Thursday, December 4, 2014

It’s the poetical history of mankind - Jean-Claude Carriére's Mahabharata - it’s pure as glass, yet nothing is omitted

The third India-related book I read was The Mahabharata, not the ancient Indian epic itself, of course, since it is endlessly long and also bears a curse, but the superb French theatrical adaptation by Jean-Claude Carriére (1985) written for and with Peter Brook (who is also the translator).  I was a bit too young to remember the excitement when Brook brought the play to New York in 1987, but I do remember reading about, in The New Republic (RIP), and never finding, the 1989 film (Carriére is best known as a screenwriter).  The film is three hours long, cut down from a six hour television version, itself reduced from the play’s nine hours.

So of course this is really A Mahabharata, maybe even Several Mahabharatas.  The scale is reduced, although I can fill in what Carriére and Brook cannot.  He can say that an army of millions is fighting and dying, but onstage he has a dozen or two.  I have millions, and dozens, too.  I imagine what is in the theater; I imagine what I want.

YUDHISHTHIRA:  What’s this flame that’s devouring the world?  Elephants are howling in terror, snakes are hurling themselves into the sky.

BHIMA:  Aswatthaman has just released his father’s sacred weapon.

YUDHISHTHIRA:  What can we do?  Men, animals, the earth itself – all are shriveling to ashes.

GANDHARI:  I see a white heat.  (199)

The detonation of a mystical nuclear weapon by the desperate Kauravas is just one of the visual opportunities for a theater director, and one of the many surprises for the reader.  I have read versions of the epic before, yet it is so rich that I am always surprised.

The war that ends the play – by ends, I mean fills the last third – including the difficult argument of the Bhagavad-Gita is outstanding, and the myths, origin stories, and heroic deeds that occupy the early two-thirds are just as exciting, but what is really makes the play effective, and is an innovation of Carriére’s, is the narrator figure Vyasa, by tradition author of The Mahabharata, who wanders in and out of the action.  Here is how the play begins:

A boy of about twelve enters.  He goes toward a little pool.  Then a man appears.  He is thin, wearing a muddy loincloth, his feet bare and dirty.  He sits thoughtfully on the ground and, noticing the boy, he signals him to come closer.  The boy approaches, slightly fearful.  The man asks him:VYASA:  Do you know how to write?

BOY:  No, why?  The man is silent for a moment before saying:

VYASA:  I’ve composed a great poem.  I’ve 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.
[skip a bit]
It’s the poetical history of mankind.  If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.  For it’s pure as glass, yet nothing is omitted.  It washes away faults, it sharpens the brain and it gives long life.  (3)

I was pretty much captured several lines earlier, even before I learned about all the prize I would win.  And at this point, Ganesha appears, offering his services as a scribe.  These three wander through the rest of the play which it turns out has not only not been written but not performed, or the history has been imagined but has not happened.  We watch it happen along with its author.

There are other good ways to read The Mahabharata.  R. K. Narayan’s prose retelling, for example, or William Buck’s.  Maybe not better ways, though.


  1. See this 2008 post on the great Clay Sanskrit Library for more on the curse. They got pretty far - 15 volumes translated before they ran out of money. But you can't translate the whole thing. Shiva won't allow it.

    1. Thank you for the link. Very interesting! But I will tell you this. I certainly ain't the one to blog about the cursed thing. It sounds too long, and life is too short. (Even as I write that last sentence, I have to laugh aloud at the recently discovered implications.) But seriously folks, the whole Indian "sacred" literature concept has baffled the hell out of me; it seems so alien, limitless, and inaccessible to my simple monotheistic Western mind that was too thoroughly programmed to adhere to Calvinist thinking when I was young.

  2. I had the great fortune to see this when it was performed in Los Angeles in 1987. It too carried a curse - a sore bottom from sitting for 8+ hours on a wooden bench - but some scenes still drift though my head regularly, uninvited but ever welcome. I have trouble thinking of another production I've seen of anything that was staged so evocatively. A fire burning in a circle of sand on the stage - one could lie down next to that (bench be damned) and listen endlessly to a poetical history of the world. The film is accessible on YouTube; you can watch it and ponder how Brook managed to perform its tricks on the confined space of a stage.

  3. I hopped around in the film using the Youtube upload before I wrote the post, just to see if I was way, way off in the way I was imagining the play. Someday I will have to set aside some time to watch it. Not all at once, but in civilized increments.

    Not that the play's marathon version does not have its own experiential arguments. Ah, I would have loved to see that, no matter how crazy it is.

  4. Ha ha ha ha! What a terrible typo! Endlessly long!

    Oh, that's awful. Thanks for pointing it out so I can conceal my shame, leaving only these comments as a reminder.

  5. I watched (and recorded on video) when it was broadcast on TV, A life enhancing, absorbing, never to be forgotten experience though while trying to omit the adverts I forgot to press record for one section. There was an Indian production broadcast simultaneously that was more difficult to follow while fascinating. I found a graphic version, a comic in fact, in many instalments on sale in an Indian newsagent's in the Caledonian Rd N London. The newsagent knew a lot about it, and it's meanings............

  6. "forgot to press record" - somehow, that is perfect. That fits this epic. A friend told me, long ago, that most Indians know the stories from The Mahabharata and The Ramayana first through comic book versions and later through television. The stories are told and retold, as they have been for (I'll be cautious) 2,500 years.