Love in times of war: ‘Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba’

Welcome to the personal world of Ba and Bapu, documented but never told on stage the way Saif Hyder Hasan has

Love in times of war: ‘Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba’
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Rana Siddiqui Zaman

Welcome to the personal world of Ba and Bapu, documented but never told on stage the way Saif Hyder Hasan, playwright/director well known for his love stories on stage between poets Sahir Ludhiyanvi and Amrita Pritam and actors Guru Dutt and Geeta Dutt, does.

The play Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba, deftly unfolds before us some interesting facts; that Mahatma Gandhi admitted he would have died if Kasturba Gandhi was not with her; that Kasturba criticised every voice which said she wasn't happy with her husband saying, she is proud to be his wife and accepts his transformation beyond her comprehension; that Gandhi was a great lover while Ba as she was lovingly called, was a woman of her own standing and conviction -- the only one on earth who could scold and question Bapu.

He narrates the developing bond between Gandhi and Kasturba through “Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba”  premiered in the Delhi Theatre Festival recently. Hasan devises a unique way of unfolding this tale. He turns the bonding of 60 years into letters exchanged between them  - from the time of engagement at the age of seven, till their death. These letters were never written, but facts are documented in several books on them. He chooses an unconventional pair of actors Zeenat Aman, 25 years after her retirement from films, a first-timer on stage as Ba and theatre veteran Arif Zakaria as Bapu.

The drama unravels moments we didn’t know existed between them. For instance, Ba’s relatives wanted her husband to be at least 10 years older to her, but Ba engaged at seven, put her foot down. “How will I play with him, if he is older”, she had told her parents and married to Mohandas who was her age.  But married at 13, she never understood why her dolls were kept in the cupboard, why was she told stories of loyal mythical figures like Devi Anysuya, Sita and Savitri, why was she made to do all house-hold chores including cooking and milk the cows. “Who would like to have an untrained daughter-in-law” is the answer she gets. She is the darling of Bapu’s parents.

Bapu was scared of darkness so he would light the bedside lamp even during intimate times at night; he observed celibacy and avoided the use of contraceptives to kill his desire for lust; his ever-growing idealism was in constant clash with Ba’s conservatism; their differences on children’s education, sanitation, strict dietary and forgoing love for material things like jewellery and gifts, and yet a passionate bond between them-all this is revealed in gripping narration.

Zeenat Aman as Kasturba Gandhi
Zeenat Aman as Kasturba Gandhi

Ba could barely read and write Gujarati, Bapu was scholarly.  Ba was a housewife, Gandhi, a fighter within, a stubborn man with ‘highway or my way’ attitude. While Ba was “trained” to be a loyal wife, Mohandas experimented with a sex worker to test his wife’s “emotional fidelity” and confided to her breaking down. Ba forgave him due to his honesty. All this and much more is told through the letters in which Ba addresses husband as ‘Bapu’ and he calls her ‘Kastur’. Ba chides, fights, protests, accuses and loves her husband in her expressions, while Gandhi admits, submits and explains his side.

Hasan employs visually intense stagecraft and immensely appealing sound design; a dark ambience with blue/red lights crisscrossing white fumes, two podiums -- on one Gandhi sits, on another Ba with her desk, white light spotting them, meticulously. Hundreds of pictures playing on the mammoth digital screen of Gandhi’s struggle for Independence separate the two speakers. In an almost surreal setting, the play begins from the end-- the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the famous and painful last words “Hey Ram”, sound of three bullets, a shehnai and immensely soothing “Vaishnav Vajan” in a haunting, euphonic voice of Shail Hada. The dreamy grandiose, melodious though minimal background score elevates the experience to an ethereal level.

The play is in English. Hasan justifies, “It's also for international audiences.”

Arif Zakaria, a theatre veteran who plays Gandhi, shocks and overawes with his looks, body language and dialogue delivery. I would admit, I am fortunate I saw Gandhi in 2020 --  live on stage! Zakaria laughs at this compliment and explains, “Playing Gandhi was a yearning. We have seen Gandhi all our lives, so subconsciously he was always there in my mind. But I prepared for three months, l am anyway on the thinner side, and lost some more weight. We avoided things like showing lisp in his speech that he developed in his last five years due to broken teeth. It would have caricatured him. There was this constant sense of responsibility for playing him in the context of such content and physicality. He had a frailness, yet a strong body language that had to fit in the entire scheme of things too.”

Zeenat Aman as Ba was just the opposite of her romantic, free thinker former Asia Pacific image. On stage, this Ba fires with faultless lines, mild chiding, spirit to fight, admire and declare that she and Bapu “were equals', both in age and relationship, in a tone that was euphonic and strong too that defies her age (70s). So despite a slight accented English that she reads emotional and powerful letters in, she compels you to avoid it and concentrate on the fabulous content she emotes through.

Arif Zakaria as Mahatma Gandhi
Arif Zakaria as Mahatma Gandhi

Zeenat Aman minces no words, “Returning with such a role has its own weightage. When Saif offered me the role, I asked, why me, he said, why not you?  Ba was so strong, played multiple roles, married at 7, brought up children well, forced to do things she wouldn’t, given a choice -- cleaning toilets, observing abstinence at the whims of the husband at a young age of 30, walked the walk with Gandhi Ji in freedom movements, inspired women, was in jail with deteriorating health, undergoing emotional turmoil in husband's absence. Playing her wasn’t a cakewalk. My heart raced high. I meditated with a deep breath before entering the stage.”

She lets a small secret. “Ba always covered her head with a pallu. It was restricting my performance. So, I refused to take it.”

An emotional roller-coaster ride, the play, showing Ba and Bapu in a light the larger Indian audience never saw them is on a multi-city tour and shows abroad.

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