Karthika Nair’s “Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata” retells the epic in poetic form, from a feminist and subaltern perspective. Hers is a reconfiguration of the longest epic poem known — consisting of over 100,000 ślokas — one of two major Sanskrit texts of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. Fragments of both poems are frequently retold through the repertory of various classical dance forms in Asia, and through Hindu devotional dances. The tourist might be invited to watch nightly shows of the Ramayana across Southeast Asia. In Europe, director Peter Brook famously staged his version of The Mahabharata, in which choreographer Akram Khan, also famously, performed in as a teenager.
The influence of the Mahabharata has been compared with that of the works of Homer, the Bible, the Quran, and Shakespeare. Its narrative presence takes on philosophical, devotional, didactic, and moral meaning not just for cultures within the Indian/Indus sphere of influence, but, more broadly, for contemporary culture. The epic does carry an aspect of historical archive — core to the story is the dynastic struggle for power, culminating in the Kurukshetra war, a battle seemingly based on real-life events. However, the work is mythic and epochal in nature, rather than simply a factual retelling of events. There is always a sense of uncertainty given that the stories arose from oral traditions, and employs the story-within-a-story structure (also known as frametales) popular in many Indian works. The epics also invite reinterpretations, for instance in this work of Karthik Nair: the title itself borrows from the African proverb, perhaps known to the contemporary reader through Chinua Achebe’s essay: “There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter… But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”
Her purpose is clear. To retell the Mahabharata from the perspective not of the victor, who is often the warrior or the sage, and always the male. She retells the epic from the female perspective, lends voice to characters like Drupada’s wife, who lacks even a name. These are echoes indeed, reverberating through the present — what happens to a culture where in the central myth, the female is frequently not seen, not heard? Where frequently the female has her “honour” shamed — a euphemism for rape? It bears remembering that in parts of the world, the woman is still property of man. And everywhere else, women still struggle for equal say.
I’d like to step out on a tangent here and recall that in 2016, when Khan’s “Until The Lions” was premiered, he was also wrapped up in controversy for saying “don’t have more female choreographers for the sake of it”. Perhaps it comes from his principled perspective that numbers are not everything. Perhaps it’s that as a member of the racial minority in the UK he still found a way to be an international success, and does not personally believe in affirmative action. He talks about embodying both masculine and feminine, the yin and the yang — and he does occasionally spotlight female perspectives through his work in reimagining narratives — but ultimately he is merely a choreographer, inventing imaginary worlds and inviting audiences. Unlike Vyasa, the man traditionally attributed for authorship of the Mahabharata, the work Khan makes is not intended to explain cosmology and the Universe, but simply his own point of view, refracted through one chapter of the work of poet Karthika Nair.
The tale he adapts is of Amba (Ching-Ying Chien), a princess abducted on her wedding day. She is rendered unmarriageable — either raped or accused of now being impure — by the warrior Bheeshma (performed by Rianto in this version). She invokes the gods to seek revenge, kills herself, and is reborn as Shikhandi (Christine Joy Ritter). Amba and Shikhandi are given voice in the work, but at the same time in order for them to defeat Bheeshma on the battlefield, a forest spirit needs to give Shikhandi a male form to fight in. A woman’s spiritual devotion culminates in wrathful victory, but she can only prevail because she became a man and a warrior.
A tale of morality, an epic of mythic proportions, seen through the lens of the MeToo era, lends itself to greater criticality, informed from postcolonial, feminist thinking. Central to the Mahabharata is an epic battle; all of humanity is seen as wrapped up in a never-ending cycle of warfare and power struggle. Within these tensions arise Amba/Shikandi’s tale. A myth bears the truth but they are not the same thing. The story may be told from a feminist slant, but the circumstances of storytelling remain, perhaps, stuck in a cycle of toxicity. The live performance would carry all these in its stride, and when we see the artists deal with the story, live, perhaps something beyond story will shift our mindsets.
Akram Khan Company presents Until the Lions inspired by the female figures from the adaptation of poet Karthika Naïr’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. With da:ns festival 9 & 10 October at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.