In the epic embrace of the Mahabharata
- British director Peter Brook’s movie adaptation of the Mahabharata turns 30 this year
- Co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere’s memoir, based on their research trips to India in the 1980s, was published recently
In 1982, the English theatre and film director Peter Brook met the chief of a village in Purulia, West Bengal, while he was touring India in preparation for his 9-hour play based on the epic Mahabharata. With Brook was Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-wrote the text of the French play that opened in Paris in 1985, as well as the script of the English movie when it was adapted for the screen in 1989. In attendance were also co-writer Marie-Hélène Estienne and Toshi Tsuchitori, the Japanese musician who created the score for the production, using hauntingly beautiful tracks of Rabindra Sangeet sung by the Paris-based singer Sarmila Ray, among other pieces. Also with the group were a couple of Bengali anthropologists, acting as interpreters.
As with almost all encounters in India, the chief opened with a standard enquiry, Carrière says in Big Bhishma In Madras, a memoir of his search for the Mahabharata with Brook, which was recently reissued in Aruna Vasudev’s translation from the French. “Where are you from?" the chief asked Brook. On hearing he was from London and owned a house there, the chief nodded with satisfaction and moved on to what seemed to him the obvious next question: “How many cows in your house in London?"
The episode, recounted in Carrière’s crisp and deadpan style, elicits suppressed humour among the company, but also becomes a moment of reckoning (one among many) for them during their time in India. The search for the Mahabharata, as Brook and his colleagues realized, only begins with their familiarity with the text. In reality, as they step on Indian soil, their association with the epic deepens beyond their expectation. They see glimpses of the characters among the locals (“Big Bhishma" in Madras is one such specimen). The unbroken lines of tradition in artistic and cultural practices leave them deeply moved. Folk and classical forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Chau, Theyyam and Yakshagana eventually inspired the props and the narrative tenor of the play and the movie, in spite of the diverse cast that appeared in both.
Watching the movie adaptation of Brook’s Mahabharata 30 years on is still a singular experience. Running close to 5 hours, 30 minutes, it might seem overwhelmingly long at first. But the limpid pace with which the narrative moves, along with the tactful compression of plot and action, kept me absorbed. Time seemed to fly; or maybe I became too immersed to notice its passage.
Compared to the lavishly produced television series, Mahabharat, which was made by B.R. Chopra in 1988 and ran on Doordarshan for 94 episodes, Brook’s screen interpretation is lean, both in terms of length and visual appeal. Swifter in pace and made with a cast drawn from across the world (the only Indian being Mallika Sarabhai, who played Draupadi), Brook’s production has the gravitas of great tragedies. It reminded me of the classical Greek dramatists, Shakespeare’s plays and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear as The Throne Of Blood and Ran, respectively. Although Brook did use props to indicate the interiors of palaces, lakes, forests, and the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he envisioned the entire movie with the keen eye of a stage veteran. The minimalist set-up, for instance, resonated with the philosophy he propagated in a series of lectures, published under the title The Empty Space in 1968: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage," he wrote there. “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."
At the heart of Mahabharata, in the original epic by Vyāsa as well as in its many interpretations, is the notion of conflict. From interpersonal conflict between individuals (Gandhari and Kunti, Karna and Arjuna), it escalates into a full-blown war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. The version Brook presented to the world also resulted in a fair amount of conflict among viewers and critics.
Lauded generally in the West, Brook’s Mahabharata didn’t please many Indian audiences, who found his execution too bland or distant from what they felt to be the spirit of the text. In present-day India, with the Hindutva frenzy to revert to a “pristine past", the play, as well as the movie, would probably raise even more hackles. Admittedly, Carrière did take several liberties with the text.
In a crucial part in the epic, for instance, he invoked passages from the Life Of Alexander by the classical Roman biographer and essayist Plutarch, to amplify the scene where Dharma, in the guise of a lake, confronts Yudhisthira, his son, with riddles. “I reread…the part about (the) meeting between the young conqueror (Alexander) surrounded by Greek philosophers and the Indian sages come to greet him," he writes. The Greeks ask questions, to which the Indians offer replies (“What came first, the day or the night?"—“The day, but it only preceded the night by one day"). While this modified scene worked for its inner harmony, not all such artistic licences were met with the public’s approval.
Even Sarabhai (who auditioned for her part in the play while she was pregnant, learnt French on the go, and joined the rehearsals shortly after her son was born) disagreed with Brook’s projection of the women characters as shrews. “There are no shrews in the Mahabharata, I told Peter, only Shaktis!" she writes in a new foreword to Carrière’s memoirs.
The five years she played Draupadi, however, changed her profoundly as a person and artist. “Seeing the effect my interpretation (of Draupadi)…was having on women around the world made me the artist I am today, one who constantly uses art for bringing attention to issues I feel are important," Sarabhai says on email. Indeed, her Draupadi is a contemporary #MeToo heroine, refusing to cower in shame. Vibrant and outspoken, filled with feminist rage at her humiliation during the game of dice at the hands of Dushashana, she vows to seek revenge. Sarabhai’s captivating stage presence, with flowing tresses and elegant gait, is also noted by Carrière, who described her as “India’s Sophia Loren" after meeting her for the first time in Ahmedabad.
Like many familiar with both the play and the movie, Sarabhai also feels the latter did not do justice to the complexity of the story. “The movie is not a patch on the performance," she adds. “What worked perfectly in the performance, such as the famous chakravyuha evoked with a wooden ladder being turned by Abhimanyu, cannot work in a movie, for we have seen too many Ben Hur-like movies with lavish war sequences."
Instead of cutting down on the actual war scenes, Brook made the decision, Sarabhai says, to cut out a lot of the intimate details that reflect the conflicting character psychologies “that to me are the crux of the Mahabharata".
The challenges of adapting such an ambitious text were also acknowledged by Carrière himself. “Two dangers always threaten every adaptation: a systematic lack of respect which treats the original work like a springboard…disfigures and transforms everything," he wrote, “or absolute respect which holds the original as sacrosanct, to the minutest detail." The golden mean, it was obvious, lay somewhere in between these two extremes, though it remained elusive. And yet, the richness of Brook’s grand vision of the epic still deepens manifold, as we watch it unravel with the awareness of all the experiences and encounters that befell him and his dedicated troupe in India.
From meeting Satyajit Ray and P. Lal (who undertook the complete English translation of the Mahabharata into English) in Kolkata to observing unnamed dancers, dramaturges, priests and folklorists at work in the southern states of India, Carrière writes of a passion that transcends nationality, ethnicity and geographical boundaries. “How do you get out of the Mahabharata?" he asks at one point. And then, he realizes during his time in India that he can’t—especially while he is surrounded by the remnants of the past all the time. “The present is sometimes very ancient," as he notes. “The poem constantly comes between us and the world."