MAHATMA GANDHI’S favourite hymn, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, drifted across Westminster Abbey – probably for the first time in its history.
A 2,500-strong congregation, which was attending “a service of thanksgiving for the life and work of the Lord Attenborough CBE”, listened with attention as Unnati Dasgupta sang from the organ loft.
The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, said: “We come to this holy place at the centre of our nation’s life, where for over 1,000 years kings and queens have been anointed and crowned.”
It is the second time in four days that the hymn has been sung – during last Saturday’s (14) unveiling of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square, the devotional song was sung by an ensemble from the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Attenborough, best remembered by Indians for directing Gandhi, died on August 24 last year at the age of 90. The acting fraternity, which was out in force, was represented on Tuesday (17) by many household names, among them Sir Michael Caine, Sir John Hurt, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Penelope Keith, Robert Lindsay and Sanjeev Bhasker and Meera Syal. Richard Attenborough’s brother, Sir David Attenborough, 88, the naturalist and TV presenter, was also present.
The starring role at the service could be played by only one man – Sir Ben Kingsley, who took the lead part in Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi. It bagged eight Oscars, a feat not to be repeated for a film with an Indian theme until Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.
The Labour peer, Lord Meghnad Desai, who did the fundraising for the Gandhi statue, summed up Attenborough’s contribution to India: “Attenborough’s movie is a remarkable classic – that is the movie that more than anything else introduced Gandhi to the world. More people have learnt about Gandhi from the movie, especially people outside India, than anything else. Attenborough’s movie made Gandhi a much more known person round the world for a new generation.”
Sir Ben and the actress Geraldine James – she had played Miraben in Gandhi – took it in turns to read some of the Mahatma’s best-known sayings. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” she said.
He followed with: “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.”
Then Sir Ben read: “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal, as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex.”
James said: “Terrorism is a weapon not of the strong, but of the weak.”
The programme for the order of service carried a detailed account of Attenborough’s struggle to bring Gandhi to the screen. He had made other films, “but forever in his mind was the film he had been planning for almost 20 years – before he even began directing the life story of Mohandas K Gandhi. But none of the major distributors believed it would be commercial ... He need not have worried: Gandhi opened in December 1982 to wonderful reviews and a hugely enthusiastic worldwide response…”
The filmmaker Lord David Puttnam, in his address, said Attenborough had campaigned successfully for a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square. “His heart would have leapt with joy” that there was now a statue of Gandhi nearby.”