The hidden afterlife of epics: Karthika Naïr on Peter Brook’s Le Mahabharata and Until the Lions

Looking back at Peter Brook’s Le Mahabharata, the French-Indian poet says that inconsistencies taught him that creators need not be guided by a single truth when creating art.

Looking back at Peter Brooks MahabharataThe French-Indian poet says that inequality has taught him that creators don’t have to be guided by a single truth when creating art

There are scenes in the movie version Peter Brookof Mahabharata I repeat, again and again; I break it down on every platform available, in print and on stage.

Cue the prelude to a dangerous game of dice. Duryodhana (Georges Coraface), fresh back from Indraprastha and overcome with jealousy at the extravagant bliss in Maya’s palace, plots his uncle Shakuni (Tunzel Curtis) to bring down the Pandava brothers. His mother Gandhari (Hélène Patarot) pleads with his wives for a distraction, to desist; She reminds him of all the blessings he enjoys.

Duryodhana’s response was a burning white hot creature amid dozens of dancing flickers. Stand still And Do not weigh. His voice rises as the faint drum beats gain momentum like the heartbeat of the churning earth. ‘ But I want to To be displeased,’ he raged… ‘A man’s body grows by birth and everyone enjoys; Likewise his desire grows, his desire for power.

Read | ‘Peter Brooke is the force that drives us forward’: Shantala Sivalingappa

Each time, I am mesmerized by this vision of the Kaurava prince: one of the most compelling and self-aware characters in the play, who can pinpoint the exact center of his own hatred, foresee the consequences of his excessive greed, and still choose to act on his dark impulses. With that — almost thrown — order, Brooke (with his playwright, Jean-Claude Carriere) gives us the key to the dissonant notes that reverberate through the essay. Mahabharata. I could instantly believe why his subjects loved Duryodhana and glorified his rule, why the Kauravas were able to find so many more allies in Kurukshetra than their cousins, even Bhishma – in the final chapters. Job Day – Given to his disobedient, attractive, painful love for his grandson.

Mallika Sarabhai (left) in the Mahabharata adaptation Nine Hours by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere

In the nine-hour adaptation of Mallika Sarabhai (far left). Mahabharata By Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrier | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

And woven through Duryodhana’s specific understanding Up to the LionsMy own words Mahabharata In 19 voices. When “my” Gandhari says to Shaku, ‘I will stop, return,/ And kill you myself while you are still young’, this Duryodhana – the beloved firstborn who ‘breathes anger’. She would gladly kill her brother to save him. Later in the book, Georges’s explosive performance as Coraface’s perfect and irresistible friend informs my portrayal of Karna’s wife Vrishali’s initial distrust and grudging gratitude.

Balancing norms and conflicts

Then there are moments and inconsistencies in Brooks Mahabharata It puzzled and infuriated me for many years until I realized that a man could create a work of art that he so passionately loved, even in revenge; That effect need not arise from mere acceptance or agreement. Satyavati is, inevitably, a subjective narrator Up to the LionsA counterpart to the omniscient Vyasa who appears in countless times Mahabharatas, not only in a Brooke-ian adaptation — she impresses from the outset by subverting her sage-son’s lines: ‘This is not the whole story, not the literary history of mankind.’ She and the other heroines of my book speak from interludes, without any single, infallible account, for ‘truth is a beast more unruly than time’.

Read | Peter Brook: Constant Innovator

I had a more conflicted equation with Brooke and Carrier’s Amba/Shikhandi characterization (played with quiet, heartbreaking intensity by Corinne Jaber). When it comes to pure theatrical invention, my favorite is the opening scene Part II: Exile in the Jungle*. The five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi (Mallika Sarabhai) appear in the forest when a voice breaks the silence praising Bhima (Mamadou Diome). A black figure appears. Amba is looking for the strongest man in the world to kill Bhishma, the man who abducted her from her and ruined her life. Swayamvaram.

Yudhishthira (Andrej Severin) is incredulous: could this really be a legendary princess? ‘It was 40 years ago.’ Amba’s gaze – obsidian, oppressive – muffles his words. ‘Hate keeps me young,’ she responds. Draupadi was less suspicious. She approaches Amba and receives a gentle hand on her bowed head, comforting and blessing.

Produced by Carol Karemera, Sean O'Callaghan, Jared McNeil and Toshi Suchitori at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's Battlefield, it is based on the Mahabharata.

Carol Karemera, Sean O’Callaghan, Jared McNeill and Toshi Suchitori in a production by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord battlefieldBased on this Mahabharata
| Photo credit: Getty Images

Purists can find fault with many aspects. After all, according to the canonical tellings of Mahabharata, several decades ago Amba killed herself in a sacrificial pyre to hasten her rebirth and take revenge. By this point in the epic, she is in a new incarnation as Sikhandi, the prince of Panchala, son of Draupada and sibling of Draupadi to boot. How did Amba appear before them, still a woman, still seeking a champion to right her wrongs?

Yet that one anachronistic reunion, with its collapsing timelines and narrative continuity, accomplishes as much as the play, which is nothing short of a dramatic sucker-punch. Suddenly, the ancestral roots of vengeance that haunt the Kuru clan appear, much more from generations of cruelty to women. Equally clear is Yudhishthira’s commitment to peace as the preferred course of action. Essentially, the shame and pain of the epic’s two most memorable women is an instant mirror. In this adaptation, they are bound not by blood, but by a shared heritage of the quest for justice. Vyasa himself can appreciate the liberties taken Brooke And Carrier is here, true to its emotional thrust Mahabharata.

An important reminder

That’s why the final confrontation between Bhishma and Shikhandi almost three hours later feels completely pointless. Here, Shikhandi forgets the reasons behind their desire to kill and lays down his arms, unable to continue the duel. In a strange — and, in my view, most punishing — violation of one of the epic’s most haunting stories, Amba/Shikhandi was lost from closure. Krishna and Arjuna move in to kill Shikhandi, rendering him irrelevant.

Read | How Peter Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’ influenced creative minds around the world

why Was this decision driven by Brooke’s need to focus on Bhishma’s superiority and Arjuna becoming enlightened enough to kill his beloved grandfather?

It’s hard to accept, but an important reminder: we don’t have to be driven by the same impulses or discover the same truth when creating art.

Kartika Nair

Kartika Nair | Photo credit: Mahinsha S

I need to find and manifest my vision for Amba/Shikhandi. So, in Up to the Lions**, when Shikhandi confronts Bhishma for the last time in Kurukshetra, neither Krishna nor Arjuna is seen facilitating the moment of reckoning. After two lifetimes of a relationship tinged with pain and anger, as a sort of constant devotion, the ending is resolved between Bhishma and Shikhandi, fully recognizing the futility of the law. ‘This time we meet – won’t win:/ For I will kill you, but first, you must see me die,’ in the latter’s words.

And I believe Peter Brook Even though this is completely contrary to his own words, it also makes sense. As actor Corinne Jaber recently said, her years of working with him were encapsulated in the line ‘All my life I walk and question’ (a response to her character Draupadi in the play). It represented his relentless search for truth in order to create a full-fledged world within the play. “Anywhere, as long as there’s space, actors and an audience,” in her words, is a world he can create. Then she said, “I’m coming back to the line.” How can death overcome death?’ From the same scene. What he left behind was so great, so immense, that it transcended death.

The author is a poet, librettist and choreographer. She is also an award-winning author of several books To the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata .

* The following description is a variation included in the paper True lies (The License to Create & Kill in Adaptations) presented by the author at Presidency University, Kolkata in 2017.

** The book and its major adaptations include Akram Khan’s 2016 dance piece and an upcoming opera directed by Shobhana Jayasinghe for Opéra National du Rinn in September.

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