Peter Brook’s Mahabharata

Swapna Mirashi

The massive 1980’s experiment and production was 9 hours long, with 30 performers from 18 different countries. The nine-month rehearsal was largely based at the Bouffes du Nord and an extended visit of all participants to India.  Performed at the center in France, in quarries, depot, majestic concert hall internationally, The Mahabharata is considered culmination of Peter Brook’s experiments at the Centre for International Theatre Research. An epic production of the epic.

I am moved to have witnessed one of the theatrical events of this century. – Sunday Times, London

The blurb of the published script by Jean Claude Carriere, translated from French by Peter Brook read;

One of the world’s greatest and most beloved legends dramatized into an acclaimed play – an international event in which accumulated myth, legend and wisdom of a people are made vivid to all.

It is Indian but universal. It is past but present. It is personal and immediate, full of high drama and tense story but ceremonial. It is simple and recognizable but has another dimension.

The Mahabharata has played to enthralled audiences in Europe; in the United States it was considered the drama event of the 1987-88 season.

As a piece of theater it is one of  the landmarks of our time; as a play to be read it stimulates the imagination to its bounds, it is a great epic, a universal myth.

Disclaimer: I read the script, as an Indian born and raised in the culture of Mahabharata. Although I have had no formal education in Mahabharata, which I consider an advantage as I read and review this script.

The Mahabharata is a simplistic look at the entire epic which is known for its immense complexity, multiple layers and nuances. It is almost an ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ – the mythological and historical comic books popular in India amongst kids and parents – kind of look at the epic. Creative liberties have been taken throughout the scripts right from depiction of Ganesha literally as a scribe and then as Krishna. The narrators – storyteller Vyasa and the boy who – and storytelling device are liberally used throughout the scripts, sometimes the narration seems an easy resort. When it becomes difficult to ‘show’, the narrator ‘tells’. This becomes especially evident towards the end – Bhagvad Gita is ‘murmured in Arjun’s ear’ and the last few scenes are ‘told’ very swiftly.

Having said that, The Mahabharata – the published play – for me was a good overview of the epic that has been all around me yet I had no formal education in.  To those who have no background or introduction to The Mahabharata, this is a great introduction. The 9-hour epic performance is divided into 3 plays titled;

  1. The Game of Dice
  2. Exile in the Forest
  3. The War

These are essentially the skeletal parts of The Mahabharata. There are several side-plots included in these. With very simple language and plot linearity, it becomes easy to follow the great epic, a wonderful entry into the complex literature. No wonder it appealed to non-Indian audiences and critics but received criticism from Indian critics. Read my Gist of Critical Analysis

A 5-hour movie version of the production is available online.