Direction : Rajesh Joshi
Writer : Uttam Gada
Cast : Parth Sarthi Vaidya, Pulkit Solanki, Babul Bhavsar and Others


Deepa Punjani

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Theatre can be empowering and it can be subjugating. It can be incendiary and it can be banal. It can be a place where elect Vice-Presidents are booed at or it can be a place where spiritual leaders are glorified. There is something about the stage where a lot can happen and a lot that people get away doing. Art and ideology have always co-mingled and the theatre is perhaps the most representative of the Arts in this regard. The ancient Greeks knew this a long time ago and capitalised on the art of the theatre. YUGPURUSH-MAHATMA NA MAHATMA may well be an anthropological study of the possibilities of the theatre on stage and beyond.

The Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur (SRMD) that has produced the play is not your average theatre company. As its name suggests, it actively seeks to promote the teachings of its Guru Srimad Rajchandra, while being engaged in a variety of social work. 150 years have passed since the legendary Jain philosopher and saint was born. His greatest and most celebrated protégé was none other than Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi who acquired the honorific ‘The Mahatma’. It is this fact that the production channelises to convey the persona of its Guru.

The play is scripted by Uttam Gada and directed by Rajesh Joshi. Lights by Bhautesh Vyas, music by Sachin-Jigar, a cast that includes Pulkit Solanki and Babul Bhavsar, ensure that the SRMD is thorough. The above names are some of the heavyweight names of Gujarati theatre. Yet for all the attention paid to creating a professional play, the SRMD is least interested in the profession of the play. The shows are non-ticketed and free for all to attend. The play will be translated into other languages and has had its Hindi premiere. Many shows have already been planned.

After the show you can find books by SRMD’s leader “Pujya Gurudev Rakeshbhai” whom we have already been introduced to in a slick video post interval. At the very beginning, a section of our Vada Pradhan’s (Prime Minister) Independence Day speech is played in which he evokes Srimad Rajchandra and Gandhi, emphasising their Guru-Shisya relationship. The stage is set. Narratives give away motives. Somewhere between appropriation and exaltation; between fact and fiction; between history and myth; between politics and religion; between art and ideology - interesting dialectics emerge.

Gandhi was deeply influenced by Srimad Rajchandra whom he personally knew and whom he considered his spiritual and religious mentor. Srimad Rajchandra was a child prodigy with a miraculous memory; later a businessman, a poet, a philosopher; the man who gave Gandhi his most effective tool ahimsa (non-violence) for the freedom movement and who guided him in matters of the atman (soul).

Gandhi moved on. He was an unusual (even rare) leader who moulded himself for the freedom struggle in which he was to be its star actor and “Father of the Nation” - a designation tellingly separate from the “Mahatma”. Srimad Rajchandra was haloed and was meant to be a “Mahatma”. Gandhi was elevated to being one by the people of the subcontinent when he brought the masses together for the freedom movement. Srimad Rajchandra was confined to his immediate surroundings; Gandhi immersed himself with the peoples of the land. Srimad Rajchandra was self-assured; Gandhi had doubts.

Gandhi spoke highly of Srimad Rajchandra, yet they were also very different men with different goals. In a land easily given to hero worship, it is comfortable to conflate distinct narratives and render them simplistic and sanatised. The play is thus picture book perfect, complete with cardboard trees and little white fences. Thankfully, the performances are without artifice - the lofty are rendered more human.

Crucial issues arise on the periphery of a project of this nature such as the stranglehold of a caste-ridden and a terribly unequal Hindu society that exists to this day. In the play there is a glimpse of the correspondence that Gandhi and Srimad Rajchandra share while the former is in South Africa. Gandhi reveals his anxieties and doubts about Vedic Hindu religion as he grieves for the “untouchables” who have been brutally attacked. That harrowing past is still present in our social landscape. Vedic sanctioned casteism was never systemically dismantled and caste-class equations have only become increasingly complicated.

Besides, “Hindu” (read Vedic) philosophy with its esoteric concepts like the atman continues to be routinely exploited at the hands of lesser men. The men alleged to have murdered Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, not long ago, have had links with a religious organisation that preaches spiritual awakening in “scientific terminology”. Vedic Hinduism has been co-opted and choreographed by the Hindutva brigade to spuriously legitimise its saffronising politics. None other than Gandhi has been its most significant casualty. We are presented with the scene of Gandhi’s assassination, but as a predictable end to the natural life of the play. Critique and inquiry are submerged in the mushy afterglow of the “other world” as Srimad Rajchandra returns to lead his famous disciple.

Ultimately, no real social change, or for that matter no provoking theatre has ever come out of deification, whatever its orientation may be and in spite of its good intentions. In the rationalist and wise words of the Jain seer himself: Kar vichhar toh pamm’ (Think and you will realise)…As things stand, the land of the two “Mahatmas” is still awaiting its ‘Apurva Avsar’ (An unprecedented occasion) – nearly seventy years now after “freedom”.

*Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.

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