Opening the door into 'House of Joy' playwright Madhuri Shekar's Mind



by Danielle Ward, Literary Manager

When I first read House of Joy by Madhuri Shekar (pictured left), I loved the ride it took me on. I quickly became a champion for this play and recommended it to the rest of our artistic team. Everyone agreed it was something we wanted to share with you. As a fellow curious soul, I reached out to the playwright, Madhuri Shekar, by phone to find out what went into the creation of House of Joy.
When I asked Madhuri about her inspiration for this play she said, “Many things. After the 2016 election, I felt the need to go far away. This is the first historical play I have written. I wanted to write something epic and joyous; something that felt like an action movie for the stage. That was my starting point. In order to find my faraway place, I delved into Indian history—which I had previously studied in school—and headed straight for the Mughal Empire, my favorite time period. I read an article that talked about harems during the time and I suddenly realized I didn’t learn about the lives of women or their experiences during any of my history lessons.”
I asked Madhuri if the play was more fact or fiction. She replied that it is a conglomeration of both. On the initial pages of the script, she wrote that the play is set in an “Imperial Harem of an unnamed Emperor in some place like Delhi, India, in some time like 1666.” She explained she borrowed the recipe for this sort of fictional reality from previous stories like Wakanda, the fictional African country in Marvel’s Black Panther comic, because “it offers a sense of freedom to take historical elements and select the ones that are the most fun and most dramatic to draw upon.”
She then went on to share some of the facts she chose to play with. “The idea of a civil war between two sons and a princess who negotiates between them was based on the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal. After the Emperor’s younger son killed the heir apparent, his daughter worked behind the scenes to try and mitigate a civil war. In addition, the ending of the play is inspired by a legendary story of a prince who, back in the 1700’s, hid in a harem thinking the army would never attack that sacred space; it was the female bodyguards who had to defend him.”
I complimented Madhuri that even though House of Joy is set in a time and place very different from today, there are many connections that can be made to our experiences here and now. She explained that, “The world is very big and history very long. At one point in time India was the richest and most powerful empire in the world. But it crumbled because of incompetence, lack of a cohesive identity, and leaders who ignored the needs of the people they are supposed to serve.” Madhuri was drawing connections to our own country today. “It is a reminder that nothing is permanent. America, as a whole, doesn’t seem to realize how long history is and how short our time has been on the global stage. We have to have a sense of imagination related to our place in the world, as well as a sense of empathy.”
Madhuri has crafted a play with characters that are rarely seen on stage, like a eunuch, named Salima, or a female body guard, named Hamida, who has never been beyond the palace gates. She then gives each one of her characters a personal challenge. Madhuri noted her interest “in understanding what it takes for someone to stand up and act; the level of personal sacrifice that must be reached in order to drive someone to fight for change. I am also interested in our complicity versus our comfort with power and the effort it takes to shake ourselves out of that complicity, especially when the power structure is working for us.”
We talked about how Salima is a perfect example of this. Historically, young men who were servants or slaves might be selected for castration in order to ensure their trustworthy service. Though these eunuchs did not get to choose their fate, they did end up having incredible freedom of movement and political mobility as they played a critical role in the operation of the palace and often had the emperor’s ear. Some even amassed huge amounts of money and land. “But despite the sad and traumatic cultural mandate chosen for some, I wanted to explore a character who already felt non-binary and this role felt like something they were meant to be.” Madhuri explained, “There is no source material that explores the gender identity or point of view of the eunuchs, so I found myself wondering: what if becoming a eunuch offered someone a sense of freedom to wake up each day and decide who they wanted to be that day.” It offers a more of a modern look at that historic role.
Speaking of modern, I also asked Madhuri about her choice of using contemporary language in this historic fantasy. “In terms of the language of the play,” she said, “I was thinking of how these characters would have been talking in street level Persian. If I were to directly translate that in English, it would sound like the way we talk every day. It would be odd to hear them in some sort of Shakespearian version of royality speak.“  
I was curious to know what was next for Madhuri. “Actually, I am excited to share that I have another play starting rehearsals soon at Victory Gardens in Chicago.” Dhaba on Devon Avenue is a world premiere play set in Chicago’s Indian-centered neighborhood. It’s King Lear meets The Cherry Orchard in this story of fathers and daughters, of legacy, and of survival at all costs.
Oh, and, before we ended, she said that she hopes that she has crafted a piece that “allows you all to have a good time at the theatre.” So please enjoy…

Start by reading City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. Shekar noted is a beautiful memoir with one section chock-full of amazing tidbits about the Mughal relics of Delhi. This was one of our suggested reading books related to San Diego REP’s Stay and Play club. Then move on to Abraham Eraly's The Mughal World: India's Tainted Paradise OR The Mughal Throne, both are brilliant, highly readable and amazingly researched tomes according to our playwright.
To help get you in the Mughal mood, Shekar also suggests the awesome Bollywood film, “Jodhha Akbar,” about Sultan Akbar (the great-grandfather of the feuding siblings that House of Joy is based on, Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb.) You can find it on Netflix.