A year ago, we did an open air show of Mahadevbhai for thousands of adivasis and locals in Olpad (near Surat). It was a show on a makeshift stage, basic lights and sound.
None of it mattered. The audience, repeated, each and every line. At times, they stood up and argued with the actor. Once the play was over, they debated the pros-cons of the show till sunrise. That is Gandhi for you. Still raging!
Of course, you can argue Olpad is Gandhi territory. It is a few kilometres from Vedchi, where Narayan Desai (son of Mahadev Desai) oversees an ashram, a school, a workshop for artisans, well, just about everything. It is powered by solar energy. School children enter in the morning, and leave their dabbas in the solar container. By lunch break, they can have piping, hot food. This is the Gandhian method.
Mahadevbhai is my new play, which is on the verge of completing 100 shows. It is currently performing in Jaipur, and will travel to Nepal next. It is based on the life and diaries of Mahadev Desai, who was secretary to Gandhi from 1917 to 1942. So yes, Mahadev Desai is a real flesh and blood person. I've to say this, since many members of the audience think Desai is the creation of the writer.
Not many have heard of the play in Mumbai. There are two reasons for it. Playwriting is a peripheral activity in this city; and secondly, Mahadevbhai, most unforgivably, is pro-Gandhi, as opposed to the fashionable trend of anti-Gandhi plays. In fact, I wanted to write the play in the 90s when there was a surge of anti-Gandhi plays. The Babri Masjid had been demolished. The BJP-Shiv Sena government was in power. There was tacit support for anti-Gandhism.
Which were the three anti-Gandhi plays? Ajit Dalwi's Gandhi Virudh Gandhi,(the picture on the right) in which, Gandhi's son Harilal became a role model for youth. The play depicts Gandhi as a father who is an uncaring bum, completely ignoring the fact that he was fighting against the powerful Empire.
In Premanand Gajvi's Gandhi-Ambedkar is gagged, literally. Everytime, there is a possibility of an ideological confrontation, the playwright states Gandhi is practising maun varat.
And so, what could have been a mind-blowing play of ideas about the politics of the two giants, gets reduced to a one-sided depiction of the arguments. As regards, Me Nathuram Bolte Ahe its a PR hype for Godse. History is distorted.
And at the end of it, we're informed, Gandhi Hatya was not an assassination, but a Vadh (as in Ravana Vadh).
There are historical reasons for the anti-Gandhism. One, our politics has been communalised. This makes Gandhi an easy target and anyone perceived as pro-Muslim will be attacked. Then there are the caste politicians, who are playing the anti-Gandhi card. In this sense Ambedkar and Gandhi become foes without their politics being understood.
We have complete amnesia about the fact that Gandhi united all the classes by providing a programme for action. This meant workers and leaders gave up their jobs willingly and were supplemented by constructive programmes. Gandhi was a great organiser too. Men like Mahadev Desai stood witness to this.
Some of these things, emerge from our shows of Mahadevbhai. The audience listens, it assimilates. At times, when the single actor (Jaimini Pathak, who enacts 30+ roles) falters, they correct the date or the pronunciation of a name. Most shows are performed in schools and colleges.
We want to talk to the fence-sitters and "the other side". At a Maharashtra College, six burkha-clad girls, climbed onto the stage and started touching the small props. All they said was, small things make a great man.
At another show an ageing Malayali stated, the play helped her understand the events of the past decade. Whilst leaving she added, "This is not the country I was born into. and certainly not the country I want to die in!"
But the best comments came from a 90-year-old man who got emotionally charged, and during the Dandi March scene, shouted, "I was there, too. I walked for a few days, but, the old man was walking, too fast. So I gave up." Didn’t we all, I asked myself.
(The author is a playwriight and director )