PBS Great Performances: ‘Satyagraha’

Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” that airs today (25 March 2012) at noon and then again on Thursday, 22 March 2012 at 8:30 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) is both an opera and a play with music. By this I mean that this opera isn’t linear and much of the singing sounds like chanting.

Glass is all about minimalism, so don’t expect gorgeously extravagant costumes. Instead there are puppets and suddenly form and come apart.  This is the first revival of  Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s  2008 production. The Met has Dante Anzolini conducting with Richard Croft portraying Gandhi.

“Satyagraha” is about how Gandhi developed his philosophy of non-violent resistance. Gandhi begins as an adult, dressed in a find grey suit, he is both in South Africa and on a mythical battlefield. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was an attorney and witnessed the severity of racial inequality.

The title is from the Sanskrit word that Mahatma Gandhi conceived. Satya means truth. Agraha means insistence. It can be translated as “soul force” or “truth force” or the “force of truth and love.” Gandhi explained that satyagraha was not passive resistance.  This was not just civil disobedience as derived from Thoreau’s 1848 essay “Civil Disobedience,” but civil resistance. Yet neither English phrase conveys the concept of the soul, truth and love.

In order to convey the feeling of history and a spiritual dimension, Glass used a libretto by himself and Constance DeJong in Sanskrit. In the first act, we have the wealthy Victorians and on the other we have the peasants. The person who divides them at first is an ancient blue-skinned god.  The first act includes reference to Leo Tolstoy with whom Gandhi had a correspondence with, taking us to Tolstoy’s farm in 1910.

In the second act, the connection between Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore is portrayed. Tagore (7 May 1861-7 August6 1941) was the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize in Literature (1913).

Yet in Act 3, Glass reminds us that American history was also deeply touched by satyagraha. It was adopted by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in 1959. Gandhi (1869-1948) and King never met.

Gandhi didn’t return permanently to India until 1915. Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa, getting to know Indian society better in some ways because from the view of the South African government, the Indian caste system, the difference between the mostly Hindu workers and the wealthy Muslims meant nothing for they were all considered colored. It was in South Africa that Gandhi became a leader of the Indian population there as they protested, for the first time using satyagraha.

Glass’ approach  is more like a stream of consciousness. Act 1 puts takes us to Tolstoy in 1910, but then pulls back to 1906. Act 2 then starts in 1896 and progresses until 1908.  In Act 3, we have the New Castle March of 1913 which would become the model for Martin Luther King Jr. who had not yet been born (15 January 1929- 4 April 1968).

This 1979 opera is part of Glass’ “Portrait Trilogy” in which he focused on three men who had changed the world (the 1976 “Einstein on the Beach” and the 1983 “Akhnaten” about the pharoah who adopted monotheism).

While Croft isn’t gaunt as Gandhi, he does convey the sincerity of even humility of the early Gandhi who was at first too shy to speak. We see the progression of a man who understand that justice needs a champion and with his training as a lawyer, he can help unify the Indians against an unjust South African government and later against the British for at the time, South Africa like India was a British colony, only gaining independence in 1931. Independence wouldn’t come for India until over a decade later–after the end of World War II.

The Great Performance broadcast includes an interview with Philip Glass and the Croft. “Satyagraha” reminds us how America was influenced socially by Asia and how modernization isn’t always necessarily Westernization.

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