Does Peter Brook's Padma Shri, 30 years after Le Mahabharata, underline production's repute as Hindu soft power relic?
Brook’s citation, part of a not quite slender roster of international honourees over the years, comes on the heels of similar honours being announced for British politicians known to be ‘friendly’ to the current dispensation.
One of the more unexpected but eminently justifiable inclusions in the Indian state honours announced earlier this year was the Padma Shri accorded, almost as a footnote, to British stage auteur Peter Brook, who turned 96 on 21 March. As global laurels go, Brook is a highly decorated individual who had once notably declined a knighthood. This Indian distinction, modest when held against the sheer weight of his life’s work, ostensibly recognises his contribution to subcontinental arts and letters through his well-regarded helming of The Mahabharata, the ambitious stage offering based on the grand old epic that toured the world in the 1980s, more than three decades ago — which certainly calls into question this honour’s timeliness.
Written by noted French writer Jean-Claude Carrière, the production opened in 1985 as a dusk-to-dawn spectacle staged at an open-air amphitheatrical mineral quarry outside Avignon, a French city situated on the Rhône River, with audiences arriving by boat. The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote, of that first-ever outing, “Eleven hours later, with the birds singing in the Provencal dawn, the show finished with a vision of Paradise with sitars playing and candles bobbing gently in the on-stage river.”
Carrière, himself a Padma Shri honouree in 2015, passed away on 8 February in Paris, aged 89. His Le Mahabharata was written as three plays in French, and its elegantly pared-down universal cadences were translated into English by Brook — the production being staged in either language over a roughly four-year run. Their interest in the epic began as early as 1975, when “a French professor of Sanskrit recited parts of the [90,000 stanza-tale leaving them] fascinated by the power and magic of the composition as well as its breadth of vision,” according to an article in The New York Times. Carrière’s long association with Brook has yielded many plays, including Shakespearean adaptations in French and two more works drawn from the Indian epic — The Death of Krishna (2004), performed by Maurice Bénichou (Brook's erstwhile Krishna), and Battlefield (2015), both in close collaboration with playwright Marie-Hélène Estienne.
Performed by 21 artistes from 16 countries — a feat of cross-cultural congregation in itself — The Mahabharata was a hot ticket the world over but a hot potato in India where, quite ironically given its provenance, it was only ever staged in all its grandeur as a live spectacle once at Delhi's Siri Fort Auditorium. Limited invitation-only screenings of an austere five-and-a-half-hour film version, shot entirely indoors sans on-stage pyrotechnics, was organised by the Indian government as part of a year-long Festival of France in India in 1989. The film’s screenplay was the result of a painstaking eight years’ effort by Brook, Carrière and Estienne. However, a strong showing at the Indian box-office, that Brook had intended to be “the true test of the film's integrity”, never truly came to pass.
In an interview, Mallika Sarabhai, the only Indian actor in the mix, put the film’s perceived suppression down to racial bias, “There were parties that took offence to African actors playing [prominent parts].” The film’s cast included the French-Senegalese actor, Mamadou Dioume as Bhima, and Mali’s formidable Sotigui Kouyaté as Bhishma, both reprising their roles from the play, as did Sarabhai with Draupadi. International observers have said that “the primitive tribal earthiness” African actors were called to present was suggestive of racial stereotyping but calling the casting itself into question beggars belief.
On The Mahabharata’s no-show on Doordarshan, Sarabhai said, “They gave us a ridiculous official reason: the TV serial [BR Chopra’s Mahabharat] was running — our play would ‘confuse’ the audience.” This was in stark contrast to the state’s championing of the enterprise overseas. As Rustom Bharucha claimed in his trenchant 1988 critique of the play, “The Indian government has bought into this appropriation of our culture through its [unwavering] official support [...] as part of its promotion of ‘festival culture’ throughout the world.” Decades later, the sparse, sombre Battlefield, a 65-min post-war coda performed only by four actors and a musician, did finally bring a taste of the prior master-work to Indian shores in 2016, but not to any rapturous reception.
In a more recent piece, Sarabhai bemoans the belatedness of the Padma Shri while stating emphatically, “Perhaps no one has done [more] for the Mahabharata and a true understanding of its philosophy than [Brook], for he brought the work not [just] to Indophiles, but to the world.” Indeed, the other great international India excursion from that period — the Oscar-winning 1982 film Gandhi — saw both its director Richard Attenborough (Padma Bhushan in 1983) and leading man Ben Kingsley (Padma Shri in 1984) receive prompt India commendations. Perhaps that might speak to the power of cinema as a tool for cultural leverage.
The Padma awards in India have invariably skewed along partisan lines but never as egregiously as in recent years. Local political debates aside, Brook’s citation, part of a not quite slender roster of international honourees over the years, comes on the heels of similar honours being announced for British politicians known to be ‘friendly’ to the current dispensation. Brook’s virtuoso take on the epic was certainly idiosyncratic and, in its aspiration for a catch-all universality, perhaps stripped the original of its innate and native contexts to create an idiom with its own import. Nevertheless, some regard the production as a potent relic of Hindu soft power, which might explain the powers-that-be taking notice of Carrière and Brook, both unimpeachably meritorious for decades, thus late in the day. This might not necessarily read as an imprimatur of prestige, depending on where one falls on the proverbial divide.
Notwithstanding the glut of international raves, academics Bharucha and Gautam Dasgupta delivered contemporaneous Indian appraisals of the play that might lead one to believe that Brook’s version was almost a travesty visited upon the epic. Writing in the Economic & Political Weekly, Bharucha described The Mahabharata as “a contrived and overblown fairytale”, that “trivialised and excluded Indian culture”, a “most blatant (and accomplished) appropriation of Indian culture [...] specifically designed for the international market.” He wrote of its nine-hour duration being a “pitifully short [...] reductio ad absurdum,” and called out “the enforced use of the English language” as unfortunate given the multicultural ensemble of such diversity at Brook’s disposal. Perhaps far more scathing was his reporting on the ethics of intercultural engagement, where the privilege, power and pelf vested upon an international research crew travelling through India purportedly left an embittered local populace in its wake.
Carrière’s published memoirs of the subcontinental reconnaissance, Big Bhishma in Madras, full of awe and wonderment at India’s reticent splendours slowly being unveiled, sidesteps those flash-points. The visitors frequently questioned their raison d’etre. “What part, ultimately, should India play in our work? The manner of telling, the mise en scéne, the manner of acting, the costumes, the music: all pose problems. Quite obviously we cannot offer an Indian presentation. We are incapable of it. It would be ridiculous, absurd. Nor could we appropriate the poem, transport it to the West in our own style, ignoring on the way its culture of origin,” wrote Carrière.
In his 1987 essay, Dasgupta dismissed the play as a particularly egregious exercise in Orientalism, where the so-called Orient, “not allowed to represent itself [had to be aligned] within the prevailing hierarchy, with the imperial powers on top, the Orient at the bottom, of the political, social, and cultural scale.” One of his arguments was the “shockingly truncated” Bhagavad Gita, reduced from being “the fulcrum on which rests the entire thrust of this monumental drama of humanity” to just a few “whispered words never revealed to the audience.”
In a 2010 interview with Jonathan Kalb to mark 25 years of the production, Brook addressed many of these concerns. Of the Gita, he said, “When you are dealing with what is rightly seen as the most sacred of sacred texts, you don’t put it in a piece of theatre [so we decided] to present it in the core of the work as if it were a secret teaching.” He hoped the moment was real and intense enough to prompt a reading of the actual manuscript. On being called an ‘exploiter of Indian culture’ in academia of the 1980s, Brook harked back to the universality of Shakespeare while stating, “The Mahabharata belongs to mankind. It is a great heritage of India, but it has meaning for others.” While acknowledging that Western colonialism had stolen from every culture it had touched, Brook stressed that the timeless epic should be free to follow its manifest destiny, and become known throughout the world.
In many ways, while The Mahabharata came to be considered a shimmering milestone of intercultural theatre, then an inchoate categorisation; its making was also very much a cautionary tale that highlighted the stumbling blocks inherent to such collaborations. Practitioners grew increasingly aware of the direction in which cultural soft power moved, how white privilege worked, and which people held the agency, rightly or otherwise, to tell which stories. Questions of appropriation and authenticity crop up to this day each time a new project at the intersections announces itself. In India, the intercultural experiment is played out frenetically in the confrontation between regions and religions, castes and genders.
Brook’s success lay in assiduously mounting a performative universe inflected with all manner of artifices that were distinctly Indian — from costumes, gestures, music, and of course, the grand narrative — to create an accessible receptacle, not definitive in any sense, but one in which the echoes of a specific culture could still be carried in a richly aesthetic manner. It was an enterprise defined much more by what it borrowed than what it sought to engender afresh. One might wonder whether this kind of translation is only ever required for the most insular of audiences, and whether, if the project had steered closer to the epic’s intrinsic patterns and motivations — and not in any spiritual or jingoistic sense – what work might have emerged. Outside the realm of speculation, it is perhaps the staying power of Vyasa’s itihasa and its many reiterations that remains immutable.
All stills from Peter Brook's The Mahabharata are courtesy of Facebook.
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