Music for the Soul

First published by The Guardian on 24th April 2007


The London premiere of Philip Glass’s 1980 opera, Satyagraha (at The Coliseum until 1 May) provides a timely reminder of the considerable political achievements of the 20th century. And it begs the question, what would Gandhi have made of the world today?

Satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth force”) was the name used by Gandhi to describe his political philosophy – a philosophy underscored by the belief that nothing can be achieved through violence; that only through nonviolence can oppression and injustice be successfully challenged.

As Tim Ashley said in his review, the production is astonishingly beautiful. It’s hard to imagine a more technically complete or creatively innovative staging. But, as with much great opera, it’s the political message that drives the piece.

Satyagraha tells the story of Gandhi’s early life in South Africa, where he worked as a lawyer and became a key figure in the campaign to repeal racial laws that discriminated against Indian immigrants. The experience shaped his subsequent strategy for opposing the efforts of British colonial rulers to keep down the indigenous population on his return to India.

But how relevant is Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence to today’s quite different, but equally conflict-riven world? To what extent can the legitimate grievances of oppressed groups any longer be addressed through non-violent resistance? To answer that question it’s necessary to consider the source and nature of those grievances and the criteria by which those with power assess their legitimacy. The focus of Gandhi’s attention, as with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela after him, was the subjugation on racial grounds of non-whites by a white ruling class. As a result of their cumulative efforts, there is now much less racially motivated legislation on statute books around the world. But both within nations and globally, this key moral advance has done little to improve the life chances of most non-whites.

Gandhi was fully aware of the link between racial oppression and the denial of economic rights. In 1930, his famous Salt March targeted laws prohibiting the involvement of Indians in the production and sale of salt. Today, the ongoing denial of economic rights to non-whites worldwide is effected with more subtlety through a global economic system which continues to build on the legacy of industrial revolution and colonial domination which were white, European in origin, even though the potential benefits of that revolution have been spread far and wide, and the former colonies been allowed political independence.

What would Gandhi do if he were alive today? I think he would argue that political independence is worth little without economic independence, and that current global economic arrangements prevent poorer nations (where the majority populations are non-white) from establishing the economic independence necessary for development. He would be at the head of a global movement for non-violent resistance to the strictures of Washington Consensus economics which continue to undermine the economies or poor countries and line the pockets of the rich. He would ridicule the efforts of the World Bank to address poverty by blaming corrupt (non-white) politicians in poor countries, rather than acknowledging their corruption as an inevitable symptom of often insoluble problems. He would also, no doubt, enjoy reminding us of the endemic corruption that helped establish the western nations as global economic powerhouses in the 19th century.

And, he would point to the lack of a spiritual dimension in efforts to tackle global injustice. Satyagraha’s libretto is drawn from the Bhagavad Gita, and each of its three acts focuses on an individual key to 20th century political and spiritual thought. First, Leo Tolstoy, the founding father of nonviolence and a key influence on Gandhi. Second, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher, and Gandhi’s only spiritual teacher. Finally, Martin Luther King who, like Gandhi, met his end at the hands of an assassin. What these four have in common, along with Mandela (despite his professed atheism) is a spiritual underpinning to their words and deeds which is no longer found in politics. Surely, as well as teaching us that violence achieves nothing, the other key lesson of history is that without a guiding moral/spiritual force, a satyagraha, the exercise of power will inevitably lead humankind into further conflict and calamity.

Tim Ashley concluded that Glass’s opera “serves as a monumental affirmation of human dignity at a time when many have begun to question its very existence”. Only rarely do art and politics combine so successfully. Opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, neither (for reasons that I shall never fathom) are Philip Glass’s mesmeric scores. But on a stage in St Martin’s Lane, London, for a few more nights this month, there is a stunning reminder of the potential for humankind, and of why there is still hope.