Tag Archives: Naatak

Gandhi by Naatak: the Man Behind the Legend

“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try and find one’s way to the heart of the man…”

Thus begins Richard Attenborough’s epic 1982 film Gandhi with the extraordinary Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. The much-lauded film, a deeply moving homage, was made by an Englishman, for an international audience. Every word spoken in that film is in English. Even Gandhi’s unforgettable words on being shot, “He Ram!” known to every Indian, are spoken as “Oh God!” in the film.

In pleasing contrast, Naatak’s play, Gandhi, musical theater in the tradition of Naatak’s own “Mahabharat,” is multilingual, capturing India’s vibrancy in its many tongues. Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil are spoken, Bengali is sung along with Hindi and Gujarati, and we even see a couple of signs in Malayalam. Supertitles in English make the languages accessible to all. I watched it on September 20 at the Cubberley auditorium in Palo Alto.

In writer and director Sujit Saraf’s telling, the story begins with Mahatma Gandhi‘s journey to England, where he went to study law.

He returned to Bombay as a barrister, and after an unsuccessful 2-year stint, left for Durban, South Africa for work. Armed with his legal degree, he successfully represented oppressed Indian laborers, and gained stature and respect, both in South Africa, and in India. On returning to India as a well-known figure, he took on his historic role in India’s independence movement, transforming in time to “the little brown man in a loincloth who led his country to freedom” in the words of American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow at Gandhi’s funeral.

Attenborough’s film has been criticized by some as hagiography. as it unquestionably and admiringly portrays the saintly qualities of the man. Gandhi also had his eccentricities and odd, extreme behaviors. Sujit Saraf’s telling paints a more balanced portrait of the man, with his idiosyncrasies. He was not born, after all, as the Father of the Nation. In a few clever scenes, Naatak shows Gandhi’s foibles. He stops drinking cow’s milk, believing that the milk meant for calves is taken forcibly from a mother. When asked why it was OK to drink goat’s milk, and why he didn’t have the same reservations, he smiles and shrugs.

Then, the experiments with celibacy. As asked in the play, “Shouldn’t his wife have a say in the matter?” The play shows his early life and career in great detail, and humanizes the legend. Listen to more about this portrayal at KQED radio, where Sujit Saraf spoke with Michael Krasny on Forum earlier this month.

Naatak presents with fitting respect, Gandhi’s coining the term Satyagraha, the force of truth: the term for peaceful protests and civil resistance that are among his greatest contributions to society. Gandhi emerges as a man of conviction, a believer in fairness and justice, a calm, skilled negotiator in the face of racist opposition.

What runs most deeply through the play, as in his life, is Gandhi’s deep desire to unite Hindus and Muslims. On being told that “there is too much bad blood” in Noakhali, Bangladesh, he responded movingly “It is the same blood, good or bad.”

One of the most egregious and dishonorable attacks by Britain on Indian soil, the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, is depicted with tremendous artistry and power. As General Dyer commands his troops “Take your positions!” and continues with “Fire!”, the dancers fall to the ground, one by one, until none are standing. This, for me, was the most powerful scene in the play.

It was on the anniversary of this day that Gandhi planned to peacefully protest British oppression by marching to the coastline and making salt from the Indian Ocean. With civil resistance, he broke the British resolve.

In addition to NehruJinnahMaulana Azad, and Sardar Patel, Naatak’s play is inclusive of more of the major historical figures and freedom fighters of the time:  Bhagat SinghRabindranath TagoreSarojini Naidu, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.  Soon after Tagore appears, we hear one of his most famous patriotic songs “Ekla Chalo Re” (“If no one comes when you call, then go on alone”).

Then independence and the bloodbath following Partition, was shown with a stage lit in blood-red.

The play ends with Gandhi’s assassination, the shock of the nation and the heartbreak of his loss permeating the audience. He fell to the volatile religious sentiment and animosity that he worked so hard to quench.

The play focuses much time on the making of the man. I wondered if a trade-off could have been made with more time devoted to the independence movement.

The acting overall is impressive and moving, even though some attempts to show his culture shock when he arrived in England to study law, being taught how to dance and play the violin, were a little slapstick.

The set is made of newspaper reports from Gandhi’s times: a period of extraordinary historic importance, World War II, India’s independence and Partition. The mood and import of the scenes are accentuated by the changing lighting that one sees through the set pieces.

The inclusion of live music and dance continues to enrich Naatak’s impressive productions. The dances are colorful and engaging, complementing the seriousness of the lyrics, set in South Africa in the early 19th century, and pre-Independence India. The music was extraordinary. Music director Nachiketa Yakkundi and his troupe are jewels at the edge of the stage.

Performances continue for the next two weekends, with a special performance on Oct 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Tickets are available (if any are left!) at www.naatak.org.

This article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is included here with permission.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

Cover photo credit: Kyle Adler

Watching Naatak’s “Marjorie Prime” With my Father

Futuristic plays provoke us to examine our lives, identify what is most important to us, and make us philosophical. One of the earlier examples of artificial intelligence on screen for me was Data, the android from Star Trek the Next Generation. The character Data the android endeared himself to me for his bewilderment at human behavior that he either hadn’t yet learned or simply couldn’t learn. Data the android evolved over time from one who had difficulty with different aspects of human behavior to one who eventually gained a better understanding. Throughout his wisdom resulted from processing enormous amounts of data. His perspective and his observations as a nonhuman were thought-provoking for us humans. And, for that reason, he will remain as one of my two favorite characters. My other Star Trek favorite was a biological human, Jean-Luc Picard, equal if not superior in wisdom, acquired from years of experience. That quality and his unimpeachable integrity placed him, at least for me, at the pinnacle of humanity.

I found myself thinking of these matters as I watched Marjorie Prime on July 20, 2019, at the Lohman theater at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. Marjorie Prime by playwright Jordan Harrison was performed by Naatak theater company. It was directed by Harish Agastya who has previously directed the political satire Muavze among other Naatak plays.

The play is set in the year 2062, where the 85-year-old Marjorie, whose memory is fading, has a dashing young companion. He is Walter Prime, the 30-year-old artificial (and intelligent) version of her late husband, Walter. Anush Moorthy plays the holographic Walter Prime, who learns more and more about the real, late Walter from conversations with Marjorie, her daughter Theresa and son-in-law Javed. The more Walter Prime learns, the more effective he is in telling the old stories to Marjorie, helping her keep her memories. Moorthy is a pleasant companion and easy on the eyes, and like Data the android on the screen, strikes a good balance of robotic monotony and human engagement.

Marjorie is played by Ranjita Chakravarty, an accomplished actor who has been in several Naatak productions, including Rashomon. She is a pleasure to watch on stage. Her expressive face kept me captivated as she switched between imperiousness, impatience, laughter, wit, sadness and the enjoyment and deep pleasure offered by music.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is the soundtrack to the play, its gorgeousness and variety well-suited, from the joyous Spring to the pensive and melancholy Winter. In the winter of her life, as more and more things slip away from her mind, Marjorie still remembers the violinist she was.

Marjorie’s daughter Theresa, played by Mugdha Kulkarni, has a difficult relationship with her mother. Kulkarni is impressive in how completely she sheds this tension at a later point in the play, which I will not describe further, so as to not give away too much of the plot.

Theresa’s husband Javed is the perfect foil to the tension she carries around. Javed, played by M. Zishan, is kind, good-humored and jovial, indeed an enjoyable presence on stage.

They talk of Indian food and restaurants, spinach dishes with too much ghee, and dogs named Idlee. The “desification” here is welcome, and I’m glad the director Harish Agastya made that choice. (In Naatak’s production of Proof, I struggled a bit with the absence of desification, and have mused abut that in a write-up here.)

I watched the play with my 86-year-old father. My father is a little hard of hearing; he was not able to hear all the lines in the play, and mentioned that having seen it, he might have liked to read the script. He is a year older now than Marjorie in 2062, but his memory is impeccable. He remembers the birthdays of everyone in the family, cousins, second cousins and all, sometimes even remembering the day of the week when they were born! Unbelievable to me. Perhaps that is how a mathematical brain works: he is one that has composed code decades ago in now-unused languages, and tackled mainframe computers that occupied entire rooms. Some of the exhibits in The Computer History Museum are his old friends. [An example of his meticulousness: once, many years ago, I gifted my father a small hand-held calculator. One day, I saw him performing some computation on it, and then apparently doing it again manually in his notebook. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was checking if the calculator was correct! Cracks me up every time I think about it.]

My mother suffered from dementia in her final year, and struggled with her memory. I have her smile, her hands, her voice and her laugh. I am gripped by a sense of foreboding when I strain to remember names, or forget why I walked into a room. Even as I wonder if I will lose my mind in the decades to come, I find myself hoping that I have my father’s memory.  Fingers crossed!

And now to chide the audience. Before the play began, director Harish Agastya made it a point to ask everyone to turn their cell phone ringers.

He even took out his own phone and turned off the sound, giving everyone a few moments to do exactly the same, mentioning that there’s always one cell phone that rings during the play. And sure enough. There was one person, seated just a few feet from me, whose phone rang at a critical juncture, just as the play was ending. It was at the worst time imaginable, ruining the poignant and beautiful ending, just as Marjorie says “How nice that we could love somebody.”

Seriously. Turn off your phones, people. And check one or two times that you actually did. It’s worth the time. Out of respect for the actors and for the audience. This production is most certainly worthy of a lot of respect.

This article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is included here with permission.”

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

Cover photo credit: Naatak facebook page

Draupadi’s Rage and Sita’s Sorrow

“It is an angry film. The film is a warning:” Sriram Dalton, on Spring Thunder (2018), a film that had a world premier at the Bay Area South Asian Film Festival. Spring Thunder, about the blood-drenched politics of uranium mining in Jharkhand, is like a punch, like a gunshot, like a blow by a hammer and a slash by a sickle. It might remind you of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Or Bandit Queen (1994), the film Dalton says inspired him to become a film-maker. There is rage in Spring Thunder, a film about how tribal land is being pillaged by greedy and murderous uranium contractors, while government officials are ineffectual, or corrupt. The film is an angry howl, reverberating with the rage of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the have-nots.

Sriram Dalton, Writer/Director of Spring Thunder

I heard the same rage in the voice of two women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, who screamed at Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in an elevator moments before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me.”

Nobody believed me.

By contrast, Dr. Kristine Blasey Ford, the professor “doing her civic duty” to speak out, was sorrowful, tearful, tremulous. But not silent. On the television screen, struggling to continue, the psychology professor narrated her story about how Kavanaugh tried to disrobe her, while his friend looked on and the young men laughed.

An image of the vastraharan scene in Naatak’s Mahabharata play came to me, with Dushasan dragging Draupadi to court and attempting to publicly disrobe her. The rage of Draupadi, according to Purnima Mankekar’s article “Television Tales and a Woman’s Rage: A Nationalist Recasting of Draupadi’s ‘Disrobing” was expressed by her vow to wash her hair in the blood of Dushasan’s thighs, upon which he had insolently invited her to sit. Draupadi’s rage was in contrast to the sorrow of Sita in the Ramayana, who would rather that the earth swallow her to hide her shame when a washer-man didn’t #believe her.

Yes, it’s all happened before. An attempt to disrobe a woman in the Mahabharat. Blaming the abduction victim In the Ramayana. 

At the Naatak play, the vastraharan was executed with the technical excellence one associates with Naatak, Yet I found myself troubled by the Sita-fication of Draupadi. I had seen Draupadi’s tears onstage, but these were not tears of rage as I expected, but of sorrow. “Draupadi is not to be portrayed as sorrowful, Draupadi is to be portrayed as enraged,” I remember thinking.

At the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is sorrowful and well-behaved. She keeps her rage from showing, because an enraged woman can be threatening, off-putting, too shrewish, too strident. Dr. Ford is like Sita, with her tears of sorrow, and her resolve to do her civic duty.

The women in the elevator are like Draupadi. They are enraged, and a little bit out of control. “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me.” The statement is like a punch, like a gunshot, like a blow by a hammer and a slash by a sickle. The statement is an angry howl, reverberating with the rage of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the have-nots.

The words are her unwashed hair covered in the blood of her sexual predator.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. She is usually quite well-behaved.

Cover Photo Credit: Naatak Facebook Page.

Summer Meditations on Delusion

Summer is when time slows and there are comings and goings, family reunions and outings. It seems that the days are longer, and there is more time, to read, and to just be.

This might be a delusion, but for one, I was able to make some headway in my summer reading: Why Buddhism is True, (WBIT) (2017) by Robert Wright. And I was able to watch a hindi play by Naatak called Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In the Grove.” And listen to a lecture by Joshua Pollock at the Commonwealth Club called The Heartfulness Way: Heart-Based Meditations for Spiritual Transformation. The connections between these surprised me.

Rashomon, the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic film, had been about multiple, contradictory and self-serving perspectives of a single event. This film had been a bit difficult to watch, with Toshiro Mifune as a bandit who raped a woman and murdered her husband. The adaptation of the Japanese play by theater group Naatak, directed by Savitha Samu, was similarly disturbing in its unflinching depiction of sexual violence. The wife, played by Ekta Brahmakshatriya in the play, was given a far more assertive persona than the simpering Machiko Kyo, the filmic counterpart of 70 years ago. The salience of this story over more than half a century is interesting, and not just from the perspective of the contemporary moment of #metoo.


Rashomon: a play by Naatak.

And that brings me to Robert Wright, and his book WBIT. This exceedingly well researched and thoughtful book is full of references from Buddhist texts, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience research as well as the personal meditative experiences of the author. Our capacity for self-delusion, or at least the inaccuracy of our senses seems to provide a rational within Buddhism for the Rashomon effect.

Wright’s book was very helpful in understanding common Buddhist concepts such as of ‘emptiness’ and ‘not-self,’ of identifying the difference between Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self, as well as the variants within Buddhism such as Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. The book can help you understand the hedonic treadmill, the nature of dukka (sorrow), and the irresistible allure of a powdered donut. The antidote?

We’ve heard it before. Meditate. Repeat. 

Wright argues that Western Buddhism, as the author refers to the more secular version practiced by many Americans, has been sanitized of the more supernatural and disgusting aspects. Rarely, Wright points out, are we encouraged to meditate on the blood, pus, and feces as traditional Buddhism suggests. “What is presented today as a ancient meditative tradition is actually a selective rendering… in some cases carefully manicured.” Wright points out that not all those who identify as Western Buddhists accept reincarnation, for instance. Yet, this secular or science-based perspective comes at a cost, he claims. “Science brought about the disenchantment of the world, draining it of magic.”

A good story needs a villain. In traditional Buddhism, there are hungry ghosts, and the dastardly Mara, the nemesis of the Buddha, perpetually trying to tempt the Buddha by sending beautiful maidens to disturb his meditation. Wright settles on natural selection as the villain; why we have such trouble resisting tribal thinking or a powdered donut. Our intense emotions that have been hardwired into us by evolution, are, in fact, delusions.

“These feelings — anxiety, despair, hatred, greed — … have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true — if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion — there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.”

Besides a delightful analysis of why the Matrix (1999) is the ultimate Dharma film, Wright raises some provocative questions. Does meditation make you happier? Inasmuch as you realize that your feelings are unreliable guides to your wellbeing, and are fueled by (that enemy!) natural selection, and because meditation affords clarity of vision, the answer is yes. Can meditation cause you to love your children less? Perhaps meditators can love them with less attachment, and love orphans and other people’s children more, he offers. Are all meditators good people? Apparently not. When meditation is twinned with dharma, a number of moral and ethical precepts, a clarity of vision allows for more moral outcomes. But meditators are fallible, and bad behavior can coexist with meditation, as recent accusations of misconduct at Shambhala International attest. (#metoo).

While Wright refers to an Insight (or Vipasana) Meditation retreat, Joshua Pollock follows the path of Raja Yoga, as laid down by Swami Vivekananda. In his talk, he refers to mindfulness meditation as being not about controlling the thoughts, but gently observing them. His discussion of pranahuti, yogic transmission during meditation and reference to direct experience rather than knowledge were especially interesting. You can hear Joshua Pollock’s lecture online.

Wright makes a compelling argument that the world is moving towards a single brain, and that tribalism, with its variants of identification with religion, nation or ideology, is the threat that could eradicate sentient beings from this planet. The entire world would be better served if people would meditate, see our interconnectedness more clearly, and save ourselves from our delusions such as our individual specialness. Oh, and let go of the notion that fulfilling our desires will make us happy.

Feeling rebellious? Go against natural selection.

“Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and… its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important,” claims Wright. 

Meditate on that.

Geetika Pathania Jain is the Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. (Or at least she is under that delusion.)