May 31, 1947 — Mahatma Gandhi is leading the prayer meeting at the Birla House, which was a daily affair. After the chanting of the slokas, the verses from the Holy Quran were being read. Soon, riots, hatred and death would engulf the Capital. It is here that Dastangoi performer Ankit Chadha starts the dastan — a dramatic form of storytelling —and takes the narrative back in time, to the early 1880s, when the teenage Gandhi is contemplating suicide. It eventually moves forward and traces the leader’s life and unravels the mystery of death, as seen by Gandhi. Chadha has woven this musical dastan, titled Praarthanaa, with Vedanth Bharadwaj, a Chennai-based musician. They performed in Mumbai and Indore recently, and will be in Bhubaneswar on January 30, the 70th death anniversary of the Father of the Nation.
“Shuru se shuru karna hai ya abhi se?” he asks, when we meet in the lawns of Delhi’s Birla House to talk about Gandhi, its last resident. “The first place a person is introduced to Gandhi is on a currency note, and then we study about him in school,” he says. But for Chadha, it was in college that his interest in Gandhi grew. “I was still studying and not reading Gandhi,” he says. He started reading Gandhi in 2016, when he spent three months at his ashram in Ahmedabad on the Sabarmati Fellowship. “People remember the big moments — Dandi march, Quit India and non-cooperation movements, his murder, and the symbols such as charkha, lathi, and his spectacles. I wanted to know the untold stories,” he says.
He read the day-to-day accounts of Gandhi’s last five years, in the two volumes, written by his last secretary Pyarelal Nayyar, titled Last Phase. “I noticed that the thought of death kept coming back to Gandhi. He thought about it more than he thought about life,” says Chadha.
“I don’t think there was anyone for whom Gandhi had not written an obituary, be it a child, woman, old person or even a cow. ‘Bahut bhala aadmi tha, uske marne ka dukh mat karna, aatma toh yahin reheti hai, sharir hi jata hai’ — he repeats the words thousands of times,” Chadha says, “I think he was doing his sadhna – ki jitna mein yeh kahunga, utna mere liye sach hoga, main jee paunga.”
Apart from the letters, Gandhi had given speeches and instructions to his mates. He saw the deaths of his dear ones — his father, his wife and his secretary Mahadev Desai, which devastated him. He also read about the deaths of the people he idolised such as Jesus Christ and Socrates.
Chadha’s research included reading the 100 volumes of the collected works of Gandhi, the accounts of his personal physician, Sushila Nayyar and essays by Tridip Suhrud and Ramachandra Gandhi, among others. Chadha and Bharadwaj have taken these threads and woven a narrative of Gandhi’s evolution — as an observer of death.
The dastan is interspersed with 12 songs, chosen from the Ashram Bhajnawali, a collection of 200 devotional songs sung at the prayer meetings led by Gandhi. “People confine him to Vaishnav Jana, Raghupati Raghav and Ekla Chalo. There is no documentation or recordings of how the other songs were sung in the ashram, only the name of the raga is given in a booklet,” says Bharadwaj, who has recomposed most of the songs. There are compositions by Tulsidas, Tagore, Kabir, Surdas, Narsihn Mehta, Nishkulanand and Muktanand, among others. “We have revived the Bhajnawali in a sense. Gandhi was a man of oral tradition, can we tell his story without geet and the Geeta?” asks Chadha.
When Gandhi sees Desai’s dead body, he orders Sushila Nayyar, his personal physician, to empty his pockets, and then sing Vaishnav jana. “We sing a bhajan in Gujarati – Tyaga na take vairagya bina – which means that there cannot be relinquishing of something, unless you’ve let go of the desire for it. Gandhi thinks a lot about this song when he remembers his father’s death, for he was with his wife in their bed, there is desire playing with him, and he doesn’t do his duty as a son,” he says.
For Chadha, Praarthanaa is the completion of a trilogy. He created Dastan-e-Kabir in 2012 and Khusrau Ke Rang in 2014. “If love is Kabir, Amir Khusrao became birth, for he marked the birth of Sufi thought in India, and truth is, indispensably, Mahatma Gandhi,” says Chadha.
The duo will perform at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, on February 20