Akshara Theatre recently took up the formidable task of staging a play based on Mahatma Gandhi’s commentary and translation of the Bhagwad Gita. The Mahatma worked on his Gujarati translation in 1929, when he spent a fortnight with his wife at a tea plantation cottage in Kausani, in present day Uttarakhand. The play is set in Kausani, where Gandhi and his wife Kasturba discuss the Gita, facing the Himalayas.
The director Anasuya Vaidya Shetty explores Gandhi’s private persona, away from the crowds. She does this through the long conversations, simple yet revealing, between Gandhi (Vikalp Mudgal) and Kasturba (Mahima Saigal).
Their debates on the Gita are accompanied by a parallel enactment of the discourse between Arjuna (Angad Thakur) and Lord Krishna (Nisa Shetty). Jalabala Vaidya and Gopal Sharman, who also scripted the play, are the narrators.
Seated at the back, it was Vaidya who did the narrating. Vaidya’s narration was, surprisingly, directed towards Sharman rather than the audience. There were abrupt breaks in narration where Vaidya and Sharman engaged in whispering conversation.
Recordings of Sharman’s shloka recitals were effectively used in the play. Gandhi often delves into texts of other spiritual movements which have parallels to the Gita. These were read out simultaneously on the edge of the fourth wall.
Parallel enactment offers many possibilities of bringing the script to life. It has been used creatively in recent plays like “Ek Kutte ki Kahani.” But this play has more narration than drama. It doesn’t really add value to Gandhi’s work.
Even the Arjuna-Krishna discourse, lively in parts, is not strong enough to lift the sagging sails. Gandhi and Kasturba have such a meek difference of opinion that the audience is only left with the discourses in the Gita to find solace in.
The saving grace of the performance was Mudgal. He was completely possessed by his character. His accent perfectly matched that from the archive footage of Gandhi. Where narration failed, Mudgal and Saigal courageously filled in. The lights weren’t bad, but seemed underutilised.
Acting out the philosophical moorings of a complex historical character is difficult, nevertheless befitting an eminent theatre like Akshara. The trouble is that creative technique needs to be constantly reinvented. The average performance apart, Akshara seems in need to review its act.