Philip Glass’ masterpiece Satyagraha in Concert comes to Melbourne in a one-night-only performance this weekend.
Performed in its original Sanskrit, this is an operatic depiction of MK Gandhi’s early years in South Africa – with reference to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita that led him to becoming the Mahatma.
Singing the role of Gandhi, is Indian-born Melbourne-based tenor Shanul Sharma.
Sharma is perfectly suited to the role, given his deep understanding of the Gita, of Gandhi’s life and works, and his knowledge of Sanskrit.
“I hope to do my best to do justice to all three,” Sharma told Indian Link with humility.
Describing the show he said, “Satyagraha In Concert is based on Gandhi’s work in South Africa between the years 1893 and 1914. He formulated his philosophy of Satyagraha then, as he worked to elevate an Indian community struggling against institutional racism.”
The show is not a biopic; instead, it is a depiction of the political and religious underpinnings to Gandhi’s foundational work, which would see him very soon take on the world’s most powerful force at the time.
The guiding force from the Gita in this journey, is remarkable, according to Sharma.
“The essence of the Gita is to come to the realisation that you are a higher being. You have the power within you. It was what Krishna said to Arjun, and what Gandhi took from the Gita. Everyone has that potential to transcend, and when you realise it, it becomes the dominant aspect of your personality, and rules everything you do.”
It was also what made 350 million people follow Gandhi.
“He didn’t ask people to follow him,” Sharma noted. “They’d say, Bapu’s not eating, let’s stop the violence. Such was his charisma.”
To perform an opera in Sanskrit, must be unusual, we put to him.
“That’s the beauty of tying language and music together,” he smiled. “Yes, Philip Glass has broken up the Sanskrit words for musical effect, to prevent the musical flow being broken, and sometimes this could seem an unnatural way of speaking the language. But I have worked around it. Within the confines of the music, I think I have been able to do it.”
Subtitles will help the audience in understanding the nuances, he clarified.
Yet the conviction in his voice was unmistakable as he said, “I felt from the very onset that I have to do justice to Sanskrit. My duty, is to recite the Bhagavad Gita as best as I can.”
Shanul Sharma’s career in opera
Sharma has been associated with Opera Australia since 2018, and has performed extensively in Italy, Russia and Norway.
But it was Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi that started it all off, introduced to the melodies of Bollywood by his dad in his childhood.
As a young man, it was western rock’n’roll that beckoned. Coming to Australia as a 19-year-old (to study software engineering), he became lead vocalist in the heavy metal band Sobrusion, producing three studio albums. He had already been infusing western classical elements into his work, and to move to opera came instinctively.
His family supported him fully (“My dad said, there will be many IT engineers in the world, but only few who can sing well.”)
After he took on an MA in Advanced Vocal Studies from the Wales International Academy of Voice, Cardiff, there was no stopping him.
Today Shanul Sharma’s role as Gandhi is significant, reconnecting him to his roots – to Gandhi and to the Gita – in a profound way. “The older I get, the more I’m able to understand and appreciate the man that Gandhi was, not just in terms of what he did for India, but for the world. The Bhagavad Gita itself, has been an essential part of my daily life growing up, in my family and at school. It is an incredible manuscript, and I have worked with it closely these past few months, trying to qualify it for a mainstream audience as it speaks to the mind, and dare I say, to the soul.”
He added, “I’m so glad there is a forum for us here in Australia to bring the Gita to light in this fashion. And Gandhi’s message too, which is more relevant than ever today. Gandhi reminded us during his lifetime of that signature Gita teaching – Yada yada he dharmasya… ‘Age after age, when there is injustice, a force will emerge, to set things right again.’ It is a comforting thought.”
We can’t wait to hear that defining shloka, in operatic rendition.
See Shanul Sharma in Satyagraha in Concert at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Southbank, on Sat 13 May 2023. Details: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au