One of Mahatma Gandhi’s earliest trysts with the stage—as a character—was a jinxed 1970 production of Gurney Campbell’s Gandhi, which played for one night at Broadway’s Playhouse Theatre in New York. Campbell had spent 10 long years putting together her magnum opus, based on Gandhi’s life and the struggle for India’s independence. Although the lead actor, Jack MacGowran, was praised, the play was dubbed a “moribund pageant" by critics.

That year’s catalogue of copyright entries in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC lists a staggering 20 more plays on Gandhi, including one titled The Skinny Brown Man In The White Loin-Cloth. Of course, 1969 marked Gandhi’s birth centenary, but there appear to be no records of any of these efforts making it to the professional stage, let alone reaching the level of infamy reserved for Campbell’s clunker.

Yet the sheer volume of scripts in that year alone are a good indication of how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi fired the imagination of writers everywhere.

The seminal 1979 opera Satyagraha was composed by Philip Glass and its text, drawn from the Bhagavad Gita, is sung in Sanskrit. It is a meditation on Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa, where he developed his philosophy of non-violent resistance. The best staging is the 2007 version by the English National Opera and Improbable theatre company, in association with the Metropolitan Opera (The Met) in New York. The symbolism of Gandhi as a model of public rectitude, performed by tenor Alan Oke, is taken to astonishing levels—movement, colour and texture are used to great effect alongside aerial wire-work and giant papier mâché puppets. The charisma of his mythic figure remained unchallenged.

To this canon, illustrious in parts, a new entry has sought admittance. On 13 August, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) opened Danesh Khambata’s Gandhi—The Musical, co-produced with Silly Point Productions. The play features familiar signposts from Gandhi’s life, overlaid incongruously by garish Broadway-style production numbers that are hokey and derivative at best, and unpardonably regressive at worst.

Nivedita Baunthiyal and Chirag Vohra in Gandhi—The Musical, the production being staged at NCPA. Photo: Narendra Dangiya
Nivedita Baunthiyal and Chirag Vohra in Gandhi—The Musical, the production being staged at NCPA. Photo: Narendra Dangiya

The first half ends with the mass killing at Jallianwala Bagh choreographed to score, which would have been graceless even in a college production. Another sequence features Zulu warriors dancing to tribal beats in a number straight out of Tarzan. The casual racism of the play brings to mind the attitude that Gandhi was also accused of, according to Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer Of Empire.

In the second half, Khambata provides us a few moments of redeeming value. Chirag Vohra’s invocation of the Dandi March with a spirited walk through the theatre’s aisles, rubbing shoulders with the masses (the audience), is a set-piece with its own residual power. Harssh A. Singh’s competent Harilal is given an aria of disaffection all of his own that lives up to the play’s melodic promise. Vohra’s verisimilitude is never more compelling than in the scene following Kasturba’s death.

This is a vulnerable Gandhi with reserves of soul, not a pop-culture version that one might expect in a tasselled musical. But he is still, quite unmistakably, a paragon.

In fact, most representations of Gandhi have bordered on hagiography. Even the 1982 film by Richard Attenborough did not rock the boat much. In London, Tara Arts performed Lion’s Raj, in which three youths are divided over the meaning Gandhi’s legacy holds for British Asians, in 1982. In India, it was only with the dramatization of Dinkar Joshi’s 1988 novel, Prakash No Padachhayo, on the life of his son Harilal, that Gandhi was finally seen as much for his flaws as for his greatness. The definitive adaptations included Chandrakant Kulkarni’s 1995 Marathi version, Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi, written by Ajit Dalvi, and Mahatma v/s Gandhi, the 1998 Feroz Abbas Khan production featuring Naseeruddin Shah as Gandhi. The consummate actor lost weight, learnt how to spin the charkha, and delivered a touchstone performance opposite a brilliant Kay Kay Menon as a recalcitrant Harilal, whose foibles served as a contrast to Gandhi’s own intransigence as a father.

Khan’s play has been performed extensively in India and abroad, even prompting a cinematic adaptation by Khan himself.

One of the more recent portrayals that pushed the envelope was Howard Brenton’s Drawing The Line, staged at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2013. Here, Gandhi’s character, played by Tanveer Ghani, is partly caricatured. At a time when subcontinental politics was at a critical juncture, Gandhi’s character is a figure of abdication, possessed of predilections for goat’s milk and consorting with female aides.

Yet, Ghani is able to balance this with a pragmatic omniscience, even doubling up as Lord Krishna in a scene evoking the Bhagavad Gita, a motif also seen in Satyagraha. The play’s subject is Cyril Radcliffe who, like Arjun in the Mahabharat, dithers over the drawing of the borders between India and Pakistan, and to whom Gandhi can provide much more than just symbolic support. The debut run of the play was completely sold out and its final performance was streamed live on the Web to a worldwide audience.

In 2015, Manoj Shah’s Mohan’s Masala: Recipe For Making A ‘Mahatma’, written by Ishan Doshi, attempted to present Gandhi as an ordinary man who found extraordinary means to accomplish all that he did. Doshi’s monologue, performed with verve by Pratik Gandhi, focused on the Mahatma’s early years. The young Mohandas is often delivered to us as the neophyte barrister eager to make his mark in South Africa. His being thrown out of a first-class compartment at Pietermaritzburg is considered an early formative incident. He was just 24 years old.

This is where Mohan’s Masala, written in English and later translated into Hindi and Gujarati, effectively ends. Usually, most depictions of Gandhi begin at this point.

The ancillary figures in Gandhi’s life find showcases of their own that serve as mirrors to his politics. Rohini Hattangadi was cast in the part of his wife Kasturba in Attenborough’s film, which won her both, fame and acclaim. She also plays the lead in the Kasturba bioplay, Jagadamba, penned by Ramdas Bhatkal. The 2009 Marathi play dwelt on Gandhi’s tumultuous marriage, and Kasturba emerged as a powerful entity. The late Narayan Desai, a Gandhian, also wrote a play on her that featured Kalpana Gagdekar. He was in his 80s at the time.

Ramu Ramanathan’s Mahadevbhai (1892-1942) is an important work that positions Gandhi’s personal secretary, Mahadev Desai (played by Jaimini Pathak), as one of his most devoted foils. Desai’s diaries, which Ramanathan draws from, are full of Gandhi’s whims and eccentricities. First performed in 2002, the play invokes a 1917 party meet in Godhra, linking itself directly to contemporary events that shattered the vision of nation that Gandhi stood for.

Yet this vision has always had its detractors. While the Asmita theatre group’s Ambedkar Aur Gandhi (2009) juxtaposed the beliefs of the two towering personas, Pradeep Dalvi’s Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy sought to lionize his assassin. Dalvi, who wrote it in 1989, was denied permission to stage the play. It has had sporadic runs since 1997, interspersed with bans and controversy. Godse’s spiel is delivered with a self-righteous angst, but the play suffers from the glaring lack of a counterpoint.

Surprisingly, Gandhi doesn’t come across as contemptible and foul, he is merely a symbol of the moral forces that Godse finds himself fundamentally opposed to, if fallaciously.

Despite the constant revisionism that has sought to dismantle his legacy, the Mahatma remains an icon immune to the vagaries of time.

Gandhi—The Musical will be performed at the Jamshed Bhabha theatre, NCPA, Mumbai on 20-21 August (4pm/7.30pm). For tickets, visit in.bookmyshow.com

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