A philosopher, a social reformer and one of the most influential champions of Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda’s life and words have inspired many. Singer, composer and actor Shekhar Sen discusses the process of resurrecting the great philosopher onstage for his play, Vivekanand.
By Akshaya Pillai
On a flight from Kolkata to Mumbai, acclaimed actor, singer and composer, Shekhar Sen found himself engrossed in the making of his new play, his laptop resting on the tray table before him. The pivotal scene dealt with the character’s internal struggle with atheism.
Music pervades Sen’s creative process, in that every time he sits down to write a scene, a tune accompanies the pen. When he craned his neck around to see if he would be disturbing co-passengers, he realised the first-class cabin was bathed in an air of tranquillity and there was just one lone passenger across the aisle. Thirtythousand feet above the ground with billowing clouds for company, Sen tried to hum as softly as he could, yet attracted the attention of the only fellow passenger—an icon in the world of classical music, Hariprasad Chaurasia, who was quick to playfully interrupt with, “Kaa gaa rahe ho?”
Sen has many such fond memories of the years it took him to compose the mono-act play, Vivekanand. “I am an actor by accident,” he says as we begin discussing the process of how he immerses himself in every aspect, from meticulous research to writing, composing, acting and directing. Previously, Sen’s mono-act musical plays—Tulsi, Kabeer, Saahab and Soordas—have garnered widespread acclaim for their ability to deeply resonate with audiences and spark contemplation. With Vivekanand, Sen embarks on a journey to bring the philosopher to life, intertwining music, dialogue and profound teachings to present the incredible transformation of Narendranath Datta, a mischievous child, into the towering personality the world came to know as Swami Vivekananda. Thirty-two songs are intricately woven into a factual narrative. Each note, scrupulously placed, becomes a vessel carrying the essence of the monk’s journey—his triumphs, his trials and the eternal resonance of his teachings.
Sen’s abiding interest in Vivekananda has its roots in childhood. Born and raised in Raipur, he lived a stone’s throw from where a young Narendranath once spent a part of his formative years. “Swami Vivekananda was not just a great orator. He could play the sitar, sing khayal, dhrupad and bhajans as well as a professional classical singer,” says Sen who was intrigued by his profound mastery of both words and music, and sought to understand the motivations, struggles and victories that shaped his transformative path. “Yes, Vivekananda is famous. We may wonder, what is there to say about him that hasn’t already been said? The truth is, people know only a few facts, that too only to a certain degree of correctness. For instance, not many know that he lived for only 39 years and became a Swami at the age of 33. His life was fraught with challenges that he overcame and led the world to the path of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” he says, referring to the Sanskrit phrase which means ‘the world is one family’.
In many ways, Sen’s fascination with historical heroes is born out of a yearning to unearth the timeless wisdom they embody. For him, this endeavour has become a labour of love and a profound spiritual journey. Sen goes on to narrate the critical points of Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions which resonated far beyond the confines of the event. With the powerful opening words, “Sisters and brothers of America,” Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to America.
The one-hour phone call is rife with anecdotes, both of Swami Vivekananda and of Sen’s personal journey with the play. Lines from it are uttered impromptu. “Agle pachaas saalo tak aap saare devi devatao ko apne taak (shelf) par rakhiye, hamara rashtra hi humara devta hai,” he says, invoking the philosopher’s fiery erudition and intense patriotism. Stories are told about how a monk, who had travelled far and wide and come to engage in a debate with Vivekananda, got annoyed when he realised the latter’s priority lay in tending to plague-stricken citizens. Sen momentarily becomes Vivekananda and narrates the response that was given to the unhappy scholar: “Dharam charcha chhod pandit, karam ki charcha karo.” Each syllable is carefully enunciated. The room becomes a stage.
The challenges inherent in capturing the essence of a historical figure’s life in a solo performance are immense. It requires a delicate balance of factual accuracy, artistic interpretation and emotional resonance. While the play hasn’t changed over the years, Sen diligently fixed all errors, even minor ones like the anachronistic presence of water taps and motor cars in the dialogues and more nuanced ones like the exact number of months Vivekananda was in Porbandar. “I always ask for proof when someone tells me I got a fact wrong, and in this instance, the monk who corrected me showed me copies of the letters written by Vivekananda who had the habit of writing the date followed by the location every time he penned a letter.”
Sen deftly peels away the layers of time, unveiling the universal truths that lie hidden beneath the surface of history. His dedication to authenticity ensures that these legendary figures are not just portrayed, but truly resurrected, their essence made palpable for all who bear witness. A group of nuns who once attended his show hurried to tell him afterwards that they felt that they had witnessed Jesus Christ onstage. Moreover, the play transcends the boundaries of time and offers a poignant reflection on the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda that continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. Sometime in 2004, after Sen performed the play in Kolkata, he received an inland letter from a seven-year-old cancer patient. The boy was allowed to watch the play despite not being able to buy tickets. The letter, filled with innocence and gratitude, served as a reminder of the profound impact art can have on individuals, regardless of their age or circumstances.
“Swami Vivekananda’s teachings on service to humanity and the upliftment of the marginalised hold particular relevance in today’s society, inspiring individuals to make a positive difference in the world,” adds Sen. Vivekananda’s emphasis on self-belief, self-realisation and the unity of religions serves as a guiding light in a world that often finds itself in turmoil. The play, with an interplay of song and storytelling, loftily seeks to ignite a powerful collective awakening.
This article was originally published in the July 2023 issue of the On Stage.