“Ah! Les Indiens!” exclaimed the Frenchman sitting behind the ticket counter in the decrepit music hall, the Bouffes du Nord, that Peter Brook had commandeered to stage his epic version of the Mahabharata. It was mid-afternoon in the late 1970s. My sister and I, travelling from two different ends of the planet, had met at the airport, dressed in our best silk sarees, and made a frantic dash to the Gare du Nord. We had smiled and pleaded our case in French.
“You always turn up late. You never have tickets for the show and expect to find seats for the Mahabharata as though you own it.”
He pursed his lips, tore off two tickets, and indicated the balcony in the topmost tier. It was the equivalent of the Elizabethan pit. We sat on floor cushions with other latecomers. For the next nine hours, we were transported into a world of illusions by the maverick director who had created the genre described as “Intercultural Theatre”.
He did not invent the term, he lived it. He roamed the world like a bandit, collecting both stories from different traditions and performers from different ethnicities, and created a repertory theatre that was consistent only in being defiant of the existing norms. The world would shower him with both bouquets and brickbats. In today’s postcolonial era, he would be labelled a marauder, a pander to the capitalist West’s desire for a continuous production line of new and instant sensations borrowed or reimagined from other cultures.
Indeed, by 1988, the guardians of subcontinental cultures had already made their views clear. Rustom Bharucha, a critic and a professor of theatre, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly of August 6, 1988, rose to the occasion in no uncertain terms: “The Mahabharata is not merely a great narrative poem, it is our itihasa, the fundamental source of knowledge for our literature, dance, painting, sculptures, theology, state-craft, sociology, ecology in short, our history in all its details and density.”
That evening at the Bouffes du Nord, we knew nothing of this. Brook seduced us into total submission with the audacity of his enterprise, dragging us into the moral choices that had bedeviled the Pandavas and Kauravas. He presented them not as heroic beings but as flawed individuals battling their demons with the nebulous concept of dharma, or right action, which changed as their circumstances demanded. Or did it? What if there was more to it than a set of rules to be learnt by rote? What if right action also needed a set of values to question it? To that extent one might say that Brook was not a modernist, dealing with sensations, but a medievalist searching for his need for meaning through the theatre of ideas.
In the recent book The Secrets of Words, Andrea Moro in a conversation with fellow writer and the noted linguist Noam Chomsky observes: “Actually certain simple facts can be visible to the mind’s eye rather than to our direct vision.”
It may explain why a Peter Brook could make an old but not necessarily sacred text come alive for an alien audience with a multiplicity of actors from other cultures. You had to watch it with an empty mind. It was reminiscent of the sign at the Rajneesh Ashram in Pune that said: “Leave your mind and shoes behind.” The implicit suggestion was that we had to think with our instincts.
The actual episodes of Brook’s Mahabharata were certainly as recognisable as the textures and colours of the khadi fabric and the rice-white, wheat-bran ochre, red earth, mango green, and burnt charcoal that the actors wore and yet were filled with a poetic vision that made it strange and, yes, exotic. Brook had captured the earth of the subcontinent and spread it out like a sumptuous carpet, inviting us to feast upon it. Central to the spectacle was the incandescent presence of Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi who had been groomed by the Brook method to be both herself in all her vibrant dancer’s grace as also a vehicle for the role of a woman of multiple dimensions as depicted in the Mahabharata. Iravati Karve, the great Marathi scholar, had already created an alternative reading of some of the dominant women in the epics. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Jean-Claude Carriere, in writing the text for Brook’s Mahabharata, included some of those traits.
Do we add as an afterthought that Brook perhaps found resonance in his interpretation of the women in the Mahabharata at a time when women leaders as different as Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, or Margaret Thatcher were holding the reigns of governance in different parts of the globe? Or that when feminism was being signalled as a marker of upward mobility for humankind, it was only natural to have a role model in a Sarabhai-Draupadi, who could be as fearless in her frank sexuality as she was militant. One can only compare that with the unfortunate reversal of these norms today. In many countries that once espoused female emancipation, we now have societies controlled by a patriarchy with an Orwellian mindset made rampant by technology that are consigning women to an imagined past.
In one of the memorable early sequences, for instance, the young Kunti sits in a dreamy teenage daze by the circle of the stage and wonders whether the boon given to her by the sage Durvasa might actually work. Would she really have the power to summon a heavenly being and be impregnated with his seed? Hardly has this thought crossed her mind, as Brooks choreographs it, than there appears before her a magnificent embodiment of the sun, a French actor of perhaps African ethnicity wearing the robes of a Magus, who strides across the stage and sweeps her unresisting into his arms. Never mind that this is more Gone with the Wind than female liberation. We feminists enjoy our little fantasies. Thus is Karna born. Is it a surprise then that he is left with golden tokens of his paternal inheritance that remain with him even after he is abandoned by his birth mother to be brought up by a humble family of charioteers? And yet, as we know, his origins seal his destiny.
Major artistic project
One of Brook’s first major artistic projects was to tour the countries of Africa with his interpretation of the 12th century Persian folk tale “The Conference of Birds” (1979). It may have introduced him to the richness of the folk traditions of a region still in the process of throwing off its colonial shackles and emerging into the conference of newly enfranchised nations.
Brook started as a dedicated Shakespearist, going on to do a number of experimental productions that reinterpreted the canon, as for example, The Tempest (1957), King Lear (1962), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was contained in a white cube spilling out as the actors took wings. It was with the setting of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade in a mental asylum that Brook established his credentials as the enfant terrible of his generation. It also led him to shift to Paris in 1970, where he established his “International Centre for Theatre Research”, and that is where he lived until his death earlier in July this year.
Marat/Sade was followed by a staging of Ted Hughes’ Orghast, which took place at the site of the ancient tombs of Cyrus the Great at Persepolis, Iran. Incidentally, in the late 1960s, the Indian government sent a troupe from Kerala to Persepolis to perform an all-night Kathakali enactment of the Mahabharata against the background of the past glories of the Persian empire laid in ruins by the Greeks.
Preoccupation with war
War remained a preoccupation with Brook until his last decade. When he brought a minimalist piece entitled Battlefield to the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai in 2016, he referenced the war in Syria. He appeared on stage, a greatly diminished version of himself as Bhishmapitama to our Indian eyes. In the earlier recreation of the Mahabharata, the internecine struggles with their epic battle scenes and the pitiless deaths that Brook envisioned may have referenced the final days of the Second World War. Particularly telling is the ritualistic Japanese-style death of Drona (played by a Japanese actor) at the tail end of the great war when he hears of the death of his son Ashwatthama on the 15th day of fierce combat.
If it was the end of a yuga for the both heroes and their counterparts, it also suggested the beginning of a new age. Creating his dramatic improvisations in an era when the Vietnam War had just ended and then later (in 1989) when the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 marked the start of a post–Cold War detente, Brook, like others of his generation, genuinely hoped for the creation of art forms beyond the barricades of nationalism and tribal compulsions.
As Brooks was to write in his 1968 book, The Empty Space: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
If some directors choose to work with words based on the ideas of a famous playwright or poet, Brook played with empty space. He carved out a quarry at Avignon for the first season of his Mahabharata. At the Bouffes du Nord, the theatrical space was as bleak as the blasted heath of a King Lear, a scoured-out black hole that could hold theatrical multitudes, whether in times of war or exile, in palaces or forested hermitages. It could bend with time and space and show you how Ved Vyasa took it upon himself to dictate the story to Ganesa; or suggest magical effects featuring the lake of delusions; the river of life lit with lamps floating across like the sacred Ganges and the afterlife of the dead.
In the 2016 production of Battlefield that Brook co-wrote with his original collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere and also Marie-Helene Estienne, the narrative appears as a patchwork quilt of worn ideas. In his Shanti Parva, Bhishma, who is a long time dying on his bed of arrows, remains cogent as he ruminates on the plight of human beings with particular reference to governance, meant to be the last of his lessons to Yudhishthira. Do we learn anything from them, or do we remain like Yudhishthira rooted in our inability to seek answers because it was not in his dharma to ask questions? Yudhishtra is after all dharma.
An audience even today might empathise with the blind King Drithirashtra, who wanders onto Brook’s stage and asks: “Could I have averted this war?” He holds someone else accountable. Duryodhana, his son, he mumbles, has only one word on his lips: War. War. War.
“Peter Brook assures us in ‘Why?’, the last of his books on theatre: “Theatre is a phoenix that has to be constantly brought back to life.” ”
As we so readily exchange emojis and tokens of our electronic angst and seek out statistics of the dead, the ravaged, and the defeated that flash across our screens, it is the same drumbeats that resound War. War. War. The future of mankind be damned.
Brook in his old age, or at least in this 2016 version, becomes a sutradhar, an old grandmother telling stories. We hear of a snake that is so filled with self-love he proclaims that it is his dharma to kill any small boy who wanders into his path. A golden mongoose speaks of the need for compassion in the silken tones of a Bodhisattva. A wounded pigeon questions the morality of a king. As for the lowly worm, it becomes a victim in the grand charade of life, believing its only duty is to avoid falling under the chariot’s wheel. In one of Bhishma’s most poignant episodes on the human condition, a man while running from a raging elephant falls into a pit that has a deadly snake below. The man saves himself by holding on to the branches of a bush whose roots are being gnawed by rats. Yet, when he tastes the drops of honey that fall from the beehive on the plant, in those few seconds he tastes the reason for being alive.
As Brook assures us in Why?, the last of his books on theatre: “Theatre is a phoenix that has to be constantly brought back to life.”
Or to paraphrase the words of the Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar, who too evokes a fabled firebird, the Simurgh, as representative of the human spirit that renews itself every yuga with its sacrifice in embracing the multiplicity of life forms despite their contradictions: “All of it from the start/ is just the beginning of a fairy-tale.”
Peter Brook was a modern day Simurgh who kept creating his own epic fairy tales.
Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.