I have lived in the city of Mumbai since my birth. Yet, it wasn't until a few months ago that I ever visited Mani Bhavan, the iconic Gamdevi home in which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi lived whenever he was in Bombay.
The occasion was meeting a group of Pakistani photographers who were in the city on a cultural exchange programme; Mani Bhavan was one of the stops on their photo tour.
Prior to my visit there, my acquaintance with 'Bapu' was of the casual sort – what you learn from your textbooks in school, the movie iterations, the anecdotes you hear of or read. One of my close friends in college – an octogenarian librarian – would also tell me stories of Gandhi, and his role in the formation of India. At this juncture I should probably note that he (my librarian friend) was a staunch RSS man, and his perspective of the Father of this Nation wasn't the most charitable.
In stepping into Mani Bhavan, however, here were the stories one took for granted, given physical form. On the ground floor were not just all the books Gandhi wrote, but also the ones he loved to read. Tolstoy, HG Wells’ Outline of History, The Arabian Nights...some of these were books I had read, others were books I would have loved to own. I can't quite explain how, in that moment, Gandhi became real to me.
All along Mani Bhavan, there are photos of historic moments from Gandhi’s life; some have his wife Kasturba, others various national leaders and international dignitaries. In a room upstairs are delightfully detailed dioramas that recreate in model form crucial moments from his life – beginning with his childhood to his death. I took a picture of one that showed him meeting the King of England in 1931: Amid the plush draperies and grand chandelier, and the fusty suits (all recreated in miniature), there stands a tiny model of Gandhi, dressed in his loincloth and chaddar, unswayed by the pomp.
The diorama came to mind as I watched the opening show of Gandhi The Musical – a collaboration between the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, and the theatre group Silly Point Productions.
This is not the first play to be made on Gandhi – Sammy is one that comes to mind immediately, as does Mahatma vs Gandhi – but this has been promoted as the first-ever musical.
The idea seems incongruous at first – the seriousness of Gandhi and the song-and-dance sequences of a musical. But on the whole, this is an idea that works. Writer-director Danesh R Khambata, whose brainchild this project is, has said that when he thought about how to tell Gandhi’s story in a way that it hadn't been before, a Broadway-style musical seemed immensely exciting.
The musical is ambitious in scope: it starts with Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa and then traces key moments of his crusade against the British there, follows him to India and his immersion in the freedom struggle, and finally, the shots that claimed his life. It shows not just Gandhi in moments where he was leading the crusade for Independence, and in quieter, tender moments with his wife and son. It shows Gandhi in moments where he was unshaken by the Empire’s attempts to cowe him, and in moments where he is plagued by self-doubt.
Gandhi in this production is played by two actors – Abhishek Krishnan plays the young barrister who went to South Africa, was shamed at having been thrown out of a first class train coach, was deeply moved by the Bambatha Rebellion and later, inspired to act against the tyrannical Asiatic Law Amendment Act of 1906. Chirag Vohra portrays the older Gandhi, ‘Bapu’, who adopted the loincloth to be closer to his Harijan brethren, and launched movements like the Swadeshi Movement, Civil Disobedience, Salt Satyagraha, Quit India, even as he lost his wife to illness and his eldest son Haridas to indifference.
Vohra is the more assured actor of the two – that may also have something to do with the fact that by the time Gandhi became 'Bapu' he had come into his own. The younger Gandhi – as played by Krishnan – is more diffident, still figuring out what the values are that he must dedicate himself to, still testing his ideas of non violence and truth.
While the figure of Gandhi is front and centre of this production, there is also an extensive cast that performs the musical numbers (there are 16 original songs, two adaptations, and 12 choreographed routines),that take key scenes along. The style of the musical numbers covers a remarkable range – when Gandhi appears as a young barrister in a South African court and is castigated by the judge for refusing to take off his turban, the spectators, judge and prosecutor all break into a jazz jig, that wouldn't be out of place in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. To depict the Asiatic Registration Act (or the Black Law as it was called, since it required all Indians in South Africa to 'register' their names with the British government) a giant law book is placed open on the stage; zombie-like figures emerge from the shreds of its pages, chained to it, they contort and dance to the thumping beats of a dubstep number. Quiet moments are underscored by simpler melodies, cacophonous ones (such as the scene depicting Hindu-Muslim riots amid the demand for Partition) have suitably louder ones. The only songs that seem a little contrived are the 'greeting' ones that are sung for Gandhi's arrival in South Africa (it seemed cast in the Lion King's 'Circle of Life' mould) and India (too Bollywood).
The sets deserve a special mention (the musical has been made at a budget of Rs 1 crore, and the production values have made that sum go a long way): The stage at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is changed cleverly to depict various locations in South Africa, then India, England. While the set pieces are impressive, one that is particularly well done is when a broken Gandhi accepts blame for the Chauri Chaura incident. Tall brick columns form the backdrop, Vohra as Gandhi is centrestage, in the defendant's trial box. A single spotlight throws him sharp focus as he is sentenced to six years' imprisonment.
As much as it gets the humour right (the dialogue when Gandhi attends the Second Round Table Conference in England in 1931 is particularly enojayble), it is in the emotional scenes that Gandhi The Musical falters. The meeting between Gandhi and the Harijan(s), Haridas' indictment of his father for being too busy being 'Bapu' for the nation instead of to his own son, these seem to stretch. On some occasions, the run-time (the opening show started at around 7.30 pm and went on nearly till 10.45 pm, including a short interval) feels very long. But with its powerful evocation of the moment when India attained freedom, and Gandhi's assassination, the production ends on a high note.
Gandhi The Musical wins in that it isn't telling you a story you haven't heard before – you know how it unfolds, you know the major plot points – but it brings it all to life in a compelling way. Just like looking at Gandhi's bookshelf made him real and not just an important historical figure to me, the musical brings the Father of the Nation into the present, imparts to him flesh and blood and immediacy, makes him more than the sum of his parts.
Presented by NCPA in collaboration with Silly Point Productions
Written and directed by Danesh R Khambata
Cast: Chirag Vohra, Nivedita Bautiyal, Abhishek Krishnan and Nishi Doshi; voice of the British Raj by Boman Irani
Choreography by Bertwin Ravi D’souza; Songs by Nariman Khambata and Rahul Pais; Vocal arrangements by Dawn Cordo; 3D mapping by Jash Reen and Joshua D’mello