherous night, the lovers get caught red-handed. Heer’s elders decide to arrange their marriage, but Heer’s envious uncle, Kaido, poisons the sweetmeat being served at the wedding. Ranjha rushes to the rescue, only to see her lying lifeless on the floor.
Aggrieved, Ranjha eats the same sweetmeat that Heer had and kills himself to join Heer’s spirit on a journey of eternal love.