The discovery of India by a Columbus of the theater – The New Indian Express

The Mahabharata was not a text I would come to, naturally or otherwise. But strange as it sounds, the text with all its epic textuality and grittiness came to me, not once but twice. In the form of a story that Mahasweta Devi, an old friend and co-traveler, wrote and came to tell me the pre-published draft. The story of a powerful and brave tribal girl – Dopdi Maji. Here, Mahasweta reverses the stripping of the handsome and argumentative Draupadi at the court of Kaurava and transforms him amid the tribal boondocks of eastern India. Later, I was to immerse myself in this dense, multi-layered text as I worked on its translation from Bengali to English by my other old friend, the formidable Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak.

However, long before that, the text of the Mahabharata had approached me once, via the theater’s iconic ideologue and director Peter Brook and the text he used, the play by French novelist-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière . I had known and followed Brook’s work in the theater since his first steps in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and had read about his rather controversial production of Strauss’s one-act opera, Salome, with Dali doing the sets. up to his experimentation with the form of theatre, something that has always interested me deeply. He was a man who had directed legendary British stage actor John Gielgud, breaking the mold again and again through his experiences on stage. (His films gained a certain reputation and following too, but they were comparatively more poised and safe compared to what he did in the theater).

The moment I received a call from the British Council, Calcutta (that’s how my town was known at the time), telling me that Brook and Carriere were coming to research and collect material on the art forms Indian natives still practicing Mahabharata stories, and also Ramayana – and could I help them? — I was frankly torn between two ideas. I had indeed traveled to perhaps every possible nook and cranny of India to watch our native theater forms – in all their splendor and richness, held aloft amidst the sheer struggle for existence against poverty. Trying to understand their possible genealogies and their connections to other performing arts has been my life’s work.

There would be only a rare personality or theater group in this country that I didn’t know and didn’t interact with or at least watch. Documenting, as I was, a class war of a different kind, between the elitist threat linked by the front stage, financed by state agencies, and the theater there… occurring outside the arclights, localized yet oddly universal, clinging to their powerful aesthetic of performance across ancient and contemporary stories. I could easily take Brook and Carriere to present the best and most nuanced.

Peter Brook 1925-2022

But should I? I asked myself. I had a distinct vision then of the global theater troupe he had assembled, delving into theaters in Africa, Eastern Europe and now India. It was like the jazz that we played in the 60s, bringing it almost to the level of classical music, but then drawing on world music to embellish it, without deciphering the code and the context of the music where it existed and came from. . Should I be part of such a culture shopping expedition? In the end, my old Parsi friend in Calcutta BCL, Zarine Choudhury, a brilliant theater artist and feminist in her own right, and my desire to share Indian theater with a wider global audience prevailed. I gave in and the journey began.

From the beginning of our conversations, Brook had very honestly made it clear that he was not looking so much for an Indian text, but a civilizational text on human desires, intrigue, power games, politics, everything that constitutes existence. human. I took the Brook-Carrière team to observe, during a trip of two days and one night, the three Chhaus: Mayurbhanj, Seraikela and Purulia, in that order, the order of their origins. Our guide was the brilliant singer-anthropologist Dr. Pashupati Mahato. My first apprehensions about these rapid field surveys hit me in the face at the first stop, the small village of Mayurbhanj where all the village elders, young men and women and children stood in reverent silence watching the reclining dancer, painted with stripes, strokes and dots all over his naked body.

Brook was impatient: “Why aren’t they ready yet? Still putting on makeup? He was quite rude actually. I had to take him aside and tell him, “The show has started. Decorating the dancer-hunter’s body is the village’s investment in their representative’s adventure in the forest, risking his life to bring them their daily food. It is not a spectacle, but a total social act which has begun, and therefore the holy silence.” The two days we spent watching the Chhaus in their locations, first in that the village at the edge of the forest, then the palace of Seraikela, then with the mask-makers of Purulia, was a reading of the history of the dance that Brook and company slowly came to terms with. I descended from the caravan after this rite of initiation, providing them with a roadmap.

The next stop for them was Manipur, where Ratan Thiyyam and Kanhaiyalal and his wife, legendary actress Savitri, were doing their theater. Molding the stories of Mahabharata to tell their own stories on stage – of identity and art, honed as an artistic protest against the Indians of the mainland. Brook and Carriere were on quite the journey – being quite stunned and overwhelmed in the process. I continued to suffer from an intense internal debate about having been part of a semi-colonial Columbus project. Anyway, how could this exploration be complete without Kathakali? They were soon at the gate of the legendary Kalamandalam Gopi. Brook was left speechless. He would later say that he found in Kathakali the greatest and most “authentic” instantiations of Indian art.

My appointment with the Brook-Carrier Mahabharata was not over yet. Unfortunately, I was unable to travel to France to attend the spectacular first staging of the Mahabharata. Brook would not disappoint, however. He was coming to India with the eight-hour film he had made, based on the production. Again, I was asked. This time by my dear friend Vijaya Mehta from the Marathi theater world. Brook wanted to lead a theater workshop in Calcutta, followed by the screening of his film. And I was to be the host-presenter of the “event”. You couldn’t say no to Vijaya.

And what better place than Nandan? It all happened with the precision and momentum (and sleepless nights for his associates) that Brook is known for. Mrinal Sen, Mahasweta, Nabaneeta Dev Sen — all the legends of my city came not only to see the film, but also to participate in the workshop with Brook, Carriere and the entire Mahabharata troupe. A large and select group of university students were also enlisted. Brook was taken to task, literally. Was there a racial overtone to his production? Why did Bhima have dark skin? And Arjuna and especially Krishna distant, intellectual and white-skinned?

Brook was a thinker, even a philosopher, in the theater world. Whatever text he produced on stage or on screen, from Shakespeare to Mahabharata, he sought to create a new idiom with a kind of hunger that perhaps came naturally to a boy born to Latvian Jewish immigrants, growing up in Birmingham’s working class – a hunger that welcomed the bleak existentialism of a Sartre, the profound upheavals of an Antonin Artaud and the absurdism of a Beckett as a natural receptacle for them.

Just before leaving Calcutta, my copy of Carriere’s text on the Mahabharata had received a unique autograph – Carriere made a pen sketch of Ganesha, with a note saying, “where it all began”. I could rationalize it after all: maybe my trip with them wasn’t entirely a mess. Culture always lives in a place between belonging and journey. And if nothing else, they at least understood where it all starts when a traditional Indian play is staged!

Samik Bandyopadhyay
The writer is a specialist in art, aesthetics and cultural studies

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