Today’s MET Opera Satyagraha by Philip Glass, sung in Sanskrit, set in old South Africa, is a mesmerizing theatrical experience. What there is of a “story” is Gandhi arriving in Natal, then a British colony, finding racialism, leading Indian protests, and twenty years later leaving Natal, by then part of the new (1910) country of South Africa, to go to India to become famous.
I had always considered Glass’s music repetitive and dull. Thus did many others, for my usual opera companions stayed away. There were but about a hundred of us uncrowding the Park & Tilford movie house this morning—die-hard opera lovers set for four hours of entertainment. The music proved that what some say, namely that Glass’s music washes over you, is true. I found my foot tapping, my brain soaring to high songs, and my emotions lead by delicate melodies. As is all opera & rock, the human voice and superb singing added the greater dimension to the music that my brain needs to respond to music.
In spite of being sung in Sanskrit, an old Indo-European language, we had few subtitles–this as insisted by Philip Glass who was in attendance at the opera. No matter, for what few translations we had of the text from the Bhagavad Gita were no more than platitudes extolling the virtue of work, poverty, and compassion. When sung, Sanskrit sounds sometimes Latin and sometimes Russian. I know only that it is highly inflected like Latin and Greek; I will have to look deeper into the language.
I thrilled to the corrugated iron, wicker, and old newspaper that are the main decorative elements of the staging. My grandmother’s house had walls of corrugated iron. All the houses I lived in had corrugated roofs. Servants lived in corrugated iron shacks. I thought of them as superhuman for they endured dirt, cold, and hardship beyond anything I could envisage enduring.
The second act begins with the old boers and whites of the early 1900s taunting Gandhi. I wonder what my grandparents, alive then thought of his doings, if they even knew of them. One was recently from Ireland come to fight the British, only to have to settle for British dominion over the entire country. One was a Boer girl swept from the Transvaal farm to a concentration camp by the invading British. One was a German orphan from South West Africa, glad to have a small house in Brakpan. One was said to be the offspring of students who fled Dresden when their revolt failed. I wonder if they had time or compassion for what was going on in Natal, far away, and even in my time considered a banana republic. For Natal was different: inhabited by the English, Zulus, and Indians.
Growing up on a Transvaal mine, I knew of the Indians only because they ran the concession stores that lay beside every mine compound. The Indian’s store were intended mainly for the Blacks working on the mine. But the store’s goods were cheap and my parents often had to go shop there. I still recall the hard cotton shirts of garish colors they bought me; or the socks and handkerchiefs that never got soft no matter how many times they were washed by hand–no luxury, for there were no washing machines in those days.
Once a year, the family would go to Natal and the beach. My mother always insisted on visiting the Indian market in Durban. This was a place of exotic color and smell. She would circle the stalls for hours selecting a year’s worth of curries and spices to take back home for the many hot dishes the servants would cook up. All the while, I marvelled at the Indian women and girls in silk that flowed like waves around them. And my father would buy strange tobacco to smoke with raw brandy.
The first Indian I met on a casual basis was the accountant that my aged mother took up with when she moved to Pietermaritzburg. But that is another story.
Gandhi achieved little in South Africa. Change had to await nearly eighty years and the saints De Klerk and Mandela. But he did learn civic resistance and so was able to return to India and achieve what he did. As thus little happens in the opera other than Gandhi maturing. Thus we see him in relation to his past, Tolstoy, his present, an Indian poet, and the future, Martin Luther King. And his readings of the Bhagavad Gita that inspired his philosophy and actions.
We learnt nothing of Gandhi in school in South Africa–why tell of the failures and later successful resistance of this man? Why awake new protests by the Blacks. No worries about the Indians who by then, were considered rich and not likely to protest, being so small a group in the overall population. I wonder how they fare today? Will they see this opera in South Africa? I hope they do. As I hope many others who avoided today’s performance will change their minds and see it. It must surely be one of the high points of this year’s operas and of the modern operas of the past thirty years.