The Great Patriotic War of the Taj Mahal

The Kalakriti Cultural & Convention Center in Agra looked creepy. Rum-raisin ice-cream color of the exterior walls, so typical of Mughals’ funereal architecture, was strikingly fresh. White construction dust still covered the sculptures of androgynous deities with half-raised legs, of horses, elephants, and assorted chimeric fusions amassed in front of the entrance. But clutches of neatly dressed mustachioed young men who did not look like tourists were mulling by the entrance. That made me a tad nervous.

I stepped inside to see the box office and to pick up my ticket for the great Mohabbat-the-Taj, the Saga of Love show. The hall was full of crafts which are typically offered in India to insanely rich Americans during private art appreciation sessions at the end of a day of chaperoned sightseeing – naturally at mind-boggling discounts. I know, because we seemed to have been railroaded onto that “insanely rich” track to surprisingly disappointing, for our high caste guides, results. The bustling crowd around me again consisted only of local insiders, but mercifully nobody seemed interested in closing a sale. The ticket counter was free of commotion and any sign of aspiring spectators. My apprehension went up a notch. I asked to see the theater.  For that, we had to walk around the building to the other side. The back was even fresher than the front: shaky scaffolding made of bent bamboo rods precariously tied together with strings covered the whole façade. Fearless workers were busily navigating flimsy walkways. Everything in sight was covered by a thick coat of construction dust. A red carpet of sorts was laid out at one entrance. There was indeed an auditorium with red-velvet seats for about 600 and a well-appointed large stage. My reservation worked, too: the ticket was ready for me to pick up.

In the hall, twenty or so spectators were scattered about. Non-Indians predominated. I sank into a comfortable seat in the center of one of the front rows. The story was not exactly new: a very young Prince Khurram marries an even younger granddaughter of a Persian official at the Mughal court. She is pretty good in all respects, and from Arjumand Banu Begum becomes Mumtaz Mahal (Jewel of the Palace). Love flowers all around, and Mumtaz gives birth to 14 kids (this and other relevant acts not shown in the performance). Instead, music, dance, and song constitute the action. The prince becomes Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor, but Mumtaz dies during her 14th child delivery. Now the real story begins.  Visions of perfect architectural marvels to commemorate his beloved race in Shah Jahan’s head – and on stage. Finally, the construction starts. Being an emperor, Sh-J does not need anybody’s approval (a point of envy for President Obama, he expressed on his visit to India). Nevertheless, the project takes 22 years (somewhat reflected in the show). When it’s finished, we are in the presence of “world’s largest replica of Taj Mahal” made entirely of Makrana marble, the same as the original. Moonlight effect and the full stage moon itself aid nicely in framing this ethereal apparition. The end? Not so fast.

One might think that this would already be quite enough to entice any stragglers in the audience to see the real thing, just a mile away. Although I doubt any of them failed to do so. After all, despite the countless sightseeing riches of India, the first question asked of anybody going there is: “Will you see the Taj Mahal?” and of anybody returning: “Have you seen it?” Ashok Oswal Group may of course also be interested in selling all the Taj-themed wares they exhibit at the center they own (they also own the show). But something else is going on here. The dawn breaks, the moonlit Taj dims, and suddenly, Mumtaz Mahal springs back to life. She is joined by numerous splendidly dressed dancing courtiers led by Shah Jahan himself. Just as at an Olympic event, a large flag of India materializes, Mumtaz picks it up and starts running around waving it vigorously. The courtier crowd dutifully follows. This looks like a Chinese People’s Liberation Army ballet under the guidance of Jiang Qing, Mrs. Mao. The background is now a movie screen. It’s showing a black and white documentary. In view of forbidding snow-bound mountain peaks, tanks are steadily advancing, while infantrymen try to keep up with the relentless pace of assault. Victory must be at hand. Curtain!

There is little doubt that an Indo-Pakistani war concludes this love story. Did Ashok Jain, the head of Ashok Oswal, decide to brainwash tourists (most of whom probably did not get the hint) on his own, or did he get a suggestion from a helpful functionary of the City of Agra, the State of Uttar-Pradesh, or even some “propaganda ministry” in Delhi? I’ll never know, but the sight of the most famous Muslim rulers of India leading the charge against the Islamic Republic of Pakistan entertained me more than the rest of his oeuvre.