Narsinh Mehta, or Narasainyo, is the first poet of the Gujarati people. He fell from orthodox favour because of his celebration of sexuality, blindness to caste, irreverant musicality (apparently he never stopped singing) and the humanist devotional quality of his poems.
In July I saw the Sarvanaam (‘Pro-noun’) group at the Prithvi theatre revive the story of his life: Jaagine Joun To: Narasainyo. Presenting itself initially in a bare and silent space with nothing but three instruments of classical devotional song, it looked like a Gujarati sangeet was about to begin; only, I was told, the sivalingam, the Shiva phallus, was missing.
The saint’s life was not flatly eulogised, far from it: the story was dominated by dancing, games, and a trenchantly feminist domestic scene. A mesmerising shower of petals fell upon the elderly lead, and he received them like a clown rather than a saint.
The musicians weren’t merely backing the storytellers, but were allowing the life and theme tunes of Lord Krisna to become Narasainyo’s. The Sarvanaam approach was making God into the man, a considerable cultural counter-current.
The Prithvi (‘earth‘) complex in Juhu is a non-profit trust that shows plays in six languages in a tall but intimate theatre with a blacked-out thrust stage that also hosts workshops and drama festivals for kids. It provides artistically minded Mumbaikers with a trendy café in which to waft around ideas and opinions.
Launched in 1978 as a reaction to a dull theatre scene limited to “highbrow English, lewd Gujarati, or fusty Marathi” drama, the founders of Prithvi pioneered theatre on its own terms, for its own sake.
Working with unconventional and challenging practitioners, they refused to indulge commercial or pretentiously experimental productions. Despite having risen to the stellar heights of Mumbai’s artistic scene, they still have not forsaken Prithvi’s social conscience.
The vision, in all instances, is social, unpretentious and enlivening for all communities of many tongues. During the Jaagine I saw, everyone rose to join in a spontaneous dandiya raas, the stick-hitting dance. Rules about gender, tempo, and circling directions failed to feature; godly joy did.
It was the cheeriest eruption of spect-acting I’ve ever seen, and somehow I didn’t feel linguistically or culturally excluded.