In 1928, Jawaharlal Nehru was put in an Allahabad jail during India’s freedom struggle. That summer he started writing letters to his 10-year old daughter, Indira, who was in Mussoorie at the time. In the first series of letters, Book of Nature, he told her the story of how and when the earth was made, how human and animal life began, and how civilizations and societies evolved all over the world. In subsequent letters, he speaks to his daughter on a wide range of topics, including languages, trade, history, geography, science, epics, and evolution.
When Indira was about to turn 13, Nehru started sending her more detailed letters. These letters contained his understanding of the world, his deep commitment to building not only the country’s future, but also his daughter’s as he carefully and sometimes lyrically opens up the world to her from afar, and sets the groundwork for her own ambitious emergence on the world stage years later.
Bringing this rich content to life is Bay Area-based, EnActe Arts with a virtual adaptation of Lavonne Mueller’s Letters to a Daughter from Prison. The original play made its debut in 1988 during the first International Festival of the Arts in New York City before going on to tour India. It has been adapted for this production by Deesh Mariwala (Director), Denzil Smith, and Vinita Sud Belani (Founder and Artistic Director of EnActe Arts).
Set against the backdrop of the freedom struggle and Gandhi’s non-violent protests, the play reveals the richness of the father-daughter relationship in the formative years, before her eventual emergence on the world stage, as Indira Gandhi.
The playwright was inspired to write the story because Nehru, the statesman, was being continually separated from his shy, intellectual daughter due to the turmoil that came with the freeing and building of the world’s largest democracy. “They forged the bonds of a loving, nurturing and formative relationship through their detailed, prolific letters to each other. I felt compelled to write this story because I could not find a parallel in the Western world of a statesman father who nurtured his daughter in such a way.”
The play’s director Deesh Mariwala: “Funnily enough what started as a delving into the lives of two Prime Ministers who shaped the land I grew up in, has become a warm, companionable relationship with two people I have never met, but now feel I know almost intimately.”
“We could not have picked a play more en point for our times and our audiences,” says EnActe Artistic Director Belani. “In a time when conversation is rife on gender roles, and female representation, when the U.S. may possibly have their first female Vice President (with part Indian origins) in the White House, and when the Gandhian style of non-violent protest espoused by Martin Luther King is being reprised in so many countries, the relevance of this play to audiences young and old is unarguable.”
“Assaying the role of Indira across the decades would of course be exhilarating for any actor” says Belani “but it’s also intimidating – hugely so! Portraying a real person requires a commitment to their authenticity, and Indira was not just any person – she was the female Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world for decades.”
“This project is profoundly personal for all four of us,” says Belani. Take Denzil’s relationship with Nehru – he has played Nehru in this play and in other films before; he has also played Nehru’s friend Jinnah. His appreciation of Nehru’s character is deep. Deesh’s family has been a part of the freedom fight with Nehru; he co-wrote a series on the family that got pulled in the 2008 financial crisis. Raashina’s grandfather was a freedom fighter too. I was born in the mid-sixties in Kolkata and my formative years from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties were influenced almost solely by two incredible women – Indira Gandhi at the helm of the country, and Mother Teresa on the ground. I met Indira once, in person. I still have her autograph! All of my female peers ended up strong, successful career women at the helm of their organizations.”
What: EnActe Arts Presents Letters to a Daughter From Prison
When: October 23-25
Time: October 23, 8:30 p.m.; October 24, 5 p.m.; October 25, 7:30 a.m. & 12 p.m.
Where: Will stream via Zoom
Tickets: $15.00; they can be purchased HERE
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines.