The Mahabharata was not a text that I would come to, naturally or otherwise. But strange as it may seem, the text with all its epic-textuality and granularity came to me, not once but twice over. In the form of a story that Mahasweta Devi, an old friend and co-traveller, wrote and came to narrate the pre-published draft to me. The story of a powerful, gritty tribal girl — Dopdi Maji.
Here, Mahasweta turns the disrobing of the beautiful and argumentative Draupadi in the Kaurava court on its head, and transmorphs it amidst the tribal boondocks of eastern India. Later, I was to immerse myself in that dense, multi-layered text as I worked on its translation from Bangla to English by my other old friend, the redoubtable Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak.
However, much before that, the Mahabharata text had accosted me once, via iconic theatre ideologue and director Peter Brook and the text he used, the play by French novelist-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere.
I had known and followed Brook's work in theatre from his early dabblings in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and read about his rather controversial production of Strauss's one-act opera, Salome, with Dali doing the sets to his experimentation with the form of theatre, something that always deeply interested me.
Here was a man who had directed the legendary British stage actor John Gielgud, breaking the mould again and again through his experiments on theatre. (His films acquired some reputation and following too, but they were comparatively more staid and safe compared to what he was doing in theatre).
By the time the time I got a call from the British Council, Calcutta (that was how my city was known then), telling me that Brook and Carriere were coming to research and gather material on indigenous Indian art forms still practising the stories of Mahabharata, and also Ramayana — and could I help them? — I, frankly, was in two minds.
I had indeed travelled to perhaps every possible nook and corner of India to watch our indigenous theatre forms — in all their splendour and richness, held aloft amidst the sheer struggle for existence against poverty. Trying to understand their possible genealogies and links with other performing arts had been my life's work.
There would be only a rare theatre personality or troupe in this land that I did not know of and not interacted with or at least watched.
Documenting, as I was, a class war of a different kind, between the elitist threatre bound by the proscenium, funded by state bodies, and the theatre out there...performing outside the arclights, localised yet strangely universal, holding onto their powerful performance aesthetics through stories ancient and contemporary. I could easily take Brook and Carriere around showcasing the best and the most nuanced.
But should I? I asked myself. I had by then a distinct view on the world theatre troupe he had put together, delving into the theatres of Africa, East Europe and now India. It was like the jazz that was played in the Sixties, almost taking it to level of classical music, but then cherry-picking on world music to embellish itself, without actually cracking the code and the context of the music where it existed and came from.
Should I be part of such a shopping expedition of cultures? Ultimately, my old Parsi friend at Calcutta BCL, Zarine Choudhury, a brilliant theatre artiste and feminist in her own right, and my urge to share Indian theatre with a larger world audience triumphed. I gave in and the journey began.
Right at the beginning of our conversations, Brook had quite honestly made it clear that he was not looking so much into an Indian text, but a civilizational text about human desires, intrigues, power games, politics, all that made up human existence.
I took the Brook-Carriere team to watch, over a two-days-one-night trip, the three Chhaus: Mayurbhanj, Seraikela and Purulia, in that order, the order of their origins. We had as our guide the brilliant singer-anthropologist Dr Pashupati Mahato.
early misgivings about these field survey quickies hit me in the face at the very first stop, the small Mayurbhanj village where the entire village elders, young men and women, and children stood in reverential silence watching the dancer lying down, being painted up with stripes, strokes and dots all over his bare body.
Brook was impatient, “Why are they not ready yet? Still putting on his makeup?” He was quite rude as a matter of fact. I had to take him aside and tell him, "The performance has begun. The decoration of the dancer-hunter's body is the village's investment in their representative's venture into the forest, risking his life to bring them their daily food.
It’s no performance, but a total social act that's begun, and hence the holy silence." The two days we spent watching the Chhaus in their locations, first in that the village beside the forest, then the Seraikela palace, and then with the mask-makers of Purulia, was a reading of dance history that Brook and company slowly came to terms with. I stepped off the caravan after that rite of initiation, furnishing them with a roadmap.
Next stop for them was Manipur, where Ratan Thiyyam and Kanhaiyalal and his wife, the legendary actress Savitri, were doing their theatre. Moulding the stories of Mahabharata to tell their own stories on stage — of identity and art, sharpened as an artistic protest against mainland Indians.
Brook and Carriere were onto quite a journey — getting quite stunned and overwhelmed in the process. I kept suffering from an intense internal debate on having been part of a semi-colonial Colombus project. Anyway, how could that exploration be complete without Kathakali?
They were soon at the doorstep of the legendary Kalamandalam Gopi. Brook was left speechless. He would later say that in Kathakali he found the greatest and most ‘authentic’ instantiations of Indian art.
My tryst with the Brook-Carriere Mahabharata was not over yet. I, unfortunately, could not travel to France to watch the first spectacular staging of the Mahabharata. Brook would not disappoint, though. He was coming to India with the eight-hour-long film he made, based on the production.
Again I was called upon. This time, by my dear friend Vijaya Mehta, from the Marathi theatre world. Brook wanted to conduct a theatre workshop in Calcutta, to be followed by the screening of his film. And I was to be anchor-host for the ‘event’ . You could not say no to Vijaya.
And what better place than Nandan? It all happened with the precision and elan (and sleepless nights for his associates) that Brook is known for. Mrinal Sen, Mahasweta, Nabaneeta Dev Sen — all the legends of my city descended not just to watch the film, but also take part in the workshop with Brook, Carriere and the whole Mahabharata troupe.
A large, selected group of university students too were drafted in. Brook was taken to task, quite literally. Was there a racial overtone in his production? Why was Bhima dark-skinned? And Arjuna and especially Krishna aloof, intellectual and white-skinned?
Brook was a thinker, even a philosopher, in the theatre world. Whatever text he produced on stage or on screen, from Shakespeare to Mahabharata, he sought to create a new idiom with a kind of hunger that perhaps came naturally to a boy born to Latvian Jewish immigrants, growing up in working-class Birmingham — a hunger that took in the bleak existentialism of a Sartre, the profound disruptions of an Antonin Artaud, and the absurdism of Beckett as if a natural receptacle for them.
Just before leaving Calcutta, my copy of Carriere’s text on the Mahabharata had received a unique autograph — Carriere did a pen sketch of Ganesha, with a note saying, ‘where it all began’.
It was possible for me to rationalise it after all: perhaps my journey with them was not entirely a waste. Culture always lives in a place between belonging and journeying. And if not anything else, they at least understood where it all begins when a traditional Indian play is staged!
The writer is a scholar on art, aesthetics and cultural studies