Revering the Indian epic in the West

Some of the more expansively mounted Indian-themed productions overseas have dealt with our mythic great wars. Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana provide staple themes to auteurs worldwide. The most celebrated international production remains Peter Brook’s nine-hour-long Mahabharata from 1985. Its contentious multinational casting (including Mallika Sarabhai as a fiery Draupadi) ostensibly presented the Indian epic as the story of all humanity. Brook returned to the epic earlier this year with Battlefield, which had its Indian premiere in March, at the NCPA. Four actors played out a single episode from the 3000-year-old text; that of the victorious Yudhishtir being racked by guilt over the carnage he has both undergone and inflicted.

It was dismissed as being incoherent and arbitrary by Kiran Nagarkar, in a piece for Scroll, where the novelist appears to suggest that Brook’s original opus may have been inspired by his own 1978 anti-war play, Bedtime Story, a delightfully subversive retelling of the epic which was suppressed by censorship for 17 years. Nagarkar’s own controversial 700-page novel God’s Little Soldier, with its intrinsic far-reaching conflicts, was picked up by the Theater Freiburg in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The German production titled Gottes Kleiner Krieger opened in 2014. It was directed by the German-Swiss director duo, Jarg Pataki and Viola Hasselberg, as a Bollywood-inflected song-and-dance revue.

The production was a strange stylistic choice to stage what was essentially a story about religious extremism, although this marriage of fanaticism with spectacle appeared to have worked with audiences. That year, Pataki had also conducted intercultural workshops with director Sunil Shanbag in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, Japanese director Hiroshi Koike continues full steam ahead with his ambitious pan-Asian project on the Mahabharata, which was conceptualised in 2013 as an eight-year project with separate instalments produced in countries across Asia. For instance, last year, the project’s Indian leg, produced in association with the Thrissur-based Theatreconnekt, premiered at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, featuring local talent alongside celebrated international performers like Malaysian butoh exponent Lee Swee Keong, and Balinese mask dancer Koyano Tetsuro of Japan. Of why the epic’s sprawling narrative resonated with him, Koike had said then, “In a way, it is flowing history. Within it is our past and our future. It shows human nature in the face of great difficulties. The idea was to find a way to discover what is human through the Mahabharata.”

The fourth production in the project premiered last month at the Taman Budaya, a cultural development centre at Yogyakarta, Indonesia, before public shows in Jakarta. Titled Mahabharata Part 3: The Kurukshetra War, it deals with the conflicts of succession that escalate to a great war that killed thousands. This part is slated to touch India in 2019. The final post-war apotheosis will be showcased at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, followed by a world tour.

In similar vein, Kerala-based director Sankar Venkateswaran was invited this year to the Volkstheater in Munich, to stage Tage der Dunkelheit (or Days of Darkness) in German. The blurb loosely translates as, “It is the last day of the decisive battle of the Mahabharata. As storms sweep over the battlefield, vultures circle in the sky and rivers flow in the wrong direction. These are ominous portents for the last struggle for succession to the throne of Kuru. In the decisive battle, it is finally the true king that is victorious. But at what price and in whose name is the war being fought here?”

Like Battlefield, and Koike’s works, this is yet another retrospective meditation on pacifism. Although tied in with notions of Indian conscientiousness that erroneously persist in the West, such works perhaps would be untenable in the climate of war-mongering that actually exists in the country today, although such a lionising of an Indian epic would likely appease the common jingoistic soul.

Venkateswaran’s piece, which opened in June, is based on a fifth-century BC Sanskrit text, Urubhangam, by Bhāsa, one of the earliest Indian playwrights. It focuses on the story of Duryodhana during and after his fight with Bhima. Writing in the Münchner Merkur, critic Michael Schleicher talks of how the microphones on stage “absorb the initially barely perceptible concentrated breathing of the performers, and then amplify it and send the signal in repetitive loops. The consciousness that breathes on the stage is reflected in the movements of the performers. From this mindfulness the figures draw strength and energy, rise to the last battle.” Cornelia Fiedler in, writes of Magdalena Wiedenhofer’s performance as the ‘tribal mother’ Gandhari, “(she) unties her eyes, and stands silently in her long yellowed white dress, blood and dirt at the hem. It is almost an optical illusion, as she starts slowly moving down the battlefield. Each step lasts several minutes, and her concentrated tension captures the whole space. When she begins to speak, she does with wonderful calm and care, as if it were silence.”

This commitment to stillness and the reinforced composure of each lived moment is a hallmark of Venkateswaran’s theatre, which Mumbai audiences witnessed with his evocative production of Shogo Ohta’s The Water Station. It is unlikely that this German language production, however wordlessly universal, would travel to India, but Venkateswaran will once again return to the Münchner Volkstheater for another opus, Mahabharata (AT), which will premiere on May 28, 2017, in Munich. In Schleicher’s words, there will likely be “Violent applause, and trampling”.

(Some quotes have been paraphrased from German.)

The writer is a playwright and stage critic.

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 9:22:29 PM |

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