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Mahatma, through the eyes of a companion

Mahadevbhai was one of the best plays in the 17-day Ranga Shankara theatre festival

FRESH LOOKGandhiji is seen having a word with his close associate Mahadev Desai in this file picture from The Hindu archives. The play Mahadevbhai looks at the Mahatma from his aide's perspective

One would not have imagined a biographical play based on Gandhiji's life, a two-hour monologue at that, to be such an exhilarating theatre experience until one had seen Jaimini Pathak in Ramu Ramanathan's Mahadevbhai (1892-1942). The solo play presented by the Bombay-based theatre group Working Title (A group that produces only original work!) was undoubtedly one of the best plays staged during the Rangashankara Theatre Festival this year.

The play, while exploring the relevance of Gandhian principles and ideology to our times, turns the spotlight onto the little-known, modest, self-effacing scholar, whose diaries and translations of My Experiments with Truth have been so crucial to our knowledge of Gandhiji's life and works. Mahadev Desai, chosen by the Mahatma to be his companion, served as his personal secretary from 1917 till his death in 1942. Described as Gandhiji's `second heart' by C. Rajagopalachari, Mahadevbhai went everywhere (including prison) with Gandhiji and was a witness to many historic moments in the life of the nation. During these years he maintained a diary in which he meticulously recorded all his conversations and correspondence with the Mahatma. The eight-volume diary is invaluable both as literature and history.

It is in these volumes that playwright-director Ramu Ramanathan has found the material for his play. Mahadevbhai (1892-1942) is, according to him, "an attempt to contextualise the freedom movement and the birth of a democratic nation with what is happening today". It is the Gandhi-bashing and the pro-Godse plays which have flooded Mumbai theatre in the last few years that prompted him to write the play. Mahadevbhai is his attempt to set the record straight. Through Mahadevbhai's narrative he takes us through several historic acts and moments that decided the fate of the nation, such as Dandi March, Champaran and Bardoli Satyagraha. Himself a passionate believer in Gandhiji's views on Hindu-Muslim unity, removal of untouchability, improving the lot of women, promotion of cottage industries, labour welfare, truth and non-violence, he articulates them with a conviction that touches the heart. His authentic account of Gandhiji's interaction with leaders such as Ambedkar, Jinnah, Sardar Patel and the Nehru family helps clear several popular misconceptions.

The play skilfully blends the historical narrative with Mahadevbhai's personal life and the present moment. The humble, unassuming personality of Mahadevbhai brought out even in the way the actor introduces himself and in his highly ironical foreword of Mahadevbhai's story being narrated to a Bollywood producer. This becomes particularly significant in the light of all the commercial hits based on the lives of freedom fighters that Bollywood has been churning out. Bits of drama and comedy, inserted every now and then, break the monotony of the narrative. While the Anglophile history teacher, Prabhavathi personifies the typical colonial mind-set, (History teachers like her are also held responsible for the wrong attitude towards history!), the young Americanised MBA graduate is a product of the new economic colonialism. Dadaji acts as a living link between Gandhiji, Mahadevbhai and the present.

These dramatic episodes, which appear like diversions, are carefully tied up with the narrative and take it forward. Difference between Gandhiji's dreams and present reality are often pointed out through subtle comments. The irony of the meeting on communal harmony being held in Godra, for instance, is brought out without any overt reference to the recent carnage, through just a slight tonal variation in the repetition of the name.

Though profoundly ambitious, the production is endearing in its utter simplicity. The play does not just talk about Gandhian principles, but lives it. The modest design, the simple props pulled out of the old trunk, the persona of the young, unassuming actor taken on by the artiste tidying up the stage after using the props, with the dignity of labour of a true Gandhian, the ambience created by the music and the lights, everything evokes Mahadevbhai's commitment to the Gandhian way of life. The flowers on stage create a feeling of reverence for Gandhiji as well as Mahadevbhai.

Jaimini Pathak seems cut out for the role and gets under the skin of the character he plays. He is quietly impressive and slides effortlessly from role to role without indulging in any flamboyant display of histrionics. He appears equally at home in Hindi, Gujrathi and English. The English he uses is comfortably Indian and never intrusive. His informal, chatty tone and the touch of humour livens up the narrative.

It is not often that one comes across a piece of theatre where everything is so perfectly balanced. The playwright, performer and the production team richly deserve the standing ovation they received.


The picture published in this column on November 18, Women, violence and more was that of the play Mahadevbhai and not that of Sakharam Binder as published. We regret the error.

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