‘Gandhi Mahaan Kathai,’ presented on Gandhi Jayanthi by senior dancer-scholar-musician Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, was a never-seen-before kind of a production -- it was neither Bharatanatyam nor Bharatanrithyam but a beautiful musical opera accompanied by dramatic visuals.

The impactful story-telling through music and mime re-created so effortlessly the emotional landscape of that one special Indian, M. K. Gandhi, whom India looked up to for inspiration and guidance during the fight against the British colonialists.

The work was prompted by R. Krishnaswamy and Natyarangam of Narada Gana Sabha. It was based on poet-lyricist-actor-film director Kothamangalam Subbu’s text ‘Gandhi Mahaan Kathai,’ written for villupaattu and so had colloquial Tamil lyrics tuned in folk metres and tunes by Dr. Padma, who incidentally completes 60 years as a dancer this year.

The presentation was biographical as it traced Gandhiji’s life from birth until his death. But it was also a chronicle of India’s Freedom Struggle as the events overlapped after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, when he rose in protest with the Non-Cooperation Movement.

As we travelled with the Mahatma through the ups and downs of his life, a sense of connection was undeniable as the sublime music, the humility in the acting (Padma, Vineeth) and the comprehensive narration (Lakshmi, Saraswati) came together. The production went beyond a performance to become an experience.

The real hero was the music. Lead by Dr. Gayatri Kannan, herself a dancer, and accompanied by seniors such as Isaikkavi Ramanan, Lalitha Krishnababu and R. Narayanan, B. Kannan (veena), K. Sathyanarayanan (keyboard) and Devaraj (flute), along with percussionists Nagai P. Sriram (mridangam), N. Sundar (tabla), V. Rajagoapalan (effects) and K. Shyamakrishnan (ganjira), the music conveyed the essence of the happenings. Their timing too is to be applauded.

The performance commenced with Gandhiji’s favourite words ‘Hey Ram’ that was set in a bhajan style, setting the scene for the introduction of the folk element in a beautiful tableau with vibrant dancers. Following this was an endearing conversation between mother and son, as Gandhiji’s mother is not happy about his London proposal. ‘Settu Pazhakkam Poi Ketta Pazhakkame Sinda Palanaagum,’ says Putlibai, to which Gandhiji replies, “Amma Thaye Pethavalae, Naan Appadi Magan Alle!” Such simple words and so telling!

It was easy to follow as the music, the events and the mime were clearly spelt out; even the group sequences with the 45 dancers of the troupe were so orderly and so involved that there was not even one child out of line. The ‘kappal porappadu’ showing Gandhiji’s voyage to Britain and the train sequence when Gandhiji travels by train in South Africa were particularly eye-catching.

The group was also instrumental in whipping up the emotions of the country during the dramatic events such as the Punjab massacre, the boycott of British goods, the salt satyagraha and the opening of the Madurai Meenakshi temple. There were no steps per se, but the coordination, timing and anga shudda can be achieved only by dancers!

It was a pity that we did not actually get to ‘see’ Gandhiji, as the production was a third person narrative. There were few glimpses of the Mahatma when the actors would get into the characters, which they did with dignity.

One such image is of Gandhiji (Vineeth) in The Great Trial defending the Non-Cooperation campaign. Another is when Gandhiji (Padma) loses his beloved secretary Mahadev Desai and his wife Kasturba while being imprisoned; it was a moving ‘Irupathi Irendu Maasam..’ in Malahari.

His death was captured by the dancers with remarkable timing and as Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan, ‘Vaishnava Jana To’ was sung, there was not a dry eye in the overflowing auditorium.

Simplicity personified

As eminent dancers, musicians, film and TV personalities and rasikas arrived at the Sadguru Gnanananda Hall, the auditorium filled up very quickly. Many choose to sit in the aisles or stand by the walls, as there was no available seating well before the show began.

A. Ramanujam, retired Assistant Commissioner, Sales Tax, and son-in-law of Tamil writer Chandilyan, was one of the early birds who had no problem finding a seat. He was there because a grand-niece was participating. He said, “The subject is universal. Any patriotic person will be here...I have been fortunate enough to actually see Mahatma Gandhi. This was just after Independence. He and Rajaji toured South India by train, and stopped along the Arasalar River in Kumbakonam. The train stopped for about half and hour. He got down in his dhoti and in the early morning light, his body was shining and his limbs looked golden. His simplicity, austerity and non-violence are appreciated the world over, but no one follows it anymore.”