There is something deeply troubling about Chennai-based playwright Prasanna Ramaswamy’s new play This is my name . Long after it is over, it leaves you with a sense of disquiet and lingering insecurity. The 90-minute theatre performance featuring a large ensemble cast was recently staged in Chennai to somewhat muted response, thanks to COVID-19.
The play is ostensibly an exploration of the past — Nathuram Godse’s defence of his assassination of Gandhi. Yet, in doing so, the play essentially raises uncomfortable, deeply unsettling questions about the future.
“While the central figure, Godse, claims that he only performed his duty as a patriot in the act of killing Mahatma Gandhi, the notion of the nation state as against the philosophy of a nation, a land of people, through the several interpolations of fundamentalist acts through history, the discourse moves to reveal the cruel and abysmal ignorance behind the act,” says Prasanna, who has adapted and directed the play, supported by Chennai Art Theatre. “Gandhi is the embodiment of secularism and Godse as a representation of an ideology that is out to destroy secularism and to engage with the perpetrator brings us close to present reality.”
An adaptation of writer Paul Zacharia’s Malayalam novella, Ithanente Peru , the play takes the audiences through a “series of soliloquies of Godse ranging from memory, defence, reasoning, fear and so on,” says Prasanna.
Delivering a stunning performance as Godse, actor Sarvesh Sridhar brings to the stage a myriad of eloquent emotions, ranging from ecstasy to confusion, from a false sense of peace to a very real turmoil. Through the play, Godse bases his reasoning on the ideology he grew up with, the principles against secularism. In the course of self-enquiry, he revisits what he imagines to be his previous births. The play ends with his refusal to sign his name, claiming that his name will now be Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
In the end, all the actors shed their images of Godse and come together to deliver the powerful words of Kerala’s philosopher-social reformer Narayana Guru on religion and caste, delivered in 1916. “I have no connection whatsoever with any one of the existing religions. All religions are acceptable to me. Everyone needs to observe the religion they like. It is according to the wishes of certain of the Hindus that I have consecrated some temples. Likewise, if followers of other religions like Christians, Muhammedans wish, I am only too happy to do the necessary for them as well. When I say that I have left behind the differences of caste or creed, it only means that I have no special attachment to any of the existing castes or religions.”
In his novella, Zacharia “expands the discourse on Godse’s faith in the singular further by arranging episodes from history — those which happened with few other religions, including Christianity, as parallels,” says Prasanna.
In the play, Prasanna deftly places some contemporary elements as intertexts in an attempt to ‘raise a question on the cultural output hydrated by the religious faith and another looking at how texts are turned into political equipment.’ So, if we have Nikhila Kesavan as a ‘commentator’ confronting the dancer in Anita Ratnam about her choice of mythological characters to expound contemporary feminism (even calling them as ‘suspended in movement’), we also have Dharma Raman and Sharanya using a discourse in Bhagavad Gita as a tool for polarisation.
In the course of these intertexts, Anita presents her dance repertoire as a dramatic engagement with the question of art and faith. “These two additional intertexts — one voicing a crucial question on cultural manifestations of a faith, any faith, and the other holding a mirror to the act of art and tradition turned into a weapon by the perpetrator — complete the discourse,” says Prasanna.
That a novella written in 2003 holds more relevance today than when it was first written, and that it could be successfully adapted as an intense theatre performance is perhaps a reflection of what the country has gone through in these years.
“The immediate reason to write the play was a re-reading of Godse’s defence in court. It was a powerful document, and he was so deep-rooted in his belief. That is what fundamentalism and terrorism are all about, whatever the religion,” recalls Zacharia. “In 2003, I do think I started writing on what could happen. I had this eerie feeling that things are changing and not for good. Different forces were coming into play.”
Zacharia thinks the novella is more relevant today because the “character of Godse has come into greater prominence today; people are building temples for him. In that context, it is worth taking a look at [the subject].”
For Prasanna, it is all about interrogating the grimness of reality with the craft of theatre. “We live in times which call for celebration of secular values, especially in a country like India which has been home to people with very different faiths for centuries. This central idea of secularism has been challenged by those who uphold a singular faith ideology and use power to destroy the multicoloured fabric. I think it helps to cut to a close-up to see clear the right-wing ideology that leverages action.”
The play also features Nikhil Kedia and Dharshan Ramkumar doing extended Godses and other multiple roles. The original score for the play has been composed by Anandhkumar; the artwork is a triptych created by artist Gurunathan Govindan; and light design is by Charles. The play features vocals by Sharanya Krishnan and nattuvangam by Subhasri Vidya.
According to Prasanna, the play breaks, fuses and leaps across genres working through the principles of contact and isolation towards a surreal that can be more real. “The play brings the rants of Godse, fluctuating between arrogance, fear, and misled ideas, which takes form through stylisation of not just movement but by multiplication of his character. Perched onto this dark discourse are two distracting questions, one about the body of work that came out of faith and another on how art has always been pliable to power.”
The writer is an independent Chennai-based journalist.