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Until the Lions - Echoes from the Mahabharata: View from the periphery

Karthika Nair discusses her new book that focuses on untold stories of Mahabharata through the lesser known characters

September 24, 2015 04:12 pm | Updated August 16, 2017 07:29 pm IST - HYDERABAD

Karthika Nair Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Karthika Nair Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Karthika Nair’s new book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Harper Collins publication) borrows from the adage ‘until the lions have their historians, the hunt will always glorify the hunter’ and aptly presents Mahabharata through 18 marginal characters. Through compelling poetry, she looks at the epic through the nameless wife of Drupada, Satyavati and Sauvali among others. The France-based writer and dance producer will launch her book in Hyderabad on September 28, as part of the ninth edition of Park’s New Festival by Prakriti Foundation. Excerpts from an interview:

What was the trigger for the book?

There were a couple of them. I had read a recent retelling that focussed on two central characters and told the epic through their eyes, but in a rather reductive manner — basically reversing the binaries. As a reader, I found that frustrating: the loss of nuance, the absence of attention to other narratives. Shortly after, fortunately, I was galvanised by the late Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra , which revisited the Mahabharata with the snake sacrifice as locus. This opened my eyes to the immense wealth that lay in the peripheral characters, the untold stories that lay the outer borders of the action.

The Mahabharata should have had a deep impact on you to write this book. What are the significant books you’ve read on the epic over the years?

here are a great too many to enumerate but my favourites would be Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra , Irawati Karve’s Yuganta ; Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay ; Ramesh Menon’s The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering ; Bhasa’s Urubhanga ; M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham , and Samhita Arni’s The Mahabharata: A Child’s View which she wrote at 13. As well as – though these are not books – the Mahabharata episodes in Shyam Benegal’s TV series Bharat Ek Khoj , and Mani Ratnam’s Thalapati .

A few books, particularly ‘The Palace of Illusions’ and ‘Yuganta’ have looked at the epic through its women. You’ve chosen to narrate it through 18 characters considered marginal. What drew you to these characters?

Their personalities, their reactions to the incidents that shaped their lives, their agency or lack of it and how they dealt with that: their very marginality was a strong factor — the view of the arena is different from its outermost periphery than from the centre.

One hears very little about characters like Satyavati or king Drupada’s wife in popular texts. How did you research on them?

I read whatever was available, whatever was documented in the Mahabharata itself, whether the translation of the critical edition by Bibek Debroy, or the one by Kisari Mohan Ganguly, or other retellings like the masterly After Kurukshetra by Mahaswata Devi. Essays by scholars on the role of women in the Mahabharatha, or the prevalence of patriarchy. The rest was a process of reinvention, of projection from their inner lives.

In your book, you name the 100 Kaurava brothers and give a hint of their personalities. Tell us about this process.

The toughest part of the process was ensuring I had each of the names right — there were so many discrepancies in different texts (and some had names repeated). I knew, from the outset, that I wanted to employ the Pashtun landay for this poem, it seemed a remarkably effective form not just to invoke grief and loss, but also for verbal portraiture. They are being remembered – mourned before their deaths, as it were – by Dusshala, their sister, so there was room for affection and tenderness but also for anecdotes, wryness and a lack of illusion or hero-worship. As with any large group of people, there is diversity — of traits, interests, passions, virtues and vices. Dusshala, at least, would have seen them as something other than a collective noun.

After the dance production Desh , is there an adaptation of ‘Until the Lions’, by Akram Khan and group?

Akram Khan will be adapting the Amba/Shikhandi chapter of the book, in a condensed, abstract and beautifully kinetic manner. I lent the title, text and concept, and provided a modular scenario (so Akram could reshape the chronology in whichever manner suited the movement most). It premieres in January 2016 at the Roundhouse in London.

How do you divide your time between dance production and writing?

For the last year, I haven’t been working as a dance producer — I had to stop due to a rather sharp deterioration in health. But otherwise, the production used to be a 24x7 affair, even when I was part-time. I wrote whenever and wherever I could — in airports and on trains, during flights, in the metro and in hospital. Even while watching rehearsals, at times.

What’s next?

Joëlle Jolivet — the illustrator with whom I collaborated on The Honey Hunter , our children’s book – and I would like to join forces again. There are a couple of ideas brewing. But before that, I work as dramaturge on a dance adaptation of Farewell My Concubine by Yunnan-based choreographer, Yang Liping. It is called Under Siege .

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