From apprehension to appreciation, an Indian American teenager’s gradual change of heart towards India was the premise of a captivating play performed on December 8th 2018, at Chinmaya Prabha Houston. In a compelling narrative of a few of India’s saints, 115 Balavihar children worked in harmony with live orchestra, modern technology, and visual effects to fly us across space and time to “India, My Sacred Land.”
The play draws inspiration from Shri Darshana Nanavaty’s sixth grade curriculum book, “India, The Sacred Land.” The common notion that saints are only ascetics living in solitude was systematically corrected as each act unfolded the story of a special saint who influenced the society of that time. After paying homage to the Chinmaya Guru Parampara, children embodied the spirits of Samartha Ramdas, the inspirational guru of Emperor Chatrapathi Shivaji and of the melodiously devotional Mirabai, the princess saint of Mewad. They portrayed Purandaradasa, the miserly diamond merchant who turned into a devoted musical saint; they made us revere the values that Kabirdas lived and mesmerized us with the power of the faith of Soordas, the blind poet-saint. They highlighted the great humility of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the missionary zeal of his disciple Swami Vivekananda–well remembered for his revolutionary address at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. For the duration of the play, those performing were not just children but truly a representation of the saints themselves, worthy of respect and attention.
The bhajans and musical accompaniment of the live orchestra trained by Smt. Jamuna Murali and her team elevated the performance. Singers, tabla players, cellists, violinists, and pianists musically showcased the mood in every scene. Characters like the naughty mice, the perplexed disciple, and the enlightened masters were enlivened by creative sound effects that were mischievous, amusing, and deeply soulful respectively. Make-up and costumes for the 115 performers – for royalty, saints, peasants and devotees who all spanned different centuries, were breathtakingly realistic and true to character.
While the play was written entirely in English, the clever script by the Bala vihar play coordinators moved seamlessly between traditional and contemporary styles of speech. Relatable snippets of a young boy complaining about bedtime, referring to a saint as ‘awesome,’or simply judging India by its outward gildings, struck a chord and often won plenty of laughs from the audience.
An IT-focused audio-visual team tied everything together brilliantly. Awe-inspiring, larger-than-life images and animations burst out from the massive LED-lit backdrop. It drew the audience into the inner sanctum of temples, allowed access into the most important of Shivaji’s courtrooms and even took viewers to the Chicago Parliament of World Religions assembly of 1893.
The most impressive achievement is the diverse age range of the performers from as little as pre-K to twelfth grade. These artists kept the packed hall riveted to their seats. To come across an occasion where people from age two to ninety two can all thoroughly enjoy an evening together is rare. “India, My Sacred Land” is a true testimony to the devoted teamwork of all the volunteer groups of Chinmaya Mission Houston.