Mahabharat, a 21st century perspective
- Ranee Kumar

November 17, 2015

The canvas is almost cosmic; the characters are multi-dimensional; the epoch war is depicted as enormous by Veda Vyasa, the most authentic source of Mahabharata (Itihaas). To interpret all of these from a 21st century perspective on stage through dance and drama within a stipulated time cycle is no cake walk. Choreographer Shama Bhate, Kathak exponent and guru, executed a very viewable theatre presentation, Ateet ki Parchhaiyan which in a nutshell is 'Mahabharat reinterpreted,' applying as many technicalities as are at our disposal today; digitalized backdrops, evocative lighting, not to talk of classical stage craft like soliloquy and teichoscopy. The theme was of epic proportions hence the convergence of seven dance styles was justifiable.

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The narrative is unique in the sense it deals with the conscience of crucial characters (dramatis personae) in the aftermath of perhaps one of the earliest, gory war of Kurukshetra in this land. It defies popular expectation by omitting Lord Krishna, Arjuna, Bheema and others; instead focuses on Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi, Karna, Bheeshma, Yudhishtira and of course Duryodhana. There are no dialogues, only voice-overs, song, music and mime, which goes without saying that the characters come on stage to soliloquy which for most part is self-depreciatory. Simply put each of them develops a hind sight and is repentant for his/her past actions in a given period of time. Sole royal survivors of a devastating family war, entirely disillusioned by the turn of events that leaves no direct progeny to the throne, these veterans mull over their fate, follies and foibles. As they recreate each of the circumstances in their mind's eye, the audience is allowed a silhouetted glimpse of certain landmark events that led to a crucial change in their individual lives through teichoscopy technique which indeed was a beautiful tool to narrate in a nutshell and keep the flow of this otherwise voluminous epic story.

The famed dice game and consequent Draupadi disrobing episode does not occur in succession. Instead, the frame freezes with the victory of Duryodhana over Yudhishtara who pawns his properties and then his brothers and his queen Draupadi who comes on stage in a shell-shocked condition. Again this crucial incident is recounted by Yudhishtara in solo as he atones for his sins/weaknesses and again by a unforgiving Draupadi who soliloquies on her being disrobed under public gaze! Though not repetitive, but admittedly vital reason for the entire conflict, the back and forth operation over this incident did not move a 21st century mind as it was supposed to. So was the Draupadi swayamvar recap, enacted with great detail which did not gel with the philosophical tone and tenor of the present drama. There was nothing Odissi, not even a stance, about Ramli Ibrahim (Yudhishtara) and his troupe's dance except a vestige of a costume. Of Kunti and Gandhari, the latter comes out as a woman of mettle despite blind-folding herself while the former emerges as a 'scheming' mother who tries to emotionally blackmail her sons (from a 21st century gaze of course) as and when it suits her. Vyjayanthi Kashi portrayed Kunti under the Kuchipudi dance form but there was hardly any scope for her to showcase, except while reminiscing her youth where she tried to justify her dancing abilities. Her mime as rues the loss of grand heirs and goes down memory lane was well expressed through facial and hasthabhinaya.

Gopika Varma relived Gandhari through Mohiniattam with beatific grace and expressive abhinaya. Her agony over her child bearing, her own obstinacy to keep her vision closed to her sons' vile nature carried a realistic import than the rest of the characters. The Chhau dancer Rakesh Saibabu as Duryodhana with his troupe was the highlight of the evening both in terms of dance and action. The movements were far too fantastic and the agile dancer looked and acted with conviction. Kathak dancer Ameera Patankar as Draupadi had a larger role than the rest and executed it with aplomb. She never let go her character's never-say-die attitude even in the face of all her sons being annihilated. The only repentance she shows was that she never tried to be a real mother and was busy being a wife and potential queen. Ameera proved to be a deft dancer too. In fact, Kathak took the cake as far as dance goes for this presentation. Every change of scene and preludes were substituted by the group of Kathak dancers who flitted across the stage with swift footwork and converged whenever necessary for the actor on stage to disappear giving way to another.

The only characters that were projected with certain foibles from the director's end were Karna played by Bharatanatyam artiste Vaibhav Arekar and group of three as also Bheeshma essayed by Dr. Kannan in Kathakali format. For one, it was given to understand at the very beginning of the presentation that the ethos was in the aftermath of the Kurukshetra war. Then we find Karna on stage in a monologue; how come? He was killed in the war, and so wounded that it is hard to believe that he could recollect the turn of events and react to them. At the most, there could be pain and blame in his eyes for being cheated and for ending as a victim of fate. When the survivors referred to Karna, there was no reason for this character to come on stage; the director could have taken recourse to teichoscopy again. So too was the interpretation of Bheeshma's character as he lies wounded. Despite poetic license, one cannot unravel the mind of an epic persona ignoring history and basic characteristics of the original etched by Veda Vyasa. Nothing works when you try to distort the thinking process and make Bheeshma guilty of inaction with regard to Pandavas. The grand sire's noble qualities as enumerated by the composer tantamount to his being a 'stithapragna' (one who has surpassed the three gunas); he is as much a karma yogi as Krishna, only in a different context. The thought process put into Bheeshma was flawed and deserves a relook. All the dramatis personae blaming Krishna in some way or the other even while admitting to His divine supremacy was well conceived piece of artistry.

Kudos to Shama Bhate and Nad-Roop school of dance for an aesthetically crisp and effective re-interpretation of the Mahabharata. Harshavardhan Pathak's magic with lights and Narendra Bhide's music to the context and genre enriched the texture of the dance drama.

Ranee Kumar, a journalist for the past two decades, has worked with mainstream newspapers from Hyderabad. She later took to freelancing for The Hindu in art and culture as their art critic. Ranee has many articles, reviews in music, dance and drama published to her credit.