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Book Review(Play): The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi Himendra Thakur

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd in 1869 and was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic January 30th 1948. To the majority of us he is now more familiarly known by his honorific, Mahatma, meaning Great Soul, rather than the names he was born with, and for his dedication to non-violent resistance as a form of protest. Such is his international reputation that in 2007 the United Nations designated his birthday International Day Of Non Violence.

While political leaders of all stripes have cited him as an influence on their lives, paid lip service to his ideals, or praised his life, not a single political figure since the Mahatma has actually lived up to those ideals. The drive for equality between the races in the United States during the 1950's and 1960's under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr. was the last major attempt at non-violent civil disobedience to enact social change. Aside from that though, the majority of mankind has not proven mature enough to live up to the ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi.

While Gandhi has aroused almost universal admiration among people internationally, the same can't be said about his home country of India. He was opposed to the partitioning of India into separate Muslim, Pakistan, and Hindu countries and advocated equality for all people. In fact his assassination was spurned by the final hunger strike he staged in order to force the new Indian government to hand over money owing to the Pakistani government. The radical Hindu who killed him saw that action as an act of betrayal. He also angered traditionalists with his demands for an end to the caste system (initially the caste system was devised as a means of defining a person's responsibilities to society based on their job without there being any distinction in social standing, but it was eventually corrupted to the point where a person's caste no longer defined what they did but their status. So a person could be a Brahmin, without being a priest, and enjoy all the advantages associated with that position without having to fulfill any of the obligations formally associated with the title.) and equality for women
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With the play The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi, published by Antarjyoti, Himendra Thakur has written a response to what he sees as a continuation of that opposition in today's India. In his introduction to the play he says that India has moved away from what Gandhi's vision for the country and there is a concentrated effort by some political leaders, business people and thinkers to discredit him in the eyes of the people. While they may stand up on national holidays and praise him as the father of the country, or give speeches lauding his achievements in the West, they are actually rejecting everything he stands for.

The two act play is set in the home of a wealthy Indian industrialist (Mishra) who is running for parliament. It is expected that if he wins his election that he will be given an important position in the government, but his campaign has hit a slight snag. With the redefining of electoral districts the area he is seeking to represent has recently been expanded to include a large number of rural voters whose interests don't necessarily mesh with his own. Unless he can convince them that he has their best interests at heart he could very well lose the election.

Since the majority of rural people still revere the memory of the Mahatma he orders his servant to make over his house in a style that will suitably impress two representatives from the village he has invited to meet with him. As the play opens the household servant is removing various objects d'art from the set as part of the pretence that will also include hanging a large portrait of Gandhi on the wall and covering the furniture with Khadi (a type of fabric) made from the hand weaving Charkha, (spinning wheel) used by the Mahatma.

Rakesh is Mishra's future son-in-law and a business man. He is the embodiment of everything that the playwright thinks is wrong with modern India's business community as he out and out rejects everything Gandhi stands for. How, he says, can he support non-violence when his own father is an arms manufacturer? Anyway Gandhi doesn't agree with any of things he's been taught in business school about how to maximize profits by reducing the work force. If we followed that model how could we get rich?

Initially the only voice arguing against Rakesh is his fiancee Sarojini whose grandmother taught her about Gandhi. She argues that India has become overly fixated on greed and that the people are suffering for it. Eventually her side of the argument is also taken up by the men from the village when they show up. Part of the second act of the play revolves around them debating both Rakesh and Mishra on the validity of Gandhi to today's India.

Himendra Thakur makes no secret as to what his beliefs are, and while that is noble, and I'm in complete agreement with him, that does not make The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi a good piece of theatre. The characters are nothing more than stereotypes, with both Rakesh and Mishra made out to be nothing but greedy cowards, and the two villagers and the humble servant are idealized as paragons of virtue.

Near the end of the play an extremist Hindu terrorist breaks into the house with the intent of killing Mishra because he said something favourable about Gandhi in a speech. While Rakesh and Mishra are begging for their lives and crying - the two villagers debate the terrorist and the servant sneaks up on him and overpowers him. Making the two anti-Gandhi characters objects of ridicule might have seemed like a good way of weakening their arguments, but it gives a false picture of reality and makes for lousy theatre.

Real businessmen and politicians aren't that ignorant and craven, any more than a school master and farmer are going to as stoic and brave as the two villagers are represented in the play. Wouldn't it have been better if the characters had been real so the audience would have a better picture of how they are being manipulated by their leaders instead of presenting something this simplistic? While the script claims to support the people who are being hurt by the behaviour of characters like Rakesh and Mishra, by the way it has been written it appears that the author does not have a very high opinion of his audience's intelligence and it comes across as very condescending.

Mahatma Gandhi espoused great ideals and saw the potential in humankind for living in harmony with itself and nature. He was truly one of the greatest visionaries that the world has known and we would all be better off if more of us could live up to the standards he set. Unfortunately The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi by Himendra Thankur does not succeed in bringing that vision to life, or even presenting convincing arguments on its behalf. Surely there must be a better way of defending the Mahatma's grand vision than this?

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