JVB Play on Harishchandra Shows How Devotion to the Truth Will Set You Free

Participants, attendees and organizers on Saturday, January 11, at the Cullen Auditorium of the University of Houston when the Jain Vishwa Bharati Preksha Meditation Center of Houston unveiled its latest stage production, Raja Harishchandra.  Photo: Biyani Photography

Participants, attendees and organizers on Saturday, January 11, at the Cullen Auditorium of the University of Houston when the Jain Vishwa Bharati Preksha Meditation Center of Houston unveiled its latest stage production, Raja Harishchandra. Photos: Kaushlesh Biyani, Biyani Photography


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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: As the play “Raja Harishchandra” ended last Saturday night, the depth of the production and the actors left many exhilarated at the amazing range of talent that exists among the amateurs in the community. After the plays produced by various community organizations over the past few years, and the rising crop of singers, musicians, dancers, actors, producers and directors that have been nurtured in the midst, Houston has solidified its reputation for being a Mecca of talented Indo Americans in the performing arts.


And it was all on display this past Saturday, January 11, at the Cullen Auditorium of the University of Houston when the Jain Vishwa Bharati Preksha Meditation Center of Houston unveiled its latest stage production emphasizing the benefits of a virtuous life steeped in piety and concern for the Brotherhood of Man and the environment we live in, all central tenets of the Jain faith.

The play, “Raja Harishchandra” marked not only the fifth such stage production for the local branch of the JVB but also the Birth Centennial celebration of Acharya Tulsi, regarded by the faithful as a true visionary and transformational leader of humanity and the JVB.

In his honor, a short slide presentation and narration by the Samanijis Parimal Pragyaji and Vikas Pragyaji before the play focused on his guiding principles and the humility of this revered soul. His famous quote, “First and foremost, I am a human being, then a spiritual being, thereafter a Jain and lastly Acharya of Tarapanth Congregation” and the Anuvrats Code of Conduct were flashed onscreen to a full auditorium as the Samanijis chanted the invocation sholuks and explained more about the Acharya’s life.

A book on his life was also given away in the lobby before the start of the event, as well as a souvenir that explained more about his life’s work, the play and the power of truth through many articles written by various Samanijis. The souvenir also expanded on the evolution of the Houston JVB with a couple of articles by young kids and surprisingly an essay by Sam Torabi who owns a business next door to the Center and has experienced personal transformation and feels enriched through his association and attendance at the Center.

This latest play, Raja Harishchandra is the fourth in a series of plays that the JVB Houston has presented over the past five years, all with a common theme of embracing the equanimity and awareness in one’s daily life in order to conquer the cause of human suffering. Added with the other plays – Nal-Damayanti (2010), Chandanbala (2009) and Maha Sati Anjana (2008) – this showed the evolution of the people behind the productions, especially producer Nikhil Jain and director Hemant Bhavsar who have developed great skills at staging plays. This latest production included a cast of over 100, fourteen scene changes, multiple props and costumes and complicated sound, video, music and light controls.

“The whole cast practiced for four months at the JVB hall”, explained the radiant Meena Datt, beloved and iconic hostess of the long running and Music of India radio program. She introduced the event and as expected, delivered a clever joke, which she said summarized the impeccable character of the JVB Chairman, Swtantra Jain, who strives to stay out of the limelight, even though he has worked tirelessly to make the Center a hub of activity. He also had a cameo role in the play.

The story of Raja Harishchandra is well known to many kids in India, not so to those born overseas, and even so, the story is not often told onstage so the play was eagerly received by the audience as each scene unfolded. In Hindu texts, Harishchandra is the 36th king of the Solar Dynasty. He is renowned for his piety and justice and adherence to  two qualities: keeping his word and never going back on his promise and never telling a lie. Raja Harishchandra is the central figure of some legends of the Mahabharata and the Markandeya Purana.

As the legend goes, Harishchandra kills a deer that belongs to the great sage Vishwamitra, who demands restitution. Harishchandra offers his kingdom and when the sage comes to collect, he asks for an additional 1,000 gold coins as Dakshina (honorarium) to be repaid in a month as Harishchandra has no money after losing his kingdom. His dutiful wife Taramati and son Rohit follow him to Kashi where she is first sold off for 500 pieces to a Brahmin Grihastha as a servant for his domineering wife. Then Harishchandra himself is sold for the rest of the amount to a guard at the cremation ground to collect taxes for bodies to be cremated.

One day, Rohit goes to the jungle to forage for food when he is bitten by a snake and dies. His grief stricken mother carries his body to the cremation ground and encounters Harishchandra who does not recognize her. Once she relates her life story though, Harishchandra recognizes her and though heart broken over his dead son, is dutybound and refuses to disobey his owners rule for payment before the body is lit. Taramati gives him her mangalsutra and half her sari in payment and at that time, a miracle happens and the sage Vishwamitra manifests himself at the scene and praise Harishchandra for his steadfastness. He bring Rohit back to life and, (this was not shown in the play) offer the king and queen instant places in heaven.

(The remaining legend shows how Harishchandra gets his kingdom’s subjects to heaven with him and Harishchandra’s son Rohit is installed as the king, founding the town of Rohtas Garh in Bihar as well as Rohtak Rohtagi, Rastogi and Rustagi are his descendants.)

The entire drama was well depicted by amateur actors who dug deep into themselves to memorize long pages of dialogue in shudh (proper) Hindi and bring out the wide range of emotions, quite uncommon for a community play screened for just one show. Special kudos go to Vaibhav Shrivastava (Harishchandra), Dipti Kanhere (Taramati), Neer Jain (Rohit), Tapas and Vridh (Akshay Deshpande), Narad and Nakshatra (Nikhil Jain who had one of the two comic roles), Brahman and Dev (Pradip Jain, the other comic role) and Brahmani (Mukta Jain). Padmini Chari choreographed the single dance number. JVB Houston President Vivek Jain thanked them and the whole cast and crew all at the end of the play, for their hardwork and dedication.