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A retelling of the Mahabharata in rock ballad style

Nearly two decades after it was first staged, Lilette Dubey’s mammoth production, ‘Jaya’, makes a comeback

Lilette Dubey's 'Jaya' is rooted in India but features Western sounds
Lilette Dubey's 'Jaya' is rooted in India but features Western sounds

Actor and director Lillete Dubey set up her company, Primetime Theatre, in 1991. Seven years later, she mounted her most ambitious production, Jaya. The production spanned across 10,000 acres in Bandra’s Reclamation and featured music and dance. Singer and actor Nandu Bhende entered the set from a height of 45 feet above ground. “Nobody had seen anything like it,” says Dubey, reminiscing about the opening night. She wanted to “do with the Mahabharata what (Andrew Lloyd) Weber did with Jesus Christ Superstar”—something that was rooted in India but with Western sounds. 

Though it played to full houses, Jaya had a short journey of about 40 shows. Dubey believed it never had a full run.  Ever since she has been looking for an opportunity to resurrect the mammoth production. And finally Jaya is back on the Mumbai stage.

A retelling of the Mahabharata in rock ballad style, Jaya is a visual montage of the main events through the eyes of its protagonist, Yudhishthira. With its nearly two-hour run time, Jaya is written entirely in verse. “It captures the essence of the Mahabharata at many levels,” she tells us.

Also read: Theatre veterans’ memories of Bharat Rang Mahotsav

It also brings to stage the divergent viewpoints of Duryodhana and Karna— all this in a style and language that is contemporary. “It’s got a very ‘now’ vibe. It’s Indian with a twist,” Dubey explains.

It was Lynne Fernandez, light designer of Jaya, who first introduced Dubey to the play. “Sandeep Kanjilal, who was armed with a masters in technology and was a self-taught musician, was looking for somebody to produce it. It was exciting, expensive, and in line with Primetime Theatre’s mission to showcase Indian writing in English. It was also more ambitious than any of my plays. Bravely and foolishly, I went ahead with it,” she says.

Some of the challenges she faced in its first run returned while directing and producing it again. “We don’t have a tradition of training actor-singer-dancers. Here, singers are made to act or vice versa. Casting the play has been the biggest task,” explains Dubey.

Just as she did, 26 years ago, Dubey chose singers over actors. “There are some like Vikrant Chaturvedi and Asif Ali Baig, who are also actors. But a few others have never been on stage as actors,” she adds.

Its rock ballad format meant Jaya needed original compositions. Dubey went to a few composers, who were overwhelmed with the concept before Ashutosh Pathak came on board. “It’s difficult to write a musical piece of theatre. It’s unlike a film where you can see what you are composing for,” she explains.

Also read: ‘Glitch in the Myth’: A solo play reimagines Sita as a young woman with agency

Dubey maintains that songs are the beating heart of the play. Krishna’s Song of the Battlefield comes straight from Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the Bhagwad Gita and has the tenderness of a love song. “Draupadi’s song speaks of the five qualities she would like in a man. She looks for a guide and mentor in Yudhishthir, a playmate in Nakul and Sahadev, a protector in Bheema, and a lover in Arjun,” she says. 

This time, it is an indoor theatre, not a sprawling outdoor venue that Dubey has chosen. While she insists that this is the Mahabharata like never seen before, she is aware that retellings of the epics are plenty. She has often asked herself, why would someone come to watch the Mahabharata again? Her answer begins at the customary staging of the Ram Leela around the country and ends with the complexity the stories have to offer. “They (the epics) give you so much to think about and reassess at every viewing. They are so powerful,” she says.

Does the political environment worry Dubey, when fringe political groups are ever so ready to take offence at portrayals of characters from myths and legends? “This is my country. The Mahabharata belongs to me as much as anyone else. There is nothing disrespectful. I am not trying to be provocative with it,” she says. 

Jaya’ will be staged at Bal Gandharv Rang Mandir, Mumbai, on 15-18 February at 7.30 pm. 

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