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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Gandhi
Naatak
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Hickorydickory


Natraj Kumar and Dancers
Photo by Sharma Podila and Ritendra Datta
October 2, 2019, is the 150th birth anniversary of the man born with the first name Mohandas but whom the world now remembers as Mahatma ("venerable") Gandhi. To honor this occasion, the nation's largest Indian theatre company, Naatak, is producing the world premiere of Gandhi, written and directed by the company's founder and artistic director, Sujit Saraf. Joining him in this monumental undertaking that covers the final sixty years of the one many consider the "Father of the Nation" of India is a cast of thirty-four—most from Silicon Valley's high tech community—who play more than sixty-five differently named parts as well as grouped roles ranging from Londoners to South African traders to Indian peasants and mill workers.

The result—told in a mixture of Hindi, English, and Gujarati with English supertitles—is much like a live documentary, packed with so many events, news headlines, and people (both famous and unfamiliar) it become, at times, such a swirl of facts and figures that any one detail is difficult to remember a few minutes later. But the power of this theatrical biography is not particularly in its myriad of parts but in its gestalt, in an overall new understanding of this incredible man. And in that regard, Naatak's Gandhi more than achieves its purpose.

We are told at the beginning of an old Indian story about a scraggly dog that runs between the legs of two bulls pulling a cart, thinking all along that he, the little dog, is actually the one pulling the cart. That thin, scrawny dog, we will come to learn, is the man whose name titles the play we are about to see. For so much of his life, he is surrounded by those with much more power; but in the end, he rules the day by being a persistent, courageous, daring yet small and meek fellow life-traveler with the mighty around him.

We meet Mohandas—played in act one by Ritwik Verma—as he petitions in 1888 a local council for permission to take his young wife Kasturba (Kinnari Barot) and baby son to London to attend law school. On his journey, he is given a book written by a pioneering, English advocate of vegetarianism (Henry Salt). As he reads, a stage full of beautifully and colorfully attired women dance in traditional Indian formations, while onstage vocalists and instrumentalists perform both traditional and original native-language music (under the direction of Nachiketa Yakkundi). These twelve outstanding dancers return time and again throughout the two-hour, forty-five-minute extravaganza to dance in mime the action of specific events, to celebrate important moments, or to offer an emotionally charged component to something just occurring (all designed by a team of choreographers: Soumya Agastya, Shwetha Subraya, and Nisha Natraj). The haunting chants, delightful ditties, or mournful dirges of the five excellent vocalists kneeling on the side (Nachiketa Yakkundi, Anupama Chandratreya, Tejaswini Narayanan, Shouvik Neogi, and Shirshanka Das) are accompanied by the harmonium of Dilip Acharya, the tabla of Ajay Sundar Raj, and the flute of Niranjan Page—together greatly enhancing the story with their sounds of Indian music.

That book on vegetarianism becomes a major influence on the young Mohandas whom we will watch become simpler and simpler in his daily life habits, eventually leaving behind not only meat but also cow's milk, salt, shoes of leather, manufactured cloth, and even all clothes save a simple wrap around his waist and legs. Habits of weaving cloth an hour or more each day, of abstaining from sexual contact with his wife, of walking five or more miles a day (barefoot, of course) are practices he follows and advocates of others—some of whom dutifully follow him but many more who either admire and ridicule but themselves abstain.

As Mohandas moves from London to South Africa to India (with repeated journeys back and forth between the three) and attains the honorific name of Mahatma along the way, we see him conceive, develop, and hone to his own sense of high standard the concept of nonviolent resistance, further strengthened by his repeated and oft lengthy and near deadly fasts. Using his legal knowledge and his sense of justice for all, Gandhi from an early age organizes wherever he resides the likes of peasants, farmers, and mill workers against excessive poll taxes, discrimination in voting rights, and more. But as most of us know, his focus increasingly turns to independence of India from English rule (since England refused time and again to honor India with the status of "dominion" given Canada and Australia). The always savvy and smiling Gandhi even picks the location of his bare-necessity, communal-like residence near a local jail, knowing that he will likely reside there from time to time—something that of course proves true.

Relating sixty years of such a man's life onstage is accomplished by a continual flow of people coming and going from all directions—some announcing the latest headlines, some running and screaming across the stage as rioters or attackers, some appearing in meetings and caucuses as members of the Indian National Congress which Gandhi founded. Named characters from history appear (even King George V himself), though few stay long enough for us to register much about them. But under Sujit Saraf's astute direction, there miraculously never seems to be a glitch or a pause in the scores of scenes that are presented. Although the acting abilities range widely among this dedicated, community-based troupe, never does even one person appear to stumble with their lines that often involve naming long lists of communities, of particular people, or of events—details that frankly often do not seem necessary and only lengthen an already long production.

While impressions of many performers fade away quickly due to the rapid scenes and scores of characters, Natraj Kumar is particularly impressive as act two's Gandhi. It is uncanny how much he physically resembles the Gandhi many of us know, the bare-chested, bare-footed, bald with wire-rimmed glasses Gandhi. As this Gandhi ages into his seventies while still continuing his protesting fasts, his weeks-long walks through the poorest countrysides, and his minimalist lifestyle, Natraj Kumar weakens before us, his body seeming go from thin to skin-and-bones, his ability to walk greatly impaired, and his voice barely a whisper. Yet at the same time, his Gandhi exudes a remarkable spirit still very much alive, with a determination to use whatever ounce of energy he still has to make a difference in the world around him. Until the end, his Gandhi thrives in taking controversial stands, turning friends into enemies and enemies into reluctant admirers.

Certainly, as I left Palo Alto's Cubberley Theater, I felt I knew this man Gandhi more as a real human being and not just as an icon of nonviolent resistance and Indian independence. At the same time, I was also overwhelmed and a bit dreary from the amount of information crammed into the production just seen, and I am not sure I could have passed a test on all the detailed information thrown my way. But I did walk out with tremendous awe and admiration for Sujit Saraf and the Naatak community of actors, musicians, and technical team (the last group whose names are more than one hundred listed in the program in categories from sets to props to make-up to marketing, culinary and costumes). Their combined efforts in creating and producing Gandhi form a birthday tribute to the man's memory and a gift to the entire community of Silicon Valley and beyond.

Naatak's Gandhi runs through October 6, 2019, at Cubberley Theater, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets and information are available online at www.naatak.com or by calling 408-499-5692.


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