It is the world’s longest book, 15 times the length of the Bible, and the full Sanskrit text stretches to 100,000 verses. The tales it tells, which took several centuries to compile, run the whole gamut of human feeling – exultation, bitterness, loyalty, lust, compassion. So how do you make a stage version of the Mahabharata?
“Instead of a concept, I began with practicalities,” says director Stuart Wood. “It couldn’t be 12 hours long, and it couldn’t be just a text version otherwise it would just end up as a trivialised mini-Mahabharata. But it still needed text to give it depth. In the end, a dance-based or a physical-visual theatre work seemed the way to go.”
The central story makes no ready distinctions between good and evil, and victory is not simply aligned with righteousness
He began looking for collaborators, the first of whom was Olivier award-winning lyricist Stephen Clark. The central story of a warring family attracted him, in part as it makes no ready distinctions between good and evil, and victory is not simply aligned with righteousness. “The paradoxes and contradictions make it so rich – and very human,” says Clark. “What I distrust, especially in politics and religion, is that terrifying black-and-whiteness.”
Next on board came Nitin Sawhney, the prolific composer who operates as comfortably in the world of pop as he does classical music. He agrees with Clark: “People then set themselves up as bastions of right and wrong and dictate the moral high ground. But the Mahabharata is more about ways of being and thinking, about choices.”
Choreographer Gauri Sharma Tripathi, who dances Kathak (an Indian classical dance style), brings experience of producing the Mahabharata. She appeared in BR Chopra’s mammoth 94-episode TV version, broadcast from 1988 to 1990, which emptied India’s streets for 45 minutes each week. It broke records when it was aired by the BBC in 1990 – 5m for an afternoon subtitled programme, and Tripathi remembers packed arenas for the cast’s live tie-in performances. But that audience was largely Asian, and Wood’s team are aiming for a wider audience who won’t have the same cultural reference points.
The Mahabarata is a textual sprawl within a single story, telling of a feud in a warrior dynasty between the five Pandava brothers and their 100 cousins, the Kauravas. Played out in an expansive narrative fugue, it escalates to a devastating battle that, though it ends in a righteous victory, also heralds the beginning of a dark age. Wood and Clark chose to focus on one character, Draupadi, a woman who is the catalyst for the war. “We had to find a line that would allow us to edit and explore the material,” explains Wood. “Even if you don’t know the backstory, you are in the moment with her, following her journey,” adds Clark.
The cross-cultural questions the production faces are the same as those Peter Brook came across in his nine-hour stage version of the Mahabharata, which premiered in 1985, and toured the world. Widely interpreted in the context of the cold war, it was as praised for its dramatic vision as it was damned for “cultural piracy”. It remains a landmark in western theatre. Were the collaborators anxious about the shadow it still casts?
“God yes,” says Wood. “But it’s been years since Brook’s piece. And there wasn’t much he did that we were also doing.”
“[The Mahabharata] is not for the faint-hearted,” agrees Clark. “This is an evening of risks. I think nothing else can be justified with the Mahabharata. It’s not a piece to be safe with”.