Satyagraha: A Literary Perspective

“…yet by my creative energy I consort with Nature and come in time to be.”

-passage from the Bhagavad-Gita magnified on the set of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha

Where words often fail to commit meaning, image withers in reflection, and music trips over its conventional coattails, Phillip Glass and company have created art that imagines. His heralded opera, Satyagraha, first performed in 1980 and recently viewed at the Metropolitan Opera Lincoln Center stage, is a stunning display of eclectic ingenuity fused with inspired social conscience. After waiting seven hours in line for a $20 orchestra seat less than thirty feet away from the stage (normally priced at $100), I would like to extend a warm thank you to Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman who created and sponsor the rush ticket program at the Met and make this and similar experiences possible for impoverished college students like myself.

Satyagraha is based on the early life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, each scene of the three acts depicting a specific aspect of the revolutionary leader’s moral development and contribution to the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa. The title, meaning “truth force” in Sanskrit, is what Gandhi chose to call his philosophy and those who practiced its principles of non-violent resistance. Heavily influenced by the writings of friends and fellow mystics Leo Tolstoy and the Bengali poet Tagore, and in turn virtually spawning the life work of Martin Luther King Jr., all three historical figures are honored with silent cameo roles as overseers of their ascribed acts. A significantly memorable moment, lasting for nearly ten minutes, features the Reverend King Jr. silhouetted against a backdrop of blue sky and scrolling clouds, delivering a speech to an imaginary mass, hands raised in defiant solidarity, while on the main stage the tenor playing Gandhi performs a heartrending aria that climbs to the close of the third act.

The libretto is composed of selections from the Hindu epic poem The Bhagavad-Gita and is sung in the original Sanskrit over rolling scales and cyclical arpeggios that form the base of Glass’ minimalist orchestration. In the program notes, he writes:

“The action of each scene was so simple and self-explanatory that support by a text would have seemed redundant, even awkward. Instead of the text describing the action or, even worse, explaining the action, I thought of using it as a commentary on the action. Text thus became subtext to action…Secondly since none of the national languages were going to be used, Sanskrit could serve as a kind of international language for this opera.”

Due to a lack of Met Titles the viewer is allowed to absorb and appreciate the sheer phonetic harmony of the Sanskrit language, “a language that credited the actual sounds of words with inherent values and powers,” without the distraction or visual preoccupation of having to jump back and forth between a running script and the stage. However, to make sure the message is generally understood, translated excerpts are projected at key moments across the back wall of the set and onto collaboratively constructed billboards held by the actors.

Taken from one of the most potent and sacred poetic texts in existence, these condensed citations serve to ground the production in its objective, aside from being a rich source of entertainment, to expose and dismantle the racial, economic, and cultural barriers we unjustly impose upon one another. Even if a person had no prior knowledge of Gandhi’s life or teachings they cannot escape the encounter with a fifty foot display that speaks of generosity, forgiveness, self-sacrifice and courage in face of overwhelming adversity. This type of humanist or spiritual propaganda is a refreshing change to the bourgeoisie classicism characteristic of most operas and especially those shown at the Met in New York City of all places.

Another important and related metaphor referenced constantly through various mediums is the weight of words themselves and how they can be used for good or to hurt. Scene two of the second act focuses on the Indian Opinion, a weekly news publication established by Gandhi to document the grievances of the Indian immigrants in South Africa and rouse local and global support for their oppressed causes. Gandhi himself stated that the eventual success of the satyagraha movement would not have been possible were it not for the central and unifying channel of communication the Indian Opinion represented. To contrast this, crumpled pages of newsprint are used as weapons in a subsequent scene to symbolize the stones thrown at Gandhi and his followers when they peacefully protested against the government and its unjust laws.

Within the terms of her field of study, Barbara Guest writes:

“The conflict between a poet and the poem creates an atmosphere of mystery. When this mystery is penetrated…then an experience called illumination takes place. This is the most beautiful experience literature can present us with, and more precious for being extremely rare, arrived at through concentration, through meditation…through those faculties we often associate with a religious experience, as indeed it is.”

This concept can be applied in review of Satyagraha as a basis for judging its overall effect on the viewer. Not only does it induce cataclysmic waves of ecstasy through repetitively ascetic melodies and illustrations, but it confronts the viewer with their own transcendental dilemma, challenging them to reexamine the ways in which they interact with their inner and outer selves. As a faithful tribute to its central character, it testifies to a lingering hope that through non-violent perseverance we are still capable of amending the brutal exploitation of peoples and landscapes while manifesting a world founded in compassion and abundance for future generations. In this modern age where “a suicide attempt is made every minute of every day” (saw this on a subway hotline ad afterward), I believe we could make more use of such a wise and contemplative system of action. Unfortunately, Satyagraha has reached the end of its 2008 American tour at the Met. Should it ever return or be performed in close proximity to wherever you may find yourself in the future, I would highly recommend not missing out on the chance of a lifetime. And if nothing I’ve said thus far has convinced you…they have giant puppets.
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