The Cosmopolitan World of House of Joy’s Imperial Harem
by Vidhu Singh, Dramaturg
As audiences we may expect House of Joy to be a historical play about the Mughal harem performed by South Asian actors, but the play overturns our expectations in astonishing ways. Its characters highlight the historical diversity and reality of the times while using history as ‘playground’. The play invites us to examine issues of our time through the prism of this reimagined history.
Shekar’s storytelling knits the historical inspiration of 17th century Mughal India with a distinctly contemporary sensibility. House of Joy’s characters, intimate relationships, ideas and language are refreshingly relatable and familiar to contemporary audiences. Seemingly historical characters have ethical dilemmas that compel them to make choices much like characters in our present time.
All of the characters in House of Joy must grow and choose whether or not they are complicit with the oppressive systems of a crumbling Empire.
Hamida: The best fighter in the Royal Bodyguard regiment, except for her boss (and not-so-secret crush) Gulal. She’s sincere, idealistic, and follows the party line—until a startling revelation forces her to question everything.
Gulal: The Chief Bodyguard, head of the Emperor’s Secret Service in the harem. She has survived three Emperors. Protective, fierce, and loyal—she would give up her life at a moment’s notice for the royal family.
Roshni: Hamida’s best friend and fellow bodyguard. Scrappy streetfighter with a reputation. Despite her bravado, Roshni does what she’s told.
Salima: The Chief Nazeer of the harem, and the most powerful interlocutor in the Empire. Inspired by legendary hijras, who were castrated at a young age in order to work in the harem, and who rose to powerful positions in the Mughal court. Salima and Hamida were brought to the Empire on the same boat as children.
Mariyam: The Emperor’s youngest wife, and current Chief Queen. Mother to young Babar, future heir to the Mughal Empire.. Courageous and proud, she starts the play with a daring act of rebellion that kickstarts Hamida’s awakening.
Noorah: The most beloved daughter of the Emperor, and de-facto ruler of the harem. An unstoppable powerhouse. She supports her beloved brother Prince Zayn in the battle of succession. Inspired by iconic Mughal women, Princess Jahanara and Empress Nur Jahan.
Thermometer: A doctor with a hidden past. While empathic and caring, he calls out Hamida on her prejudices and becomes a crucial accomplice in her plan.
Emperor: The shadowy presence of an unnamed and never-seen tyrant lurks over the world of the play, representing and embodying the dark side of absolute power.
The royal harems of medieval and Mughal India were surprisingly cosmopolitan and international—and our characters and the actors in this production reflect this with a vivid spectrum of cultural and gender identities. While inequities of class, caste, race and gender are never far from the play’s surface, they are balanced by a sense of joyfulness. The agency of the denizens of Madhuri’s fantastical and empowering myth offers us hope and respite during the challenges of our own time.
House of Joy begins performances August 14-September 1. Get tickets here!