MPTF 2014 Theatre

The diary of Mahadev Desai

A still from Mahadevbhai  

How much do we really know of Mahatma Gandhi? How much of his values do we really believe are relevant today? And how much have the different subjective versions of his story coloured our perception of the father of our nation? Perhaps a glimpse at Mahadev Desai’s diaries will help us understand the man behind the Mahatma.

Mahadev Desai was Gandhi’s personal secretary from 1917 till his death in 1942. Having exclusive access to the entire campaign for India’s freedom struggle and many historic moments, Desai’s diaries are considered a treasure trove of information. “The play draws on material from Mahadev Desai’s diaries, other historical documents and records, and innumerable conversations with people who were part of that era and who had many first-hand stories and anecdotes to share,” explains Jaimini Pathak.

Pathak shoulders the responsibility of single-handedly bringing to life the many characters on to the stage from Mahadev Deasai, Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr. B R Ambedkar, through lively story-telling and a pinch of humour, as the plot shuttles back and forth in time.

Interestingly, the play was written as a response to a lot of anti-Gandhi plays that were being staged around the time (early 2000s), apart from being an attempt to trace Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom struggle and to the birth of the democracy. “The Gujarat riots had just happened a few months before the play was staged, and we felt that as theatre persons and citizens, we had to say what we felt; we needed to examine where India and the idea of India had reached 50 years after Independence,” says Pathak.

For writer and director Ramu Ramanthan, the play is also a tribute to the invisible faces of the movement. “We know only Gandhi and Nehru but not those who were in the second or third ranks of the movement. Mahadev Desai is not a ‘nobody’. The play is a way of telling people how a great man was backed by an equally great man.”

Q&A with Ramu Ramanathan

What about Gandhi do you hope the audience will take way from the play?

Here was a man who led what was probably the single largest protest movement in the world, and that without spending money or having a quick means of communication. His stress was on self-reliance and cadre-building — both he and Nehru built a mass movement and had the ability to percolate down to the grassroots.

He was successful in bringing women into the freedom movement by creating a sense of sanctity or purity about it. The play also showcases the nitty-gritty of a political movement, including the conversations and disillusionments that we are not privy to.

During your work on the play, what are the new things you personally learnt about Gandhi?

I began to bump into Gandhi everywhere. I have travelled a lot within India; in districts and townships. And the amazing thing is Gandhi has spent time in most of these towns and villages. Not just a visit, but he created a cadre based or self-reliance programme in every zilla.

What kind of reactions or feedback do you get from the audience?

It varies. Once, there was an elderly man who got up from the audience while the actor was enacting Gandhi and cried out ‘I was there!’ At another time, a person came backstage and asked me if Mahadev Desai really existed. So we have intense connection on one hand and naiveté on the other. People react to different aspects of the play. There are people who really connect to the Gandhian music in the play.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 9:15:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/the-diary-of-mahadev-desai/article6283795.ece

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