I am troubled. The question is obscure
August 23, 2011 3:34 AM   Subscribe

In 1989, invited to an open air theatre, late at night, I first experienced the 6 hour long screening of Peter Brook's Mahabharata, a much revered Hindu epic which includes the complete Bhagavad Gita as a central part of its narrative. Brook's multiracial casting and innovative treatment received criticism yet its impact has been acknowledged anyone who sat through the 9 hour play, the 6 hour TV serialization or only the 3 hour DVD.

Vyasa: Do you know how to write ?
Boy : No
Vyasa: I have composed a great poem. I have composed it all but nothing is written. I need someone to write down what I know.
Boy : What's your name ?
Vyasa: Vyasa
Boy : What's your poem about ?
Vyasa: It's about You.
Boy : Me.
Vyasa: Yes. It is the story of your race. How your ancestors were born. How they grew. How vast war arose. It is the poetical history of mankind. If you listen carefully, at the end you will be someone else. with clips

Wisdom-book and story-repository, fifteen times the size of the Bible, The Mahabharata was written in Sanskrit, but the words you hear are French, spoken with a piquant diversity of accents matching each actor’s distinctive shape, skin and race. A diminutive North African Jew as elephant-headed Ganesha, then as Krishna. Vyasa, the bard of the poem, a ginger-haired Gascon. Tiny, tightbound Japanese, long-limbed loping Senegalese, pale-skinned Germans and Poles, a wide-lipped Lebanese, a princess with streaming black hair and etched eyes – the one Indian in this constellation of colours and silhouettes. A multicultural congregation of actors plays out an ancient accumulation of fantastic fables, wisdom parables and fierce physical confrontations over three nights in an arena of rock, sand, water and fire. You think: this is theatre and not-theatre, a play and an encounter that is more than a play, as the stories start to unspool, recounted by the poet-author who is also a figure in his own tapestry of tales. via

There's a torrent available.
posted by infini (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I've wanted to watch this for long. Think the last I checked, the DVD set was ginormously expensive, $150 or something; think they had them up on one of those expat Indian video stores, either Mustafa or Bombay Talkies or even some place online.

Love the link-fest, thanks for sharing; won't publically admit to downloading torrents, but let's just say I can understand if someone finds it hard to not start downloading. :)
posted by the cydonian at 4:09 AM on August 23, 2011

Meh, during my epic googlefest I found myriads of solutions to your unstated problem ;p Go forth and do the needful

btw, do you know if Google caches are blocked here? Had major issues clicking through to articles on wordpress specifically
posted by infini at 4:13 AM on August 23, 2011

Wow, I saw this when it was on PBS or something ages ago. I love love love long-form theater works, and this one is really outstanding. Thanks for the post.

Oh, and no, Google cache links are not verboten here. They're used not infrequently, and even get used when we drive too much traffic to someone's server so the link can still be read.
posted by hippybear at 4:26 AM on August 23, 2011

It's considered polite to include the Google cache in a footnote or something, using the main URL in the main text.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:40 AM on August 23, 2011

Sorry, I meant "here" as in Singapore and everytime I went for the cache google gave me a server error message implying I was a bot. There was a lovely article titled The Effectiveness of Colorblind Casting in Peter Brook's The Mahabharata - a blogpost and I couldn't get at it no matter what I tried :(
posted by infini at 5:01 AM on August 23, 2011

Infini, were you looking for Junyi's "The Effectiveness of Colorblind Casting in Peter Brook's The Mahabharata" ?
posted by honest knave at 5:11 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes and I can't access it. Would you be able to share the text with me in MeMail or some such please? It simply hangs there when I click and just gives me time out errors.
posted by infini at 5:18 AM on August 23, 2011

As a theater major at Northwestern, I spent most of a year systematically checking out every single book in the library relating to Peter Brook and his work. His production of The Mahabharata was basically the culmination of about 2 decades of "experiments" with multinational performers working with epic texts.

In the early 70s, Brook took a couple vans full of actors (including Helen Mirren) on a road trip through North and West Africa, pulling into villages that had probably never seen Western actors before - they'd roll out a Persian carpet for a stage, and Brook would toss a pair of shoes onto it and have the actors improvise a play for the villagers, with whom they shared neither language nor cultural tradition. There's a book about the trip.

I'm also fascinated with the various spaces they performed the Mahabharata in. In Paris, Brook made his home in the
Bouffes du Nord, a formerly abandoned theater that he only "fixed up" enough to make it safe to use. It still shows it's age, arrested in a state of partial decay. When they brought the production of the Mahabharata to New York, they did much the same thing to the Majestic Theater - it was found in its abandoned state, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music adapted it for the show.

I think the production of it I most wish I could have seen, though, was in Adelaide, Australia. It was performed in a rock quarry, and the full length "marathon" production was performed overnight, timed so that as the play was ending - in the aftermath of the epic war - the first rays of sunrise hit the face of the rock wall behind the performers. Talk about lighting design!
posted by dnash at 5:19 AM on August 23, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh, hey. I have this version. Brook really had a deep grasp of what was needed to retain to tell something useful from the orignal stories. I love that the cast is multi-ethnic, with the actors portraying the respective brothers chosen because they could embody something unique about each. This version, while austere, is much more useful to me than some fleshed out over-the-top Bollywood rendition.

Brook is an interesting person who wasn't afraid to use theater as a means of seeking for one's self as a spiritual path. Check out his book The Empty Space.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 5:20 AM on August 23, 2011

Aw, crap, I borked the links in my post.

"Conference of the Birds" book

Theatre des Bouffes du Nord
posted by dnash at 5:28 AM on August 23, 2011

Sorry, I meant "here" as in Singapore and everytime I went for the cache google gave me a server error message implying I was a bot.

Don't think it's a Singapore-specific thing; could be the ISP at that time of the day or night. Was this on StarHub? I've gotten such errors at night
posted by the cydonian at 5:56 AM on August 23, 2011

Starhub and the couple of hours just before posting the FPP - I made sure not to touch certain sites till the very end but it was consistent with wordpress and also with all cache attempts regardless of originating url. Still this is a derail. perhaps in our long planned yet never completed meetup we can discuss?
posted by infini at 6:00 AM on August 23, 2011

This is a great post, but here is a little trivia item you guys may not know: just as Gilligan's Island is based on the Homer's epic The Odyssey, the Mahabharata is actually the basis for the sitcom Eight is Enough. It was originally going to be called "One Hundred is Too Fucking Many", and Dick Van Patten's character was based on Dhritarashtra. And that is TRUE, so please don't come back to me with any of your goddamn lip. TRUE.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:04 AM on August 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

*kicks the quidnunc kid on other shin and abandons fpp from recent activity*
posted by infini at 6:25 AM on August 23, 2011

The crores of Indians do not hold dear to their hearts the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord, which is that we see in Brook's celluloid version.

"Crores." I had to look that one up. It means ten million, but it appears as though the critic would have us believe it is all Indians.
posted by three blind mice at 6:35 AM on August 23, 2011

I was in New York for an audition when I switched on the TV in my cheapass hotel room and saw... people with weird accents threatening each other: gangster movie? No, wait, they're using bows and arrows: period piece? No, wait, she's turned into a flying forest demon: holy mother of what the fuck?

I was riveted and couldn't wait to watch the next night. Thank you, Peter Brook and co., for being the best thing about a weekend in New York when I was lonely and nervous and didn't get the thing I auditioned for.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:51 AM on August 23, 2011

it appears as though the critic would have us believe it is all Indians.

Yeah, I am having a little trouble understanding if this is "get off my lawn-ism" or a legitimate beef. I am generally in favor of colorblind casting as a concept, but I can understand how people might find the adaption of a foundational text from their culture/religion by someone not affiliated with that culture/religion disturbing.

As for people not holding "dear to their hearts the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord," most foundational stories amount to little more than this -- the Trojan War? A petty squabble between a few insignificant city-states in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Old Testament? A compiled and heavily edited record of the activities of a fourth-class kingdom of the Ancient World. Beowulf? Some farmer-warrior chief goes on a trip to get some loot. And so on. All foundational texts are about "rustic landlords" when you dig down to the dirt floor.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:52 AM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

No, wait, she's turned into a flying forest demon: holy mother of what the fuck?

Ghatotkacha (not same demon but her son)
posted by infini at 7:06 AM on August 23, 2011

My folks took me to see lots of Brook at the Bouffes du Nord, including the Conférence des Oiseaux and the Mahabharata, and an event of Aboriginal musicians and dancers. Always exhilarating evenings; I'll always remember the dust kicked up, the terse, accented enunciation, the intense eucalyptus air. (I went on to see all three film versions of Brook's Tragédie de Carmen in one long Parisian afternoon.)
posted by progosk at 9:22 AM on August 23, 2011

I had a VHS collection of the 6-hour television version. I watched it over and over. I loved the casting and the framing, both metaphorical and cynematic. Very influential for me and I think maybe I learned some of the philosophy.
posted by kalessin at 10:34 AM on August 23, 2011

I saw the Mahabharata while I was a student. After those none hours, you just wishes they would stay on forever. Amazing!
My boss at the time was suffering from a malignant brain tumor, and usually couldn't go through a day without seizures. But she just sat there, enjoying every second.
posted by mumimor at 11:19 AM on August 23, 2011

nine hours. This damn iPad....
posted by mumimor at 11:22 AM on August 23, 2011

My most vivid memory of this show is of Gandhari giving birth to the spherical megalith. I'm fairly certain that the Sunday morning TV series didn't handle this quite so graphically.
posted by vanar sena at 12:29 PM on August 23, 2011

"Crores." I had to look that one up. It means ten million, but it appears as though the critic would have us believe it is all Indians.

It's a handy collective noun: "a crore of Indians". Anything more granular is just too difficult to comprehend.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:14 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lovely post, infini.

Anyone have thoughts about the best English-language Mahabharata translation to attempt these days? Book, ebook, audiobook form. Been meaning to get into it for a while.
posted by doctornemo at 1:19 PM on August 24, 2011

I think you want AskMe. It's just down the hall, with the green door.
posted by hippybear at 3:53 PM on August 24, 2011

> Anyone have thoughts about the best English-language Mahabharata translation to attempt these days?

The one by Krishna Dharma is very readable (as is his rendition of The Ramayana). I'd recommend reading The Ramayana prior to the Mahabhrata, actually. It gives a lot of context for what comes, and will get you used to the hyper-insanity of the Mahabhrata with smaller doses.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 4:09 PM on August 24, 2011

Thank you, Horselover.

(Thought of that shortly after posting, hippybear. Thanks.)
posted by doctornemo at 4:15 PM on August 24, 2011


There's a whole swathe of people in India (a few crores, as they say) who would light incense in front of the TV when the first teleserials on these epics started - Ramayana was the first such. {how much does this have to do with a religious philosophy that emphasizes god is everywhere and can manifest in any form?}

Its complicated but I can see what the critic is talking about however I cannot agree that is the only right way to interpret such a narrative.

As you rightly say, most foundational stories are about rustic landlords. I'm guessing its the tinsel and special effects that captures the attention of the audience.

Here's an interesting article on this phenomena.
posted by infini at 9:17 PM on August 24, 2011

Thanks so much for this post- I've had a great interest in the Mahabharata lately, (it's one of the greatest stories in world literature, IMO) but haven't seen the Peter Brook version yet. Hoping to do so soon...

Anyone have thoughts about the best English-language Mahabharata translation to attempt these days? Book, ebook, audiobook form. Been meaning to get into it for a while.

Most English versions of the Mahabharata out there are really retellings, not translations, largely because the original text is so enormous- according to Wikipedia, ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. The impression I've had is that most of the actual translations of the text into English are either archaic, poorly done, incomplete, or some combination of those things. This set from the Clay Sanskrit Library, from what I've read of it, seems like an excellent translation but is sadly incomplete, though I think it covers most of the important parts of the story. Given the commitment of time and money that it represents, it's probably not really the best place to start, though.

As for retellings, I've so far read the versions by R.K. Narayan, William Buck, and Ramesh Menon. To briefly review them- the R.K. Narayan version is called a "a shortened modern prose version" and they aren't kidding about the "shortened" part- it's very, very abridged (only 192 pages), more a summary than anything. He's a very good writer and it's a worthy introduction to the basic story, (it was the first version of it I read) but it's ultimately not much more than an introduction. The William Buck version is well written and covers all the basic points of the plot, but also takes some liberties with the plot, mostly in the direction of making the Pandavas (and even the Kauravas to some extent) more virtuous by modern lights. As long as you're aware of that, I think it's actually quite a good version (for the most part, I didn't feel like the changes made it worse as a story), but not a great place to start for that reason. The Ramesh Menon version is the longest and least abridged (two volumes that come to 1564 pages in total), and is as far as I know extremely faithful to the original story. It would be the retelling I'd most recommend (especially if epic fantasy novels appeal to you at all, as it really reminds me of one in a lot of ways)- it's very readable and quite well-written, though a bit inconsistent in that regard. (I had the impression he was writing some of the battle scenes at the end rather more hastily than he was most other parts of the book.) In some ways it seems to be aimed more at an Indian audience than a Western one, and there are a lot of Sanskrit words used even in places where it might not seem necessary (he regularly uses the word "sarathy" for "charioteer", for example) but I didn't find that much of a hindrance- it's usually obvious what the words mean from context, and there's a very helpful glossary in the back. I'd probably start either with the Narayan version if you just want a basic introduction, or the Menon version if you want to dive in deep right away.

I haven't read the Krishna Dharma version yet (though I have read his Ramayana), but going by some of the reviews of it I've read and extrapolating from his Ramayana, I've gotten the impression that he flattens out a lot of the moral ambiguity of the story and makes it into much more of a straightforward religious parable of good vs. evil. This isn't that surprising since he's an ISKCON devotee (and that particular religious perspective was fairly clear in his Ramayana, I thought) and Krishna is a central character in the story, but to me a great deal of the power of the Mahabharata lies in the deep sense of moral uncertainty and ambiguity that pervades it. The characters are not at all straightforward paragons of goodness or evil- the Pandavas do some awful things in the course of the story, and Duryodhana in many ways seems more like a tragic hero in the Greek sense than a pure villain. And, IMO, nothing about the Mahabharata itself, as it plays out or as it ends, really provides any sort of easy, conclusive answer to the moral questions it raises, and I can't see how any attempt to make it do so could avoid making it a much less interesting story in the process. For that reason I might recommend starting with another version first, but as I say I haven't read the Krishna Dharma version myself yet so I could be way off on all of this. (And I do plan to read it eventually- I've fallen in love with the story enough that I'm up for reading every version I can find.)
posted by a louis wain cat at 11:39 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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