I’d been thinking about Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, for many years. He always struck me as a dramatic, under-represented figure, unknown in many parts of the world. If he had lived elsewhere, and by that I mean in the west, there would have been all kinds of books about him, if not a summer blockbuster by, say, Ridley Scott.
I wrote a poem titled ‘Letter from a Mughal Emperor, 2006’ in which an unnamed emperor speaks to the modern world. The emperor, of course, was Babur, and some of the lines in the poem were taken from his Baburnama, a text I’ve been familiar with since my early twenties. I was fascinated by his contradictions, by the fact that he was a man with a refined sense of the arts, particularly poetry, music and painting, and, at the same time, he was an efficient and bloodthirsty warrior. In Babur’s mind there was no divide between those personas, he encompassed both, and others, effortlessly.
When the idea of a collaboration with The Opera Group first came up, it occurred to me that the figure of Babur was uniquely suited to opera. I thought it was an opportunity to see if something could be made out of my idea. I met Edward Rushton, the composer, while visiting Zürich on a Pro Helvetia residency, and then we discussed the idea with the director John Fulljames in London. I wrote a couple of scenes and it seemed to work. And more importantly, I think it interested Edward. That’s the thing about opera—you may have a great idea, but if your libretto doesn’t inspire the composer, nothing’s going to happen.
The soldier versus artist question is, for me, one of the central points of the libretto, and, at least in the modern context, it is an either/or question. The supplementary question, ‘Who is more valuable to God?’ can never be answered in a way that will be satisfactory to both camps.
Babur is tremendously complex. He is a sexually and socially ambivalent figure, the kind of character who shoulders his way into the writer’s life and demands a hearing, not to mention alcohol, cigarettes and a bar brawl.
People like to ask me, ‘What do you hope to achieve with your work?’ I don’t hope for world peace, or dialogue between nations, or any of those lofty, unattainable ideals. I hope we are able to create something compelling, something beautiful and flawed and alive.
Librettist, Babur in London
Babur in London is a new opera with music by Edward Rushton and libretto by Jeet Thayil. Produced by The Opera Group in collaboration with Opera North and Anvil Arts, Basingstoke, Babur in London is performed at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on Thursday 14 and Friday 15 June as part of a UK tour. More information and tickets can be found here.
Jeet Thayil's libretto for Babur in London can be read in full here.