I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive about attending the play ‘Untouchable’ by Peter Oswald as part of the [R]evolution in Theatre at the RADA Festival in London last night. My main concern was how the subject might be treated.
The promotion material describes the play as “the story of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, born ‘Untouchable’, who led his people to liberation” provoking us to ask “why we, despite the struggle of great men and women, continue to oppress one another? What can we do to change? How do we respond when we witness oppression?” The play directed by Katherine Hunter certainly met all it aspired to do, and more. My anxiety was completely unfounded.
The play and messages from it are timely. It helps more people understand Dr Ambedkar’s legacy. This is vital as we continue our campaign for equality and justice in the face of Caste-based discrimination in India and here in the UK.
At the outset, the play homed in on Dr Ambedkar’s (played by Adam Karim) powerful exchanges with Mr Gandhi (played by Gavi Singh Chera) – a die-hard supporter of Caste at any cost. To me, and no doubt the audience, Dr Ambedkar was the hero throughout. He was quite rightly portrayed as a champion of liberty, equality, brotherhood – and sisterhood – and India’s to-be-hoped-for future after independence from Britain.
The depiction of Mr Gandhi’s misguided resistance to a separate electorate during the second Round Table Conference was powerful. Mr Gandhi’s subsequent fast to the death in the name of ‘unity’ resulted in Dr Ambedkar signing the Poona Pact in 1932. This annulled the Macdonald Award giving separate electorates to Dalits for electing members of state legislative assemblies in British India. This was distressing to watch.
Mr Gandhi’s salt march has had endless publicity and also featured in the play. However, it was good to see the Mahad Satyagraha led by Dr Ambedkar on 20 March 1927 feature so prominently in the performance. This Satyagraha to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad in Maharashtra, India, is a significant milestone in the movement for dignity and equal rights. The play also touched on the impact of Dr Ambedkar’s freedom and equality struggle on his family, his conversion to Buddhism, and the present-day idolisation of him. Oswald’s sub-plot based on Ekalavya, a character from The Mahābhārata, helped illustrate how the so-called Untouchables who aspired to achieve their full potential, were so cruelly kept in their place.
I found Peter Oswald’s script powerful and sensitive. It showcased well in the small and intimate venue at RADA. Alongside the powerful drama, Kali Chandrasegaram’s dance sequences depicting Mother India and Buddha were a joy to watch. The interwoven vocals and music by Jataneel Banerjee was perfect and didn’t distract.
When the play concluded, there was a heightened buzz and chatter. People talking and trying to make sense of what they had seen, and experienced. An elderly gentleman in the audience remarked “I didn’t know how extreme Untouchability was and about Dr Ambedkar’s struggle. This wasn’t in the film Gandhi”. It’s true. In spite of his significance, his brilliance and his achievements, Dr Ambedkar certainly didn’t get the star treatment Mr Gandhi did in the late Richard Attenborough’s film.
Overall, this play reinforced that Dr Ambedkar’s life and works, are as relevant and important today, as they were in his lifetime. Disseminating facts and arguments have changed beyond Dr Ambedkar’s wildest dreams. Arundhati Roy putting her name behind Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste 1936 speech in her introduction ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ a few years ago helped ensure that a new generation of people around the world actually read it. She helped make it Global. This exciting new play ‘Untouchable’ has the potential to do the same.
Santosh Dass MBE
Vice Chair Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance,
President, Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK
Photos @helenmurray RADA FESTIVAL Untouchable dir Kathryn HunterFESTIVAL