Personal is Political: Reading Dharamvir Bharati’s ‘Andha Yug’ in 21st Century India

The archetype of the characters from the Mahabharata and their reflecting the age of corruption in the realm of politics, society, and family is not anything novel by 2020 standards. Prakash Jha’s 2010 blockbuster Raajneeti traces the rise and fall of a dynastic political family, which has been likened to the Gandhi family and the Congress party, but it uses the aforementioned epic to explore the theme of history repeating itself tragically. Baahubali too derives from the same myth-making project and infuses it within the more familiar setting as in the Ramayana.

However, reading Dharamvir Bharti’s play Andha Yug – a 1953 classic of Hindi literature, translated as a “model in the field” as Girish Karnad said – in the contemporary scenario of 2020 does something remarkable for you: it puts the state of modern Indian media in some perspective.

Andha Yug is a fitting title for the play itself since it focuses on the end of an era with the war at Kurukshetra and how it symbolised the beginning of a dark, blind age, but the title also encapsulates the willful blindness to ethics that mark mainstream, popularly consumed journalism in our age.

The play on king Dhritarashtra’s literal and metaphorical blindness to the impending doom of corruption and injustice in the empire, punctuates the aforementioned theme. In 2020, one wonders if the citizens and leaders are themselves an embodiment of the tired, fallen king, with their passive participation in the oppression of dissent when academicians and activists like Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Sudha Bhardwaj, and countless others are kept in captivity by Indian State.

It is, however, the seldom-explored character of Sanjaya, the seer-messenger, which sets this play apart, particularly through the lens of 21st century media ethics. The epic’s bard, Ved Vyasa, had blessed Sanjaya with the unique and powerful ability to envision the events of the battlefield and he had thus been entrusted with a reliable relegation of the war to the non-participants in the Hastinapur kingdom. Bharati’s play, unlike the oft-used chant of “don’t blame the messenger,” holds Sanjaya entirely accountable and explicitly reveals moments of retrospection in the messenger’s speeches.

“But how can I tell the truth to the blind?” a despairing Sanjaya asks in Act Two, and the truth does not entail the narration of events as they happened, but it comprises within it a voice of reason. In the penultimate act, his blessed vision vanishes and this loss of his ability to report, to document, to narrativise is understood by Vidura as the final sign of the end of the age, a destruction of the world as they know it.

Also read: ‘Bhimayana’: Why You Should Be Reading This Anti-Caste Narrative

In this structure of events, Bharati’s focus is obvious – the truth won’t matter, if there is nobody to recollect it and problematise its facticity in a deluded society. In my interview with journalist-writer Raghu Karnad, prior to the Delhi assembly elections, Karnad said something about modern journalism that resonated quite personally with me – he argued that any journalist telling people they do not have a stand or a stake in their reportage is essentially lying, which is to say that journalism needs to present and assess the whole picture, but who has socio-political capital within the picture (and outside of it) is also integral in its portrayal.

In characters like Yuyutsu and Ashwatthama, Bharati depicts the personal cost of dissent and the social construction of madness, respectively. As the only Kaurava who fought on the Pandava side, for he believed in the relative sense of justice and actively protested against the social majority, Yuyutsu is driven to excommunication and ultimately suicide. The contemporary cry of nationalism (and simultaneous violent labelling of ‘anti-nationals’) resonates in the attitude of the Kaurava clan, and it puts into perspective the vilification of activists and journalists, as in the contempt case of Prashant Bhushan, who privilege their truthful concern for the state of democracy over blatant, easier mode of supplication to the ones in power.

The two guards present the dialectic of the common man, and it is ever-relevant to the modern bourgeois complicity in the rise of Indian fascism. In the very first act, Guard 2 says, “We had no opinions of our own. We made no choices,” followed by the materialisation of darkness in the stage setting and a discussion on the honour of a civilisation – what happens to a society with paralysis and inaction while leaders make self-centered decisions based on sycophantic counsel?

The epic may not be able to hold the common man culpable for it was still a monarchical society, but seeing the reflection of our own ignorant peer groups and aggressively silent familial spaces in the play is a cause for worry – this is supposed to be an active democracy. What’s our excuse for turning a blind eye and denouncing protests that are integral to the tenet of representation in a democracy?

For a 21st century audience, a reading of Bharati’s Andha Yug is an exercise in evaluating middle-class complacency and the ethical poignancy of representation in marginalisation and violent oppression of the systemically othered communities, as the personal is indeed political.

Anushree Joshi is an over-thinker who studies English literature at Lady Shri Ram College who has strong opinions on why your #IAmHumanistNotFeminist attitude is a problem and why Manto should be taught in schools and colleges across the country.

Featured image credit: Amazon/Illustration: LiveWire