July 27, 2018    

It is said that we are born knowing the Mahabharat and Ramayan. The epics come to us so often, at such an early age and from so many sources that we can never remember the first time we heard them. Every telling is a re-telling. That “Raavan kidnapped Sita” and “Krishna was Arjun’s charioteer” is as obvious, immutable and unnoticeable in our minds as our date of birth.

Why, then, do we stage our epics as fairy-tales?

The thought first occurred to me two decades ago, when watching the Ian McKellen version of Richard III (1995). Although the film is set in the 1930s, employs a Nazi aesthetic in its costumes and props, presents Richard as a fascist sympathizer, and iconic lines such as “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” acquire new meanings, the film is not an adaptation. It is the same play, with the same lines and the same darkness hanging over it. In its painstaking anachronism, the film makes a broader point – the story is larger than the era.

The Mahabharat is certainly larger than its era. By telling, staging and filming it as a period play, we confine it to the age of maces and thrones and crowns, and the costumes of a period we can at best guess at. By adapting it to the modern age, we confine it to the ins and outs of modern politics and power games, imbuing it with the pre-occupations as well as the costumes and props of the modern age. What if we were to imagine it as it perhaps is: a dark civil war joined by flawed humans, and a tale of thwarted ambition, of small acts of courage and kindness amidst great cruelty?

That is the play we plan to stage.

So much ink has been spilled in interpretations and dissections of the Mahabharat that a clean start is nearly impossible, especially because it is endlessly detailed – a layer peeled reveals another, which in turn hides a layer under it. For those in the know, Shishupal and Dantavakra are not villains; they are the brothers Jaya and Vijaya, once gatekeepers of Vishnu’s abode, Vaikunth, now unfortunately cursed into three births as demons. The curse was the result of an unhappy mis-identification. Similarly, when you wonder why and how Babhruvahan could kill Arjun, you must know that the killing was instigated by Uloopi (in some versions) in an attempt to rid Arjun of the future curse to be laid on him by the Vasus in return for killing their brother Bhishma. But how are the Vasus brothers to Bhishma? Ah, you must know that Ganga gave birth to eight Vasus, the first seven of whom she returned to her waters while the eighth was Bhishma. But why were the Vasus born to Ganga in the first place? Now we must talk of the cow that was stolen as a prank… and so it goes on. It is impossible to view an incident in isolation. You must work backward, grasping each preceding link in the chain until you sometimes arrive at the first link, the original cause, which is often an innocent mistake or an accident of nature – a deer killed mistakenly in the throes of sexual intercourse, a group denied entry to Vaikunth because the gatekeepers did not recognize its members, and so on.

This endless layering conceals a great flaw at the heart of the great epic. The Mahabharat is innocent of two ideas central to modern literature: it is not subtle, and it has no room for moral ambiguity.

For subtlety, consider the following exchange between Yudhishthir and Bhishma, recorded just before the battle begins.

(to Yudhishthir, when about to battle him) May you be victorious.

How? No man may defeat you.

Precisely. No man may defeat me.

Because every telling of the Mahabharat is a re-telling, the reader understands this exchange instantly, and is delighted. What subtlety! What brevity! In six words, Bhishma has told Yudhishthir the exact manner in which he is to be killed – by shooting at him from behind a shield formed by the body of Shikhandi, a man whom Bhishma will refuse to fight because he was once a woman.

But you won’t find this brief exchange in the Mahabharat; I have borrowed it from our play. What you will find in the great book is a long discourse on how Bhishma may be killed. And then, to remove all doubt, Bhishma will invite the Pandavs for dinner on the 9th day and explain in great detail how they are to go about killing him. So much for subtlety, which suffers again in the exaggeration that is a trademark of our epics – unthinkably large armies, unfathomably deep seas, unimaginably high mountains, among which warriors of immeasurable strength battle each other and cause the three worlds to shake, and so on.

Now, the matter of moral ambiguity. Reams have been written about the ambiguity with which Krishna imbues his lecture to Arjun in the Bhagavad Gita. His last instruction sounds, on its face, unbelievably accommodating and non-judgmental:

इति ते ज्ञानमाख्यातं गुह्याद् गुह्यतरं मया
विमृश्यैतदशेषेण यथेच्छसि तथा कुरु
Thus has been revealed by me to you, the most secret of all secrets
Having deliberated on this fully, do as you like

But that is a false choice, in the manner of “choose any color so long as it is red”, because before making this magnanimous concession Krishna has frightened Arjun into blubbering helplessness with threats and warnings, and terrible visions of miscegenation, ruin and utter chaos, if Arjun does not do exactly what Krishna wants him to do. “Do as you like” is code for “you better choose what I have commanded you to choose”.

The same can be said of the hundreds of other shades in the Mahabharat – the sullying of Yudhishthir’s peerless character during the murder of Dron, Krishna’s duplicity in the killing of Jayadrath, Arjun’s cowardice in the killing of Bhishma, the generosity that partially redeems Karn as a villainous man – they are all minor squeaks in a world where morality is never in doubt and the moral way is proclaimed loudly and often. The final feint is the last chapter in Mahaprasthanik parva, in which Indra takes Yudhishthir to hell while Duryodhan lounges in heaven. What moral ambiguity! you say to yourself. What an inversion of values, a muddying of waters! Until you learn that this was merely a test that Yudhishthir passes with flying colors, then to enjoy the rest of his time in heaven with his wife and brothers. The heroes and villains of the Mahabharat are as easily identifiable as Amitabh Bachchan and Amjad Khan in a G. P. Sippy film.

Now, the literary tastes of the modern age cannot be applied meaningfully to a tale written more than two thousand years ago. Why on earth should that book give a hoot to moral ambiguity, when the authors and the educated classes knew exactly what they wanted the people to think? And why care for brevity and subtlety in a sea of imagination as stormy as the Indian mind? Until the book became sacred (and sometimes even after that), every group that could added to the Mahabharat to right a perceived wrong, to advance a cause or, as happened with the kul devata in my own family, to elevate a local deity into the Hindu pantheon. A cause was added to every effect, and the cause in turn became the result of a preceding event added to the book a hundred years later. The book was a sponge – it continued to absorb water, taking in more and more and leaking but rarely. The Bhagavad Gita itself was added centuries after the book came into existence, and its present form was perhaps arrived at only by 200 AD. Considering the number of accretions, the book is remarkably self-consistent. Those adding to it were aware of the sanctity of the book; they possessed deep familiarity with it and took pains to accommodate what had already been written. It is also conceivable that careless additions were rejected by the cognoscenti, but because every addition pretended that it had always been present in the book, I have been unable to find any such public debates. While it is possible to find contradictions – repetitions in Vishnu Sahasranaam, for instance, or the mismatch in some genealogical trees – the level of self-consistency is remarkable in what is essentially a crowd-sourced work.

Our play does not “modernize” the Mahabharat in the way that term is typically used: we avoid modern props and costumes to the extent we can, and we make no reference to modern times. We also try, as much as we can, to stay away from period costumes and props, in an attempt to dispel the notion that this is a “period” play. We modernize it, instead, by introducing the two ideas missing from it: subtlety and moral ambiguity. We stage the “trunk” while stripping away the “branches” of the plot, and we muddy the moral waters. This muddying is not an innovation – it can be seen in some texts of the Mahabharat, but it sits uncomfortably there in a world of moral certainties.

Finally, a line from our play. When starting his narration of the Mahabharat, Vaishampayan says to Janamejay, the great-grandson of Arjun:

जो है, इस कहानी में है, जो इस कहानी में नहीं, है ही नहीं

What is, is in this story; what is not in this story, is not

That is the grand ambition of India’s greatest epic. Our ambitions are more modest – a staging of the complete Mahabharat trunk, with all branches removed, and the proper ambiguity in its moral outlook.