Mahabharata meets British Theatre

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By Rasasthali Devi Dasi

In June 2007 we experienced that the dreams of many come true: the Mahabharata, the most famous Indian epic, is being performed on a theatre stage. I went to the performance with my husband, guru and a few devotees from Oxford. A member of Iskcon, Gaura Lila Prabhu from Switzerland, was the co-producer of this professional project. Amongst the celebrities that prepared the play was a famous composer Nitin Sawhney, the writer Stephen Clark who won the Oliver Prize, and 27 dancers, singers, musicians and actors under direction of Stuart Wood, as well as the Karthak and Akram Khan choreographer Gauri Sharma Tripathi.

The result? A fantastic blend of singing, ecstatic dance, music and theatre. There was traditional Indian and modern music, which gave the Mahabharata a very vivid character, bringing up ancient the message of drama, together with its culture and philosophy, to a contemporary spectator. Due to the extensive range of topics that the Mahabharata deals with, only one theme has been portrayed and this was a story of Draupadi as the passionate catalyst of the worst war amongst wars - a war of Kurukshetra. Very often they recited Sanskrit verses from Mahabharata, especially from its heart, the Bhagavad-Gita. Krishna himself was portrayed in this play as a friend of Draupadi and also as an observer of the events, often engaging himself in them and helping his devotees. This production was therefore very inspiring for a devotee of Krishna, reminding us about the fact that God really has been present on the Earth and that he is a participant in our lives.

It is very encouraging that devotees are using Western professional theatre as a medium of communicating the theology and culture of Vaishnavism. I think this approach is more advantageous than inserting Vaishava culture into Western mediums through rock music because by going through the higher aspects of Western culture we will contact the higher classes.

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1 Unregistered

I went to Wales with my wife to see this play and we took some friends from North Wales.
I must say it was excellent and made us proud to see devotee’s doing something so professional, the theatre was packed and the audience loved it.

Well done to all involved.

Comment posted by Ananda Hari das on July 2nd, 2007
2 Akruranatha

Has this play been filmed? Will it go on tour?

Where was it staged? (Somewhere close to Oxford I guess.) Will we get a chance to see it in other places?

Comment posted by Akruranatha on July 2nd, 2007
3 Praghosa

Dear Akruranatha prabhu,

I don’t think there are any plans for it to go outside the UK at the moment. So far it has been to at least Oxford, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Wales and Sadlers Wells theatre in London’s West End. I saw it in Birmingham and it was very impressive. From a devotee point of view it was fantastic that at least 6 BG verses were chanted. The play ends with just Krishna on stage with a single spotlight on Him chanting ’sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah’

Your servant, Praghosa dasa.

Comment posted by Praghosa on July 3rd, 2007
4 Akruranatha

It sounds nice. I wish I could have seen it. :-(

I believe there is a lot of scope for high-quality cultural presentations to improve awareness and good will for ISKCON.

Bhakti Swarup Damodar Maharaja and his disciples Jivan Mukta and Jivanuga (and many others) have done an excellent job with their traveling “Ranganiketan” show, mixing beautiful classical Manipuri dance with exciting Manipuri martial arts.

Jivan Mukta told me recently that Hari Vilas Prabhu pulled off a very successful Ranganiketan show in Seattle and raised lots of money for the temple. We had a more modest show in San Jose last year, and some of my lawyer friends attended and were impressed.

If the performances are Krishna conscious and everything is very professionally and tastefully done (as the Mahabharata play seems to have been and the Ranganiketan shows are), it is not just a way of raising money but also a way to put ISKCON on the map in the local area and to network with people we might not often see at the temple or on book distribution.

These well-heeled people who shell out some $20 to $60 for a ticket and appreciatively see an ISKCON-affiliated production in a major Civic Auditorium or University Concert hall begin to look at ISKCON with newfound respect and interest, and they tell their friends about it, too. I have seen it happen.

Nice book displays in the lobby are a plus, and good prasadam refreshments can also be distributed in many venues.

However, if we charge a lot and put on a less than spectacular show, it probably will not have the desired effect, so the emphasis should be on always making a very good impression for paid events.

[I recall reading somewhere, in Lilamrta or Transcendental Diary perhaps, that Srila Prabhupada said we should put on dramas but all the actors should be pure devotees. Does anyone remember or have the exact quote?]

If you could get a bankable star to help boost the ticket sales, you could probably do well taking this Mahabharata show on the road outside of the U.K.

(A couple of years ago Art of Living Foundation [yogi Ravi Shankar] did a big and apparently financially successful tour of a Draupadi ballet with Hema Malini in the title role. I thought the production values were not great, and the spoken script was entirely in Hindi, but the local San Jose Indian community was all out in force at the San Jose Center for thr Performing Arts, and seemed to appreciate it.)

Comment posted by Akruranatha on July 4th, 2007

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