18 Nationalism and Popular Sentiment Bharati Sarabhai: The Well of the People

Abu Saleh

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 About The chapter


This module introduces you to the playwright Bharati Sarabhai and her writings but more specifically to her play The Well of the People(1943).In this section you will be first introduced to the life, career and other writings of Bharati which earned her recognition. Later on in this module you will learn about the play,The Well of the People, its diverse themes and critical analysis along with some other interesting facts about the playwright or play.

About the Playwright; Bharati Sarabhai:


Bharati Sarabhai was born in 1912, a time when India was struggling to free itself from the chains of British colonisers. Bharati was also part of this freedom struggle. She was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi and worked in his Sabarmati Ashram. An active political campaigner, she was a member of the Indian National Congress and supported the Gandhian vision of postcolonial India. She was one of the founding members of Gujarat Vidya Sabha as well.


A bilingual writer, she wrote in Gujarati and English. She was one of the first modern women playwrights of Indian English drama.Her two plays The Well of the People (1943) and Two Women (1952) are inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of life. Sarabhai used to write poetry as well. She has contributed some of her poems to the publications of Indian Writing and The London Mercury. The London Mercury was a monthly magazine founded in 1919, which published creative writing alongside reviews and essays. Itwas also known for featuring short stories and poetry by Indian writers.

Works of Bharati Sarabhai:


Bharati Sarabhai is the foremost distinguished woman dramatist, who gave a Gandhian touch to Indian English drama. Her play The Well of the People published from Calcutta by the Visva Bharati Press in 1943. Later another play Two Women published from Bombay by the Hind Kitabs in 1952. She wrote a poem “No Time for Remorse” for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. It was published in Indian Writing 1.3 (Mar. 1941) and later republished in Wasafiri: Magazine of International Contemporary Writing 27.2 in June 2012. Her poem “Haridwara” came in The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.


The other play of Sarabhai, Two Women (1952), written in prose form has a more realistic tone and it highlights the conflict and tension that caused with the encounter of East and West. In a way it was a skirmish between tradition and modernity that was emphasised in this work. The two women character Anuradha and Urvashi, in the play represent the face of modern Indian womanhood. Anuradha gets into a conflict with her husband when she decides to go to the Himalayas in a quest for spiritual peace. Nevertheless, her husband compromises and accepts her wish to and lets her to go Himalayas. However, with his sudden death new realisation comes upon Anuradha. Now she does not find the meaning she was looking for in her original quest. Urvashi, a widowed girl, becomes a devotional singer. The two women show that one need not search God in particular sacred spaces God can be found everywhere or anywhere.


Literary Style of Bharati Sarabhai:


Although she had no experience of writing for theatre, she has come to be classified as one of the significant playwrights who contributed to the development of Indian English drama especially to emerge in the pre-independence era. Her plays explore themes from legends and epics, historical events and contemporary social problems of the times. In both of her plays Sarabhai breathes new meaning into the age-old Indian beliefs and customs. In both of her works Sarabhai has clearly woven the Vedantic concept that God is within us into the narrative. Her literary works highlight the contrast and clash that takes place when East encounters the West, one follows the tradition and the other represents modernity and chose to flow with the changing times.


Most of her women characters in the plays are symbols of virtue and advocates the hegemonic culture that places women in the subordinate position. The plays reflect the spirit of the pre-Independence times with regard to women. Both of her plays differ from each other not only in terms of theme but also in their mood, treatment and representation of women characters.


The Well of the People is poetic in tone and deeply influenced by the Gandhian philosophy whereas the Two Women is written in prose and represents more contradictions between two different cultures and looks much more realistic in nature. Further, The Well of the People talks of Gandhian social order but the Two Women focuses on the woman’sinner world. However, in both the works women plays the central character. In some way both the plays try to break the ancient dogmas and customs but retaining the Indian ethos and maintaining the traditional boundaries that reflect the distinct identity of Indian tradition.


Background of the Play:


The Well of the People (1943) upholds Gandhi’s well-known doctrine ‘Daridra Narayana’ (worship of the poor as God). Her first play, The Well of the People (1943), is symbolically charged with Gandhiji’s socio-political ideologies. It is an allegorical play written in poetic prose. The plot is based on a real story published in Gandhi’s weekly journal,Harijan. The story was about an old Brahmin widow who was unable to achieve her ambition of going on a pilgrimage to the holy river Ganges. She now decides to please the God by building a well for ‘the untouchables’ in her village and spends the savings with her savings. Here, Sarabhai breathes new meaning into our old beliefs and customs, and thereby tries to view the modern problems with a cultural background of the ancient Indian womanhood.


Setting of the Play:


For the use of poetic language The Well of the People does not seem like a drama in its conventional sense. Also there is no scene change in the play and a lot of actions happened in the stage. But in many places the poetic language is without any vigour. The play is highly performative with vivid dramatic elements. The play is more poetic than a play. It is also called as poetic drama and compared to T. S. Eliot’s The Murder in the Cathedral. The play is a tapestry of symbolism and poetry, memory and melody and evokes echoes for Mother India.


The Plot of the Play:


The Well of the People is the story of an old woman who could not go to Benaras for pilgrimage to have a sacred dip in Ganga. So, she decides to spend her money and build a well for the untouchables of that village. The play has huge social responsibility of the time as it synthesises religion and society. She declares “All men/And women alike can come, drink and drink/ Here at my well with Harijans”. She is happy to build the well for the poor people of the village. She thinks instead of going to Kashi, her god can also be pleased in this way. Thus, she does not hesitate to spend her lifelong savings to construct this well. The spiritual matter takes turn into physical and social actions. Here the old lady symbolises India. The play reads “She is you, you are all of us’.


Summary of the Play:


Based on a true story published in Gandhiji’sHarijan, the play is about an old woman who is lame and thus unable to go to Benaras to have a dip in the Ganga. So she decides to dig a well in her village. The play indicates that during that time how social awareness was in harmony with religious spirit. Sarabhai upholds the Gandhian doctrine of DaridraNirayan. MokashiPunekar writesBharati Sarabhai’s The Well of the People is probably the only work that articulatesthe literary art and gives complete expression to Gandhian Age.


The Well of the People has its origin in the HaridwarKumbhMela, in 1938. Bharati Sarabhai was touched and influenced by a story that appeared in Harijan, a weekly journal edited Gandhi Ji. An old lady who struggles for her livelihood manages to save money and desires to travel to Haridwar. When she realises that her desire would not be fulfilled she spends her money in digging a well in the village for the benefit of poor.


Sarabhai’s The Well of the People (1943) is a poetic play. It is lyrical and allegorical play that presents a synthesis of religion and social service. In this play, an old woman falls to achieve her desire to go on a pilgrimage to Kashi and Haridwar and decides to worship God by building a well for the untouchables in her village with her savings. Sarabhai herself admits in the Preface that the elements of conventional drama are not present in this play. The story is charged with the Gandhian social doctrine. PremaNandakumar comments in “Bharati Sarabhai’s English Plays”: “In The Well of the People, we are in a village, confronting the tradition-bound idea of woman as a drudge”.


The old woman, Rani, has toiled throughout her life. Widowed, she seeks comfort in work. As Bharati Sarabhai says in the Preface, “I have conceived her as inarticulate, a representative of our ‘dumb millions’ . . .” . Yet the old woman by her selfless action rises above the debilitating circumstances of her life. She comes to symbolize faith. The chorus narrates the jeremiad of the old woman. She, thus, becomes “a symbol of millions of women who suffer silently”, writes Gowda in “The English Plays of Bharati Sarabhai: With a Brief Note on Indian Stage”.


Among the few women playwrights to make a mark in the Indian English drama of the fifties was Bharati Sarabhai. Of her two plays, one, The Well of the People, was published in 1943 and the second, Two Women, in 1952. While traditional womanhood and the Gandhian social doctrine are dealt with in the pre-Independence play, the complex nature of the incipient educated woman with aspirations of her own, as exemplified in Anuradha and Urvashi. Bharati Sarabhai has a poetic and sensitive mind and this is reflected in both of her plays.


The Well of the People and Two Women presents different aspects of the then prevalent notions of Indian womanhood. In his article, “The English Plays of Bharati

Sarabhai: With a Note on English Stage”, Gowda observes that the play’s message is: “God is not found in the hermitage in the Himalayas, but should be sought in Samsara, the wheel of life and death” (56 – 57). “. . . Bharati Sarabhai’s style and her writing are like flies in amber today” (Varma 38). But they provide a starting point for the study of Indian women in the post-Independence Indian English drama.


Major Themes and Other Relevant Issues Discussed in the Play:


BharatiSarabhi’sThe Well of the People (1943) and Two Women (1952) were the first plays in English by a woman in the Indian context. Straddling as they do the pre- and post-Independence decades, the plays differ from each other not only in theme, but also in their mood and treatment. Though Sarabhai’s style and expression are allegorical and multi-layered, making use of poetic in both, the first play is idealistic and Gandhian in tone. It deals with the subject of service to humanity by making available to many the life generating elements like ‘water’ that carries a strong contemporary appeal and is highly performative with its vivid dramatic aspects.


Social concern is also an important part of the play. The play highlights a moral message that doing service to humanity by making available the essential sources like water is as important like serving god. So they play has a strong contemporary message and appeal. She was hugely influenced by Gandhi Ji’s ways of life and thoughts. Not till the last four decades of the twentieth century was there any notable increase in the number of plays written by women in English.


Sarabhai uses this story for her play with her personal symbolism and crafts it into the contemporary social and political situation of Indian society. The old woman can be considered as a representative of all women in India. M. K. Gandhi in A History of Indian English Literature acknowledges the contribution of Bharati Sarabhai and hails her being a Gandhian with the feeling of social reforms. She was a freedom fighter in her own way and took part in active politics. She was also a member of Indian National Congress and supported Gandhi Ji in his struggle for Freedom of India.

The foremost among these women playwrights is Bharati Sarabhai who has, to her credit, two plays: The Well of the People and Two Women. In both the plays the author tries to give a new meaning to age-old beliefs and customs. The Vedantic concept that God is within, is presented in them in different ways; and the two plays seem to be complementary in presenting the types of Indian womanhood. While symbolism and poetry are the specialties of the former, there is realism in the later and it is in prose.


In the play The Well of the People, Sarabhai projects a picture of synthesis of religion and social service. Moved by a story appeared in Harijan, she wrote the play, according to which, an old woman fails to achieve her ambition of going on pilgrimage to Kashi and Haridwar, and decides to please God by building a well for ‘the untouchables’ in her village with her savings. It is evident that the story is symbolically charged with Gandhi Ji’s socio-political ideologies; and as PremaNandakumar says, it is “a bold attempt on the part of Bharati Sarabhai to have taken up the challenge to present a spiritual problem in terms of physical action”. A voice calls the individual soul to turn inward:


Why do you go to Haridwar, to Kashi,

O my Soul, when I am within?

Pilgrim, pilgrim, why, what is it you seek outside?


The matters like national movement and freedom struggle are very much significant in this play. The play was written in 1940s when the land was going through turbulent times in various ways. This was also time of the national movements and struggle for freedom. The play shows a distinct impact of Gandhian thought. The play is one of the most typical expressions of Gandhian age. The play reads

The old world wheel is turning

It has to take full circle

Orion there is burning

O who to bring miracle (28).


Here the playwright refers to the burning of foreign good by the Indians in protest. This can be seen as one kind of victory. It also indicates the changing power scenarios during the movements. Further, the play continues


The chorus sing

We preached and fought for instant.

We brought to life extiment discoveries

Saw instinct with future. Our lost in clustries.


Here the playwright refers to the spinning wheel of Gandhi Ji. She imagines the goal with the spinning wheel which is a Gandhian symbol. She says that the Gandhi follower can reach to the mountain through the wheel. Further the writer continues,


The child rotting in embryonic state.

Has to be moved from its mother’s womb

We bless the agency which gives new lease

To the creative urgency of her stirring cells.


Here the playwright suggests killing the old ideas which is rotten in the state. She further suggests filling the gaps with the new ideas as proposed the national leaders like Gandhi. One has to kill the rotten ideas and accept the new ones.




So, in this module we have discussed about Bharati Sarabhai, the playwright. We came to know about her personal life. We also learnt about Bharati’s literary works and her style of writing. Further, we have discussed the play The Well of the People. We came to know about the background and setting of the play. We have discussed the plot and summary of the play. Then we have also discussed the characters in it. After then we have focused on various themes and other relevant issues discussed in the play. Hope these are useful to you. For more on this module, please find the e-text, learn more and self-assessment tabs. Thank you.

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