Violence and religious intolerance is continually in the news. It is important to reiterate Gandhi’s message, particularly among the next generation for whom this non-violent approach may seem completely untenable,” explains Mythili Kumar, Artistic Director of Abhinaya Dance Company.
Sixty-four years after Gandhi’s death, the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose is presenting “Gandhi: The Mahatma,” a dance-theater production presenting Gandhi’s life events and inspirational encounters that transformed him into a world figure. Although the original performance in 1995 toured both the west and east coasts of the United States, the current program has been expanded and re-choreographed through collaboration between Mythili Kumar and her daughter, Rasika Kumar, Abhinaya’s Associate Artistic Director. With both mother and daughter winners of Isadora Duncan Awards, and backed by a talented corps of dancers and musicians, the performance promises an exemplary and innovative take on an Indian icon.
“We are keeping this as a crisp, no-intermission 100 minute production so the story line does not get disrupted and the audience leaves with the messages of religious tolerance and equality of all mankind fresh in their minds,” Mythili Kumar says. Mythili Kumar plays the title role of Gandhi, but the performance uses the voice of Gandhi’s grandniece, Manubhen, to approach the legend that is Gandhi through reminiscences. Manubhen is played by Malavika Kumar. “I did not think it would make sense to have Gandhi dance bharatanatyam. It is more theatre and dancing done by others as required for the scenes,” reflects Kumar.
Drawing from a diverse set of source materials, Kumar’s genius is bringing an otherworldly yet traditionally static figure to the stage. “In 1995 I only had tons of books and his autobiography to conceive the show and also include episodes from [other] world leaders’ lives, Mandela, King Jr., Chavez for depicting his legacy.” Kumar has since filled in her creative vision with original footage and documentaries to create an entirely new view of Gandhi’s life. “I wanted it to be different from the film Gandhi,” stresses Kumar.
“We begin with verses from the Gita that were his inspiration to form his main principles. Control of the impulses, and temptations wrought by the five senses was his first goal,” reveals Kumar. In his autobiography, Gandhi reveals that he used to stick verses of the Gita on the wall so he could memorize them each morning while brushing his teeth. Gandhi discusses the importance of the Gita in The Story of My Experiments With Truth, “It became my dictionary of daily reference.” Kumar rounds out her presentation of Gandhi’s inspiration to include the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount in forming his principles of ahimsa, non-violence, and satyam, truth. Gandhi writes, “The Sermon on the Mount… went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have thy cloke too,’ delighted me beyond measure.”
“Next, to show his story, we present through the reminiscences of Manubhen a fear episode, a school episode, and his South African humiliations which led him to his first satyagraha resistance,” narrates Kumar. She tackles the trick of tracing Gandhi from the vulnerability of a young boy tormented by nightmares after eating goat meat to a young lawyer unconsciously crafting his core philosophy out of his experiences on the South African soil. As Gandhi writes, “The principle called Satyagraha came into being before that name was invented. Indeed when it was born, I myself could not say what it was.”
But no survey of Gandhi’s life would be complete without visiting the iconic historical episodes burned into our collective unconscious, “the Dandi March back in India, the burning of western attire, adopting swadeshi, the realization of the scourge of untouchability, his embracing of all religions and cases, his fasting at the Hindu-Muslim riots after independence, and finally his assassination when Manubhen, the narrator, finally joins the scene,” says Kumar. The performance also includes Anjana Dasu, Sindhu Natarajan, and Anu Ranganathan as part of the dance troupe. The musicians include Asha Ramesh, a vocalist who has also composed the music for the production, N. Narayanan on mridangam and kanjira, Shanthi Narayanan as violinist, Ravi Gutala on tabla, Peter Van Gelder on sitar, and Ashwin Krishnakumar on flute. Three younger students, Shruthi, Goonja, and Renuka, will dance in the childhood scenes.
Kumar concludes, “Gandhi lived an exemplary life as a compassionate and selfless human being who was devoted to the cause of the poor, the neglected, and the oppressed. His spirit inspired the people and enriched the lives of millions throughout the world.” It is exactly this goal, and this spirit, that will be evoked in her upcoming performance.
Saturday, November 17. 8 p.m. Sunday, November 18. 4 p.m. Mexican Heritage Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets start at $20. http://abhinaya.org.