Contemporary retelling of ‘Mahabharata’ premieres on London stage
Almost 40 years since Peter Brook’s legendary international production of the great Sanskrit epic, Why Not Theatre’s adaptation also explores the act of storytelling itself
A new contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata opens in London on Sunday, incorporating several Indian musical and dance art forms and bringing together a worldwide cast of characters.
The UK premiere of the musical extravaganza, which runs at the Barbican Theatre until next weekend, follows a critically acclaimed world premiere in Canada by Toronto-based Why Not Theatre and Indian-origin co-creators Miriam Fernandes and Ravi Jain.
The production is presented in two parts: Karma setting out the origin story of the rival Pandava and Kaurava clans and Dharma capturing a great battle that destroys the planet leaving the survivors behind to rebuild.
“The two parts are bridged by a community meal, which is called ‘Khana and Kahani’. So, if you do the whole experience it’s a seven-hour journey; and we start all the way from Bheeshma’s vow at the very beginning of the story and we go through to the war until Yudhishtir goes to heaven,” said Fernandes, Why Not Theatre co-artistic director who also plays the narrator in the production.
“We are a small strand among a great lineage of storytellers who have weaved this epic of the ‘Mahabharata’ over the ages. These stories have been passed from storyteller to audience for thousands of years and span the earth, travelling in the memories and imaginations of the South Asian diaspora.
"Though first composed in an ancient time, the themes of greed, revenge, ecocide and privilege feel acutely relevant in our globalised world,” she said.
Almost 40 years since Peter Brook’s legendary international production of the great Sanskrit epic, Why Not Theatre’s adaptation also explores the act of storytelling itself.
The staging evolves from ancient and intimate – a storyteller around a fire and classical Kathakali dance – to a modern spectacle with projection, dynamic soundscapes and poetic stage design. There is also a new opera for the most revered portion of the epic, the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, with a live onstage band creating the musical score featuring traditional instruments such as Lord Krishna’s favourite flute.
“We spent a lot of time looking at how to contemporise this, especially as values have changed in such a big way, and culturally values clash. Canadian culture is very different from Indian culture,” said Jain, Founder of Why Not Theatre and co-writer of the production.
“One of the ways that we addressed the issue was we really have been conscious about our casting, with women playing some men roles. So, women find themselves in the story in a very different way than they are traditionally portrayed. The casting is really exciting,” he said.
Jain, whose parents hail from Delhi, launched Why Not Theatre in 2007 with a show featuring his mother’s not-very-successful attempts at arranging his marriage. Since then, the company has grown in its mission to tell diaspora stories and challenge the status quo.
“As a student in London, I watched the world masters dazzle audiences on the Barbican stage. Twenty years later it’s a dream come true to share this complex work we’re so proud of at this truly special venue,” added Jain.
From London, the production is planning an international tour to cover more cities of Canada and then Australia, New Zealand and New York. Cities across Europe and even India may be on the longer-term horizon.
“What's so exciting is we have touched a nerve with a lot of Indians in the diaspora, who, like us, have a connection to India but don't live there,” reflected Jain.
“We were really blown away because it's moving when you grow up with this story to be able to pass it on. And, we were lucky to inherit it through all of the generations that passed it on. So, it feels like we've got the baton now and we're passing it on to the next generation,” added Fernandes.
The artistic duo has built the script drawing primarily from Carole Satyamurti’s ‘Mahabharata, A Modern Retelling’, Devdutt Patnaik’s ‘JAYA’, and the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.
The staging pulls together diverse perspectives and influences, including folk tales, street theatre, western European physical theatre, oral storytelling traditions, and also some popular Indian staples they grew up with such as the Amar Chitra Katha ‘Mahabharata’ comics and B R Chopra’s 1980s television series.