Gandhi, Tagore leave T&T spellbound


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Category: International 16 Oct 11


Each week with this series we look at the connection of our tiny islands with a wide lens by profiling diplomats and consuls. This week, on the eve of Divali, I present the review of a production of The Bangalore Little Theatre, The Prophet and the Poet, out of India. This has been made possible by Indian High Commissioner Malay Mishra who partnered with UWI and UTT to make ours the first country outside India to see this gem.

For three days in early October 2011, in Trinidad, the production of The Prophet and the Poet, based on the exchange of letters and articles between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore over 25 years during the struggle for India’s Independence, left audiences across Trinidad spellbound. It was, simply put, the best of India. I have yet to catch my breath.

The set is as ascetic as the men it represents. The stage lights up to reveal identical desks in front of large black and white portraits of Gandhi and Tagore behind, where actors Sanjeev Iyer (playing Gandhi) and Shashank Purushotam (Tagore) sit, reading aloud from letters and articles addressed to one another. The play obliges the audience to pool all we know of these great men. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869, a Guajarati banya, India’s “father of the nation.” He was a lawyer turned freedom fighter using ‘Satyagraha’ or resistance to all forms of tyranny, a potent, muscular, austere “do or die” form of “ahimsaor non violence.” Gandhi inspired civil rights and independence movements globally.

Gandhism became synonymous with selflessness, self reliance, and a social conscience. Tagore, born in 1861, was a Brahmin from Bengal, “the Sun of India:” A towering intellect admired by WB Yeats, Albert Einstein and HG Wells, prodigious writer, novelist, songwriter, essayist, artist and poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Laureate in 1913. He renounced his knighthood in protest of the Amritsar massacre, and established Visva Bharati, initially a school, now a university. Frankly, I had never thought of them together or their joint impact on India. The third cast member (Aparna Nori) the voice of history, and omniscient presence links and carries the narrative forward.

Genius of Prophet and the Poet

The genius of The Prophet and the Poet, lies in its exquisite restraint. No conscious attempt is made by either actor to physically resemble Tagore or Gandhi. No artifice is required. The dialogue is spare. Their convincing delivery allows the audience to suspend reality with ease. Its minimalism makes Tagore and Gandhi the real stars of the show. The Prophet and the Poet begins with thrilling authenticity—Tagore’s voice reciting his composition “Jana Gana Mana,” now the National Anthem of India, followed by the instrumental music of “Raghupati Raghava Rajaram” a favourite bhajan of the Mahatma. Gandhi and Tagore first meet in 1901, in Shantiniketan where Tagore had set up a school. M K Gandhi had just returned from South Africa. Tagore was 40 and Gandhi 32.

They have a longer meeting on March 10, 1915, after which Gandhi creates his Satyagraha ashram, a communal farm where he lives. The dialogue begins here and ends just before Tagore’s death in 1941. After this, the two meet sporadically over 25 years, developing an enormous respect and fondness for one another which remained intact despite their growing differences. There are pleasing symmetries underscoring the equal weight they each carry in history. Tagore gives Gandhi the sobriquet Mahatma or a “great There are times when the soul.” Gandhi calls Tagore Gurudev or “Great Sentinel.” entire play feels like a single conversation where one disagreement appears to merge into the other with a widening ideological rift. Tagore was often disapproving of Gandhi’s passive resistance.

In 1921, when Gandhi’s followers were burning foreign garments he exhorted Gandhi’s followers to stop obeying orders blindly, feeling it would be better if clothes were given away to the poor. Gandhi denied this charge and remained unmoved justifying this form of militant passive resistance by saying, “the economics that permit one nation to prey upon another are immoral.” In March and May 1921, the narrator tells us, after Gandhi called on Indians to boycott British-run schools without having an alternative. Tagore scathingly writes that Gandhi’s “blind zeal for non-cooperation with the West was itself “ahimsa”—negligence imploring India to shun such “knee-jerk responses.” He warned that “any nation which takes an isolated view of its own country will run counter to the spirit of the New Age, and know no peace.”

Gandhi remained intractable: “Colonial schools have made English-educated Indians, imitators and what we were intended to become—clerks and interpreters. Non-co-operation with evil is as much a duty as co-operation with good. I would not have a single Indian to forget, neglect or be ashamed of his mother tongue. I want the culture of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” 

Opposing sensibilities

Their ideals, though similar were governed by opposing sensibilities. Gandhi was pragmatic, having witnessed India’s poverty first hand. He had a visceral knowledge of his influence on the “masses” with whom he daily lived, walked, marched, leading them to salt marches, boycotts of British schools and garments, fasted and went to jail. Tagore, a product of European Enlightenment, born into wealth and academia was rational, esoteric, anti nationalistic and felt one with humanity. He shunned “mind numbing” orthodoxy, “mass” movements which he felt stunted critical Tagore believed that Indian poverty would be eradicated independent thinking. only with education (he wrote over 100 essays on this).

In a subtle moment on stage as the two actors move and sit on the floor, we see Gandhi’s visit to Tagore in Shantiniketan in 1925, after a gap of ten years for support for his charkha movement which he did not get. Instead came Tagore’s public attack, a piece titled: “The Cult of the Charkha” in which Tagore contemptuously dismisses spinning cloth “a form of ritual... petty routine that kills the mind of a man.” Gandhi denies promoting “blind obedience” to “Charkah” declaring: “Hunger is the argument that is driving India to the spinning wheel. Therefore I consider it a sin to wear foreign cloth.” Yet the passing years draw them closer. Tagore became anxious when Gandhi goes on one of his fasts. Gandhi finds an anonymous donor for Tagore’s school and agrees albeit reluctantly, to be patron of the school.

On September 20, 1932, Gandhi undertakes a fast to death in opposition to discrimination against untouchables. Tagore writes an article supporting Gandhi. Knowing that Tagore profoundly disapproved of “fasts unto death,” Gandhi seeks Tagore’s blessing before resuming civil disobedience. Tagore’s telegram arrives crossing with Gandhi’s letter saying “our sorrowing hearts will follow your penance with reverence and love.” Six days later, Gandhi calls Tagore to Poona and after breaking his fast asks Tagore to sing to him from Gitanjali: “When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a  When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.” shower of mercy.

Their final public spat, appears in the Harijan issue of February 16, 1934, when Tagore wrote his article, The Bihar Earthquake to which Gandhi wrote his rejoinder Superstitions vs Faith. Tagore considered Gandhi’s view that untouchability had brought down God's vengeance upon certain parts of Bihar in the form of an earthquake as ‘unfortunate’, ‘unscientific’ and “too readily accepted by a large section of countrymen”. The play ends with Tagore’s death and a saying from the Upanishads: Life is nothing else but “Tapasya” penance and “Ananda” bliss. This clever and poignant play based on previous scholarship and directed by Prof Padaki resonates endlessly, and leaves one ruminating over the vast canvas of modern Indian history.

Its only flaw is its title. In hindsight, Tagore emerged the prophet showing extraordinary prescience believing that India’s growth and poverty eradication would depend on education, science, innovation, critical thinking and open borders. Gandhian ideals of sacrifice, patriotism, a powerful work ethic, a sense of duty and a social conscience are imbedded. India is incomplete without either. The Poet and the Prophet is a triumph, akin to an opaque mirror that is polished and reflected back at the audience, a noble quest for uplifting humanity, timeless, universal yet uniquely Indian.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur