The message of the Gita and the various stories of the Mahabharat are part of one’s upbringing.
The Mahabharat in the performing arts is a fascinating topic. Anyone who is born in India in a Hindu family is invariably exposed to the story of the Mahabharat. That lucky generation which grew up listening to the story from their grandparents cherish the Mahabharat. From our very childhood, for most of us seniors, the Pandavas and the Kauravas are no strangers. Krishna and Arjuna, during the battle, when Arjuna does not want to fight with the Kauravas, Krishna assures him that it is his dharma to fight, and Arjuna overcomes his grief and fights. The message of the Gita and the various stories of the Mahabharat are part of one’s upbringing. The generation that studied the Mahabharat through Amar Chitra Katha booklets with drawings knows the characters. The story Vyasa tells remains eternal, and the epic continues to fascinate artists.
The scope of the Mahabharat is so vast and all pervading that in present times, its television version has left a deep impression on the young generation which grew up watching it.
In the period of my tenure as a professor and head of the dance department of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata (from 1980 till 1993), it was in 1984-85 that I got an opportunity to meet the world-renowned British director, Peter Brook, who had undertaken to produce and direct the Mahabharat. He had come to Kolkata in early 1984 to meet various scholars, theatre people, directors and actors. The government of India had asked various agencies to assist him. Shyamanand Jalan, the well known director with his theatre unit of Padatik had informed me that I had to go and see him. I met Peter and his associate director, Marie, at the Bengal Club.
He with his serious visage and blue eyes appeared thinking all the time. He welcomed me with a smile and without wasting a minute, he inquired about the various genres of theatres in which the Mahabharat plays were being enacted. I knew that he had knowledge of Kathakali dance-dramas and he was more interested in regional language plays and traditional theatre forms like Purulia Chhau dances. We decided to visit a village group performing sequences of the Ramayana in Purulia Chhau. The preliminaries were worked out. He used the Purulia Chhau for Ganesha in his opening of the play.
Later on, I was informed that he was to inaugurate Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay was the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, who was also invited specially to visit Bhopal, along with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A host of dancers, musicians, theatre people, painters and filmmakers were also invited on this occasion.
I was asked by Kamala Devi to accompany Peter Brook and his wife Natasha to visit Sanchi. Since I had already met him in Kolkata, she told me that I should keep him company. I was quite nervous to go alone with him as I did not know what we would talk about during this excursion. Luckily, actor and director, Vijaya Mehta, agreed to come with me so that we two could talk in case Peter asks any questions. Kamala Devi had specially prepared breakfast for Peter and his wife and told me to look after them.
On the way, for a long time, Peter did not speak a word. Both Vijaya and I were also not feeling comfortable. After half an hour of driving, suddenly the car developed a puncture and we had to stop midway till the driver could get some assistance for repairing the puncture. He had to go a long distance. Therefore, I told Peter that we will have to wait .We sat under a nearby tree after spreading a cloth and I told Vijaya that we can ask him and Natasha to have breakfast.
Meanwhile, I climbed a tree to pick up a tamarind. I tasted it, and seeing that, Peter asked me what I was eating and enjoying. I thought thank God, finally he spoke, and we can now talk. I said, “I am enjoying tamarind fruit.” He asked what it was like? And in fun I said, “Peter, all stolen things are of great delight.”
It broke the ice.
We laughed. I climbed down and told him that I cannot offer tamarind to him. If he wants it he can take it at his own risk. Vijay also joined in the conversation. We spread the breakfast and Peter asked me about how I studied the Mahabharat. “Kamala Devi tells me that you are a Sanskrit scholar and know a lot about the Mahabharat”, Peter said. I laughed and said it is not true. As a matter of fact, only a few scholars read the 18 volumes of the Mahabharat in Sanskrit. I only know the stories as told by my mother.
Peter was curious: “Can you tell of any incident that you remember?” I said, “Of course”, and told him.
I was the youngest son in our family and would not take food regularly. My mother was very upset. One evening when my other elder brothers and I were sitting together, my mother told the story of conspiracy, of the Kauravas, to set fire to Lakshagriha where the Pandavas and Kunti were asked to stay. Bhima found out that there was some danger and he dug a tunnel as an escape route. He told his other brothers to get ready and run and leave if the Kauravas started a fire. When the flames leapt out, Bhima placed his mother on his neck, and the other two brothers in his two arms and they all ran. Because Bhima was strong, he could save his mother and brothers.
Then she told me, “Sunil, you will never be able to save me in such a calamity. Look at you. How skinny and weak you are. You never eat and whenever I offer food you run away. If a fire takes place and you have to save me, you will never be able to.” So I started crying and told my mother, please do not say so. “I will take you on my shoulder and also hold my brothers’ arms and we will all run.” My mother laughed and said, “But you do not eat at all. How you can develop strength?” I told mother “I will eat regularly and develop muscles”, tears streaming down from my eyes.
Peter, Natasha and Vijaya all laughed.
Peter liked my story and told me that would I repeat this story on television for an interview with him? I said that would love to. After some time the driver came with assistance. The wheel was replaced. But it was getting late so we decided to return to Bhopal.On the way back Vijay also spoke about various versions of The Mahabharat. Peter said he would like both Vijaya and I to attend he Mahabharat when ready and staged at Festival d’ Avignon in France in 1985-86.
I did not believe him and told Vijaya that these great directors say such things politely and do not mean it. She just smiled, and we went in the evening for inauguration of Bharat Bhavan.
During the next few months, Peter was travelling in India watching plays in different languages. I was called by Kamala Devi once again to accompany Peter Brook and his artists to visit Imphal and take him to Ratan Thiyam’s Chorus Repertory Theatre to show his play, Urubhangam, the breaking of the thigh of Duryodhana. Also to show him other plays by H. Kanhailal and traditional theatre. I was once again nervous and asked Kamala Devi to give me some important letters for a minister from Manipur and other officials in case we needed their help.
I had informed Ratan Thiyam well in advance. Peter and his few actors were anxious to see Ratan’s Chorus Repertory complex. The road to the complex was under repairs and there was one temporary bridge over a water body. We had to cross it to enter the complex. I had warned Peter Brook and the artists not to cross the bridge together but they should go one by one. But they were so excited that they went together, and the bridge broke and Peter and artists fell in the water. It was not too high, so none were injured. Ratan’s artists ran and brought towels and helped them to come out. I ran and took my camera and took photos. Seeing that, Peter laughed and said that I should have helped him in coming out. I said, “Peter, you are supposed to build bridges between France and India with your play and see what happened?”
We all were served a typical Manipuri lunch. They all met at leisure. Ratan and his artists planned to see the play the next day at Jawahar Lal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy’s auditorium.
The next day, the artists with Peter came with their cameras, television materials and valuables. Some had to be left in the cars. We went and saw the play that Peter found very absorbing. When we came out, the driver came and started crying, telling us that the things and the cameras the artists had left behind had been stolen. We were all shocked. This was bound to bring a bad name to us. I told Ratan that we will have to catch the thieves. I showed the letter for the minister to Ratan and he took immediate action. We met the minister, who assured us that the thieves will be caught and the valuables will be recovered.
I was much worried and so was Peter. However, by the night, at around 11 pm the police came with the cameras and valuables to deliver them at the hotel. The police traced the gang of thieves who were following the foreigners from abroad visiting Imphal. Thanks to the vigilance of the police when this untoward incident took place, the alert was given and the thieves were caught. They had pushed the cameras and valuables in the bushes and thickets nearby the auditorium to hide them.
Ratan and I were relieved. Peter thanked us profusely and alerted his artists to take care of their things.
We returned to Delhi and met Kamala Devi who was pleased that nothing untoward had happened. Peter thanked me for accompanying him in Imphal and showing the works of local theatre directors and traditional Manipuri dances. After he left for Paris we corresponded for some time.
Meanwhile I received an invitation from the government of India to attend the Festival of India in France. I had written to Peter Brook that I was to visit Paris and would love to see the rehearsals of the play. He arranged for me to see the rehearsals at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris.
Mrinalini Sarabhai, actor Tarala Mehta and I were given seats in the open air. Mallika playing the role of Draupadi was enacting the scene. It was to be improvised as was Peter’s approach. We found it quite interesting as the actors and Mallika had to improvise and deliver dialogues on the spot. Mallika, while acting spoke in Gujarati which I found funny but she told me that Peter wanted to use any language.
In the evening at the theatre looked as it was a war-torn theatre with walls broken and the floor uneven. However, once the scene began of the Pandavas taking lessons from Dronacharya in archery, the magic started. The European actors from different countries were holding arrows and shooting, aiming at the bird on a tree top. The clothes of the actors were in beige colour and the huge bows and arrows were aimed high and with precision. Suddenly, red flags on four long bamboos were raised creating a war field. One realised that Peter created visuals with an imagination that was most impressive.
In the beginning, three plays, each of three hours, were staged on different evenings. The nine-hour performance, from nine in the night till early morning with suitable intervals at the Boulbon quarry at Avignon was absolutely mind-boggling. The scale, the space at the quarry and the atmosphere added to the magnificence of the epic. Peter Brook’s company in Paris consisted of actors from different parts of Europe. For instance, the role of Dhritarshtra was played by Ryzard Ceislak, Duryodhana by Andrzei Seweryn, Matthias Habich as Yudhisthira, Vittorio Mezzogiorno as Arjuna, Muarice Benichou as Ganesha and Krishna, Alain Maratrat as Vyasa, Bruce Myers as Karna, Yoshi Oida as Drona and Kichaka, Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi, Mireille Maalouf as Gandhari, Georges Corraface as Dushassana, Sotigui Kouyate as Bhishma and Parashurama and Mamadou Dioume as Bhima.
The music was composed by Toshi Tshuchitori and costumes by Chloe Obolensky.
Some actors were from Poland, some from England, some from France, two from Africa and Mallika Sarabhai was the only one from India. And yet, when they delivered their dialogues and acted, after a while one forgot their nationalities and in the make believe world of theatre, one accepted them as characters of the Mahabharat.
It must be said to the credit of Peter Brook, Jean Claude Carrier, who wrote the play in French that Peter translated into English, the flow of the narrative was communicative enough. As a director, Peter Brook with his tremendous imagination, energy and abilities as a director, succeeded in presenting the play earlier in three parts, and then three parts to gather in one night, successfully travelling in Europe, Japan and the US. He introduced the Indian epic to people who did not know about the Mahabharat.
The sequences followed in quick succession. The birth of Duryodhana as a big ball of metal, which was the fetus in Gandhari’s stomach, and falls out when Gandhari tells her maid to hit her stomach with a iron rod. The ball rolls over the floor and evil omens are heard, birds fly in all directions and from water gets up Duryodhana. It was stunning. The training in archery was another one which was most impressive. The one where Draupadi was brought in the court and seated on the floor, with Dushassan pulling her sari was imaginatively done. Krishna stood at one end of the corner holding the bundle of the sari which ran over the shoulder of Druapadi, and Dushassana at the other end of the stage pulled it. The war and the Chakravyuha were spectacular. The death of Bhishma was suggested when he is shown lying on a bed of arrows. And in the early hours of the morning when the first rays of sun fell on the tall mountain top, we saw the Pandavas climbing the Himalayas.
Of course, another set of actors were placed strategically near the top of the mountain and they looked so small when we looked up.
The mushroom cloud, with ear-splitting sound, which appeared on the sky when Ashwatthama released the Brahmastra, suggested of the world being destroyed by the atom bomb. The mushroom cloud and the dropping of the atom bomb over Hiroshima was metaphorically suggested. The contemporary relevance of the Mahabharat was conveyed in a superb manner.
It was difficult to mount the Mahabharat by Peter Brook on the banks of Ganga. The expenses involved were beyond the Indian government’s budget. Therefore, one five-and-a-half hour film was made for television. Of course, it did not capture the grandeur of the real play. But it remains a good documentation. Recalling Peter Brook’s the Mahabharat in 2019 almost after 35 years, one marvels that such an exceptional play was created by Peter Brook. Not only that, but it had also succeeded in making the world know of our great epic. There were of course several criticisms levelled against Peter Brook that he was dealing with an exotic epic and advocating a Westerner’s viewpoint on the East. The Oriental approach was not welcome in some quarters. Be that as it may, the Mahabharat remains a classic of Peter Brook.
The writer is an eminent dance historian