By Gerish Khemani
(Gerish describes himself as a hungry theatre practitioner who is in quest of self-fulfillment through stage, which to him is a familiar parallel universe. He has directed some magnificent and memorable plays for Shishuvan — Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Charandas Chor and The Wizard of Oz. The latest in the series was Sammy! The word that broke an empire, a play woven around Gandhi and other key historical personalities of the Indian freedom struggle. Here he recounts his process.)
Sammy! The word that broke an empire. It was a lengthy play by Partap Sharma that I had studied during my post-graduation. It seemed unlike any of my readings on Gandhi. I had to read it twice, if my memory serves me right, to understand what made this text so special. It was largely a conversation between Gandhi and the embodiment of his conscience, interspersed with historical episodes. It was beautiful. A narrative of over 50 years of life compressed in the span of 3 hours. The public and the internal life of Gandhi. Action and Reaction between Gandhi and the world outside, action and reaction between Gandhi and his inner self. The process from becoming Mohan to Mahatma.
The main drama lay within. Like it lies within all of us. The perpetual battle between us and our conscience. The more conscientious the individual, the more intense the dramatic tension.
What makes Gandhi and perhaps all the great people so distinct from the rest of mankind perhaps is their self-reflexivity, this tendency to ceaselessly self-examine, to probe into the innermost recesses of their own consciousness, to perpetually wrestle with their own conscience. And doing Sammy would be a perfect way to get to know Gandhi, less verbose than the autobiography, and yet so true to the essence of that confessional narrative and connected to the larger narrative of political independence.
Class 10 brainstorming session
So how come Sammy and the Shishuvan Class 10 Annual day? How do the two fit together? Well, only a Shishuvan student could connect the two. Reflecting on the many possibilities for the Annual Day in the High School H.O.D room, Vardhan, the Shishuvan alumnus suggested a topic from the history curriculum. Nothing could be more pragmatic we thought. And instantly Gandhi came to mind. More because Gandhi seems to be ever-present in the Shishuvan consciousness and his practical ideas of self-sustenance, community, dialogue, and inter-religious tolerance find manifestation in the varied events and regular forums of the school. So what better way to bid farewell to this outgoing batch than to do a play on this most revered and debated national icon? Moreover, this batch was special to me, as it was through them that I had begun my journey in education three years ago. The first bunch of students I had ever interacted with. And this could be just the perfect gift. A provocative one, no doubt!
Screen printed invitations for parents
They were 12 then. I was less certain of things then. And now they were a healthy, mentally vigorous 15. I was less uncertain now. They were on the brink of an important transition. I was on the threshold of embarking on an epic narrative. It was a risk, both personal and artistic.
And so the process began. Readings and reflections on the abridged autobiography, discussion on celibacy and Gandhi’s overarching principle of self-restraint, his fundamental principal of internal swaraj connected to external swaraj, viewing the masterful cinematic biopic, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, simultaneous history lessons in class, auditions, segregation into direction, music, costume, lights departments and finally rehearsals.
Kasturba playfully taunts Mohan
8 to 10 assistants took care of the actor’s lines, their meanings, objectives; some helped me block the scenes; some helped the actors understand the nuanced feelings of the character and the relationship with the other characters; some took care of my conscience.
Std 10 crew prepping the lights
Being a play on Gandhi, the stage design was kept minimal. Three wooden platforms defined three spaces. Transactions between Gandhi and his friends and family largely took place on stage right; the centre one largely looked to emphasize the conscience, the heated and at times comforting interactions between Mohan and Mahatma; and the platform on the side of the audience right was inhabited by the mighty representatives of the Empire, a space which could not be violated, without personal risk.
Four Gandhis representing different phases of Gandhi’s life were chosen, each lending his own unique self to Gandhi’s maturing ideas and temperament at that evolutionary phase. The actors had to learn so much, internalize so much and then convincingly play it off against each other, which they did with rehearsed ease and dignity. The other departments constantly inspired by the teachers at hand successfully delivered the goods, adding a nostalgic charm, spiritual feel and musical vitality to the unfolding narrative.
Music team are a go!
Kudos to the students who managed the props at such a short notice. Kudos to the musicians who remembered to come in at the right moments in the play with their many songs and complicated and intense background score. Kudos to the students’ lights team who designed and operated the lights, creating the perfect atmosphere for the play. Kudos to the actors who accomplished so much in such a short time. Kudos to the assistants without whose creative inputs, work with the individual actors and on individual scenes the play wouldn’t have been what it turned out to be. Kudos to the costumes team for getting the wardrobe of historical characters perfectly right or in some cases, perfectly approximate. Kudos to the students whose contribution was minimal but a sense of teamwork commendable. Kudos to the teachers for making it all happen and making it all come together. Kudos to Shishuvan and Shubadra for permitting this violation of performance time. At 2 hours, this was unprecedented in the history of Shishuvan Annual Day plays.
A solemn Brit officer
In the post-annual day reflection, one of the student-actors shared how he had to come to understand Gandhi better, and had shed his initial discomfort regarding this controversial public figure; this indeed among other reflections was one of the most successful takeaways for me. Engaging discussions with teachers on the impossibly high ideals of Gandhi and its ramifications on his dear ones, his treatment of his wife initially which evolved into a more mutually-respectable one was what made the process so internally enriching. Sammy was just the most suitable text in making some of us transcend our often simplistic notions on Gandhi, which usually oscillate between blind reverence on one extreme and unthinking dislike for his ‘effeminate’ non-violence on the other. This play showed Mohan struggling through all human frailties, philosophical confusion, to attain truth, which made him more relatable and surely would inspire us in our own quests for truth.
A clichéd image, yet poignant
It’s been a truly fulfilling journey for me as an artist, educator and a human being. It was a special gift to this outgoing batch. Also a homage of a kind to a school that has profoundly altered me and many others.
Mohan and Mahatma
P.S.: ‘Sammy’ was what the indentured south Indian labourers (swamis) were derisively addressed as by the imperialists or the local white population. In the play, Gandhi was also slapped at and referred to as a Sammy, which means swami, which means a teacher, a teacher who lived up to the ideal of non-violent resistance through love.
(Photographs courtesy Harshil Vora and Jai Sonwalkar)