Mahabharata At The Shaw Festival
Mahabharata, a joint production of the Shaw Festival and Toronto’s Why Not Theatre, has major event written all over it. A sumptuous physical production, spell-binding original music, a splendid operatic interlude, a feverish dance number by an actor representing Shiva, the god of destruction, a five-and-a-half-hour running time (divided into two plays), and an impressive all-South-Asian cast drawn from every corner of the diaspora all add up to spell “blockbuster.”
Whether Mahabharata succeeds as a piece of dramatic art is another question.
The Mahabharata, for those who don’t know (and that includes yours truly), is the longest poem ever written; also the oldest epic. Some 4,000 years old, composed over 500 years, and longer by far than the collected works of Homer. Indeed, it’s tempting to call the Mahabharata the Indian equivalent of the Greek myths, although it strikes me as the repository of a great deal more philosophical guidance. It tells the sprawling, convoluted history of Hindu gods, mythic kings, queens, and warriors – a tale of a seemingly never-ending cycle of bloody revenge that makes a Sicilian vendetta look like a Victorian garden party.
The Mahabharata is actually many stories woven into one long narrative. So the version being showcased at Shaw is necessarily an abridgment, sort of the epic’s greatest hits. Whether the version created by co-authors Miriam Fernandes and Ravi Jain accurately reflects the overall tone of the original I leave to those more knowledgeable than I.
What their version of the Mahabharata does make clear is the imperative to fight emotions, to be of service, to act rightly. Indian philosophy may strike those of us raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition as exotic, but there are obvious similarities. I can’t help notice that many present day inheritors of both traditions don’t seem to have received the memos left by their ancestors.
But Mahabharata the play is not primarily concerned with present day issues; rather it is a celebration of a rich cultural heritage, one shared by a significant portion of the audience filling the Shaw’s Festival Theatre the day I saw it. They were clearly enthralled.
Mahabharata is presented in two parts, titled Karma: The Life We Inherit and Dharma: The Life We Choose, which differ quite a bit in terms of their theatrical style. The received wisdom is that each part stands on its own, but I strongly recommend that if you have any interest at all in seeing what I suspect will be a much-lionized international success, you see both parts on the same day or on succeeding days.
I will not make much of an attempt to summarize the action of these two parts. For one thing, my ignorance of Indian mythology is as profound as the original text is long. In addition, the authors have graciously given me some cover by telling us “Don’t be confused by plots. Within the river of stories flows infinite wisdom.”
Suffice it to say that the main focus of the plays is the rivalry between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, over which of them should rule the kingdom. Despite the intervention of Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, their enmity culminates in an apocalyptic battle that erases much of life on earth.
Setting aside the text for the moment, let me discuss the stagecraft, which is more immediately accessible and quite dazzling. “I came out humming the scenery,” is an age-old theatrical put down, but in the case of Mahabharata it can be construed as a compliment.
A Storyteller (co-author Miriam Fernandes doing admirable double duty) welcomes us and narrates the action. The performers use traditional Indian dance techniques as they act out tales that set the stage for the epic battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The choreography is credited to Brandy Leary, although the program also notes Kathakali and Odissi “contributions” by two cast members, Jay Emmanuel and Ellora Patnaik respectively. Kathakali and Odissi are traditional Indian dance forms, a fact the programme might have done a better job of elucidating.
For Karma, the stage is mostly bare, dominated by a large circle of what appears to be red sand. The backdrop is composed of bits of theatre paraphernalia – a wall of ropes, a bank of lights. (Lorenzo Savoini has created impressive, often ravishing set designs for all the contrasting elements of the two-part production.) The performers sit on low stools or on the floor. At the back, a small orchestra composed of guitars, keyboard, percussion, and vocalists plays non-stop providing a mesmerizing score. (Original music and sound design are credited to John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran, who also sings.)
The music is one of the best things in this production and I was disappointed that the programme wasn’t more informative about the instruments employed. If I have it right, two guitars produce a remarkably sitar-like sound. Absolutely splendid. Had a recording of the score been available in the gift shop I would have gladly purchased it.
The look and feel of Dharma is radically different. The bare, sand-covered floor is now covered with luxurious rugs, modern furniture dots the stage. Laptops are in evidence. Hanging over the stage are large video screens that fill with live video of the actors on stage. The rear wall fills with almost psychedelic projections by Hana S. Kim and Ann Slote. These are beautiful, sometimes mesmerizing. At one point an enormous, light-rimmed circle descends from above.
Dharma contains a much abbreviated version of the Bhagavad Gita. A programme insert contains the libretto in both Sanskrit and English, which is most helpful. (Translation and adaptation by Sharada K. Eswar,)
In the verses we hear, which strike me as encapsulating the core philosophical message of the play, Krishna reveals to the warrior Arjuna, who is agonizing over the morality of the internecine battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the essence of reality and how to act rightly. “The fight is not out there, Arjuna, it is inside you.”
This portion is an opera, another superb contribution from composer Gzowski. Meher Pavri, a soprano possessed of an ethereally beautiful voice, walks on stage so slowly she seems to be floating as she sings in Sanskrit, supertitles translating the verses. She is resplendent in a gold robe and golden headdress, just one of the many magnificent costumes created by Gillian Gallow. Downstage, Krishna and Arjuna move in slow motion to illustrate the text. This is a stunning interlude and perhaps the highlight of the entire production.
The last scene reverts to the stagecraft used in the opening of Karma. The dancer Jay Emmanuel, elaborately made up as Shiva, “the Destroyer,” dances feverishly as an actor upstage tells the tale of the apocalyptic encounter between the two warring factions.
As director, Jain has done a masterful job of orchestrating all these elements – music, dance, stage effects, performance – to create a magnificent spectacle that holds our attention even if perhaps we sometimes find ourselves lost in the river of stories searching for wisdom. The stage pictures he composes are seldom less than beautiful and many of them much more than that.
Jain is known for the kaleidoscopic use of actors of different ethnicities in his work, such as R&J at the Stratford Festival. Here all the performers are of South Asian heritage. What diversity there is comes in the form of different accents of actors who hail from the UK and Australia as well as Canada.
Jain has also chosen to cast women in several major male roles. In the case of the warriors Arjuna (Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu) and Karna (Navtej Sandhu) he has chosen two strapping young women who tower over most of the men in the company; in their nondescript costumes, they are most believable in their male personas.
However, Bhishma (Sukania Venugopal) and Shakuni (Sakuntala Ramanee) have flowing shoulder-length hair and make no attempt to disguise their femininity. Presumably those familiar with the Mahabharata know these characters are male and adjust quickly, but I continually had to remind myself they were men.
The cast, including the women just mentioned, are all excellent. Among the men, I was especially impressed by Neil D’Souza as Krishna and Shawn Ahmed and Darren Kuppan as warring cousins.
When both sections are performed on the same day, audience members have the option, for an additional fee, of participating in a “Khana Community Meal,” which is served in the nearby Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre which has been stripped to the bare, black walls for the occasion.
The meal itself is nothing to write home about. Far better is the show-and-tell presented on a raised platform in the center of the room by the indefatigable Miriam Fernandes, continuing her role as Storyteller, and Sharada K Eswar, who serves as everyone’s favorite auntie.
The Khana, we learn, is a meal in which an older person tells a story drawn from the Mahabharata and poses questions to younger members of the family to draw out the moral of the story – a sort of Indian seder. I learned more about the culture and the role that the Mahabharata plays in Hindu life from this experience than I did from the plays themselves. I recommend that you partake if you want to have the full Mahabharata experience.
As to the question raised earlier – does Mahabharata succeed as a piece of dramatic art? – I am less certain. Although credit is given to the poetry of Carole Satyamurti, I found little of the poetic in the text. The dialog seldom rises above the serviceable and much of it sounds like something out of a sword and sandals epic of yesteryear or last week’s action hero movie. Nevertheless, in the hands of this capable cast, it works.
Mahabharata is undeniably a major theatrical event, very much worth taking in. I suspect it will resonate most with those who grew up with the actual Mahabharata as part of their lived experience. Others may perhaps be moved to tackle the original text, all 200,000 verses of it. Perhaps.
A Tip: I would encourage those who were raised in various western traditions to engage with South Asian members in the audience. The folks my wife and I chatted with were gracious and happy to share insights into the plays. It added immeasurably to our enjoyment.
I am sure Mahabharata will play to enthusiastic audiences and respectful reviews wherever it goes on a projected world tour starting with an engagement at London’s Barbican Centre after its all-too-brief run at the Shaw Festival.
Mahabharata continues at The Shaw Festival through March 26, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shaw Festival website.
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