"Mahabharat" by Naatak Theatre Company
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
A shorter version of this review was published in Indica News on Sept 11, 2018.
A couple of months ago, I mentioned to Sunaina, my 12-year-old, that I was about to buy a ticket to the next play by Naatak, the theatre company whose work I liked so much.
“What’s the play?” she asked.
“One that you might be interested in seeing,” I said, “Mahabharata.”
“I’m going too!” she declared immediately.
I quietly exulted and booked two tickets. She has wiggled out of previous invitations by saying with “attitude” that comes from being a pre-teen: “I don’t do subtitles or supertitles.”
This from a child who loves theater, especially musical theater. She lands plum roles in her school plays. She is a “triple threat”: she sings, dances and acts. Let it be recorded, dear Reader, that the first Naatak play that my theatre-loving child accompanied me to was … "Mahabharat".
Sunaina’s first encounter with the Mahabharata was after my father bought for her, at my request, 3 hard-bound volumes of Amar Chitra Katha’s telling of the epic for children, edited by Anant Pai and illustrated by Dilip Kadam. The illustrations are gripping and draw a child in, just as the illustrated Shakespeare books make the bard’s tales so much easier for a child to comprehend. When she was old enough to speak, but not read, I would read her 10 pages every night at bedtime. I would read the words silently in English and tell her the story in Malayalam, my mother tongue.
It took us six months to finish all three volumes. As soon as I had read the last page, Sunaina said to me, “Amma, can we read it again?” Drained by the greatest story ever told combined with the task of translating on the fly, I folded my hands and said to her, “I need a break from the Mahabharata.”
Before long, she learned to read, and began to read it herself. One part that was confusing to her 4-year old mind was when Bhima set fire to the lac palace at Varanavata, the palace built by the crafty Duryodhana to kill his cousins once and for all. She would ask, brow furrowed, eyes heavy with sleep, “Why did Bhima fire the house?” And I would explain. But I would get the same question over and over again. Pre-empting the enemy and causing destruction to escape with one’s life is perhaps more complicated than a child can grasp. Later, this would become a joke between us. Long after she understood why Bhima did what he did, she would say, “Amma, I have a question.” I would turn to her unsuspectingly, and she would say in a sing-song voice, imitating her 4-year old self, “Why did Bhima fire the house?” And we would both laugh.
When she was a couple of years older, she was gifted the 19-DVD set of BR Chopra’s “Mahabharat” by an aunt who knew of her fondness for the epic. These episodes were shown on TV in India every Sunday for 45 minutes from 1988 to 1990. During that hour, it seemed that all of India stood still. Absolutely everyone was glued to the television.
Armed with the 19 DVDs with 94 episodes, we watched one episode every Friday evening. Sometimes, two. Or on some occasions when the suspense became unbearable, 3 episodes!
Mahabharata. One of the two great epics of India. Longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Spanning generations, over centuries and encompassing every experience known to man.
The sheer vastness of the Mahabharata makes it a challenge to present in any form other than text. And of those, several abound. Multiple text versions exist, of varying lengths, apart from the illustrated version by Amar Chita Katha. There is a condensed single slim volume by C Rajagopalachari, and the more recent two-volume Mahabharata by Ramesh Menon.
Ramesh Menon’s Mahabharata is largely inspired by Kamala Subramaniam’s version in English, according to the acknowledgments in the book. Menon offers few details of his process, but the end-result is a highly readable page-turner of about 1500 pages.
It is said the different versions of the Mahabharata include a story inserted by the writer of that version. In Ramesh Menon’s Mahabharata, a page about the origins of the deity of Guruvayoor had me wondering if this was an addition by Menon. One way to find out would be to read several other versions: a path that, I must confess, beckons to me.
Adapting the Mahabharata for the stage is ambitious, to say the least. In an engaging video interview, director Sujit Saraf speaks of the versions he read and used for Naatak’s "Mahabharat". He mentions Gita Press editions in Sanskrit and in Hindi, Kisari Mohan Ganguly’s version (late 1800s) and Rajagopalachari’s version (1950s) as his sources.
At the Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto, Saraf introduced the play (produced by Soumya Agastya) with the salutation from the beginning of the Mahabharata.
Which translates to:
“AUM, I bow down to Narayana, the most exalted Nara,
and to the Devi Saraswati, and say Jaya!”
The script as well as the lyrics to the songs were written by Sujit Saraf. The rhyming narrative is an impressive achievement and clearly a labor of love. It is pleasing to the ear, and is enhanced further by the exquisite, virtuosic music by Nachiketa Yakkundi and his splendid group of musicians.
Listen to the music director’s words in the video here. I have previously seen Yakkundi and fellow artists perform in Toba Tek Singh, a magnificent musical staged previously by Naatak. During the closing credits, the musicians were greeted with the most resounding cheers.
In written versions of the Mahabharata, before we get to the Pandavas and Kauravas, there is a long preamble that describes who was born of whom which eventually leads to the birth of the main characters. In the play, this is presented beautifully in an opening song and dance sequence. We see the birth of Bharata (for whom India was named) born of Dushyant (Karan Khokar) and the enchanting Shakuntala (Ishani Pandya).
And then onwards to the birth of Devavrata, of King Shantanu and the River Goddess Ganga. We see Devavrata’s vow to forever remain a bachelor to remove any barrier for the children of Satyavati, his father’s new wife, to ascend the throne. For this, he is named “Bheeshma”: one who has taken a terrible oath. Then, from Satyavati’s daughters-in-law, sired by the Sage Vyasa poet of the Mahabharata, are born Pandu, father of the five Pandavas, and blind Dhritarashtra, father of the 100 Kauravas. All this is conveyed in a brisk 10-15 minutes, with live music and captivating dancing in three different styles: Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kuchipudi.
The reaction of the audience gave me pause a couple of times. The first was when it was narrated that Kunti and Madri’s sons were not their husband Pandu’s children, and the audience laughed, finding this amusing. I suppose one could view Pandu as a cuckold, except if you appreciated that a curse kept him from being intimate with his wives. Hence, Kunti, using her mantra, invoked different gods to conceive the Pandavas. Or was it perhaps the simplification of the situation and phrasing of the narrative (which I don't recall verbatim) that invited laughter?
Director Saraf was asked in his video interview who his favorite character. Seemingly not given to having favorites, he hesitated and finally ended up naming Yayati. Yayati who ages prematurely, and longing to remain young, pleads with each of his sons to give him his youth and in exchange, to take on Yayati’s old age. The youngest son obliges, and Yayati lives long in youthfulness. A scene in the play depicts this.
We each have our favorites. My daughter’s favorite is Arjuna. For her, he ranks up there with Roger Federer.
Mine? Karna, without a doubt. (If you would rather not read my pouring my heart forth on Karna, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.)
Here’s how I see it. Arjuna had it made. Fate, you could say, favored him. Everyone and everything seemed always on his side including Lord Krishna himself! His guru Drona, by cruelly demanding the skillful Ekalavya’s thumb as guru dakshina, insured that Arjuna would have no competition. Karna, also a greater archer, was sidelined because of his unknown provenance and the low birth of his adoptive parents.
Ah, Karna. Who was just a pawn in the great game of the gods. Who through every hardship thrust upon him unfairly, lived with honor, and died with honor.
Kunti’s firstborn, whom she conceived at the age of 14 of the Sun god Surya whom she, with childish innocence, summoned to test a potent mantra. Karna, whom, in shame, she floated down the river, clad in his golden kavacha and kundala, wrapped in silks in a wooden box. Who was found by a charioteer, Atiratha, who took the infant home to his wife Radha. Who came, not of Radha’s womb, but of her heart. Who grew up known as Radheya, son of Radha (whose love for him was the only thing he had to cherish) and sutaputra, son of a suta, not knowing that he was Kaunteya, son of Kunti and Suryaputra, son of Surya.
Karna, whose Kshatriya blood led him to seek tutelage from many mighty archers and warriors who declined to take him on because of his “low birth.” Who is finally accepted as a student by Parasurama Bhargava, kshatriya-hating Brahmana. Who is then cursed by his mighty guru when he infers that Karna must be a kshatriya because he was able to silently bear immense pain from a scorpion bite as he sat unmoving so as not to wake his guru who was sleeping with his head on Karna’s lap. Who, resplendent, enters the pavilion where an exhibition of Arjuna’s archery skills is being held. Who does everything Arjuna did with greater flair, and then some. Who is disdained at that august gathering for being a sutaputra. Who is then is embraced by Duryodhana in a rare example of that Prince’s kindness and friendship, and crowned King of Anga. Who goes to Draupadi’s swayamvara and is the first to be able to pick up the bow. As he aims for the target, and just as he’s about to let the arrow fly which would surely have struck the target and won her hand, Draupadi cries out (subliminally messaged by Lord Krishna himself) “I will not marry a sutaputra!” Karna’s concentration is broken, and he misses the mark. Perhaps it is this public humiliation that leads him to goad the Kauravas to demean Draupadi at the infamous game of dice where Yudhisthira pledges and loses everything.
Karna, who was told of his true birth by Lord Krishna himself, so his chosen Pandavas would not be killed in battle. Who was then told of his true birth by his mother Kunti, so her other sons the Pandavas would not be killed in battle. Who is so deeply loyal a friend that he would not dishonor his friendship with Duryodhana, choosing certain death instead. He uses the Shakti, the only weapon which would have killed Arjuna, to kill Ghatotkacha at Duryodhana’s behest.
Karna, who was killed in battle, all the curses that have been cast on him conspiring to leave him utterly defenseless. Karna, most glorious of warriors, who lived and died deeply alone. And yet, lived with honor through it all. Whose father, the Sun, hid himself from the world in grief as his son died on the battlefield. Whose brothers, not knowing who he was, treated him with contempt even as his heart filled with love for them.
Cursed, hapless, tormented, glorious, resplendent Karna. Absolutely my fave.
All this to say: I would have traded in the scene with Yayati in a heartbeat for a scene where Karna enters the pavilion and shows all his glory for the first time. I would have liked to see him before we first meet him in the play, when he is already joined at the hip with the Kauravas.
The first half of the play showed the Pandavas marrying the fire-born Draupadi (more demure than fiery as played by Tannistha Mukherjee), and losing everything at the infamous game of dice.
After enduring years of banishment, they spend a year incognito as agreed before returning to claim their kingdom.
Bheema is played by Chinmay Vaidya who brings out his natural comedic skills when he lies down pretending to be Draupadi so he can entrap Keechak. He is fearsome when he fulfils his pledge to kill Dushasana later in the play. Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva (Ritwik Verma, Harshavardhana, Bhavya Shah and Shubham Nigam) are engaging as themselves as well as the characters they play in King Virata's palace. Arjuna-as-Brihannala the dance instructor blends in perfectly with his wards.
During the intermission, I turned to Sunaina. She looked at me and said tentatively, “Well, the music is great!” When I prodded her more, she threw up her hands and said “The only emotion the actors show is anger.” Well, I submitted, Krishna brings his characteristic levity to the proceedings. I then pointed out the sadness of Draupadi. And what about the warmth and romance of Shakuntala and Dushyant earlier on? And went on to say that there is, after all, a great deal of anger in the Mahabharata. But more on her impression later.
Sunaina also commented that there were no scenes from all those years in exile, in the forest. She thought the killing of Hidimba or the slaying of Bakasura could have been used to establish Bheema's superhuman strength.
Back on stage, Roshni Datta, clad in yellow and blue, draped in peacock feathers, was a captivating Krishna, playful at times, profound at others. In an extraordinary and brilliant scene, she embodied the heart of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, as Krishna reveals his Vishwarupa, form of all worlds, to the faltering Arjuna on the battlefield, uttering the celebrated words:
In Swami Vivekananda’s translation,
"Whenever virtue subsides and wickedness prevails, I manifest Myself. To establish virtue, to destroy evil, to save the good I come from Yuga (age) to Yuga."
The scene captures the transcendence of the Gita: the heart of Hindu philosophy is shown brilliantly for a few moments.
And then we return to the story. The battle begins, and there is terrible bloodshed. On one side the Pandavas, on the other the Kauravas: Duryodhan (Nalin Gupta), Dusshasan (Dhananjay Motwani), Karna (Dipesh Jagwani), Drona (Anitha Dixit), Bhishma (Anup Upadhye). Millions die.
The dancing allowed colorful depictions of critical scenes, achieving on a small stage what BR Chopra’s Mahabharata depicted onscreen with thousands of people. The war scenes are captured beautifully through the tension of the music, the fearsome eyes, drumming feet and blood-red costumes of the talented dancers.
The casting was inspired, with women playing many male roles in addition to that of Lord Krishna. As Saraf mentions in his video interview, this was partly out of practical considerations, and enabled roles for many of Naatak’s fine female actors. Deepal Pandya as Vaishampayana narrated with flair. Monica Mehta Chitkara was fittingly creepy as wily, cunning Shakuni and Preeti Bhat shone as Lord Indra.
Karan Khokar is fiery as the young Abhimanyu, who knows how to enter the chakra vyuha, the wheel phalanx / formation, but not how to get out of it.
The scene of brave Abhimanyu trapped inside the Chakra Vyuha, courageously holding his own against the enemy, as the circle of dancers forms an impenetrable boundary around him, is stunning. The young prince is finally killed by treachery and the sight of his still body is wrenching.
In the beginning of this scene, the audience surprised me again by laughing when it was narrated that Abhimanyu had learned from his father how to break into the chakra vyuha: he heard him explain it to his mother Subhadra when he was in her womb. But, he never learned how to get out of it, as his mother fell asleep and his father stopped speaking. This was a profound and pivotal moment, a foretelling of Abhimanyu’s death. And yet. The audience laughed. Perhaps it was humorous that Arjuna was telling his wife about military formations, and she, bored, fell asleep?
My daughter, who knows the story and the plot, was taken aback by the laughter. She turned to me and whispered, "Why are they laughing?"
Perhaps they didn't know or recall what was about to happen, I thought. Or are we now a generation of sit-com watchers, who are conditioned by laugh tracks to laugh as soon as an actor stops speaking? Then, I thought back to Sunaina's comment about the emotions displayed by the actors.
The audience’s attention (and respect) is held when the speaking parts are delivered with the appropriate emotion and nuance . Unnuanced speech can be seen as comical. The onus is upon the actors to hold the audience’s attention and have them feel what is appropriate to that moment. While the movements and actions are excellent as choreographed, less one-size-fits-all delivery and more modulation and nuance throughout the speaking parts would properly convey the gravity of the moment. Particularly to those who are not familiar with plot details or fully versed in what is to come. Several shows of "Mahabharat" remain, and I don't doubt that the speaking parts will match up to the brilliant music, movements and choreography.
The set design is simple, with several large cubes, and chess pieces placed on them at varying angles. Black, white and red. Chess has its origins in India, and a variant of it was played with dice, perhaps a version used by Shakuni whose loaded or magical dice wreaked destruction on the Pandavas and all the world. We are all pawns in the games played by the gods, one could say. Krishna was the plotter, the player, the executioner. If everything is preordained, one wonders, are we all merely puppets?
Ghatotkacha, Bhima’s son with the rakshasi Hidimbi, is imagined by a row of warriors who look at his body implied to span the stage. While this was effective, it might have been interesting, I thought, if shadow puppetry or a video projection (as was used so effectively in Toba Tek Singh) was used to bring some of the demons to life.
Towards the end, the rows of pots bearing the remains of the 100 Kauravas are a poignant reminder of the mass destruction that swept the earth, as Dhritarashtra (Rishi Chawla)and Gandhari (Rajul Banthis) mourn their loss with Vidura (Pooja Sabharwal) standing by.
The war was fought at the cusp of two ages, the dwapara yuga and the kali yuga, to rid the world of kshatriyas who had grown arrogant and were destroying the world. In Ramesh Menon’s Mahabharata, Bhishma explains the ages to Yudhisthira in the Anushasana Parva.
You will likely agree that we are now in kali yuga. Personally, I would mark November 2016 as an alternative starting point to the one described in the Mahabharata. It crossed my mind that perhaps the kings of those times were wiped out to clear the way for women to rule the earth.
A Stree Parva that is yet to come will be a story of women, not weeping over their dead children and husbands, but governing a world with peace, prosperity, justice and equality. Much as it was during the reign of Bharata or the Rama Rajya of the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana. This time around, let’s dispense with the pre-ordained stuff. Enough already with us humans as puppets. Let the gods rest. We got this, ladies.
Sunaina was deeply impressed that Naatak was run entirely by volunteers, all of whom held down jobs outside of this work, who do this out of passion. And I was delighted to have the opportunity to share with her a wonderful example of people keeping their passion alive and finding avenues to share it with the world. Bravo, Sujit Saraf and the entire Naatak group!
On the way home, Sunaina and I continued to talk about various aspects of the performance. Then she said to me, slyly “Amma, I have a question. Why did Bheema fire the house?” As always, we both laughed.
Several photographs were taken by Kyle Adler, included here with his permission. These and many more from the performance can be viewed and purchased on his website.
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