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Gandhi Katha: Narayan Desai's Way of Reintroducing the Mahatma to the World

By Adab Nawaz,

January 31, 2012

With Mahatma Gandhi smiling from a picture on the wall and a music mandali sitting beside him, Narayan Desai takes the crowd to a spectacular journey. Since there are no fixed milestones in this tale, the journey can include places as varied and afar as London, South Africa, Champaran, Bombay and Bardoli. It visits prisons even. Apart from the protagonist, the Mahatma himself, the characters comprise a galaxy of stars from freedom fighters. It, however, doesn’t exclude the unnamed millions who followed Bapu. Featuring four songs penned by Desai who is son of Gandhij’s personal secretary and biographer Mahadev Desai, this show aims at popularizing Gandhi’s vision and values. And before you thought it was yet another boring parvachan (preaching), the show is called Gandhi Katha, the latest way of reintroducing the Mahatma to the world.

As we marked the Mahatma’s martyrdom on January 30, Narayanbhai Gandhi Katha is part of a 40-minute documentary called Gandhi Ke Tulsi (Gandhi’s Tulsi). “It was not Valmiki, but Tulsidas who took the Ramayana to the masses. Narayanbhai, through holding Kathas, is to Gandhiji what Tulsi was to Ramayana,” says Hindi poet-writer R K Paliwal who co-directed the documentary with cartoonist-writer Abid Surti.

One who imbibed Gandhij’s values as he grew up in his ashrams in Sabarmati, Ahmadabad and Sevagram near Wardha, Desai holds the Katha for three non-stop hours, five days at a stretch. But does he mention Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption crusade in his talks? “Without mentioning Anna Hazare, Narayanbhai says corruption cannot be removed merely through laws,” says Desai’s daughter Sanghmitra Desai Gadekar who closely works with him at the ashram and educational institutions founded by Desai at Videchi, a tribal village 60 km from Surat in Gujarat. Atm-shuddhi (self-purification) is what Desai emphaises a lot in his Kathas. “Gandhi fasted not to blackmail anyone or arm-twist any group. It was his way of not just protesting a policy he didn’t like or when he felt the country wouldn’t halt the communal cauldron. This is what Naryanbhai reminds the people of,” adds Kapil Shah, an activist who organized Gandhi Katha a few months ago in Baroda.

Desai says that he played in the Mahatma’s lap as a child would type letters which Gandhiji dictated to his father Mahadevbhai. The documentary is a tribute to Desai’s commitment to communal harmony too. It is catharsis of an old soldier, a devout disciple of peace’s paragon. “The post-Godhra pogrom of 2002 shattered me. I don’t blame Narendra Modi alone for it. I, as a Guajrati, felt guilty. I felt I too was part of the mob,” recalls Desai in the documentary. “I am doing Prayschit (penitence) through Gandhi Katha”. His daughter insists that Desai is brutally honest in calling 2002’s pogrom a “blot on Gujarat” because he doesn’t seek any favours. “He is not the one who will kowtow to politicians. He is neither in awe of anyone and doesn’t fear anybody. His sole aim is to take the Mahatma’s message to as many people as he can,” explains his daughter. Luckily, Desai’s Gandhi Katha is held in Gujarati inside Gujarat, in Hindi outside Gujarat in India and in English outside India.

Recently Desai toured Mexico where he held Gandhi Katha at a university. “This is a nice way to take Gandhij’s ideas to the youngsters. The university students and faculty were thrilled when they heard about the Mahatma’s philosophy of truth and non-violence from one of his diehard disciples,” says Desai’s daughter Gadekar. At a place in the documentary Desai reminisces that he found both the Mahatma and his father Mahadevbhai mostly either in “jail or rail.” “When they were not in jail, they would constantly travel,” says Desai who himself traversed the length and breadth of Gujarat during Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement. Apart from Gandhi and Vinoba, Jaya Prakasha Narayan (JP) too influenced Desai and helped him form the Janta Party. Having moved to Videchi after JP’s death, Desai founded the Institute for Total Revolution (Total Revolution was the slogan JP had given which later became a movement and also got turned into a book) there which imparts training in non-violence and Gandhian way of life.

India which is used to hear fables of heroes, gods and emperors in the form of Katha, is grateful to Desai for adding one more method in lengthening Gandhi saga.