Reimagining the ‘Mahabharata’ From the Shadows

A six-year-old girl was sitting in the living room of her house with her friends, engaged in perhaps the most heated debate of her life. She was trying to explain to the other kids how her father was the ultimate hero given the number of wars he had fought as an Indian soldier. Having grown up in the decade post the Bangladesh Liberation War, the children were quite familiar with stories surrounding battles and conflicts. The little girl’s father, who had overheard the conversation, intervened.

“Going to war is nothing to boast about,” he said to them. “There is nothing noble about war and there are never altruistic victors. There is infinite damage that’s reeked in war and that makes even the best of men lose their moral compasses,” recalls Karthika Nair, the young girl, who held onto this message and channelled it into many aspects of her work as an adult.

Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata
Karthika Nair
Harper Collins (2015)

Born in 1972, Nair is a French-Indian poet, author, dance producer and curator. Her work is broadly focused around questions of identity, belonging, language, uprootedness, and memory. Her book, Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, which won the Tata Literature Award in 2015, strongly reflects upon the de-romanticised point of view of war, presented to her by her father. This book is now being adapted into a French opera, making her the first female author of Indian descent to have achieved so. The show was expected to be premiered at the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg, France, in March 2020 but due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now expected to be performed in September 2022.

There is something very subtle yet powerful about the way she presents her take on the epic. Nair explores the intersection of the conflict in the Mahabharata with the identities and journeys of the characters without whom the story would collapse, yet their individual stories are often lost within the vast ambit of the epic. Most of the voices in the book are of those of distinct female characters like Amba/Shikhandi, Uttaraa, Satyavati, and Vrishali, amongst many. She has also made a point to explore the perspective and individual identities within groups, such as the soldiers and the Kaurava brothers.

“There are a hundred of them (Kauravas) and they cannot be identical,” she tells me over a video call from her home in Paris. “You cannot reduce an entire life to a mythonomy for evil. I wanted them remembered by at least a shade of complexity that is any human life,” she said.

Nair raises difficult questions around facts that have been normalised over time. She uses an empathetic lens to reverse the external gazes defined by established notions of righteousness through which the epic has a tendency to be viewed from by inserting questions of morality in processes disguised as responsibilities. People often talk about Pandu and Dhritrashtra, while talking about the origin of the conflict amongst their sons, Pandavas and Kauravas, but nobody talks about how they themselves were born. Nair puts into perspective the agony that their mothers, Ambika and Ambalika, must have faced during their forced pregnancies wherein they had to bear Vyasa’s sons post their husband’s death for the sake of the continuation of the dynasty.

Also read: What Explains the Enduring Appeal of ‘Ramayan’ and ‘Mahabharat’?

By bringing out the depth of emotion behind the various choices, experiences, actions and decisions taken by people, she provides a structure to the narrative that enables the reader to understand the humane aspect, the suffering and the moral dilemmas, that evolved over time instead of drawing focus on the battle or its end result. Glimpses of it can be found in lines such as these:

Kurukshetra’s roots,

descend deep; not on earth, but

in Time they belong.

“The end of the Mahabharata was not the crux of it. There is a very natural tendency to want to see things in a golden light and in heroic colours but it’s important to look beyond such glorified aspects and I wanted to raise questions around such things and try to imagine them from various perspectives,” she adds.

There is no room for bias or adulation in Nair’s storytelling. She plays with the immovable positions of characters by removing the god-like stature associated with them and views the humane aspect as it stands, especially while dealing with characters like Krishna. Her ability to see things clearly has enabled her to put forward a refined and deeply contemplated version of reality that is closer to the actual truth than the ideal truth.

She says, “It comes back to my understanding of foundational epics and the fact that I’m not religious. When you take religion out of the epic, what is most interesting are the human and the ethical questions rather than the invocation of religious ideals. If you consider Gods as not necessarily perfect even on the moral scale, but as beings with great power then it becomes really interesting.”

Satyavati’s character emerges as the central binding voice in the book through whom Nair traces the fallacies and implications of many decisions, which she refers to as the fault lines. While she is recognised in the original script, her and the dynasty’s story is now being told from her point of view. “It occurred to me that she was actually a piece from my perspective. She was perfectly placed to tell a counter-narrative because she holds an authoritative position and who other than a mother can say that my child (Ved Vyasa) knows nothing,” she said.

The book’s title draws reference from a quote by Chinua Achebe that says, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” She further pushes this stance by broadening the array of characters she views as ‘lions’ in the epic, discussing the outcome of the battle, the ‘hunt’, from the point of view of the soldiers and spouses, and not limiting the essence of the epic to the victory of the Pandavas or the defeat of the Kauravas.

Nair’s writing is daring, ambitious and compassionate. She spent five-and-a-half years conducting an in-depth study on the Mahabharata before she began writing. Describing her process, she says, “Nothing is set in stone when I begin. Initially I wanted to place the characters across space and time on different continents but I soon realised that it was completely insane and the final version is nothing like it. Each project has its own intent and that fashions the process.”

Her introduction to Mahabharata was as much through the performing arts as it was through books. As a child, she first saw episodes of Mahabharata as Kathakali performances. “The performative arts have very much been present in my life ever since childhood. I have spent the first half of my professional life as a producer and now the second half I have been scripting dance,” she says. Such exposure allowed her to analyse the different angles with which the story had previously been approached, all of which fascinated her just as much.

Last year, she taught a course with author and journalist, Jai Arjun Singh, spread across five weeks, discussing the depictions of various characters in the epic and the equations between them, in adaptations of performing arts, regional and Hindi cinema, and television shows. “I am very intrigued by how Mahabharat changes depending upon where is was written, performed or spoken, or which tradition it grew out of as regions, caste, and religions alter the telling of the tale,” she explains.

“I believe epics, whichever they are, Indian, Chinese, or Mesopotamian, there is a reason they are timeless. They contain the human experience in a very universal way and that’s what I am drawn to and am keen on exploring even in the future,” she says.

Ashima Pargal is a recent journalism graduate with a keen interest in pop culture, Indian heritage, and creative storytelling.

Featured image credit: Flickr (representative image)