History & Culture

A diplomat’s love of drama

Maria Christopher Byrski.

Maria Christopher Byrski.

Of the many Indologists, Orientalists and Sanskrit scholars who have emerged from other countries over the decades, one gentleman from Poland stands out — Maria Christopher Byrski, who was the Polish ambassador to India from 1994 to 1996.

Byrski had his first tryst with India in 1955, when he was a student of Indian Studies at the University of Warsaw. His fascination for Natyashastra , the ancient text on dramaturgy, brought him to Banaras Hindu University (BHU), where he earned a doctorate with a thesis titled ‘Concept of Ancient Indian Theatre’. While doing his research, he became fascinated by Koodiyattam, the only surviving Sanskrit theatre.

During a visit to Kerala in 1963, Byrski watched the play Nagananda , staged by the late doyen Mani Madhava Chakyar, and that turned his fascination for the art form into an obsession, which still continues.

Koodiyattam travels

In 1964, the same Koodiyattam group performed in Varanasi at the invitation of Byrski, who was still a research student at BHU. It was a historic moment — the first time that Koodiyattam, a traditional art form from Kerala largely confined to the temple precincts, was staged in North India. This was followed by a performance of Swapnakam at Sampoornanand Sanskrit University and Abhisheka Nataka at the Maharaja of Varanasi’s Ramnagar Palace. Later, the then President, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, invited Chakyar to present the play at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Driven by his passion for Koodiyattam, Byrski later returned to Kerala, where Chakyar trained him in abhinaya and mudras. “That was a necessary experience for me, as I wanted to learn how mudras made you more vocal,” Byrski says. Communication between Chakyar and Byrski was channelled through his son T.K.G. Nambiar, a Hindi teacher; Byrski, a polyglot, was fluent in Hindi. Chakyar wanted him to stage a vesham , which would have required three more months of training, but Byrski could not stay as he was called back to Poland by his parent organisation, Solidarity, the revolutionary trade union movement.

Byrski’s love for Sanskrit manifested itself in different ways. As ambassador, he even had his visiting card engraved in Devanagari script. In 1994, he was invited to give the annual Parikshith Memorial lecture, in memory of Rama Varma Parikshith Thampuran, in Tripunithura. While all the Sanskrit scholars who spoke before him expressed themselves in Malayalam, Byrski sprang a surprise by speaking ex tempore in chaste Sanskrit for one hour.

Byrski calls India his gurubhoomi and describes it as “a composite civilisation of many cultures”. Twenty-five years after leaving the country, the former ambassador is still busy lecturing, studying and writing on Indian culture and Hinduism. His recent works include a monograph on ancient Indian theatre and a translation of all the 13 plays of Bhasa, as well as a new translation of Abhijnanashakuntala based on the Kashmiri version. He is currently working on a translation of Mudrarakshasa by Vishakhadatta. He has also published a study titled Meeting with Hinduism , in which he tries “to prove how fruitful a true meeting on equal terms of Hinduism and Christianity may be for Christians.” Also on the cards is a translation of select Vedic hymns into Polish.

The writer and culture critic

is a trained musician.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2022 2:53:24 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-diplomats-love-of-drama/article35345951.ece