Mahatma - from truth to enlightenment  
by Emily Raabe, Philadelphia 
October 6, 2003   

Mahatma - From Truth to Enlightenment was just performed on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This hour length Bharata Natyam dance production performed by Sanjay Doddamani, MD a dancer-cardiologist and Revanta Sarabhai, son of well known danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, celebrated Gandhiji's message of truth and non-violence and the unity of world religions.  The choreography was guided by Mrinalini Sarabhai. 

"We are coming full circle" announced Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch curator of Indian Art at the museum. There are many reasons for this comment. Firstly Stella Kramrisch as many will recall, has her name right up there with A Coomaraswamy and Sivaramamurthi, for painstakingly chronicling many Indian archeological treasures and was best known for her in-depth knowledge of the Chola Bronzes. The pillared hall of a temple, the only Indian stone architectural example in America had Revanta Sarabhai's mother Mallika Sarabhai perform in it two years ago. Dancer Sanjay Doddamani, currently a senior fellow in cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania, learnt to dance not far from where the pillared hall was built. His Guru was none other than legendary Guru Kitappa Pillai, descendent of the Tanjore Quartette. But, on a more philosophical note, it was Stella Kramrisch, the Austrian-born scholar, who made Indian Art and its inherent philosophy known in the West and this comparison was reflected in seeing the dancers bring out the elements of India's rich art-form of Bharata Natyam and suffusing it with the message of the Mahatma.  

The powerful voice of Hindustani singer, Sanhita Nandi, reciting the lines Asatoma Satgamaya, had the dancers running from corner to corner proclaiming the triumph of truth over untruth and light over darkness. Using the symbolism of being bound by cloth, Sarabhai, showed the struggle to attain individual freedom, with Gandhi's quote, "Freedom is like birth; until you are fully free, you are a slave" being recited by narrator, Stuart Alter, while the percussion of both the Tabla and the Mridangam by Sai Shyam Mohan and Murali Balachandran, followed the footwork. Verses from the Gita heralding the virtues of unattachment, "he who treats friend and foe alike, and confronts triumph and disaster without emotion, that is the man dear to me" was juxtaposed with performing Sermon on the mount, whose lines such as "turning the other cheek" moved Gandhiji very much. It is well known that though Gandhiji was a Hindu, much of his intellectual reasoning came from Christianity. "Though we may read from different books, we praise the same God," Gandhiji once said.  

Doddamani then performed Letters to Americans. Here, the words of the Mahatma came as responses to the many letters he received from Americans at the time. Researched and edited into a book by E.S. Reddy, former assistant secretary-general of the UN, the dancer consulted Reddy and chose lines that were aptly written to Samuel Stokes of Philadelphia, a man who later went to India to join the freedom struggle. With arms outstretched beyond the physical confines of the jail cell, the dancer portrayed how the physical body could not hinder the spiritual progress of the soul. Finally folding hands to assume the posture of a slave, Gandhiji asked W.E.B Dubois, the famous civil rights leader, why there should be any dishonor for the black man to be the descendant of a slave, for is there dishonor in being a slave or a slave owner?  

The lilting tune of Vaishnava Janatho served as a reminder of just how altruistic Gandhiji's philosophy was. V Kalyan Raman played the flute for the evening’s recital.  A fast moving Thillana with arresting poses of the Charka or spinning wheel and other symbols of Gandhi's experiment with truth, slowed to the sounds of the concluding Bhajan "Raghupathi Ragava". Using the symbol of the cross, the Anjali or praying gesture and bowing as done during Namaz, the artists showed through dance how easy it was to respect all religions. Should we all take to dancing then for the world to be a better place?  

For more information contact Emily Raabe, Public Relations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.