Gandhi has been presented and interpreted in several ways – in books, on the stage and in film. ‘Gandhi – The Musical’ showcases him in an immersive musical format that will thrill the young and the old. There are about 15 songs in various musical styles – from Gujarati folk to dubstep to jazz – all telling the story of young Mohandas’s arrival in South Africa in 1893 and his death in Delhi 1948.
Last weekend kicked off season 2 of ‘Gandhi – The Musical’ in Mumbai, written and directed by Danesh R. Khambata and produced by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and Silly Point Productions. It is important to remember that it is not about Gandhi as much as it is a musical about Gandhi. That is its defining characteristic and makes it vibrant, funny and emotional all at once. This is relatable history, to be enjoyed and absorbed via music and spectacle rather than from the pages of stodgy history books.
Multiple backgrounds drop seamlessly – whether it is the ship upon which Gandhi came to South Africa, the courtroom scene where he was asked to remove his turban, the innards of the train he was thrown off from, or even the mammoth, menacing book symbolic of the Black Act.
Choreographer Bertwin D’Souza has synchronised 20 dancers in addition to the main cast. In South Africa, the Satyagraha movement begins and hundreds of Indians are imprisoned without trial – this is shown in the confines of a jail with an a capella performance. In India, there are violent songs depicting the Chauri Chaura riots and an uplifting version of the Salt March. With original music in a variety of styles composed by Nariman Khambata and Rahul Pais, the songs move the action forward with a strong undercurrent of Gandhi’s emotional journey.
Particularly evil is what stands in for the British Raj – a British flag superimposed upon a smokescreen hovering over the stage with Boman Irani’s voiceover. The wispy nature of this flag (with shadow play that gives it facial features) makes its death-grip over the Empire all the more vivid.
Khambata says the choice of a musical treatment was deliberate – he wanted a strong entertainment quotient. He says, “People think a play on Gandhi will be preachy but this isn’t; it shows his human aspect, his flaws. He wrote My Experiments with Truth so people could learn from his flaws, but instead people kept saying, ‘Bapu, Bapu, Bapu’ and idolising him, which he never wanted.”
This, he feels, is a form of idol worship. He says, “Non-violence and honesty aren’t Gandhi’s concepts – they’re as old as the hills. He just adapted it in his way as can anyone. Being Gandhian is not about habits, it is about attributes. One of Gandhi’s quotes is something like this: ‘I don’t want to be confined to this image only or to my writings. It should actually mean something’. We want people to see it’s not just a Gandhi story but musical entertainment. His life is to be shared.”
Some of the musical high points in the play are songs wracked with pain. There is a scene in which the young Gandhi has just been thrown out of a train at Pietermaritzburg for sitting in the first class compartment. What follows is a song he sings, fallen on his knees and bent over, hands covering his face. Yet the horror and sharpness of his feeling come through in the voice of the young actor Abhishek Krishnan who sings ‘How Deep Must I Fall’. This is the first time you see Gandhi bearing the burden of his choices, frequently accosted by his inner voice which is almost like that of another human being. The song poignantly foresees the sacrifice he will make of his wife and son on the path to freedom for his people.
The song on the Indian resistance in South Africa against the Black Act – which required all Indians to register themselves and obtain certificates with their names and thumb impression and which were to be carried at all times – resonates with the turmoil around the Aadhaar card today. The stage for the song is dominated by a huge register with pages shredded like an open, slavering mouth and which has Indians trying to escape it but being pulled back into it repeatedly. Dancers walking about like zombies flood the stage. The mood is repulsive and evocative of dark and menacing overlords.
Ironically, Chirag Vohra, who plays the Mahatma, is a votary of dictatorship for India. An outspoken supporter of Narendra Modi, he says that India “should be under a dictatorship, because without that we will not achieve anything. We have become so liberal because of democracy that we have forgotten our responsibilities and duties.”
Yet, he feels, today’s youth are intelligent and Gandhi’s message of ahimsa is relevant to them. “They are practical and professional. They want people to work together, peacefully and happily but unfortunately, the reins of the country are not in the hands of young people. So Gandhi’s inner struggle can be a lesson for everyone. No one is born a mahatma; actions and decisions make him a mahatma.”
The 30-year-old Nishi Doshi, who is channeling Kasturba, was moved by her character’s inner turmoil as she watched her family falling apart. Her conviction in her husband took precedence over anything she could do for her son. She followed him wherever he went and their son was left in the care of friends and family. The penultimate rejection scene in the play is where Kasturba is shown on her deathbed while Mohandas has become the Mahatma. Harilal tries to approach him but people don’t recognise him and therefore prevent him from reaching Gandhi. This part is fictionalised but based upon an actual incident where Gandhi and Kasturba were in a train at a platform and Harilal went to see them but was initially prevented from getting to them. It was only when he reached out to Kasturba with an orange in his hand that she looked into his eyes and realised who he was.
“These people who were so close were meeting after so many years, and the feeling of betrayal in her because her son forgot about her for so many years…. I translated this to my relationship with my parents. They recently moved to another city. So there is that awareness that there is little time, so make the most of it and be thankful, because not everyone gets that time and love from their parents,” she says.
In the play, Doshi sings a melodious Gujarati folk song – ‘Aayo Re Aayo Mohan’. That song shows the dynamics of Gandhi’s family life. How the child Harilal wanted to be like him and yet how Gandhi’s focus was always upon his work. And so, later, the grown-up Harilal sings ‘Yeh Nikamma’, the title of which sounds like a Bollywood song but is actually a heart-wrenching and pivotal moment in the play’s portrayal of Gandhi as a human being, stripped of all the deification and father to all but his son.
The 42-year-old Harsh Singh, who plays Harilal, says, “By the last few years of his life, Harilal was corresponding with his parents only through letters in newspapers as they weren’t talking directly. He had so much venom and hatred for his father and yet, of course, all he wanted was his father’s respect. He was so tortured.”
Singh says the letters show that Harilal’s grouse towards his family was that they were not there for him. “I keep thinking about a man so singularly consumed by his purpose. He never stayed in a place for more than ten days at a stretch. He walked for approximately 18 miles a day. He went to jail 28 times over a 30-year period. To get the whole country united across barriers when one state doesn’t understand the other … for that he deserves every bit of reverence that he gets.”
Gandhi – The Musical will be staged at NCPA on April 7, 8 and 9, 2017.