A Great Man, A Complicated Man: Gandhi On Stage in Song and Dance

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October 2, 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth. Revered in India and beyond, he's the subject of a thoughtful and provocative musical by the Silicon Valley based theater company Naatak.  (Photo: Courtesy of ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

It's an epic story; everything from Mahatma Gandhi’s early days in law school to his campaigns in South Africa, to the civil disobedience movement he led against British colonial rule in India that inspired people all over the world, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

Naatak co-founder, artistic director and playwright Sujit Saraf says, with Gandhi: A Grand Musical, the theater company presents an accessible yet nuanced picture for Indians steeped in Gandhi love — and hate — from childhood on.

"Gandhi has total 'brand permeation' in India. We grew up with Gandhi as our father. Some of us continue to adore him. Then there is a strain of — it's hot in India — where you mock everything Gandhi did because he's extremely easy to mock." That includes some of the very things that helped establish Gandhi's moral and political stature in the first place, like the humble loincloth, or dhoti, he wore, the vow of celibacy he held to for much of his adult life, and his campaign to change sanitation practices.

"A man who led 300 million people and had something to say, over a long public career, on every subject on earth necessarily said many silly things. I could come up with a hundred silly things that Gandhi said and none of those put together would paint a picture of the man. So, in our play, he does say those things, but not in an attempt to make fun of him; in an attempt to better understand what Gandhi meant to India, to the world, and to history."

"Gandhi: The Musical" by Naatak runs September 14 - October 6 at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto.
"Gandhi: A Grand Musical" by Naatak runs September 14 - October 6 at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto. (Photo: Courtesy of Rajat Bhargava)

Naatak has been delivering Indian theatre to Silicon Valley for a quarter century now, everything from Western classics cast with Indian-American locals to original work, like what opens tonight.


To write the play, Saraf dove deep into books about and recordings of the great man and come up with a sense of him as "stubborn, cruel, intelligent, and very very courageous."

"The problem with most writings about Gandhi, including the big movie [directed by Richard Attenborough], is that they are too conscious of his star power. They are too aware that he is a world figure. He is the father of the nation. So the movie, for instance, is full of slow motion footage of Gandhi putting on glasses, Gandhi slipping his feet into sandals. He utters witticisms and white people's jaws drop."

"We are Indians. I don't need to see Gandhi through Western eyes. Not only that, I'm able to represent him in his own language." Three languages, in fact: Ghandi’s native tongue, Gujarati, as well as Hindi and English.

Saraf says there was a distinct difference in the way Gandhi communicated, depending on who his audience was.

"When he spoke in Hindi, he spoke very mundanely. When he spoke in English, he was aiming it at a western audience, and the point five percent of Indians who could speak English then. His speeches acquired a slightly more poetic air. He wasn’t an orator on the level of MLK. I don't have Gandhi making beautiful speeches in the musical because it just doesn't make sense. "

That said, Naatak feels freer to take poetic license with original music (composed by Nachiketa Yakkundi and dance (choreography by Soumya Agastya, Shwetha Subraya and Nisha Natraj). "So many of Gandhi's ideas and campaigns are presented in the play as lovely dance and music," Saraf says. The musical also includes songs familiar from Gandhi’s life and the Indian independence movement.

Resistance as Spiritual Practice

Gandhi's  deeply rooted spiritual practice was central to his political practice, his philosophy of non-violent resistance to oppression. Political campaigns for him were a means to a larger end. He felt he was an instrument of divine will.

"He arrived at what he thought were some simple truths," says Saraf. "Everything he did was an attempt to test those truths and his laboratory kept getting larger and larger. He really was a very personal man living as a public figure, testing out  deeply held beliefs and theories — on abstinence, on sanitation, on humility. They took a political form, but the political life was not what he was talking about, and in a strange way, he never made a secret of it. He often talked about how independence from the British meant nothing [to him]."

What did mean something to Gandhi? "A life of dignity, harmony between Hindus and Muslims, and self-sufficiency. To him, these were the important aims and goals of life, and independence from British rule was merely a means of achieving these."

Original music and dance feature prominently in "Gandhi: The Musical" put on by Silicon Valley-based Naatak.
Original music and dance feature prominently in "Gandhi: A Grand Musical" put on by Silicon Valley-based Naatak. (Photo: Courtesy of Rajat Bhargava)

But if Gandhi succeeded in shaming the British out of India, he was completely unsuccessful in establishing a country free of religious and class divisions, and of politicians who stoke the fires of those divisions to get into and stay in power. Naked materialism is in vogue now, as much in India as any place else on earth.

"He would not be pleased if he came back," muses Saraf. "I think he would go on a fast unto death, and sadly, I don't know if anybody would care."

Heady stuff to tackle on stage — and timely, given that October 2nd marks the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.

Gandhi: A Grand Musical runs Sept. 14-Oct. 6 at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto. For more information, click here