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Gandhi and Tagore: Friends and intellectual rivals

'Stay Yet A While' offers a rare glimpse into the relationship between Gandhi and Tagore

(from left) Director M.K. Raina at the rehearsal of the play with Preeti Agarwal (as the narrator) and Avijit Dutt reading as Tagore. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
(from left) Director M.K. Raina at the rehearsal of the play with Preeti Agarwal (as the narrator) and Avijit Dutt reading as Tagore. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Between 1915 and 1941, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi exchanged a series of letters. From matters concerning the country’s freedom to boycotting foreign cloth—their letters were collected and compiled in a book titled The Mahatma And The Poet: Letters And Debates Between Gandhi And Tagore 1915-1941. These epistolary exchanges serve as frank and intimate portraits of two contemporaries who were friends as well as intellectual rivals. In fact Tagore, who admired Gandhi as a political leader, was critical of some of Gandhi’s strategies. In the aftermath of the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, for instance, Gandhi stated that the prevalence of untouchability caused the calamity—it was divine intervention—a comment remarkably similar to the one recently made by an RSS ideologue on Kerala floods and Sabarimala. Tagore, in response, penned a scathing letter to Gandhi, in which he expressed his “painful surprise" at Gandhi’s “unscientific view of things".

Now theatre veteran M.K. Raina has reimagined these conversations between the two into a play titled, Stay Yet A While, which will be staged on Gandhi’s 149th birth anniversary in Delhi. Performed by Avijit Dutt as Tagore, Oroon Das as Gandhi, and Preeti Agarwal as the narrator, Stay Yet A While is a multilayered piece complemented by rare archival footage of the freedom struggle. Edited excerpts from an interview with Raina, the director of the play:

There is a popular perception that Tagore and Gandhi were great friends who seldom disagreed on issues concerning India. Your play proves otherwise. In fact, it scrutinizes the quality of their debates.

Yes, Gandhi and Tagore started writing to each other back in 1915, until Tagore’s death in 1941. They were in constant correspondence, sending letters and telegrams to each other, in which they’d express agreements as well as disagreements—often undercutting each other. One was a political leader, the other was a poet. The best part to note, however, is the quality of debate between these two great minds almost a century ago, confronting questions of India’s future and the freedom movement. You see both of them often disagreeing fundamentally on several things, like the charkha, civil disobedience, burning of foreign cloth, and so on. But it was the quality of discussion and the quality of civil disagreement—you know, agree to disagree—that amazes you. When they talked about the freedom of India, they complemented each other beautifully through their critique of each others’ views.

What were some of the pertinent matters they debated on?

One of the first few letters that was written by Gandhi to Tagore (21 January 1918) is about the fourth Congress session in Calcutta, where Gandhi asked Tagore if it was possible to hold the session in Hindi or Urdu. Tagore said that it wasn’t possible, adding that English was the only language of communication that was possible for people who were coming from different states, including Madras. Then, there was a discussion on burning the foreign cloth. Tagore was, of course, furious and argued that people would be naked and would have nothing to hide their skin with. Gandhi in response said that the Indian people should wear clothes that were theirs—which belonged to (the land). So he wanted to empower the Indian people to make their own cloth and be self-reliant.

From a large archival collection of letters and essays, what were the ones you selected to fit into a 2-hour performance piece? To what extent are the matters these letters touch upon relevant today?

Most of the book is there (in the play). However, there are certain essays which are four-five pages long—so we edited that text down a bit. The two spoke on almost everything—right from civil disobedience to Gandhi’s hunger strike; they discussed untouchability as well as the issue of Hindu-Muslim unity and why it was important. These are matters we are discussing even today. But for me, the play focuses the lens on how Gandhi and Tagore perceived the issues at hand and discussed them with civility, which is very important even in today’s political discourse.

While reading these letters, were there any revelations about Gandhi or Tagore’s character that you weren’t aware of earlier?

I found them to be great prose writers. Tagore was naturally a writer, but Gandhi’s writing is impeccable. I decided to stage the play in the original text—that is English—because I wanted people to know these texts in their authentic form.

If Gandhi was a great advocator of Hindi, why did he write the letters in English?

That’s the irony, and it’s because Tagore did not know how to read Hindi. He might have known little bit here and there, but he was comfortable writing in English.

‘Stay Yet A While’ has a minimalist set design and the characters on stage read the letters aloud to the audience, rather than enacting them. What led you to this format?

I wanted the audience to look at the texts objectively. I didn’t want them to focus on how Tagore walked or how Gandhi held his lathi—if you get into that, it becomes too gimmicky. I want the people to concentrate on the text. It’s not a sentimental play—the issues are central to the play. In addition, there is documentary footage being screened as well.

Yes, the performance is interspersed with audio and archival visual elements. What can the audience look forward to in this multilayered play?

They will see archival footage of the freedom movement, Jallianwala Bagh, as well as Tagore’s funeral. I can’t tell you where I received the footage from, but this is the real footage. Personally, I had never seen Tagore’s funeral before. There is also the audio of Tagore singing a beautiful song.

Stay Yet A While will be performed at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, on 2 October. Open for all, invites can be collected from the venue.

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