Interest. Devotion. Wonder. Even love.
These are the common traits I see in all those who have read the Mahabharata, carefully and consciously. But when you watch Prakash Belawadi’s play, Parva, which is based on S.L. Bhyrappa’s novel by the same name, these become mere necessary conditions—they are insufficient to sit through the intense physical, psychological and philosophical experience. The eight-hour play spread across five acts with four breaks needs more. Urban audiences need an additional, even crucial attribute: Stamina—physical, emotional and intellectual. In rural areas, all-night plays are common. The ‘modern’ short attention span victims have lost their aptitude for deep aesthetics and the proclivity for refined conversations.
I was astonished, therefore, when I found myself to be one among a 900-strong audience to watch Belawadi’s production at Bengaluru’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall. Considering that this was neither Les Miserables with its unending spectators for the spectacle nor Ram Lila with its infinite audience of faith, the ability to pull so many people into a hall displays a gap in the market. If the aspiration to tell a saga exists in Belawadi, it finds resonance in an audience that seeks it.
Bhyrappa’s retelling of Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata is a physical-psychological-philosophical exposition of the world’s greatest saga. His research is not restricted to books and papers; he physically went to most of the places he has written about, including a village where polyandry was, and perhaps still is, practiced. Bhyrappa has taken Ved Vyasa’s original work and humanised it. His Parva is individual centric. It is physical to the extent of ages of the warriors and kings, blankets, food and the stench of excrement of horses and men alike. It is psychological in its conversations among characters as well as introspections, from Kunti to Karna, Dhritarashtra to Duryodhana. And it is underlined by a philosophical approach that goes deep into the time, the characters, the culture, the moralities and the ethics.
Belawadi’s script and the subsequent theatrical articulation remains true to Bhyrappa’s novel. Parva the play is in complete harmony with Parva the book. The difference is merely in the choice of sequences. It is impossible, even in an eight-hour play, to capture everything that a 950-page book, which itself is an interpretation of more than 100,000 verses that Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata offers. You may quibble about this sequence being ignored or that, but when you step back, Belawadi has done a spectacular job, retaining the essential, articulating the philosophies, and encapsulating the text into a gripping drama.
Two themes, enclosed in the stream of consciousness technique, display the integration of the physical, the psychological and the philosophical. First, the fifty-first “wasted menstruation cycle” of Shalya’s granddaughter Hiranyavathi, which was against the Aryan code, a sin, as the physical. The societal burden on her father Rukmaratha and the options before him—a svayamvara that may not happen due to the impending war ahead, or taking a bride price as was the Madra practice—as the psychological. And the questioning the social sanction of marriage, particularly as a tool to beget children, as the philosophical.
Second, the practice of niyoga, where with the permission of an impotent husband, a wife was mandated to have sex with another man to deliver children who would belong to her husband. The five sons of king Pandu, three born to Kunti and two to Madri, are the physical manifestations of a psychological problem: do the five Pandavas have the right over the Hastinavati throne, are they Kurus? If not, as Duryodhana claims, then both his father and Pandu were illegitimate kings too—they were born out of niyoga with Krishna Dwaipayana or Ved Vyasa. If they were acceptable, why not the Pandavas? The philosophical question is that of identity: whose sons were the Pandavas, Pandu’s or those who impregnated Kunti and Madri? If they were Pandu’s sons, then why wasn’t Karna Pandu’s son too? Rukmaratha wanted to take the son of his wife before her marriage to him as his, so why the questioning in case of his daughter Hiranyavathi?
These streams of consciousness conversations travel across an evolving societal and geographical landscape. The people of the hills, for instance, had no qualms about either the fatherhood or motherhood—all are children of the tribe. Does a more organised society create these troubling issues? Let us expand this issue to the 21st century, where a new technology, IVF (in vitro fertilisation), is now expanding and becoming more accessible. The messiness of physical and possibly emotional pleasures of sex do not matter anymore. The position of the legal father is clear. But who is the moral father of a child, the sperm doner or the husband of the women taking that sperm? There is no right answer. Bhyrappa’s Parva seeded the question, Belawadi’s Parva accentuates it through theatre. And it grows in our minds.
While many can be the roots of the Mahabharata—the humiliation of Draupadi, Bhishma’s vow of celibacy, the blind Dhritarashtra being a prisoner of misguided fatherhood, the presence of Sri Krishna to clean up the age—Parva sees it as niyoga and its multiple facets, all converging around dharma. It takes such core ideas of the Mahabharata and puts them under the microscope. Even dharma is not spared and gets depicted by its various expressions through multiple characters. Characters aside, on the interrogation table is the audience itself.
In its treatment, Parva is merciless, brutal. It does not allow your conscience to rest. But equally, it is cold and non-judgemental. On this point, Bhyrappa-Belawadi have retained the hard mountainous style of Ved Vyasa, compared to the soft oceanic expression of Valmiki for instance. The characters speak their truths with passion; the audience sees them as they are, moves with them until confronted by another truth. Like in Ved Vyasa’s original text, the only colour of characters is the varying shades of grey—there is no black, no white, there is no wrong, no right, there is no space for simplistic binaries, a disease the world has been infected with for the past two thousand years, and which we see playing to full glory in modern-day Kurukshetras such as US-Afghanistan, Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine.
Three characters stand out in Belawadi’s Parva. First, Divya Raghuram as Kunti—unforgiving yet compassionate, strong yet vulnerable; a woman first, then a queen, and finally a mother giving moral strength to her five sons but not to Karna. Next, Shibani S. Rao as Sri Krishna—she plays the role with amazing grace, with equanimity as her middle name. This is the first time that I’ve seen a woman play this crucial and core character and her rendition of Sri Krishna leaves no doubts in the mind about authenticity of the character. And finally, Abhijeet Shetty as Duryodhana—his portrayal carries a strong conviction, one that gets etched in the dark recesses of the mind. A quarter century after Puneet Issar’s portrayal of this character in B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata (1988-9190), Belawadi’s Duryodhana in the form of Shetty is here to reclaim the space with fury, victimhood and certitude.
Private theatre ventures are not easy. For an eight-hour play, actors and musicians who are in it out of passion rather than money, need to budget several full days for rehearsals. It is a wonder how the thirty-three actors who played 127 characters in the play—some playing six roles each—managed to balance their day jobs with inner joys. These are people who have a need that goes beyond Maslow’s hierarchy. And when people like Belawadi, whose Centre for Film and Drama offers the invisible infrastructure to serve that need the result is a magic called Parva.
The production is situated in 21st century, the base text in ancient India. The ideas are global in their breadth, individual in their expression, and timeless in their expanse. The universality of the Mahabharata is clearly reflected in Parva. This play needs to go national and then global. I see it playing on Broadway as part of India’s soft power, demystifying the country, and powering the conversations around Bharat that have long been branded as philosophically savage, psychologically primitive and physically fragile. It wouldn’t be wrong to speculate that only when Bharat denounced dharma that it was conquered; now that India is repossessing its civilisational legacy and dharma, through the Mahabharata and other similar texts, the strength, the wealth and the sophistication of an ancient culture in modern time will flourish.
One character after another, one individual at a time, Parva offers a mirror to the people through which to reflect and introspect. As a philosophical expression Belawadi’s Parva comes out with the full force of ethics, righteousness and dharma. It showcases how the binaries that our modern civilisation is trapped in are really polarities that inform the universe itself. “Good and Evil are [in the Mahabharata] conceived not as irreconcilable opposites, but rather as complementary processes,” said V.S. Sukthankar, the general editor of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata in a 1942 speech. The shades of grey we see every death-seeking character embalmed in is the expression of these complementarities. The wars fought outside are really an expression of the wars within. “War is no longer, perhaps, a biological necessity, but it is still a psychological necessity; what is within us, must manifest itself outside,” wrote Sri Aurobindo in April 1916—words as eternal as the Mahabharata itself.
Bhyrappa is arguably India’s greatest living philosopher and among its most powerful novelists. Forty-four years after the novel was written in 1979 in Kannada, and almost three decades after it was translated by K. Raghavendra Rao into English in 1994 as a 950-page tome, comes Belawadi’s magnificent production. Converting a saga of Sanskrit into first a Kannada retelling and then translating into English followed by adapting it for theatre is not an easy task. That Belawadi has been able to deliver the sense of Bhyrappa’s Parva is a tribute to the text, the retelling, and the adaptation.
Parva the play has moved from its 43 performances in Kannada to four in English. Now, it must expand its footprint outside Bengaluru. It will deepen Bharat’s philosophical conversations with itself and provide the intellectual ground from which to rise. Then it must travel abroad as part of telling the India story with elegant intensity. Finally, I am delighted to see that filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri is planning to transport this novel-play on the big screen as a three-part film. Itself an adventure, this will power Bhyrappa’s novel, Belawadi’s play and enrich the hearts and minds of the people of the world through ideas that are eternal, characters that reside within us, and issues that are bound together by frailties of humans.
Gautam Chikermane is an author and Vice President at Observer Research Foundation.
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