Written many centuries ago, the Mahabharat is regarded as a timeless tale with the right proportion of avarice, vengeance, statecraft, and of course gender dynamics. Perhaps it is these universal themes of this epic that continue to fascinate people the world over as was recently experienced during the presentation of a play The Mahabharata of Women (MOW) in distant Melbourne. What’s more, the play was performed by an Australian cast.
Highlighting the “feminist version” of this Indian classic, the play was authored by ex-Jawaharlal Nehru University professor and actor-director K. Madavane way back in 1994 when he was invited to teach theatre at Université du Québec in Montreal.
Reprising legendary mythical characters like Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari, the Australian stage actors tried delving into the angst of these characters as they face the consequences of their actions and lament the futility of the war.
Interestingly, the basic plot of this play germinated from an old legend in Tamil Nadu about a young woman burnt alive by her brothers to save the “family honour” and who, before dying, cursed all the male descendants of the clan.
“I grew up with this legend and decided to weave it with the story of Mahabharata for my script. The play is about Mahabharata from the point of view of women where three contemporary characters interact with characters like Kunti and Draupadi among others, questioning their acts and identifying with their pain,” shares Prof. Madavane, who retired from JNU’s Centre for French and Francophone Studies last year and has been associated with French and Indian theatre for over 35 years.
“These mythical characters mourn the loss of their progeny during the war and speak about the senselessness of bloodshed and its aftermath. In my play, the focus is on women challenging male authority and power. At the same time, I included a scene to highlight Draupadi’s remorse after the war. She sought vengeance but after the death of her sons, feels their victory has no meaning,’’ explains the academic, who was invited by the Australia-India Institute in Melbourne to conduct a theatre workshop and perform the play.
Originally written in French for a foreign audience, MOW has since then been translated into English, German and Tamil (not performed in this language so far) and has been staged in Canada (1995), several cities in India (1999-2003), Germany (2002), Paris (2011) and Australia early this month (April 2013).
Each of these productions was directed by Prof. Madavane and executed with local actors in these countries, both professional and amateur, who brought their own perception and understanding of Mahabharata to the table.
Prof. Madavane, director-founder of theatre group “Chingari”, believes his script is “further enriched” every time a fresh cast from a different country performs it. “Each actor brings in his/her interpretation of the character. For instance, in the Melbourne production, the actor playing Karna brought in the anger and frustration, whereas in the German production we saw a more vulnerable Karna. Similarly the actor playing Kunti in Paris showed an emotional mother in contrast to the one in Melbourne where she portrayed a more shrewd Kunti who wants to protect Pandavas.’’
Fully immersed in theatre post-retirement, the former doyen is currently writing a book called “Writing on water: Reflections on Theatre” and will next travel to Africa to produce MOW with the local cast in Lomé (capital of Togo).