There is a legend that upon the completion of the Taj Mahal, Emperor Shah Jahan ordered that his architect and laborers have their hands cut off  so that nothing more beautiful than the Taj Mahal would ever be constructed. The legend juxtaposes an event of great beauty, a veritable human triumph, with an act of terrible, depraved violence.

Omar Metwally, Arian Moayed in Guards at the Taj. Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Our world seems to constantly remind us that good cannot exist without bad– that for every beautiful thing in the world, some hideous truth lies just beneath it. The Taj Mahal legend is only an exaggerated narrative of power, inequality, and the its role in creating beauty. Think, for example, of how a visit to the dazzlingly, awe-inspiring Versailles simultaneously underscores the extreme poverty of the lower classes and the royalty’s ignorance of its people’s plight. Or how the crown jewels in London were only made possible by an era of brutal colonialism. Given our history as flawed, power-prone people, it would seem that beauty and violence are dialectically related: one is constantly feeding the other so that nearly every beautiful thing has a history of violence behind it.

Rajiv Joseph examines this dilemma in his previous works, and newly in Guards at the Taj at the Atlantic Theater Company. It is this dilemma that two ordinary  guards are faced with when they start their watch the morning of the Taj Mahal’s unveiling.  Huma (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed) are simple and sincere imperial guards who pass their long dawns together pitching hypothetical inventions and hoping for a promotion to guard the royal harem. Huma is a bit more ambitious–his father is a high-ranking guard– while Babur gives off a James Franco vibe in  his amateurish philosophical and artistic musings, though far more genuine that Franco’s reputation. Babur’s awe at the new Taj Mahal resounds with our own desire to see the rewards of our long work and to bring out the best in humanity. The Taj Mahal is not just a beautiful structure two decades in the making. It’s the embodiment of what our intellect, imagination, artistry, and labor can achieve.

The play alternates between scenes of comic, pedantic, and contemporary banter, and scenes of horrible violence. Being low on the imperial guard totem pole, Huma and Babur are entrusted with the task of cutting off the hands of 20,000 laborers, including the architect. In one scene, the guards wade in an ankle-deep pool of blood for a solid twenty minutes, and we don’t lack in fake hands.  Although the shah’s cruel measures are supposed to ensure that beauty remains in Agra, Babur recognizes the truth: that beauty has died with this act.

It’s an interesting and honest twist to the idea that beauty and violence must co-exist. For in a fair and compassionate world, this atrocity could have been avoided. As Babur reiterates, beauty does not live beside violence; it dies with it. We could live in a world where beauty is not an object to be accumulated or owned but rather shared, celebrated, and dreamt up in infinite bounds. Like knowledge (and unlike wealth), one person’s gain of beauty does not diminish another person’s beauty.  Unfortunately, Huma and Babur’s society commodifies beauty and greedily guards it, robbing us us beauty just as it produces it.

Guards at the Taj is playing at Atlantic Theater Company. Written by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Amy Morton. Tickets here.