Asmita kicked off its 20th anniversary celebrations with one of its best productions

For those who grew up in the pre-cable TV days, it was mandatory to watch Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” on Doordarshan after the Republic Day parade. This Republic Day, visitors to Mandi House enjoyed a similar, yet more thought-provoking and intellectual treat. Heralding its 20th anniversary commemoration in February, Asmita theatre group presented Rajesh Kumar’s “Ambedkar aur Gandhi” at Shri Ram Centre in New Delhi.

The script adapts for stage B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi’s prolonged and nuanced debate on caste. It is a marvellous script with long and emotional dialogues; something that only a cast of skilled actors can dare to attempt for a ticketed audience. Asmita, with its director Arvind Gaur, has confidently scaled this bar since 2009, when they first staged the play.

Bajrang Bali Singh played Ambedkar superbly. Supported by directly overhead spotlighting, Bajrang’s instant repartee and reserved sarcasm worked like “punch dialogues” in South Indian films, drawing applause with every hit.

But it is no slapstick. The script brings out the pain and resistance of Dalits. It also intelligently builds up the friction between Gandhi (Gaurav Mishra) and Ambedkar, which heightens as the debate on separate electorates for Dalits rages. Ambedkar stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream nationalists with his precision and uncluttered ideas. His lines pack more punches than Gandhi’s. But both were natural in their performance and accurate to history.

The 90-minute performance was an intense saga with debates and writings of both leaders weaved into dialogue, stitched together by energetic street theatre-inspired songs. The music was by Sangeeta Gaur.

While the controls of Shri Ram Centre’s front lighting seemed soggy, Gaur artistically created the back lighting. He gave a silhouette-like touch to scenes of struggle, agitations and celebration that progressed parallel to the main plot.

Shilpi Marwaha’s role as Ambedkar’s wife Rama Bai and as a chorus singer was noteworthy. The scenes with Rama Bai were poignant even as they exposed a more tender Ambedkar. Though Rama was clearly a housewife, her political expression and Ambedkar’s response to her was balanced and intelligent.

Before Gandhi is assassinated, he and Ambedkar have a long and provocative debate over religious conversion and the necessity of caste. Though the dialogue accurately represents both their views — as recorded in their letters and works — it fails to incorporate the revision in Gandhi’s views on the caste system in the 1940s.

In conclusion, this play is undoubtedly one of the best political dramas — a pet genre of Asmita — to be staged in the Capital in a long time.