‘The Mahabharata is a literary Petri dish’

Karthika Nair Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash   | Photo Credit: K. Bhagya Prakash

Karthika Nair’s new book, Until The Lions , is her layered reinterpretation of the Mahabharata, which has 19 voices — several seldom heard so eloquently and evocatively — giving a new perspective to the epic; a narrative that looks at events from the point of the view of various marginalised characters.

The title of the book, derived from an African proverb (Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story), is indicative of the tone of the work that explores different poetic forms to cover the spectrum of characters and incidents in the Mahabharata. The book, published by Harper Collins, was released in Delhi by the Ambassador of France to India, Francois Richer. Excerpts from an email interview with the author:

Was there any specific reason to take a re-look at the Mahabharata?

It’s difficult to define any one, overarching reason. Perhaps because it has always loomed over the imagination like a great auk or the proverbial albatross?

Perhaps because of the sheer wingspan of its narrative and the vast supporting cast, many of whom are so intriguing and remarkable one wants to know more. Perhaps because I found it to be as much an enquiry into power and the ethics of power as a thrilling saga of heroes and their adventures.

As a complex story spanning generations and several characters,

How difficult was it to do your research for the poems?

I took five years to complete this book. The first two were devoted entirely to reading/watching/hearing material on the Mahabharata, whether regional versions, retellings, stage and film adaptations or academic papers. So I am rather grateful for the opportunities there were for research and the many ways of sourcing reference material available today.

Also, people were marvellous, whether friends and colleagues who sent me books and DVDs and information about a symposium or performance here and there, or my parents who actually took turns to read P.K. Balakrishnan’s Ini Njan Urangatte [ I Can Sleep Now, a book about the life of Karna] via Skype when I couldn’t get my hands on it here.

But, yes, my one major regret is that the paucity of translations has limited my access to so many extraordinary regional versions. The retellings in English are relatively recent when compared to the treasure trove of regional language explorations there are of the Mahabharata, like Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham or Mahasweta Devi’s stories , to mention just some of the very few I could read.

I suppose there is cause to cheer because there are better quality translations now than there used to be, but it is still a very small stream from a giant river.

Was there a major aspect that you wanted to highlight in the poems, considering that the title itself is a pointer to what is to come…

The possible stories, the perspectives of the many marginal characters, those that either populate the rim of the action — or are vital catalysts but left as ciphers. The people whose names and accounts never appear on edifices, whether of myth or history.

And I was interested in how there is seldom one truth, especially with events as cataclysmic as war or conflict. The landscape shifts depending on where you are positioned.

Among the many characters in the epic is there someone who appeals to you the most? If so, why?

We all have our favourites, I guess. I have a slew of them, but I also noticed how they would change based on reading experiences (so much depends on the writer’s ability to bring a character to life, doesn’t it?).

For instance, while I read Mrityunjay, Karna’s wife Vrishali — whom I had never thought much about — really took centre stage. Similarly, during Sarpa Satra, Jaratkuru — again a character most of us wouldn’t even name from the Mahabharata — fully captured my imagination.

From Until the Lions, it would be Amba/Shikhandi, Vidura’s mother (unnamed in Vyaasa’s Mahabharata but called Poorna here), Krishna in his Mohini-avatar when he mourns the death of Aravan, and a dog called Shunaka who is the only invented character in the book.

I think it has as much to do with the traits they display, their resistance or awareness — or the counter-narrative they provide — as the experience of writing those poems, which were among the most challenging/delightful during this endeavour.

Several poets and writers in recent years have interpreted the Mahabharata in different ways? What is your opinion on these attempts?

They all add to the canon, to the discourse, to the imaginative possibilities — and in that way, they are all important to our engagement with the Mahabharata as a literary Petri dish; they are a reminder that writers, artists have given individual responses to the epic, or to specific aspects/chapters/characters of the epic since ancient times, and, hopefully, that will always continue because immobility spells death of the intellect, of the creative ethos that allowed something like the Mahabharata to exist in the first place.

The response to each is different, of course: there are those that inspire, others that intrigue or engross or create new doorways to thought, and yet others that may exasperate.

Your work as a dance producer and curator involves working with international dancers, transforming words into movements and visual effects into prose and poetry? What is it that you keep in your mind when you move between these different performing spaces?

Well, my day job — of dance producer for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — is one that I had to move away from for a year due to another bout of really bad health. That work is primarily the reason movement became such a fulcrum for poetry. A lot of the poems in my first collection, Bearings, were ekphrastic, they wove stories around existing performances. Since then, I have also been exploring ways of drawing from choreography — compositionally — to create refractions in words. For instance, a germinal piece by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Violin Fase is the wellspring — structural, not thematic — for a poem from Until the Lions.

But when I work with a choreographer to write a piece, like with DESH for Akram Khan, it is very different. Akram is not interested in my poems as poems, he is very clear that it is the story or mood, the content which he will mould into his language or languages for stage: movement and visuals and music. My job then is to provide the skeletal system — the narrative framework, and a flexible one at that — and the words are just raw material which will be transposed into other media. The most written segment of DESH (the text that became The Honey Hunter, my children’s book) has the fewest spoken words on stage: almost all of it became animation and movement and abhinaya. So the thing to keep in mind is that the effectiveness of the words lies in their ability to vanish, to become another medium.

So what is on the anvil?

Joëlle Jolivet — who illustrated The Honey Hunter and made it such a visual joy — and I would like to collaborate again.

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Printable version | May 2, 2021 11:55:11 PM |

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