A Reflection: “Guards at the Taj”

By Durga Ganesh

I sat in the second row of Nitery Theater, Stanford’s block box theater, on opening night. As music director for “Guards at the Taj,” one of Stanford’s first South Asian-American theater productions, I had spent the past few months composing and recording the play’s soundtrack with fellow musicians. Tonight was the first time  an audience would experience our music in this context. The lights dimmed and audience chatter died down. A soft spotlight shone on set, illuminating the marble paint that depicted  the back of the Taj Mahal at dawn. Silence. More silence. Then, the quiet drone of a tanpura filled the room.

Maula Mere Maula

Aaj Ki Raat Chamakte Sitare

Chand Kahan Hai

Hamare Dil Mein

Maula Mere Maula

The stars are shining brightly tonight.

Where is the moon?

In our hearts.

[Audio link to the song is here.]

A historical play set in 1648, the year that the Taj Mahal was unveiled to the public, “Guards at the Taj” takes a magical realistic approach to exploring the legend surrounding this mausoleum. As the story goes, Shah Jahan ordered that all the 20,000 laborers who built this monument to his deceased wife must have their hands chopped off, so “nothing as beautiful may ever be built again.” Two guards are charged with this terrible task, and the tension in their close bond is explored, as executing this order alters their lives forever. 

As music director, I was tasked with creating music that reflected South Asian-American identity, to contextualize this historical play in the South Asian-American experience. The problem was, this required that I somehow find a way to intelligently articulate what South Asian-American identity meant – at least for myself – before I could translate it into music.

My first few attempts at composing for the opening scene failed spectacularly. I struggled to present Indian classical inspired music that stayed true to its classical origins while being presented to a broader audience. Telling myself that I was making the music more “approachable,” I wrote bland phrases that wouldn’t inspire emotion, and promptly tried to compensate with unnecessarily complex melodies. By attempting to cater to every type of audience member, my end product would have pleased no one. I certainly felt dissatisfied. 

Around midnight on another seemingly useless recording session, I caved. Emotionally exhausted, I ignored the play, my class work, and everything else that took up too much of my brain. I closed my eyes and channeled all of my frustration into my violin, belting out phrases straight from the heart. It was at that moment that everything clicked. Emotion is universal, and as long as my music evoked the appropriate emotion in me and my musicians, we could convey it to the audience. Some could find my music too classical, while others might criticize contemporary influences, but if I created music that was authentic to myself and my experience as a South Asian woman from the Bay Area, that was enough.
To me, my South Asian-American identity is best described as a hyphenated identity – not a single entity, but rather a beautiful mishmash of seemingly disparate experiences. That is why I tear up listening to MS Subbbulakshmi’s rendition of “Enta Matramuna” in the morning and jam along to Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” hours later. That is why I play Indian classical music on the violin, a European instrument. And that is also why, although I am a Carnatic musician fluent in Tamil, I wrote our opening song in Hindi and sang it with Hindustani influences.

Chand Kahan Hai

Hamare Dil Mein

Where is the moon?

In our hearts.


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