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Mahabharata Traditions & Variations
|by Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen|
Two books containing essays on various aspects and variations of the Mahabharata text have been published in 2009. The first, edited by Dr. K.K. Chakravarty, Member-Secretary of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, contains an introduction by him and twenty articles divided into four sections (textual complex, regional traditions, performance and purushartha). These were presented in a seminar in February 2007 as part of the fourth anniversary celebrations of the National Manuscript Mission. The second volume is a collection of 23 essays with an excellent introduction by the Dr. TRS Sharma of which eight were presented in an international Mahabharata seminar in March 2004 as part of the Sahitya Akademi’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. The first six essays of this book are reproduced from The Mahabharata Revisited edited by Professor R.N. Dandekar, being proceedings of a 1997 seminar. The rest are newly commissioned papers that fall into two broad sections: those that deal with various facets of the epic and those dealing with its regional variations.
What catches the eye at the outset is the striking cover designs of both books. The cover of the first book is the pediment from the National Museum of Phnom Penh portraying Bhima leaping into the air to strike Duryodhana as the other Pandavas watch and
In the first book the articles by Lokesh Chandra, Manjushree Gupta, Anita Khanna, Vijaya Ramaswamy, A.Purushothaman and A.Harindranath, Shail Mayaram and Satya Chaitanya describe the traditions extant in
Similarly, another significant article on continuities/discontinuities in a folk oral tradition, is Shail Mayaram’s on the Mewati Pandun Ka Kara, a folk epic of the war-like Meo Muslims which has both a Muslim and a shakta frame and establishes how the oral epic rethinks the classical epic. In this non-Sanskrit Mahabharata variation, Gorakhnath plays a significant role and Draupadi is worshipped as a goddess. No other variations are mentioned. In a remarkable essay on the endlessly fascinating Bheel Bharath, Satya Chaitanya focuses on attitude towards sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. He shows how all the female characters play a dominant role and are comfortable with their environment, unlike the Vyasan characters. He describes some non-Mahabharata episodes, not all (that is done by C.N.Ramachandran in the Sahitya Akademi book) bringing out the proactive characteristics of Ganga, Indrani, Radha, Kunti, Draupadi (especially in the Draupadi-Vasuki episode), Uttara, Subhadra and two non-Mahabharata characters, Hirapath and Jala-jogini. This article is the most satisfying. Purushottaman and Harindranath deal very competently with Nilalkuttu and some other Mahabharata-related episodes which do not appear in the mainstream Mahabharata in the oral, ritual, theatrical and performance traditions of Kerala. The authors make an interesting observation that the female roles– Kantakari, Kuncu Tevi, Karna’s wife, Pumala, Nagakanni and Kuratti– are very dominant. But again we get only a partial glimpse of the departures in the Malayali traditions. A translation of the song quoted would have raised the interest level of this highly informative essay. Lokesh Chandra’s article only provides information about the Mahabharata in the art and literature of
The second book contains thirteen articles dealing with vernacular, tribal and oral traditions. The most enlightening essay, which must be read with Satya Chaitanya’s, is by C.N.Ramachandran on the Bheel Bharata and two oral versions, the Janapada Bharathaa Kathegalu and the 36000-line Janapada Mahabharatha, current among the tribals of North Karnataka and the agricultural communities of South Karnataka respectively. He lists, chapter-wise, all the variations systematically, making passing references to the Gond Ramayana, Jaina traditions, Turanga Bharata, Junjappa, etc. Krishnamurthy Hanur writes about the most popular version in Kannada, Kumaravyasa’s Bharatha Kathamanjari, in fair detail, narrating many departures contained therein. Interestingly, the village folk in most of Karnataka are particularly fond of the Virataparva and believe that reading it would bring rain. Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata in Oriya, writes G.K.Das, follows the core story but amalgamates various elements of indigenous cultures, popular myths, legends and folklore. Das calls Sarala Dasa’s composition a “super-myth” and goes on to discuss two original myths Sarala created, both departures from Vyasa: the Navagunjara and the true mango. Only two instances of myth-making from a “super-myth” hardly satisfy our Mahabharata-enthusiast. Das could have discussed briefly some of the other myths, e.g. Yudhishthira’s abduction by the demon Hiranyakavacha, Bhima-Hanumana, Jara-Angada and
From these discussions it becomes quite clear how the vernacular, folk and oral versions get influenced by local socio-religious, anthropological and economic customs and myths. All the vernacular Mahabharatas discussed depict the female protagonists as independent, dominant and empowered. The so-called anti-heroes and comparatively minor characters of the epic become heroes in these versions. Also, social relationships which are considered taboo in epic society become very acceptable. The characteristics of the motifs change. The snake motif, which plays such an important role in the epic, also plays a major role in the vernaculars with curious variations: Arjuna defeats Vasuki in the Mewati version while in the Bheel Bharata, he is miserably overpowered by Vasuki.
Besides these six, there are seven essays analysing critically trends in modern Indian literature which try to step out of the classical mould, re-interpreting characters and re-inventing incidents, often utilising the “silences” of the epic to look at it from the modern viewpoint. Alok Bhalla looks at Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug (Hindi), and Harishchandra Thorat at the textual strategies of the Marathi novel (but Sutaputta Lomaharshana is not the narrator of the epic; it is Ugrashravas, son of Lomaharshana). Amiya Dev examines Buddhadeva Bose’s interpretation of some of the incidents in Bengali. However, he is wrong in stating that there are no translations of Bose’s verse plays. Writers Workshop published Krishna Kanti De’s translations in 1992. Malini Goswami shows how Draupadi has been portrayed in modern Assamese literature; P.P.Ravindran discusses three Malayali novels; Sreedevi K. Nair narrates how the Kalyana Saugandhikam episode has been recycled and retold by three different Malayali authors; and Vrinda Nabar discusses the epic’s relevance from the point of view of contemporary writers like Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel– English), Mahashweta Devi (Draupadi–Bengali) and actor-director Shaoli Mitra (Bengali).
Of the other articles in the first volume, two by Pradip Bhattacharya, who also chaired the session on visual media and the epic, are arresting. In one he strikes at the very root of the most talked-about episode of the epic: the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, establishing that it is an interpolation. Why Mehendale in his essay refers to the “upper” and “lower” garment of ekambara/ekavastra Draupadi is not understood. Why should vasana be understood as upper garment when she is wearing only one garment? In another remarkable essay on the Mahabharata on TV and cinema, Bhattacharya discusses in depth B.R.Chopra’s notable television production bringing out the salient features of Rahi Masoom Reza’s sensitive and ingeniously conceived script, underlining the departures, omissions and inventions and quoting copiously from literature to bolster his discussion. He lambasts Peter Brook’s shallow and insensitive handling of the epic and its glowing review by John D. Smith. In passing he refers to Shaoli Mitra’s exceptional stage productions in Bengali, Nathavati Anathavat and Katha Amrita Saman that deserve more space along with Teejan Bai’s Pandavani even though the essay is on the Mahabharata on screen. M.A. Mehendale describes the technique adopted in collating the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, the degree of its success and its limitations with expected competence. V.K. Bhatt’s Hindi article finds the CE inadequate and suggests measures to compile a CE taking into consideration all oral and folk traditions, referring to K.K.Shastri’s salutary work and the work done by the National Mission for Manuscripts. Saroja Bhate offers a glimpse into the vast literature on the Mahabharata by scholars outside the Indian sub-continent, including e-studies being undertaken in
The first six articles of the Sahitya Akademi book by R.N.Dandekar, G.C.Pande, K.Kunjunni Raja, J.L.Mehta, Mukund Lath and S.G.Kantawala are reprints of unquestioned excellence. They delve into the nature of the text consisting of legendary and didactic material; how its encyclopaedic character grew over the centuries reflecting socio-political changes and registering such transition in every field of life; value-based concepts like anrshamsya (not to be confused with ahimsa) and pratismriti, ethics; the complimentary and contradictory elements contained in the text; the basic orality and the consequent flexibility of the text. So much diversity, at such length, yet a bonding unity holding the entire epic together! There are controversies: do all the rasas merge into the Shanta rasa leading to moksha? Is it history or merely a poem?
The seventh essay by Arjun Mahey, while posting a spirited defence of the CE, states perceptively that in the final analysis it is just one more version of the epic and a precursor of many more future ones. Venkoba Rao’s highly pedantic and jargon-filled paper argues that Yudhishthira and Arjuna failed to learn the epistomic import of the lessons imparted by Bhishma and Krishna due to the characteristic of double bind– a structural inadequacy and a textual irony of the text. Ashok Chausalkar explains the pre-Kautilyan concept of apaddharma, amoral politics, as explained by Bhishma with stories. Janaki Sreedharan chooses Draupadi and Amba, two revenge characters from the epic, who represent feminine autonomy in a masculine framework, describes their plight in a male-dominated society and the difference in the nature of revenge they perpetrate.
Both books are well-conceived and impressive with a star-studded panel of writers. The reproductions of Indonesian murals and paintings with two of the articles have enriched the essays. But why did the Sahitya Akademi reprint six articles from an earlier conference? The reason proffered by the editor that “Since the latter collection (The Mahabharata Revisited) is out of print, it was felt that some of the essays…deserve to be better known” is not reasonable. The earlier book could have been reprinted instead. It gives an impression that the Akademi is suffering from intellectual inadequacy. The volumes would have been richer if Razmnama, the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, and other Mahabharata-based works in Persian and Arabic were discussed. The Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva is not only a variant but a work that has left its indelible mark on the vernacular versions of almost all the regions of the country, especially the eastern and southern. An essay on this would have been a welcome addition. The Jaina Mahabharata, with its extraordinary departures, deserves a place too. The editing and proofing of the National Mission for Manuscripts’ handsome volume are surprisingly poor. The Sahitya Akademi seminar was held in March 2004 and the National Manuscript Mission seminar in February 2007. Should it take so long to publish the proceedings?
Shekhar Kumar Sen retired as Major General & Additional Director General of the Army Postal Service and was awarded the VSM. He served as Senior Deputy Director in the
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