A great epic of Indian civilization is now onstage at Cubberley Theater, in Palo Alto. The Naatak theater company, the largest Indian theater company in the US, presents the myriad stories within stories, epic within epic wrapped within the grand theater of human life. Adapted for performance and directed by Sujit Saraf, Artistic Director of the company and a novelist and playwright, it is a spectacle of music, dance, and theater. The company took on a huge challenge in choosing to produce the Mahabharat; the result is definitely worth experiencing whether you grew up hearing the stories or they are totally new to you.
The Mahabharat is the longest known epic poem. Its 200,000 individual verse lines make it about ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. It is thought to have originated in the 8th or 9th century BCE. Its oldest physical remains date to about 400 years BCE. The play opens with actors describing the “begats” of so many generations: who was the father, the great grandfather, the great great grandmother through eons. They lead us to the fates of the Kaurava and Pandava princes whose families seem to fight forever.
This epic tale never sidesteps the vicious and stupid actions of the human characters. Even the “good guys” can act like idiots, gambling away the lives of family members, for example. One of the central stories is that of Draupadi. It is represented in classical Indian dances that this viewer always finds deeply moving. She is lost to her family in the throw of dice. As the plainly conniving, wicked man begins his assault on her by unwinding her sari, Krishna rescues her by making the sari’s length endless.
The dances in the play are drawn from several classical Indian dance forms: Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Kathak. Choreographers are Soumya Agastya, Archana Kamath, Pragya Dasgupta, Nisha Natraj. Ms Agastya is also the Producer of the presentation. The dances are lively and keep the tales moving forward.
The orchestra of instruments and vocalists sits on stage. This traditional way to perform gives the audience a chance to see the music happening and feel it become a living part of the drama. The music adds to the authenticity of the play’s content and also cues moments of suspense, fear, and even tenderness. Nachiketa Yakkundi is Music Director and Hindustani Vocalist; Anupama Chanratreya, Tejaswini Narayanan, Vocalists; Anand Karue, organ; Ajay Sundar Raj, Tabla; Niranjan Page, Flute.
The set and costumes are colorful and interesting. There is always a lot of visual interest for the audience. Presented in Hindi with English supertitles, the action in the play is not complex or hard to understand. It is accessible to anyone who has held a grudge, felt exploited, burned with anger, been eaten by jealously, diminished by abuse; yes, I guess that’s all of us. Created so long ago one cannot count the years, the Mahabharat need never change to keep up with human nature. Mahabharat runs through September 23. For more information visit www.naatak.com
All photos by Sharma Podila, courtesy of Naatak theater company.