Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, written in 1979, depicts the early years of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. Born in India in 1869, Gandhi studied law in England before accepting a job to mediate a dispute between two Indian businessmen in South Africa. Here he remained for the next twenty years (1893–1914), developing his strategies of nonviolent transformation, which he called satyagraha. The entire text for Glass’s Satyagraha comes from theBhagavad Gita, which is a part of the great Indian epicThe Mahabharata.
In the Gita, the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, who is the embodiment of Lord Krishna, charge onto a battlefield where opposing armies stand ready to fight. Suddenly Arjuna is beset by doubt and misgivings, and in response, Krishna delivers some of the greatest spiritual teachings in world history.
Glass’s Satyagraha, first performed in the United States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1981, was the second in a trilogy preceded by Einstein on the Beach and followed by Akhnaten. His latest opera, Appomattox, about the Civil War, premiered at the San Francisco Opera House last October. In April 2008 a new production of Satyagraha will be performed in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera House.
This interview was conducted in Nova Scotia last summer by Tricycle’s founder, Helen Tworkov. Philip Glass is Chair of the Tricycle Foundation’s Board of Directors.
When did you first get interested in Gandhi? In the mid-sixties. I was in northern India, in Kalimpong. I befriended a shopkeeper, Mr. Sarup, who sold rugs out of a little shop on Ten Mile Road. And one day he said, “I have a movie that I want to show you.” He arranged a screening at a little local theater, and it turned out to be an old newsreel of Gandhi’s Salt March. Of course, I already knew who Gandhi was, knew about his life in an anecdotal way. But my response to watching him was, “My God, who is that?” There’s this little guy in a dhoti, with a huge crowd following him—thousands of people—and he wades into the water and takes off his loincloth and dips it into the sea and holds it up. And with that, he disobeys the British law against harvesting salt.
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