Monday, 4 May 2009

The Mahatma and the Poetess

Syed Akbar

The struggle for India’s Independence is replete with innumerable heroic deeds and inspiring anecdotes left behind by our great freedom fighters. While some sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the country, others donated their property to aid the struggle against the alien rulers. MK Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu are two great leaders who stand apart in the country’s freedom movement. One is a Mahatma and the other a poetess. They inspired the nation during the British regime and continue to inspire the present-day generation, six decades after India gained Independence.

“The Mahatma and the Poetess”, an English play based on the exchange of letters between Father of Nation Mahatma Gandhi and Nightingale of India Sarojini Naidu over a period of 23 years, brings to life the vivid memories of our long-forgotten freedom heroes even while throwing light on several little known aspects of the struggle for Independence. Veteran film and stage artiste Tom Alter and eminent danseuse Mrinalini V Sarabhai, who feature in the two-person play, captivated the audience and held them spell-bound for about 80 minutes during their appearance in Hyderabad recently.

The play, presented by Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation, is based on a compilation of letters in English exchanged between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. The nightingale of India met the Mahatma in August 1914. Mahatma Gandhi directed her energy towards the country's fight for independence resulting in a series of letters exchanged between them until his death in 1948. The Mahatma and the Poetess is a simple reading of letters and yet Tom and Mrinalini poured life into the play with a rare display of art.

But for these two great artistes, the play would have remained just a letter reading session full of boredom. Tom and Mrinalini included patriotism, emotion and took letter reading to the level of an art. The letters exchanged are not simple alphabets but words of amazing honesty, beauty, humour and truth. They are the letters that tell the tale of the freedom struggle, and the tale of a deep, probing relationship. They shed new light not only on the relationship between two great children of India, but also on their vision and their dedication and most of all on their love for the country and its people for which they made great sacrifices, as Mrinalini rightly observes.

The beauty of the play is that Tom Alter does not play Mahatma Gandhi, or Mrinalini Sarabhai Sarojini Naidu. They are just two common people and friends, one reading out to the other the letters exchanged between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. Tom reads out the Gandhi’s letters and Mrinalini those of Sarojini Naidu. The setting is quite simple, an ordinary drawing room with a table fitted with a reading lamp.

"We are people in the here and now. The computer on the stage is an indication that it is 2005 not 1915," says Tom Alter. Before beginning the show, he briefly interacts with the audience recalling how the play has taken its birth. "I received a registered parcel. In this day of Internet and courier, the registered parcel was a harkening back to an earlier time. The parcel contained this book with these truly magnificent letters between these two great people and a note from Mrinalini."

Mrinalini wanted Tom to translate the book into a stage play. There was no reply from Tom for a full one year. And when Tom finally converted the book full of letters to an English play full of inspiration, he came up with a rare facet of Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. Though the play was originally planned for 50 minutes, sensing the mood of the audience, the characters dragged it on for full 80 minutes and none in the audience knew how the time simply flew away.

Adds Mrinalini, “ES Reddy, a Gandhian scholar, sought my help in putting the letters together. Once that was done, I thought it would be nice to read the letters to Tom and so I sent him the book. When I did not hear from him for more than a year, I thought that was the end of it, but then Tom got back and here we are."

The letters between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu show a human, tender side of the father of nation. His sense of humour is another thing that comes through like when Sarojini Naidu writes about dogs and daughters, Gandhi writes that one must mention dogs first as they cause less trouble. At times the two leaders go so personal that Sarojini Naidu talks of the many gifts she received from South Africa - so many jewel boxes and not enough jewels to fill one and so many combs and not enough hair. Even the signing off moves from MK Gandhi in one letter to "mystic spinner" in another and finally to "Bapu."

The Mahatma and the Poetess is the third in the series of stage plays brought to Hyderabad by Qadir Ali Baig Foundation. The immense popularity the show commanded during the two days it was staged in Hyderabad proved beyond doubt that given an opportunity people would like to witness stage plays, the multiplexes and soap operas notwithstanding. Says Muhammad Ali Baig of the Foundation, "we chose the play, though in English, because it has its roots in Hyderabad. The message of social and communal harmony it conveys, is simply great and quite relevant for our strife-torn society of today".

Hyderabadi audience were reminded at least half a dozen times in the letters that the city has always been the “centre for Hindu-Muslim unity”. Mahatma Gandhi expresses his special love for Hyderabad when he chooses to call Sarojini Naidu as the “ daughter of Bengal and the daughter-in-law of Andhra."

If Mahatma and his devoted disciple, a unique and rare relationship, is brought alive and meaningful in their letters, Tom and Mrinalini succeeds in revealing to the audience a side of the great personality that perhaps very few people in the country knew. There was a marvellous rapport between them, based on a deep understanding of each other.

Tom turns a bit emotional as he reads out the deeply moving letter of Mahatma Gandhi to Sarojini on the eve of his fast against the communal award in 1932: "It may be that this is my last letter to you. I have always known and treasured your love. I think that I understood you when I first saw you and heard you at the Criterion (in London) in 1914. If I die I shall die in the faith that comrades like you, with whom God has blessed me, will continue the work of the country which is also fully the work of humanity in the same spirit in which it was begun."

And in the same letter, he conveyed two of his most deeply felt convictions, which deserve our constant and complete attention. "If Hinduism is to live, untouchability must die. "If the interests of country are to be one with those of humanity, if the good of the one faith is to be the good of all faiths, it will come only by the strictest adherence to truth and non-violence in thought, world and deed."

The Hyderabadi audience had definitely missed the flowery Urdu from the tongue of Tom Alter. The Qadir Ali Baig Foundation, however, promised a stage play soon with Tom speaking his favourite Urdu. Tom is enamoured by Urdu language. Speaking about one of his recent shows in Gujarat, he says, Gulzar Saheb and myself were supposed to do the readings of the letters written by Mirza Ghalib to one of his friends. The play was for a shorter period and the reading was done at an open place where people climb up the trees to watch the reading.
"We had to abandon the script and go extempore extending the reading to two hours wondering whether it was the same Gujarat where communal riots took place," he says.

Recalls Mrinalini, “for me as a child whenever she visited our home, always dressed in bright South Indian saris, a flower in her hair, talking and laughing
with my mother, it was as though a rainbow lit by the sunlight entered
the room. It is a privilege to be able to present her correspondence with
Gandhiji to the public”.

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