Peace in a Pod Society

Arti Dhand’s ‘The Mahabharata Podcast’: An epic retold

The Kaurava forces attack Abhimanyu   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Flash back to 1988, the era of epic television. Families are huddled around their drawing room staring into the flickering cathode-ray tube, as Harish Bhimani’s deep baritone booms out: “Main samay hoon.”

Cut to the present, and the searching finger on the smartphone screen settles on a vista of bright red flowers deep in a forest. Tap on episode 1, and I drop into a discussion about a story that, the host promises, betters by far a contemporary viewing obsession, Game of Thrones. It has an even more magical mix of passion, intrigue, convoluted romance and grand power struggles spanning generations and bending every assumption you’ve held about family, friendship, loyalty, and truth. And lots of deep lessons about life, the universe and everything unfolding in the middle of the bloodiest of all battles.

It’s a no-brainer.

The Mahabharata has for centuries been a generative work, the twists and turns of its plotlines the stuff of grandmothers’ stories and Bollywood adaptions, with B.R. Chopra’s 1988 television series turning it into a popular media phenomenon.

Arti Dhand’s The Mahabharata Podcast reaches back into the classical text and turns it into a tale for our times, channeling it through contemporary language and making all sorts of edgy connections with current politics and culture.

Dhand, who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Toronto in Canada, started the podcast to fill the vacuum created by the pandemic-induced halt to the animated discussions in her classroom.

Tsunami of stories

“We have this great work, but outside of South Asian culture it’s largely’s foreign, it seems inaccessible to the wider world. And even for South Asians themselves, it is so immersed in religious tones, that it’s quite a challenge to see it in any other way,” explains Dhand when we chat over Zoom. So she set out to tell the story through 15-20-minute episodes that follow the text of this “frothing tsunami of stories” and explore “all its wild digressions”.

“As I started this new exercise, I was much more interested in trying to recover the emotional context...the text glosses over the emotional lives of the characters — what Kunti or Gandhari is feeling, for instance,” says Dhand. “And as you read the text, you come upon ...horrifying acts of injustice...we have a moral imperative to recognise and grapple with it in some way.”

I was pointed to the podcast last year by a friend who added that he had thought “he’d never listen to another Mahabharata podcast” (there are at least a hundred floating around) until he found this one. Dhand’s podcast is refreshing in its treatment of the story, her humour (“cheeky” she calls it), and her critical yet affectionate look at all the imperfections and contradictions of the central characters.

The podcast seemed to her a natural extension of her teaching practice. The research and writing come naturally to her as an academic, but recording the episodes was a completely new experience. “It almost feels like one is an actor, and I’m not trained for that part! There’s always the worry that you might fall flat on your face — but then, you either go ahead with it or you do nothing.”

Now, 44 episodes in, she seems to have got the hang of it. At this point, we are poised to find out what happens when Yudhishthira and Shakuni face off in — and here, a nod to that other great contemporary epic — ‘A Game for Thrones’.

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 9:44:29 PM |

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