The Force of Truth: Gandhi, Glass, and <i>Satyagraha</i>

  • Philip Glass (top) is one of the world’s most prolific and admired opera composers. His 1980 work depicts the development of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence during his early years in South Africa.

    Glass’s Satyagraha has been re-imagined in the hands of two contemporary artists known for their brilliant and often surprising theater work: director Phelim McDermott (right) and associate director/set designer Julian Crouch (left), of the British-based theater company Improbable.

  • Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) chose to call his civil disobedience movement “satyagraha” because he felt that “passive resistance” was regarded not as an expression of strength but as a “weapon of the weak.” He explained: “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement ‘Satyagraha,’ that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.”

    Gandhi sat for this portrait in 1931 at the London photo studio Elliott & Fry.

  • In this new staging, dreamlike sequences are set against striking, often spare, tableaux. The production features a number of projections, including excerpts in translation from the libretto. Taken from the sacred Sanskrit text the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto of Satyagraha, co-written by Constance DeJong and Philip Glass, is sung in the original Sanskrit. “I like the idea of further separating the vocal text from the action,” says Glass. “This way, without an understandable text to contend with, the listener could let the words go altogether. The weight of ‘meaning’ then would be the thrown into the music, the designs and the stage action.”
  • After studying law in London, Gandhi accepted a year-long position as an attorney in South Africa. He was appalled by the country’s treatment of Indians and other non-Europeans, many of whom were indentured laborers, and embarked on a campaign against the discriminatory policies of the South African government. He is pictured here in front of his law office in Johannesburg in 1905, along with his secretary Sonja Schlesen (seated at right).
    Bottom: A costume sketch for the young Gandhi by designer Kevin Pollard.
  • Gandhi and his wife, Kasturbai, pictured here in 1913, had an arranged marriage when both were 13. She was instrumental in many of Gandhi’s achievements, including the culmination of the Satyagraha campaign in South Africa, the New Castle March of 1913.

    Bottom: Costume sketches for Gandhi and Kasterbai by designer Kevin Pollard.

    “I learnt the lesson of nonviolence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will, on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved, on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my the end, she became my teacher in nonviolence.” – Gandhi

  • Here Gandhi (seated left) is pictured with two of his associates and fellow Satyagrahi: his secretary Sonja Schlesen and architect Henry Kallenbach. Kallenbach owned the land that became known as Tolstoy Farm, one of Gandhi’s ashram communities.

    Bottom: Costume sketches for Schlesen and Kallenbach by designer Kevin Pollard.

  • Created in collaboration with Improbable, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s theater company, the zanily inventive and beautiful production features improvisational puppetry, aerialists, and projections performed by the Skills Ensemble.

    Top: A production image from Act II
    Lower left: Collage renderings of puppets by Julian Crouch
    Lower right: A photograph of the large-scale puppets during their creation

  • A World War II survivor and an Israeli-American of Croatian descent, Tamar Hirschl has created murals inspired by her own experiences observing 20th-century global conflict. The desire to bridge individual experiences and to heal through art is integral to her practice.

    A central tenet of Satyagraha is that one must not use unjust means to obtain just, peaceful ends. Hirschl illuminates Gandhi’s idea in her mural “Protest,” which juxtaposes scenes of technological advancement with the machinery of war and coercion, drawing attention to historical connections between progress and destruction.

  • The opera takes place in a single day, from dawn until nightfall. Unlike a traditional narrative, however, the story unfolds seemingly out of time, with a structural framework in which past, present, and future converge. Although rooted in real-life events from Gandhi’s time in South Africa, the story exists as in a dream, with the composer’s self-described “music with repetitive structures” moving the action forward, sometimes gently and sometimes urgently. “It’s a meditative piece,” associate director/set designer Julian Crouch says. “In the process, your heartbeat slows down.”

    This sense of timelessness is partly due to the presence of three on-stage “witnesses” (in Philip Glass’s words) who each preside over an act. To place these three great men on the stage with Gandhi further moves history into the realm of poetry.

    Top: Representing the past is Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi corresponded until Tolstoy’s death in 1910. Costume sketch (left) by designer Kevin Pollard; collage rendering (right) by Julian Crouch.

    Center: Rabindranath Tagore, the revered Bengali playwright and poet, represents Gandhi’s present. Tagore was the first to call Gandhi “Mahatma,” meaning “great soul,” a title Gandhi himself never recognized. Costume sketch (right) by designer Kevin Pollard; production photo (left).

    Bottom: Representing Gandhi’s future is Martin Luther King, Jr., who would later take up Gandhi’s techniques in his struggle for civil rights. Costume sketch (left) by designer Kevin Pollard; production photo (right).

  • Act I, Scene 1 – Drawing from the Bhagavad Gita, the opera opens on a mythical battlefield where two royal families prepare to wage a fierce war. According to Glass, the dialogue between Prince Arjuna (pictured) and Lord Krishna moments before combat is “a long, often eloquent statement concluding that, though the methods of action and nonaction can each lead to liberation, action is superior.”
  • Act I, Scene 2 (top and center photos) – Tolstoy Farm, founded in 1910, was one of the many self-sufficient farming communities (or “ashrams”) Gandhi established during his two decades in South Africa.
  • Act II, Scene 1 – In 1896, Gandhi took a six-month sojourn to India to report on the conditions in South Africa and raise support for his cause. Europeans in South Africa, angered by what they perceived as defamatory comments by Gandhi in the international press, rioted upon his return in January 1897 (top). Gandhi was harassed and severely beaten, saved only by the intervention of Mrs. Alexander, wife of the police superintendent, who escorted him to safety (bottom).
  • Act II, Scene 2 – Gandhi was one of the first people to harness the power of the media. Printed on one of Gandhi’s farms, the weekly publication Indian Opinion (reproduction at right) served as a vehicle for Satyagraha principles. “The way we improvise with materials such as newspaper and sticky tape seems to mirror Glass’s kaleidoscopic score,” notes co-director Phelim McDermott.
  • Act II, Scene 3 – After the government’s refusal to repeal registration requirements, the Satyagrahi gather to burn their registration certificates.

    Top: A political cartoon from August 16, 1908, depicts the volatility of the situation.
    Center: Collage by Julian Crouch
    Bottom: Production photo

  • Act III – In 1913 the government reneged on its promise to repeal the Three Pound Tax on ex-serfs and declared only Christian marriages legal. These developments galvanized the resistance movement, and thousands of outraged Indians joined the expanding struggle.
  • Act III – Striking miners in New Castle and their families joined the Satyagrahi in a 36-mile march to the Transvaal border, where they were arrested at the registration check-point and jailed. Despite beatings and imprisonment, none of the 50,000 striking workers returned to work. The New Castle March of 1913, pictured here, captured the attention of international media and became the turning point of Gandhi’s campaign, leading to the repeal of the color bar the following year.
  • Act III – After the marchers have been arrested and led away in Glass’s opera, we are left with two lone figures on a vast, bare stage: Gandhi and his legacy-bearer Martin Luther King, Jr., who passes along Gandhi’s message to a new audience.

    Bottom: Julian Crouch’s rendering of this final tableau from the opera.