THEMATIC A beautiful musical opera accompanied by dramatic visuals… that was Gandhi Mahaan Kathai. RUPA SRIKANTH

‘Gandhi Mahaan Kathai,’ presented on Gandhi Jayanthi by dancer-scholar-musician Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, was a never-before-seen kind of 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 effortlessly the emotional landscape of that one special Indian, M. K. Gandhi. 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 set 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. 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. Led 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.

Vibrant dancing

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 Alla!” 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 sequence when Gandhiji travels by train in South Africa were particularly eye-catching.

The dancers whipped up emotions while bringing alive 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, however, quite a few glimpses of the Mahatma when the actors got into the characters, which they did with dignity. One such image was that of Gandhiji (Vineeth) in The Great Trial defending the Non-Cooperation campaign. Another was 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.