The India of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata has changed | Mint

The India of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata has changed

A representational image (Photo: HT)
A representational image (Photo: HT)


The director staged this enduring epic in an engaging form that’s unlikely to find much favour now

The British-born theatre director Peter Brook, who lived and worked in France and died last week at 97, could create a mesmerizing experience on stage, reducing it to its bare essentials. Brook saw theatre in four forms: first, the commercial version, of Broadway and West End, which he called “deadly". It financed an industry and operated on a formula that responded to economic imperatives and not artistic impulses. Then, ‘holy theatre’, which made the invisible visible, where we discovered that the absurd movements of a conductor weren’t producing the magical sounds from the instruments in the orchestra; the sublime tones that elevated us came from elsewhere. There was the ‘rough theatre’ that got closer to the audience in coarse settings. Also, ‘immediate theatre’, where viewers would react to what they saw, but with each reaction different and hard to predict, as it was formed by the person’s own life experiences: some would laugh, some cry, some remained indifferent, some got angry and some felt transformed.

Brook could take any empty space and turn it into a bare stage. All he needed was a person to walk across and someone else watching, and that would take us from where we were to where the director and writer wanted to take us. The stage had been a prisoner of the proscenium arch for a long time; Bertolt Brecht discarded the norm and talked directly to the audience; Badal Sircar’s characters walked among the audience, engaging them and rattling them by tearing down barriers; Samuel Beckett placed a bare tree on a country road and had two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for Mr Godot in a stark comment on our absurd times.

At times, you did not need much to tell a story; it was already known. As Ashish Rajadhyaksha noted in his book about Ritwik Ghatak, A Return to the Epic, we would go again and again to see some stories because of their familiarity, not because we expected a different ending. This familiarity was reassuring; we often learnt new ways of looking, or listened to old truths retold.

An epic did not need a large set or budget. For decades, Indians saw The Mahabharata on a scale: a story heard from a grandparent, comic book, film or a never-ending serial on Doordarshan. The Ramayana was to be revered, as it pointed us to the high virtues we should aspire towards, but the Mahabharata was darker, revealing moral ambiguity in an imperfect world. My grandmother told me some families would not keep a copy of the epic at home because it was a bad omen—it broke families apart, like the Kauravas and Pandavas. Those complexities, where there were heroic acts but few heroes, made it a rather more interesting work, and as I grew older, I saw its other manifestations: allegories like Dharmavir Bharati’s play Andha Yug, set on the last day of the 18-day battle in Kurukshetra, and Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, and Shyam Benegal’s film Kalyug, which showed how modernity does not hide ancient truths. Kiran Nagarkar’s A Bedtime Story was anything but, and it shook middle class complacency. More recently, Karthika Nair’s magnificent Until The Lions retells the epic through the voices of less-known female characters. To dig deeper to understand the motivations of characters, there was also Irawati Karve’s Yuganta.

And there was Brook’s Mahabharata. This nine-hour play was staged in Avignon in 1985 in a limestone quarry. It was a truly international performance, with 21 actors from 16 countries (the only one from India was Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi), giving it the universality it demanded. And it discarded calendar-art ideas about what good and evil should look like. Many Indians were horrified to see some actors with dark skin playing roles they thought could only be played by light-skinned actors. For Brook, appearances were deceptive and irrelevant.

The script by Jean-Claude Carriere breathed contemporaneity into Vyasa’s original text in Sanskrit, which, for a long time, many were not allowed to read because they weren’t high-born enough, and if they tried, there was the story of Ekalavya and his thumb to remind them of their place. Carriere’s text was electrifying, from the moment Vyasa said he was writing a poetic history of mankind, promising us “if you listen carefully, until the end, you will be someone else," to piercing sentences such as Amba telling Yudhishthira “hate keeps me young."

I saw it in Mumbai in 1989 as a shorter film version of five hours and a bit. Could it be shown today? Or would some busybody complain and the Republic of Hurt Sentiments readily oblige by preventing its staging or screening?

For this is the new, muscular India, where Hanuman’s face no longer smiles, but stares angrily off car stickers; where Rama’s compassionate eyes reveal a saffron glare; and the nation’s symbol, those reassuring lions of Sarnath from Emperor Ashoka’s time, perched on an inverted lotus, have been turned into enraged-looking beasts (though also curiously overweight), baring fangs and growling like MGM’s lion, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And Peter Brook has left. There is an empty space, and nearly four decades after his Mahabharata, India is a different country.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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