Abhinaya’s Theatre Drama, Gandhi, Ohlone College, March 31, 2013

Mythili Kumar has shepherded Bharata Natyam students through to their traditional debut or arengatrum in San Francisco’s South Bay region since 1980. She also trained her two daughters in this art form with its deep roots in the Tamil area of South India, aided by the devoted support of her husband who handled technical needs.  Her company currently includes four principal dancers, the three Kumars, plus Anjan Dasu, six post-arengetrum dancers and four juniors, all told fourteen.

Mythili exercised  a two-decade desire with this production of Gandhi at Ohlone College’s Jackson Theatre, given a late matinee performance on Easter Sunday.  The audience was about eighty per cent Indian, the women in gossamer silk saris or salwar kameez and many of the Indian men in their traditional Indian shirts, relaxed and elegant in a style Americans might emulate.

Opening the program was a slide presentation with six remarkable individuals quoted in their assessment of Gandhi’s influence in the world.  Starting with Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King, Jr. was included followed by Caesar Chaven.  Albert Einstein was quoted as well as Carl Sagan, Sir Thomas Attenbrough and Aun Song Su Shi.

Malavika Kumar narrated Gandhi’s story, at many points punctuating the straightforward narrative with the gesture language which provides the company its name, abhinaya.  Dressed in a simple white sari edged in black, she carried conviction in her delivery, although her left arm, when not gesturing, was held in an overly straight position.

Gandhi’s life from childhood to martyrdom passed in ten scenes of rhythmic succession.  The ensemble movements in the Swadeshi Movement in South Africa, The Salt March and the Civil Disobedience scenes were remarkable in their ensemble patterns.  While Mythili, as Gandhi, relied on the classical vocabulary of Bharata Natyam, Rasika Kumar’s choreography interjected colloquial and contemporary gesture to emphasize the populist response to Gandhiji.  The racial discrimination in  South Africa with a travel incident was vividly realized as was the use of coat hangers and jackets in the  Swadeshi scene, simple devices ingeniously utilized.

I quibbled with the Civil Disobedience text.  Given that the audience was largely Indian, such viewers could fill in the broad outline with greater specificity.  Gandhi was not alive when The Sepoy Rebellion took place, igniting the Indian-British face off  which began to form along western government lines.  While the British had a clause of non-male heirs to a royal house allowing them to assume the regal territory, a number of such realms remained intact until Indian independence.  Royal families were given a stipend by the constitution until Indira Gandhi maneuvered otherwise.  Disobedience was real, but the text was distorted because of its generalities.

Regardless of this personal reservation, the entire performance moved with steady spirit, a stirring tribute executed with a professional panache and with decidedly Indian charm.

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