“Mahatma Gandhi is a rockstar for me,” gushes a beaming M.K. Raina, as the veteran theatre practitioner sits with us after a long rehearsal of his latest play “Stay Yet A While”. Staged early this week by Sahmat and Prayog at India Habitat Centre, it is based on eminent historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s “The Mahatma And The Poet”, a collection of letters and debates exchanged between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore between 1915 and 1941. “We have a common perception that they were great friends. But the relationship was much more than that. They didn’t agree on anything but they would contradict each other in the most civilised, democratic and highly respectable way.” If Gandhi admired Tagore’s poetic genius and humanism and internationalism and addressed him as Gurudev, Tagore respected Gandhi’s moral courage and called him a Mahatma.
Today, Raina says, the political debate has reduced to a puerile level. And, that’s why he called his politician friends to watch the play. “Be it communalism, nationalism or the issue of language, their concerns and worries remain relevant to present-day India,” notes Raina. He reminds how during the Calcutta Session of the Congress in 1918, when Gandhi wanted to hold the proceedings in Hindi or Urdu, Tagore objected as it would not be understood by delegates from the South. “He said that the idea of a national language should emerge voluntarily.”
When Gandhi urged people to burn foreign clothes, Tagore said that the poor didn’t have food to eat and he was expecting them to burn clothes. “Tagore thought of freedom in universal terms. For him, the idea of freedom was the liberation of the soul and if that happens that will lead to the awakening of the world. Gandhi felt that he was using charkha to liberate his people from dependence on the cloth produced in Manchester. He didn’t want to give them crumbs. He said, ‘They must earn it. And they can only earn it by the sweat of their brow.’ At the subliminal level, the idea was the same but the interpretations were different. “There were shades and shades as they were chiselling the definition of freedom, liberation, and citizenry of the world.”
When it comes to the question of nationalism, Raina says sometimes it appears as if Tagore is speaking to the today’s right wing. “He said that he did not at all relish the idea of divinity being enclosed in a brick and mortar temple for the special purpose of exploitation by a particular group of people. He strongly believed that it is possible for the simple-hearted people to realise the presence of God in the open air.”
Referring to the Bauls, Tagore said that they were not dominated by Brahminical tradition, and enjoyed a perfect freedom of worship profoundly universal in character. “It was the prohibition for them to enter temples that helped them in their purity of realisation,” reminds Raina.
While Gandhi used to seek his blessings before starting a fast for India’s unity, Raina says, Tagore appealed to the Mahatma to talk to the Hindu Mahasabha to make a conciliatory gesture towards the Muslims. According to Raina, Gandhi’s belief in true Hindu values come to the fore when people oppose giving Pakistan its share of compensation after Partition. “He went on fast to remind people of their dharma.”
Focus on words
Talking of the form where the three lead players, Avijit Dutt, Oroon Das and Preeti Agarwal Mehta, read out the letters and documents, Raina says he didn’t want to take the usual path where one actor plays Tagore and the other Gandhi. “I find it ridiculous. Here the word has been foregrounded. If I start to make them act, the word will be lost.” Instead of whether the actors are looking like them, the focus is on the quality of words and similes that they used.
“This document is largely unknown to the common man and through this one can come close to their ideas and principles.” The action happens on the screen where rare archival footage plays out. Visuals of Tagore singing and the moments capturing his funeral procession are stirring. Raina’s son Anant has done the videography and sound.
“But what happens is when they do it for two hours,” says Raina, “they start behaving like them. Avijit starts developing traces of Tagore Oroon starts showing a reflection of Gandhi.” But it is immediately broken by the images on the screen. “The element of emotionalism is out of this as I feel we need to look at these issues more objectively.”
This weekend Raina is staging another stirring play on the idea of Gandhi. Written six decades back, Lalit Sehgal’s “Hatya Ek Aakar Ki” remains fresh.
“It is about two friends who have been selected to eliminate Gandhi. One of them develops doubt and decides to defend Gandhi. The other counters him, and asks, ‘Aren’t we friends?’ Ultimately, they decide to have a mock trial. All the accusations that Gandhi has faced over the years come to the fore. In the end, they kill him. But after a fade out, a voice emerges that says that they have killed just an aakar, a form. The idea lives on.”
Bapu and Bablo
Raina is also working on a play exploring the bond between Gandhi and children. It is based on “Gandhi Through A Child’s Eyes” a book by Narayan Desai, the son of Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai, who used to sit in Bapu’s lap during meetings. An expert on Gandhian philosophy, Desai was most popular for his Gandhi kathas. “It is an adaptation, I want to tell today’s children why Gandhi is a rockstar. Narayan was called Bablo at home but Bapu used to call him Boss. He grew up in the Sabarmati Aashram and used to take on Bapu. Once when he was left out of the dining hall because he was late, he started singing a bhajan so loudly that Bapu had to let him in and said otherwise he would not allow anybody to eat. Once when somebody donated foreign toys to the ashram, Bapu said that they should not be distributed among children. Bablo got to know and decided to steal them. Bapu had to spend a long time to make him voluntarily surrender them. I am planning to have 10 songs in the play, which will live on.”
(Presented by Three Acts Club, “Hatya Ek Aakar Ki” will be staged at Shri Ram Centre, New Delhi on October 6 and 7 at 6.30 p.m.)
On learning from the master
A student of Ebrahim Alkazi, Raina remembers the doyen as a ruthless teacher and a thorough professional. “He knew we came from smaller places. We were not rich people’s children. He saw us as raw material which he could turn into professional theatre people of India. I came on a scholarship from the State government. I didn’t know English and spoke Hindi with a Kashmiri accent. It was a struggle. He used to keep us busy from 8 a.m. to midnight and knew what each student was reading by checking the books which were issued against our names by the library. No student could not fool him.”
On doing community theatre in Kashmir
A scene from the play Badshah Pather by M.K. Raina
A product of National School of Drama, Raina started with street theatre before moving on to community theatre. His work in strife-torn Kashmir has been exemplary. “When I went there in the late 90s, even singing in weddings was under threat. I had to instill faith in them that I am one among them. Nobody could question me because Kashmiri is my language. Now, they insist children learn Urdu but their mother tongue continues to be Kashmiri.”
As a child, Raina was introduced to stage by a progressive literary figure Dinanath Nadim, whom he says used to write operas for children. Years later when Raina returned to his home, he started with plays of local stalwarts like Rahman Rahi, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Amin Kamil and Avtar Krishen Rahbar. “That opened a window. We used to train in orchards. Gradually, we started appearing in public. We used to stage plays in the afternoon because, after 4, nobody could be seen on the road.” Eventually after 12 years, Tagore Hall, which was gathering dust, finally reopened and Raina staged plays to houseful shows.
“We also worked with orphaned children, organised a children film festival. We took them to Jammu to show them what a normal day is like. All this had a ripple effect.”
All along he told his journalist friends not to write about him as it would have brought him into ‘limelight’. However, it didn’t completely shield him from bullets. In one incident he almost lost his hearing capacity in one ear. He doesn’t complain. “In the process, I was healing myself. It is my home state. It is on state scholarship that I came to join NSD.” Today, Raina, says the situation is bizarre. “There is rock show happening, in the national theatre festival my play “Kafan-Kafan Chor” is going to be staged and at the same time protests are going on.”
M.K. Raina and Rakhee in a still from “27 Down”
‘Just an extension of theatre’
M.K. Raina was the original bearded hero in the 1970s when the New Wave was taking root in Indian cinema. In fact, in Awtar Kaul’s “27 Down”, where Raina made his debut opposite Rakhee, there is a scene where Shalini, played by Rakhee, tells Sanjay that he should not shave his beard. It has stayed on! Raina says the glamour world was not for him. “For me, cinema was just an extension of theatre. And that reflects in the kind of work I did. I worked with the likes of Kumar Sahani, Mani Kaul, Basu Chatterjee and Govind Nihalani. In these films, the directors didn’t see me just as an actor. I was equally involved in production as well.” He recalls how Ramesh Sharma got hassled while shooting a crowd scene in “New Delhi Times”. “He said that he had no idea how to create a riot on screen. I said leave it to me. Hum to karte hi rehte hain! Make people run with torches and the let the fight masters take over.”
After the film, Shashi Kapoor asked him to stay on in Mumbai. “I was not motived to work in Bombay. I used to stay there for a couple of months and then took the train back to Delhi. I never wore the awards on my sleeve but always had the confidence that we are trained actors.” He finds Indian cultural scene hypocritical for it associates your work with the city you are living in. “You have to remain at the centre of gravity. When I started working in Kashmir, some people started spreading the word that Raina has shifted base. He has become a gaonwallah!”
After Satyajit Ray, he adds, these were the filmmakers who put the gaze on Indian cinema. “The government took time to wake up to the genius of Ritwik Ghatak. I remember it was Safdar Hashmi, Madan Gopal Singh and I who created a brochure and wrote to the government to make his films part of Indian festivals abroad.”
Students of cinema remember “27 Down” for its stunning black and white photography where train becomes a character. “It was the magic of A.K. Bir. Once Kaul asked me to get down of the moving train. I asked would his cinematographer do the same. Bir said yes and he got down with a heavy hand-held camera. Together with K.K. Mahajan and Subrata Mitra, he set the standard of cinematography. Once I asked Subrata da, who worked extensively with Ray, why he doesn’t work in Bollywood. He said, ‘they want pretty pictures. Anybody can do it.’ And when they didn’t understand this kind of work, they labelled it as offbeat.”
After “Taare Zameen Par”, Raina became a popular father figure in films and commercials. “It helps me fund my theatre. However, I still insist on a bound script and tell them I like to come prepared on the set. Right now, I am looking forward to Kabir Khan’s web series on Indian National Army. I am playing an old soldier who is visiting the sites associated with the INA. During the shoot in Japan, I was expected to get on a moving train. The duplicate insisted that he would do it but I refused.” After all, he is trained!