In pics: First-ever play on Patel’s hands-on man VP Menon in integration staged
More than half a century after his death amid near-obscurity, a largely unsung hero behind the political integration of post-Independence India has found portrayal on the stage. A play presented in the capital unveiled the life of VP Menon, who welded with ‘Iron Man’ Vallabhbhai Patel in bringing together 565 princely states under one nation.
If ‘Hearts That Wrote History’ was the first-ever stage show on the 20th-century civil servant who was political advisor to India’s last viceroy Louis Mountbatten, the 165-minute presentation had in itself elements symbolic of the unification spirit. The 102 artistes who worked under nascent ‘Vriksh’ theatre were from across contemporary India, delivering dialogues in no less than four of its native languages besides English.
“We had 82 people on stage—men, women, boys, girls,” says the biographical play’s director Ajith G Maniyan, who also wrote the script for it. “Plus there were 20 technicians—those who did the set, make-up, lighting, property and choreography. Overall, the crew had representation from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala besides Delhi.”
Taking a non-linear narrative, the production has its locales spread across the south and north of the country, leading to its characters speaking in Menon’s native Malayalam, Tamil and Punjabi up north, besides the link language of Hindi and, inevitably, English.
Much of the inputs for the play came from senior journalist AJ Philip, who has been researching on Menon (1893-1965) for the past five years. Delhi-based Philip seeks to draw comparisons between Menon and late American president Abraham Lincoln, who too preserved the Union while leading the US through the 1861-65 civil war.
“While Lincoln was born in a poor family at Hodgenville in Kentucky, Menon was born in a relatively prosperous family near Ottapalam off Palakkad in Kerala. If poverty forced Lincoln to drop out of school while he was in Class II, circumstances led Menon to leave school mid-way,” notes Philip. “Their personal lives were not exactly a great success, Lincoln having lost his first love Ann Rutledge to typhoid. Menon suffered from a desertion that left him with two sons and he had the stigma of living in with his friend’s widow all his life. Both were self-taught and scholars in their own right.”
The play throws light on both the professional and private life of Menon. “The scenes from childhood, though, are largely based on imagination,” shrugs Malabar-born Maniyan, who works with Song and Drama division of All India Radio here.
The idea about a play on Menon germinated late last year when nonagenarian Delhiite theatre-person Omchery N N Pillai suggested Maniyan to try it. “Seldom does a civil servant become the protagonist of a play,” says Pillai, who lives in Delhi. “As for Menon, his role in amalgamating India into one has often been under-narrated, I always thought.”
Concurs Philip: “Our historians often mention the Mountbatten Plan under which India was partitioned and Pakistan formed. They seldom bother to know that it was actually a Mountbatten-Menon plan.”
The researcher, who is penning a book on Menon, goes on to say that if the original Mountbatten Plan was not recalled and Menon’s suggestions not incorporated into it, the British would have left granting sovereignty to any state which sought it. “Thus, Menon prevented a civil war, while Lincoln ended one.”
‘Hearts That Wrote History’ focuses some of those tough challenges Menon fought with guidance from Sardar Patel who became free India’s deputy prime minister. These include the ways he coaxed and coerced the rulers of provinces like Junagadh, Jodhpur Hyderabad and Kashmir besides Kochi and Travancore in his native Kerala.
To give an zoomed-out picture simultaneously, the play has key historical characters such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Abul Kalam Azad and, of course, Patel prominently. Suitably, it goes on to portray big events such as the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Dandi march of 1930.
Ahead of the play, presented in association with Kerala Club (of which Menon was the first president) at National School of Drama recently, ‘Hearts That Wrote History’ was released as a book. The function was attended Venu Rajamony, press secretary to the president of India and senior jurist Kurien Joseph besides Prof Pillai and Philip among others.