That the epic of Vyasa is high drama has never been questioned, except by German savants like Oldenberg who threw up his hands in despair at "the most monstrous chaos!" But whether it makes for good theatre remained an open question. The dramatizations of Dwijendralal Roy, Kshirodeprased Bidyabinode, Nabin Chandra Sen, et al, were more in the "jatra" (folk-theatre) mould than what we would like to describe as proper plays. Even today, the epic provides some of the most popular productions of the folk-theatre repertory, with quite remarkable and controversial interpretation inspired by the novels of Dipak Chandra in Bengali, Ram Kumar Bhramar and Narendra Kohli in Hindi, Vasudevan Nair in Malayalam, Shivaji Sawant in Marathi and so on.
What remains possibly the most important modern creation of the Mahabharata as theatre is Buddhadeva Bose's trio: Anamni Angana, Pratham Partha andKalsandhya. Unfortunately, all three have remained confined to the esoteric area of the closet-drama (shruti-natak), depriving the audience thereby of the cut-and-thrust of antagonistic protagonists and the delicate probing of the human psyche that makes these plays such engrossing reading.
In recent times it is another aspect of folk-culture that has invaded the drawing-rooms: the tradition of the kathak, the tellers-of-tales, whose origins hark back to Sauti the suta who narrated the Mahabharata to the sages in the Naimisha forest. These are Punaram Nishad, Fida Bai and, the most famous of all, Teejan Bai through their "Pandavani".
The Sanskritisation, if one may so term it, of this kathak form has taken a fascinating turn in Calcutta in the hands of Shaoli Mitra. Using this folk-form, she has modified it with superb skill to put on the Bengali stage virtually a one-woman show of the kernel of the Mahabharata in "Katha Amrita Saman" (Words-like-nectar). She had begun her daring venture in the early eighties with the portrayal of the existential angst of Draupadi, five-husbanded yet husband-less in Nathabati Anathabat. In 1990 she ventured further, to portray on stage the major female characters of the epic: Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi. Another remarkable portrayal has been that of Savitri and Draupadi through a combination of dance-and-recitation by Mallika Sarabhai in her production, "Shakti". I deliberately leave out of the ambit of this discussion Peter Brook's neither-fish-nor-fowl concoction. It is, indeed, a tribute to the clear-sightedness of Mallika Sarabhai that out of that confusion she has so successfully sieved out the scintillating gem that is Draupadi as felt in the heart of another woman of culture and power.
Besides the singular performances of Shaoli Mitra and Mallika Sarabhai, Calcutta has seen in early 1990 the staging of what is possibly the most fierce and traumatic representation of the horror of the Kurukshetra holocaust: Dharmavir Bharati'sAndhaa Yuga. If in Kalsandhya Buddhadev Bose depicts the decadence of the Yadavas after the great war—as if, indeed, it had never taken place—signalling the end of an epoch, then in Andhaa Yuga Dharmavir Bharati mercilessly lashes into excruciating agony the violent revulsion, the white-hot hatred, the terrifying madness and the deadening physical and mental darkness that is the fall-out of the final encounter between Ashvatthama and the Pandavas. Where Bose makes the epic contemporary in terms of an expose of a disintegrating polity, bereft of values, living and feeding on offal, Bharati makes the flesh crawl with all-too-fresh memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and napalmed Vietnam. There are no heroes here. The same putrefying pus that oozes filthily from the sores covering cursed Ashvatthama bursts out from the wound made by the arrow in Krishna's foot. Yuyutsu, who crossed over from the Kaurava to the Pandava camp, commits suicide on finding himself ostracized by all in Hastinapura, even by his parents who look on him as the slayer of his blood-brothers. Wine, women and debauchery drive the Yadavas into the gaping maw of death as Krishna first watches, than joins in the massacre of kith and kin. We are not even left with the solace of the epic, that the burden of Mother Earth has been lifted. Darkness envelops all as the era comes to an end, with no hints of a new dawn of hope, of re-birth. We are left on a darkling plain, caught in limbo, between a world that is dead and another not yet born, not even heralded!
One dearly wishes that these two plays were staged in succession. But Kalsandhyahas never even been play-read in a major performance. Possibly, we in Bengal find the contents somewhat too close for comfort, the warning signals it sets off being too unsavory in a metropolis with a population of over 80,000 drug-addicts.
Experiencing the performances of "Shakti" and "Katha Amrita Saman" a number of issues come to mind beyond what Mallika Sarabhai and Shaoli Mitra have highlighted through the poem of Kartikeya Sarabhai and Iravati Karve's Yuganta respectively. Mallika's Draupadi is very much for a European audience, while Shaoli's, cradled in the rich soil of Kashiram Das' Bengali verse re-telling of the epic, automatically establishing rapport with the audience. Thereby, Shaoli's communication is, inevitably, more piercing, while Mallika's dazzles with its scintillating fusion of mime, dance, "abhinaya" and eloquence. Shaoli's rendition of the epic women spans several hours, where Mallika's Draupadi is a blazing flame that shoots up and dies down all too swiftly. Both differ strikingly from the genuine folk-tradition of the "Pandavani" in the fresh psychological insights they provide into the female characters, as against the concentration on vigorous, rousing telling-of-the-tale characterizing the latter.
"Katha Amrita Saman" starts its story with Satyavati, not Ganga, although therein lies the knottiest problem which is at the core of the epic. The infanticide practiced by Ganga on seven of her sons, her bringing up of Devavrata without his royal father, her very first appearance when she takes her seat on the right thigh of Pratipa and demands that he marry her—all these provide fertile ground for the enquiring mind. Add to this the fact that Shantanu was the youngest of Pratipa’s sons and come to the throne only because Devapi, the eldest, was disqualified on account of a skin disease, just as later Dhritrarashtra, the eldest, is passed over because of his blindness in favor of the younger Pandu. Strangely enough, Pratipa does not seem to have bothered to get his son a bride. Shantanu did not attend a single svayamvara and appears to have had a peculiar weakness for tribal women living on the shores of rivers, be it Ganga whom he meets beside the river Ganga, or Satyavati whom he sees beside the Yamuna.
In the veins of the Kauravas it is the blood of Vyasa which flows, and thereby their ancestry is traced back to a fisher-girl Satyavati and the sage Parashara. In the case of the Pandavas, however, there is not a trace of the royal blood of Kuru. Their fathers are unknown. All we are told is that they were brought up in the Himalayas where the tradition of polyandry existed, as Yudhishthira assures Durpada while insisting that all five brothers shall marry Draupadi. Through their mother they are related to the non-Aryan Yadavas and to the Nagas (Aryaka, who saves the poisoned Bhima, is Kunti's father's maternal grandfather). Their claim to the throne, therefore, is quite dubious. The fact of their being seized upon by Drupada to work out the old rivalry between Hastinapur and Panchala from the time of Samvarana and Nila is an issue that needs to be highlighted. For, it is because of this ancient animosity that Draupadi is used as a pawn by Drupada. The so-called svayamvara is really a ceremony of viryashulka, that is, to the strongest goes the prize. Draupadi has no option regarding choosing a husband. She will have to wed the person who succeeds in the test of skill. Very perceptively Karttikeya Sarabhai's poem makes this point: "the Svayamvara was mine", says Draupadi, "but the choice my father's”—the only amendment needed here being that it was no svayamvara at all. Moreover, Mallika Sarabhai could have added that the choice was not only Drupada's but even more so Kunti's and of her sons other than Arjuna who won the bride. Drupada's plan had been so to structure a test that none but Arjuna could win the bride. In this he succeeded, skillfully throwing dust in the eyes of the assembled royalty. Immediately after Arjuna hit the target, the epic records that Yudhishthira and the twins slipped out and went home. Arjuna and Bhima who bring Draupadi home later. By that time, Kunti has been told of what has happened. The entire drama that takes place at the expense of Arjuna and Draupadi, is something which has not been exploited by Shaoli Mitra or Mallika Sarabhai, let alone the mystery of Draupadi's birth and its implications for the development of her personality.
Why is it that Kunti deliberately says something which ensures that Draupadi will have to have five husbands possessing her just as she herself had four (Surya, Dharma, Vayu, Indra)? Kunti, at least, did not have to go through the daily trauma of having to satisfy equally five men. Although it is Pandu who chose her impregnators (Surya is the only one she chooses on her own), she merely had a one-time sexual relationship with four persons, never having to live with them. Is it the eternal tale of the mother-in-law inflicting on the daughter-in-law more misery than what she has had to undergo?
Forced into three sexual encounters (if we take the one with Surya as a spontaneous indiscretion), Kunti forces her daughter-in-law into five life-long relationships of the most intimate type. Kunti leaves no way out, for she tells Yudhishthira that he must find a way whereby her command, as a mother, is observed while ensuring that scandal does not touch Draupadi! Here is a rich case-study of how woman does not feel for woman; how one mother ruthlessly sacrifices a young woman for the pleasure of her five sons. Never do we find Kunti berating them for gambling away their wife; she does not rebuke them for sitting silently while Draupadi was being stripped in open court. And there remains the final enigma of Kunti refusing to stay with her sons after their victory, and accompanying Dhritarashtra and Gandhari into the forest, to die with them in a conflagration.
The second woman in the story of the Shantanu dynasty is Satyavati. Like Kunti, she. too, has had a son before marriage. But, where the fisher-girl turned queen-mother has the courage to own him as her own, Kunti, a princess, never has the courage to acknowledge Karna. Their final encounter is, indeed, a pitiless exposure of Kunti's utterly utilitarian designs. She goes to him in secret, only to see if acknowledging him will win him over to the Pandava side. Satyavati remains a character inadequately studied. Silently she permits Devavrata-Gangadatta to divest himself of his ancestral kingdom and deprive himself of progeny. Never does she voice a protest. Eager to have her blood rule the throne of Hastinapura, she tells Bhishma of the relationship with Vyasa, summons him and refuses to accept his sound advice that the princesses must observe a purifying vow for a year before they can become fit to beget children by him. Like her grandson Pandu, she is hungry, indeed over-eager, for descendants. And so, deluding Ambika and Ambalika with the promise that their brother-in-law will be bedding them (they immediately think of Bhishma by whom they had been abducted so heroically from the Kashi court), she sends in Vyasa. The result is a blind grandson, and another who cannot beget children. The epic tells us that some time after the marriage with Kunti, Bhishma thought of getting Pandu another wife, possibly because no child had been born of Kunti. And he goes to the extent of purchasing Madri, paying a heavy bride-price, against the prevailing canons of the Kuru dynasty. Satyavati's remains a fruitless life in so far as the ambition of ruling as dowager queen over a great dynasty is never realized. Her son Vyasa advises her after the death of Pandu to retire to the forest, for "the green years of the earth are gone…do not be a witness to the suicide of your own race". An empty life, indeed—but what a life! Risen from fisher-girl to queen and regent, and famed as the mother of the arranger of the Vedas and the author of the Puranas and the greatest of epics!
A diametrically different character of Satyavati is drawn by Dwijendra Lal Roy in his play Bhishma, where he paints her as a woman of loose morals, having an affair with King Shalya (who is also loved by Amba) and detested by Bhishma, while the decrepit Shantanu is wholly under her sway, This is something which Shaoli Mitra might like to look into while re-designing her all-too-brief vignette on Satyavati.
Coming back to Kunti, there is the unexplored area of the psyche of a young girl given away by her father to a friend who even changes her very name from Pritha to Kunti, as if to wipe out her pervious identity wholly. We are not even told who Pritha's mother was. Then, during a visit by the sage Durvasa, Kuntibhoja inexplicably places his nubile adopted daughter exclusively at his "service" with instructions to ensure that the sage is not displeased, for his irrational, unbounded rage was notorious. The result is Karna. Bhishma was aware of Karna's true parentage. That is, perhaps, an explanation for his seeking out another "proper" bride for pale Pandu, just as he had done for Dhritarashtra. Perhaps, Bhishma did not take kindly to Pandu's independent decision to marry Kunti. The mysterious detached attitude of the Hastinapura court to the fate of Pandu and his queens in the forest remains another intriguing aspect of Bhishma's character. Is there a cold war hinted at between Kunti and Bhishma, particularly accentuated through the fathering of Yudhishthira on her by Dharma-Vidura? Is that why Bhishma keeps quiet when Yudhishthira gambles away the kingdom? Why does Kunti not seek shelter with Kuntibhoja or the Yadava Sura, her real father?
This hint of a delicate romance between Vidura and Kunti offers rich scope to an actress of Shaoli Mitra's caliber in her portrayal of Kunti. Vyasa's inimitably succinct yet pregnant style conveys volumes in the description of the meeting of Kunti with Dharma, whom she has summoned for getting her the first son at Pandu's behest (it is the younger brother-in-law who has to be summoned in such cases, namely Vidura, also known as Dharma-on-earth):
"Kunti, what can I give you?"
It is with Vidura that she lives when her sons are exiled. Vidura's exhortation to the Pandavas for leaving Kunti with him is touched with ineffable delicacy of emotion:
Kunti is of royal blood,
she is old, frail; she has
never known any
kind of misfortune. She should
not go to the forest.
Let her stay with me.
She can stay in my house.
I will look after her.
In the end, Vidura and Kunti leave together for the forest with the blind couple. What happened to Vidura's wife, daughter of King Devaka by a Shudra handmaid?
What were Kunti's feelings when Madri was brought into her husband's life by Bhishma, not chosen by Pandu? Yet, it is for Madri that he pleads with her and it is Madri who alone is able to see his face aglow with passion. Even more, what of the feelings of Gandhari, married off to a blind man? A marriage for which, in violation of established custom, she is brought to Hastinapura. What of her frustrated fury on hearing of the birth of Kunti's son, when she strikes her belly to abort the fetus? How unthinkably deep is the extent of her hurt that never once does she look on the face of even one of her 101 children! Never does she step in to control Duryodhana's frenetic jealousy. The only occasion on which she asserts herself is in the disrobing of Draupadi, but her voice goes unheard, having remained silent so long that it has lost authority. Strangely, Kunti does not rush to Draupadi’s rescue, perhaps having been left behind in Indraprastha. A question raised so perceptively by Peter Brook's Gandhari needs to be probed by Shaoli Mitra: why did Dhritarashtra never ask her to remove the bandage? Why did he deprive himself of his most valuable asset and allow his wife, the mother of his one hundred and one children, to remain artificially handicapped all her life? As if this humiliation and callous treatment were not enough, during Gandhari's pregnancy Dhritarashtra has not the slightest compunction in bedding a Vaisya woman and having by her a son named Yuyutsu, who finally becomes the regent in Parikshit's infancy, to rule over the Pandava Kingdom. Thus, Gandhari does not have a single child of hers left alive at the end. It is the son of her husband by an un-named Vaisya woman who becomes the true ruler of the kingdom. The immeasurable fury of her rage comes out in the glance she shoots from beneath her bandaged eyes, which falls on the toe-nails of Yudhishthira, burning them black. Its verbal expression is found in unforgettable words in the plaint preceding the curse she lays on Krishna. Each of these would add immeasurably to the Pancham Vaidicpresentation.
Shaoli Mitra missed out one of the most evocative and suggestive passages in the epic while rendering the scene of the Pandavas going into exile. Each of the six proceeds in a particular fashion and each posture conveys volumes, forecasting that which is to happen. Yudhishthira covers his face, so as not to burn the sons of Dhritarashtra with his eyes; Bhima stares at his arms, thinking of how he will use them in the war; Arjuna scatters sand, showing the innumerable arrows he will shoot as effortlessly; Draupadi's disheveled hair and bloodstained cloth forecast the condition of the Hastinapura women after the war.
Another remarkable viewpoint which could lend a wholly novel dimension to "Katha Amrita Saman" is the lament of Dhritrashtra to Sanjaya. Here the blind monarch laments, after the war, his hopeless condition, recounting a series of events, the very selection of which provides the audience at the very beginning of the epic with a unique insight into the mind of the king, while simultaneously summarizing the epic from his viewpoint.
Finally, what of that greatest of all tragedies in the life of a woman of unknown parentage with five husbands? That, when they have been through everything, have won the kingdom and lost all their children and their parents, and are proceeding on the final journey, it is Draupadi who should fall first. And why not, being the weaker of the species? But how is it that not one of the five husbands, one and all of whom "had her in his heart" when they saw her in the potter's hut in Kampilya, not one of them even checks a step to lend a hand to pull her up, or stays with her in her last moments? Here is splendid material for Shaoli Mitra’s use.
It is in "Katha Amrita Saman" that, for the first time, female characters other than Draupadi have been sought to be portrayed at length. Encouraged by this gripping presentation one is tempted to suggest that the repertoire be expanded. Subhadra is the first to come to mind. It is she who wins Arjuna's heart, with her relationship as Krishna's beloved sister, and then as the mother of Kurukshetra's most heinous sacrifice: Abhimanyu, ultimately the founder of the dynasty through Parkshit. The character of Subhadra has been developed with great pains by Nabin Chandra Sen in his trilogy, Raivatak, Kurukshetra, and Prabhas. The second character offering rich possibilities is Chitrangada. It is with her that Arjuna spends the longest period of his exile and it is only she who never turns up at the Indraprastha Court. Nor does her son participate in the Kurukshetra battle. Thus, Babhruvahan remains the only son of Arjuna to survive the war as his sons by Ulupi, Subhadra and Draupadi are all killed in it. Yet, Chitrangada makes no claim to the Hastinapura throne. Arjuna meets her after a very long time during the Ashvamedha, and is felled unconscious by his son whom he forces to fight him. Besides the well-known insights provided by Tagore into Chitrangada, recently an outstanding novel has probed her psyche in a completely different way. This is Maggi Lidchi-Grassi's superb The Legs of the Tortoise (Writers Workshop, 1990). Actually, the cluster of women around Arjuna itself provides a unifying point-of-contact, using which each individual personality can be explored on stage, whether it be Draupadi, or Subhadra, or Chitrangada, or Ulupi who brings Arjuna back to life. It is interesting that as Kunti is related by blood to the non-Aryan Yadavas and Nagas, so is Arjuna related through marriage, yet again, to the Yadavas and the Nagas.
Shaoli Mitra's exhortation in "Katha Amrita Saman" to us all is to come together to seek out the "amrita" in the epic. One would like her to look at one aspect of the Mahabharata which is, perhaps, its most personal and, therefore, its most poignant aspect. This epic is, in a basic way, the autobiography of Vyasa. It is his anguished cry which rings out towards the end, as he records in pitiless, unsparing detail the account of his progeny slaughtering one another:
I raise my arms and I shout –
but no one listens!
From dharma cones wealth and pleasure:
Why is dharma not practiced?
While churning the epic for the amrita, inevitably it is poison that rises first. For, this is the story of Vyasa and his descendants, all corrupted with that single consuming weakness: lust. Satyavati, the originator of the dynasty, is herself a fruit of King Uparichara's lust. Vyasa is born of Parashara forcing himself on Satyavati in midstream in a boat. Shantanu is descended from Yayati, the archetypal figure of the victim of lust, and the cause of his birth is having gazed lustfully at Ganga in Brahma's court when the wind uplifted her dress. By becoming a slave of lust, Shantanu deprives Hastinapura of its rightful heir Devavrata-Gangadatta. The child of Shantanu's dotage, Vichitravirya, dies of over-indulgence in sex with two wives. Because Satyavati refuses to subject Ambika and Ambalika to a year-long purificatory penance, they await their brother-in-law and abductor Bhishma in lustful anticipation, and thus the birth of Dhritarashtra and Pandu is marred irretrievably, Pandu himself dies a victim of his lust for Madri. The five brothers all desire Panchali, and not one of their children survives. It is the supreme irony of the epic that the person who becomes the de facto ruler at the end is Yuyutsu, son of Dhritarashtra by a Vaisya maidservant. No wonder Vyasa cries out in despair as he faithfully records man's deliberate rejection of salvation and the inexorable working-out of the tragic flaw of lust ingrained deep within, driving him to destruction (cf. my Themes and Structure in the Mahabharata, Dasgupta & Co., Calcutta, 1989). Where is the amrita?
But, through the murky fog of the noisome fumes of lust, hatred ambition and greed we glimpse a few statuesque figures radiating beauty, power, grace and an inflexible determination—Devayani and Sharmishtha, lust-crazed Yayati's unforgettable queens; Ganga and Satyavati, ruling over doting Shantanu; Gandhari and Draupadi, Niobe-like surrounded by the corpses of their children and their brothers; but, above all, Kunti, raising five heroes by herself, acting as their initial bonding force, and then providing Draupadi as the cement; yet, curiously, leaving them after the pyrrhic victory to welcome death in a forest-fire. A woman of such incredible complexity of character is rare indeed in literature of such antiquity, and Kunti is very much part of the predicament of a single-mother, a widow of elite society, with children born in and out of wedlock of unknown fathers, determined to win them a place under the sun. Such are the aspects that need to be brought before audiences on the stage today. For the Epic of epics is by no means just a man's world. It is the women who mould the destiny of its men. And this is what we need to realize about Vyasa's mighty creation.