Review: Between fallacy and fraternity of ‘Babasaheb: The Grand Musical’

The musical was directed by Mahua Chauhan. | Picture by Aatika S

The two-hour-long musical did an adept job of grounding the word ‘aam aadmi’ into the narrative of the play while driving the Aam Aadmi Party’s propaganda ahead.

Aatika S |

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NEW DELHI — Aam Aadmi Party’s maiden foray into the world of theatre, performance, arts and culture took place in JLN Stadium, New Delhi from February 25 to March 24 this year, centring B.R. Ambedkar as the nationalist icon of our troubled times. The musical directed by Mahua Chauhan saw the famed actor Rohit Roy donning the role of Babasaheb. The music was composed by the Indian Ocean and the art design was accomplished by Omung Kumar. The team was composed of other renowned artists and actors. The free entry ensured an increasing footfall each passing day. 

The two-hour-long musical does an adept job of grounding the word ‘aam aadmi’ into the narrative of the play while driving the party propaganda ahead. The visual iconography of the theatrical experience is full of nationalist symbols. The Indian flag is hoisted at the beginning of the play onto the stage but is bereft of the Ashok Chakra, surprisingly. The male narrator, played by Teekam Joshi, drives the plot ahead whilst dancers dressed in white grace the stage. The lyrics interweave Ambedkar and his vision into a liberal terrain of rights and duties. At many junctures in the play, the audience became a part of the narrative by resounding a yes or applauding with chants of Jai Bhim. The narrator is a just returned student of Ambedkar’s alma mater, Columbia University along with an acquaintance of his who is a municipal worker. The nameless labourer has with him at all times, the jhaadoo that not only comes across as an imposition of the party’s symbol but also as a stereotypical representation of the everyday Dalit man. There is also repeated stress on defining citizenship, even a global one, throughout the play wherein AADHAAR is defined as ‘apna hone ka pehchan’. Not surprisingly, even Mann Ki Baat finds a reference. 

The musical brings in a simplified understanding of the necessity of the reservation system and also the need for the mechanisation of manual labour; albeit both through a liberal notion of national development. The labourer quietly observes the often loud antics of the narrator whilst only echoing a dialogue or two wherein he states, “hoon toh aaj bhi mein Dalit.” As the play progresses, crucial words like discrimination and oppression only find a split second mention coded in an unprejudiced language as ‘sab Dalito ko tag kiya gaya tha’. It is a historical fallacy that the musical starts with the colonial era while the work of Ambedkar itself locates caste discrimination as rooted way back in the pre-colonial time. During the entire duration of the musical, the direction erases much of Ambedkar’s critical forays into the realm of political and social change whether it was the burning of Manusmriti or the tabling of the Hindu Code Bill. Instead, what the musical chooses to focus on is the anecdotal history of his birth as predicted by a priest and the fraught upbringing of Bhiva by his father. The focus remains on his fight for education and water. The change of Babasaheb’s surname occurs as a matter of patronisation in the play wherein Guru Mahadev Ambedkar inculcates Babasaheb into his own ‘caste’. The episode gets both the name of his teacher as well as intentionality wrong. The musical remains marred by similar misconceptions. Even America, shockingly, gets portrayed as a land sans any discrimination. 

The Musical was held from February 25 to March 24 this year in New Delhi  | Photo by Aatika S

Anthropomorphic dogs embody caste discrimination on the revolving platform amidst the bright lights. Other theatrical gestures also enable the representation of caste through life-size marionettes and masks-a disappearing trick these days. The digital screen enhanced the experience while the music remained entertaining. However, time and again Ambedkar and his mentors are relegated as mere reformist figures and never as revolutionaries. There is a brief mention of Ramabai as the supportive companion of Ambedkar. Her brief occurrence later is marred by a gender stereotyping of Dalit women by a Savarna gaze. The Brahmanic fear of the body is well established in the musical unintentionally as Ambedkar’s character never touches or is touched. Meanwhile the narrator remarks, “Desh jitna Raam ka hain, tuna Shabri ka bhi hain.” Furthermore, Vedas are described as ‘bhartiyeta ka gaurav’. Even the heroic tale of Bhima Koregaon gets historically revised as per the liberal contemporary convenience while the narrator remarks that people don’t read (Hindu) epics hence we don’t know our glorious past! The heady mixture of AAP’s flirting with populist fascism comes knocking even theatrically. 

Finally, Ambedkar walks on the stage wearing blue. His conversation with Lala Lajpat Rai regarding the Nationalist movement gets echoed by the audience through a staged hierarchy. While Rai is given a humanist veneer, Ambedkar is boxed in the fight against caste. Even the towering figure of professor John Dewey is used for the Nationalist movement wherein he ascribes freedom over liberation. In a similar vein, sociological issues are pitted against caste and a dilution keeps taking place. Upon Ambedkar’s return to India, his struggle with housing is shown that has a massive contemporary significance to it. The first half of the musical, though, ends on a mere possibility with slogans of Jai Bhim reverberating in the entire stadium. 

As the second half of the musical starts, Ambedkar is called a ‘suit pehna huya sant.’ The choreographic movements of people in chains provides a background to the futile dialogue of the narrator, “Dalito ke liye kabhi resources bhi kam hote hain, aur kabhi courage bhi.” A false equivalence that Ambedkar warned us about dances throughout the musical. We find mention of the influence of Kabir, Tukaram and Phule on Ambedkar as their images appear on the stage screen. Mooknayak gets to appear on stage as jovial men celebrate their mouthpieces. Shahu ji Maharaj’s historical gesture of providing scholarship to Ambedkar is also depicted ahistorically. The narrator states the importance of non-violence in the Ambedkarite discourse as Ambedkar is given a humanist-nationalist hue as people touch his feet in a Brahmanical rendering of his transformative ability. The question of women’s agency and participation is also brought in through the benevolent figure of Ramabai. Later her presence is instrumentalized in the depiction of the Mahad Satyagraha. It is only towards the end that the word Depressed Classes gets a mention during the separate electorates episode. Nehru and Gandhi also figure in the musical with their own political agendas. Ambedkar through these trials and tribulations emerges as the most understated and misunderstood leader. The fight for self-respect also depicts Sharda Kabir and her contribution to the anti-caste movement, the building of RBI, and finally the making of the Indian Constitution. 

People sharing feedback of the musical on a board at the venue. | Picture by Aatika S

The musical ends by foregrounding the conversion of Ambedkar towards egalitarian Buddhism. The aesthetics combined with the direction and choreography come out as charged and emotional. It is declared to the audience that Ambedkar’s fight was for everyone and continues to be so. In the end too, however, he is heralded as pavitra aatma; exactly the dogma and division that Babasaheb fought lifelong against. AAP’s political strategy of depicting Ambedkar as a popular icon on stage is replete with political appropriation and social fallacies of agency and casting. The merger of Dalit cultural symbolism to theatrical machination remains a performance limited by a centrist framework, however the mainstreaming moves beyond tokenism and seems like a much-needed engagement. The winning point of the musical lies in bringing together the audience into a collective whose standing ovation and cheering lasted till the very last minute of the musical. Babasaheb: The Grand Musical was a novel if not an ethical attempt to combine theatricality with realism.

Aatika S is a fellow with the TCN-SEED fellowship program.