Thursday, September 10, 2015

The voices of hunted lions: a conversation with Karthika Nair about her Mahabharata in poetry

[Did a version of this Q&A for Scroll]

Intro: Karthika Nair’s new book Until the Lions is a powerful retelling of the Mahabharata that uses various poetic forms – and the voices of many marginalised characters – to offer a tangential look at the great epic, specifically at the hegemony of the powerful, the helplessness of the weak, and the perils that may lie hidden in conventional interpretations.

When and how did your interest in the Mahabharata begin? At what point did it become the sort of obsession that led to such an intense book?

I couldn’t quite pinpoint one instant of awareness or active interest. I mean, I imbibed it in so many ways: as bedtime stories from the extended family, then through Amar Chitra Katha comics—a staple when I learnt to read… and simultaneously through intricate kathakali performances (many of which I dozed through, they began late and went on till wee hours of dawn), or thunderous fantasy films.

As a teen, two experiences that stood out were the Mahabharata episodes in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj (though I’d enjoyed the more opulent B.R. Chopra television series too), and Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi, which focussed on one particular – endlessly fascinating – equation from the Mahabharata (the bond between Duryodhana and Karna), and transposed it brilliantly into small-town, 20th century India. His delineation of characters and
their emotional arcs was a master-class in storytelling. And Bharat Ek Khoj struck me with its attention to the social and political environments in which the epic could have unfolded: suddenly, the human became much more gripping than the divine.

But the immediate trigger came only in early 2010. I’d just read a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata and been intensely annoyed by its reductive approach to two layered, heroic yet wilful protagonists whom the author painted in shades of gold and roseate. And that got me thinking about all the others, especially the ones who feature as ‘supporting cast’. Around the same time, I read the late Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra: it pretty much rewired my synapses. I am still at a loss for words when it comes to this book and how it galvanised the imagination—here was the other end of the spectrum, and how iridescent an end that was! 

The obsession, though, grew after the decision to attempt this retelling in multiple voices. It was sown during these last years of reading/watching everything I could: translations, retellings, analyses, film and theatre and dance adaptations… and as I began writing, these characters just developed bone and sinew, nerves and pretty raucous tongues, and took to challenging my own notions of structure and narrative. There were times when it felt like an unending visitation. 

Speaking very broadly, there are two types of Mahabharata tellings: the supernatural one, which centres on Krishna as a God, and which also tends to have a sentimental view of the characters and a reasonably defined sense of good and evil; and the gritty, cynical, earthy one (probably very close to what the epic in its core form, Jaya, was thousands of years ago) that questions everything. As a reader, do you have a preference for one over the other? Or do you feel they serve different functions?

I do believe they serve different functions, and I can be just as engrossed in both types: it depends on the levels of inventiveness and writing. Though I am invigorated by the recurrent reminder that there was always room for cynicism, for doubt, for picturing alternative scenarios! The playwright Bhasa’s oeuvre, for instance,
includes so many plays questioning the righteousness of the gods, of the victors; imagining a next generation (that of Abhimanyu) refusing their fathers’ war. And his plays were written roughly two thousand years ago: it injects some hope to our Age of Offence where the near-omnipotent right-wing revisionists are primed to scream bloody murder over any act of imaginative freedom. I wonder which Foreign Hand they could blame for Bhasa’s writing!

Your book takes its title from the African proverb “Until the lions get their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” As it happens, recent news has given that line an oddly literal resonance! But you apply it to the Mahabharata in an intriguing way – specifically to the little people of history, including the ordinary soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the hubris of princes, and the marginal characters who exist only to serve the main characters. This isn’t something as simple as a history-is-written-by-the-victors narrative, is it? One point you seem to be making is that even within every “winning team” and “losing team”, there are people who are oppressed.

Yes, Cecil the lion provides a tragic and urgent coda. You are right: the proverb, to me, implied more than the prerogative winners have on history. It underpinned the problem with dominant narratives—any dominant narrative (victor or recognized victim). In the context of this retelling, I felt strongly there is – okay, this is a truism but important enough to be repeated – seldom a single history, especially with a juggernaut like war. Mahasweta Devi
underscored this with casual brilliance in After Kurukshetra, where she told the tale of the widows of Kurukshetra, of Yuyutsu’s mother Sauvali, and of the relatives of the Nishada family burnt alive in Varanavrata in place of the Pandavas—a reminder that even victims leave behind other victims, ones we do not perceive. It was the intersection of narratives, the refracted, echoed voices, so to say, that intrigued me.

And that also resonated with something my father, an army officer, told me when I was a child: he said there were no altruistic victories in war and few noble heroes—that heroism exacts a moral price.  It taught me too that we are almost all, in some ways, complicit in conflict, in injustice, in battle, which, for instance, considerably shaped my reading of Krishna. There are tales of ‘winners’ too, in this book. But you are right again, I was not trying to switch binaries: the aim was not to make the bad guys the good ones and vice-versa. So there are poems where Duryodhana’s malevolence is clearly indicated (by his own mother, among others), and others where his loyalty to and love for Karna are highlighted. We can often be hero to one person, villain to another, and something in between to lots of others.

Speaking of Krishna, I loved the Mohini jeremiad, in the voice of Krishna’s female side: this sense of a split personality, a God berating himself and all of his Creation, is fascinating. Throughout the book, you focus on the underprivileged, nameless "pawns", yet this lacerating segment comes from the mouth of the most empowered and central character of all (or from a part of his personality). That is a superb conception.

I must confess Mohini (along with Amba/Shikhandi and Poorna) is a personal favourite, both the story and – if one is allowed to have preferences within one’s own work – the response it elicited from me. Also, because this regional variant was a discovery, one made during the research on Until the Lions.

Earlier, I hadn’t known of Aravan’s story, which has fascinating spin-offs in performing and visual art representations in Tamil Nadu, particularly among the Koothandavar community who follow Peruntevanar’s version of the Mahabharata. In this 9th century epic poem, the Pandavas ask Aravan – Arjuna’s son from Ulupi – to offer himself as human sacrifice to Kali to ensure their victory at Kurukshetra. Aravan agrees but on condition he be wedded before his mutilation and death: he wants to be mourned by a wife. When no woman agrees to marry a man about to die, Krishna steps in and offers to marry Aravan as Mohini, his female form.

Jeremiad for the Debris of Stars imagines Mohini’s enraged, uncontrollable grief after Aravan’s end. I was fascinated by the possibility of guilt, the internal conflict within the supreme being – now reduced to a bereaved human (the choice of Aravan as sacrifice having been very much Krishna’s idea) – and how it could charge Mohini the widow’s molten fury, her burning sorrow. As you said, it suddenly incites god himself to deliver the ultimate indictment of war, a war he has shaped; and his indictment of himself, “god that creates god that destroys god that forgets as gods so easily do”.

A question about the feminist aspects of the book. Nearly all the voices here are those of women – certainly all the ones that are established Mahabharata characters. Including very peripheral figures such as King Drupada’s nameless wife, known only in terms of her relationship to other characters; or Vidura’s mother, the maid Poorna; or Yuyutsu’s mother Sauvali, raped by Dhritarashtra (though as she says, “When the King decides to rape me or my kind, we must not use the word rape”) in his quest for an heir. Is it your feeling that such women – treated as child-bearing machines and then discarded or ignored – best represent the downtrodden of history?

Nearly all the voices with the exception of two soldiers – a father and son (with radically different outlooks on war) – and Krishna (as man-avatar, but later also as Mohini). The men are Padavit, among the lowest rank of soldiers, who also represent the downtrodden of history.

In the Mahabharata – as seen in most other epics (except perhaps Gilgamesh?), and through history – women are generally among the first casualties of war and conflict (Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Gandhari in certain regional accounts, Draupadi, the Yadava women after the destruction of their clan…). Their bodies become territories, then detritus: conquered, ravaged, ploughed for produce, cast aside. But, unlike in the case of land, the humiliation of ‘conquest’ is attached to their person; there is a puzzling (and expedient) transfer of defeat and dishonour that Rushdie wrote about most memorably in Shame: from the men who’ve experienced defeat to the women who suffer the consequences of that defeat. I was interested in the women’s own responses to that notion of dishonour, as well as their (occasional) refusal of it. Amba spends two lifetimes seeking retribution, but in quieter ways, Poorna’s and Sauvali’s reaction to the use or possession of their bodies is just as radical, as subversive. Sauvali sums up the societal order with, “When the king decides to rape me or my kind, no one will use the word rape.  The word does not exist in the king’s world. This body is just another province he owns, from navel to nipple to eyelid, insole to clitoris.” And her response is that, nonetheless, even he cannot own her thoughts, nor her conscience: that conviction is the legacy she leaves her son. 

Also, I wanted to explore the thought that Vyaasa expresses in Until the Lions, horrified, that “war is sometimes not the worst event… it just magnifies the evil men commit at other times.” So most of these women – on the epic’s margins, as you put it so aptly – suffer as many humiliations during peace. The total disregard for their desires, their fates—that was a trait exhibited not by the ‘enemy’ alone, but also by the men in their lives. And perhaps almost as much by other women (Kunti’s commandment on Draupadi’s marital status, and Satyavati’s decision to have her widowed daughters-in-law impregnated to perpetuate her dynasty are flagrant examples): I was not interested in male bashing any more than I was in “victor bashing”! It was more of an inquiry into power, its sources, its proprietors and tenants and what that power permits/spurs them to do. Unsurprisingly, those who wield it most often are men, but I also wanted to explore the actions of women in the epic who hold the sceptre (Satyavati, Ulupi, Hidimbi, Kunti in many ways). And through the years of reading and writing, I saw them as much more than archetypes of virtue and vice.

Another reason to focus on the female voice was perhaps because many of them are survivors, witnesses but not disinterested ones. Over and above the loss and grief, some emanate a sense of inevitability. And many have a narrative that goes beyond victory and defeat. You mentioned Dhrupada’s wife. Vyaasa’s epic recounts that Dhrupada raises Draupadi as an enticement for Arjuna, that it is all part of his plan to destroy Drona. In fact, all his children are created to rout an enemy rather than to bring him joy or propagate his name. And I found the perspective of a mother who must watch her children be forged into weapons compelling. Someone who lives in a greenhouse of hatred and vengeance, who feels alienated from her closest kin but cannot (or does not) actively intervene to change the course of events.

The first half of the book has multiple poems in the voice of the matriarch Satyavati, great-grandmother to the warring Kuru princes, as she reflects on everything that went wrong, and the part that she played in it – while also providing the reader the basic Mahabharata back-story. In the original epic, Satyavati exits the stage quite early. Were there any complications in using her as a recurring, anchoring voice?

Is there a keyboard shortcut for “big burst of laughter”? Oh yes, it was hell to get rid of Satyavati; her voice had become the thread around which all the others were strung. Both Anita Roy and Marilyn Hacker, while reading the initial voices, had strongly urged me to use a diegetic device to explain the story, like a foreword or a plot summary: they pointed out that most people (even Mahabharata obsessed souls like us) tend to forget the minor characters, the convolutions of plot, and that it would really help to get a clearer picture while reading Until the Lions (instead of having to keep a set of reference books by the bedside). Somehow, I wanted to avoid an explanation outside the story, and slowly Satyavati came into being (she was the voice whose devising took the most thought and time). And once she took the stage, she elbowed out any other aspirant to that role. She became increasingly more central, as the only character with a larger vision of cause and effect. Most of the other voices, self-aware though they are, are concerned with their immediate lives and environment or interests. Satyavati is both passionately devoted to building her dynasty and painfully aware of the cost of that goal.

Nonetheless, I had decided not to deviate much from the chronology of the epic, so I had to get rid of her around midway. That did cause more burnt axons and overheated grey cells, juggling with options: should I have her reading letters from Bheeshma in her hermitage apprising her of doings in Hastinapura, or hand over her functions to someone else (Poorna was tempting as replacement)? I didn’t discard the unreal either: could her ghost walk through the palace, noting the colour of Subhadra’s wedding robe? No, I am joking!  I did finally find a solution that felt right, one that allowed her to have the last narrative word.

Some of the voices here complement or contrast with each other, serving as “double bills” in some sense: e.g. Poorna (maid, mother of Vidura) and Sauvali (maid, mother of Yuyutsu); or Hidimbi and Ulupi, both of whom are marginalised wives of Pandava princes. Even as a long-time Mahabharata buff, I saw new parallels and similarities between certain characters and situations. Was this part of your original design, or did it emerge in the writing?

Not really! I mean, some of the specific twin-ship/mirror patterns emerged as my vision of the characters became clearer. I had an original long-list of about 23-25 characters whose stories and personalities had always beguiled, and then I cut that down to 18 (with Satyavati, of course, later becoming the 19th – or 1st, actually – voice that acted as Ariadne’s thread) that I would write on/as. Karna’s adoptive mother Radha, Subhadra, Chitrangada, Ambika-Ambalika etc were some of those who didn’t make the shortlist, so to say.

There are characters that double bill themselves, so to say: Amba and Shikhandi (within the same poem), Krishna and Mohini (across two separate poems). Some that were meant to provide contrasting voices from the beginning: the Padavits, for instance. I knew father and son would have radically different views on war and heroism—they now bookend the narrative. Also, Kunti and Gandhari: it was clear they would be poles apart as mothers, as queens. But there are others, like Hidimbi and Ulupi (as lovers and mothers) whose similarities and divergences grew more pointed as I conceptualised the poems, or even while I wrote them. The casteist/ species-ist conventions kick in too, with Hidimbi’s and Ulupi’s stories: Ghatotkacha never gets his due as the eldest Pandava grandchild because he is half-rakshasa, a reviled race. While the Nagas, who see themselves superior to earthlings, give Ulupi’s son Aravan a hard time, as he is blemished by the human taint of his father.

Poorna’s and Sauvali’s accounts are offset by a sharp distinction: volition. Poorna’s coupling with Vyaasa is volitional: she chooses to go in Ambika’s place, to spare her ward/mistress a repeat of the violation she dreads—and I hope her choice permeates the writing. Dhritarashtra, however, rapes Sauvali, over and over again: it is a rape authorised and sanctified by court and priests and all the powers-that-be, and all the more horrific for that. That’s somehow not very different from the State refusing to recognise marital rape as a crime, is it?

You have made some very bold decisions, such as the one to not just name all 100 of the Kauravas (in Dushala’s voice when she remembers her brothers) but to also have a line or two of description about each of them. For me this is one of the most striking and impressive sections in the book: even Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which we are told contains “everything”, can barely be bothered with the personalities of more than three or four of the brothers; Duryodhana and Duhshasana are always the visible “frontmen” for a nebulous mass of Kauravas. But you bring those nameless, featureless siblings alive, awaken the reader to the multiple possibilities in them: how one of them may have been a special friend to one of the Pandavas, how another may have been gay, another agnostic. How hard was this poem to pull off, in terms of both structure and content?

I am so glad you noticed that poem: it is one of the quietest ones, there are no pyrotechnics here of emotion or event. Like you, I have always seen and heard the Kauravas described as a nameless, faceless collective (except for one or two, like Vikarna who remonstrates with Duhshasana at the vastraharan).

I could have followed the very probable theory that hundred was a later addition made specifically to underscore the greatness of their adversaries, the five Pandavas, and that the Kauravas were also just a handful in number. However, from a theatrical perspective, a hundred has such heft and scope! Nonetheless, a hundred people should not, as Dusshala says, be

“Reduced to a number, a clan name.
That cannot be. They must be remembered. Mourned. Reclaimed.”

The hardest part of that poem was finding their names—in almost all the reference material I read, there were discrepancies, and repetitions in all. Finally, I retained the names as I found them, and one of the couplets even refers to the repetition. The choice of form came naturally—I’ve used the landay, a Pashtun form of oral poetry whose roots seem to reach back across millennia. It is a form used for mourning, persiflage, erotic banter; highly versatile, I find. It consists of couplets (often rhyming) contained within 22 syllables, 9 in the first line and 13 in the second.

It seemed important to evoke qualities and characteristics familiar to a sibling; someone who loved them but would have been less sentimental about their desires and whims, their annoying as well as endearing traits; someone also who would remember specific events in their lives. By the time they died, they could not have remained ciphers: they must have been lovers, husbands, fathers, practised a craft or vocation, travelled… if not as prolifically as the Pandavas, at least a good deal. Conjuring these up was not difficult; I was intent not to eulogise, nor to demonise, on portraying them as a motley bunch.

And with all 107 (Pandu’s sons and Dhritarashtra’s children) growing up together through much of their childhood, it was tough to believe they would all be enemies since day one. That is how the section about individual relationships with Kunti and some of her sons came about.

One of my favourite narrators in the book isn't human at all. Tell us about Shunaka the sardonic dog and what purpose she served for you as a writer.

Each time I saw or read the Mahabharata - or one of its numberless retellings - the casual, almost unthinking cruelty to animals struck me with renewed vigour. I mean, there is the burning of the Khandava forest, of course, where Krishna encourages Arjuna to kill every living being, whether Naga or suckling fawn or nestling. Then Janamejaya's attempt to wipe out the entire serpent species to avenge his father's murder by Takshaka. There is the dog whose mouth is gagged with arrows by Ekalavya. There are all sorts of animals merrily killed in pursuit of fun and ritual. Apart from Yuddhishtira's loyalty to dharma-disguised-as-dog in the Mahaprasthanika Parva, the outlook is pretty bleak for animals on the whole.

I wanted a rather dispassionate inventory of all this damage by a non-human narrator. And having grown up around dogs all through childhood and early adulthood, it was more natural to channel into a canine voice. My parents have two dogs— Shwanan and Shuni, one generally quite superior and distrustful of most humans and the other, effusive enough to knock you off your feet. So I imagined a conversation between the two, but called the narrator Shunaka and the naïve 'sister', Shyama (which is the name of one of Sarama's children). But the direct literary ancestor of Shunaka is Ugh, have you met him? He's got to be my all-time favourite narrator: the utterly unflappable and majestic canine protagonist of the opening poem of Arun Kolatkar's The Kala Ghoda Poems. He puts most human heroes to shame with his assurance and debonairness.

Questions about form. You use many different poetic traditions in this book, and I’d like you to elucidate on a few. The canzone, for example, which you use for Kunti’s voice – was that the most complicated form you have dealt with? (As an outsider, it seems like complicated mathematics to me when I read about the structure! I don’t know how easy or difficult it is to actually employ it.) And any particular reason why it goes with this character?

The book is in nineteen voices, Satyavati and eighteen others. And form can be a handy tool to transform tone and cadence, and consequently, tenor; and I needed to persuasively inhabit several voices in rapid succession. I do believe, firmly, that content defines form, so the forms were chosen based on the emotional/narrative trajectory of the voice in question, and how the given form could carry that voice. A sestina does not convey the same mood or personality as a haiku, or a sonnet. I’ve used forms from all over, so there isn’t much geographic fidelity—there are pankti and padam, rub’ai and pantoum, acrostics and villanelle and triolet, haibun and tanka, concrete poems and some others.

For instance, with Amba/Shikhandi – where there is occupation of two bodies, two voices, by one soul – I’ve alternated between forms (within the same poem) to suggest the shifts from past to present, from one incarnation to another. Shikhandi speaks only in si harfi, a form used in Sufi and Punjabi mystic poetry to convey piety, developed in the same sequence as the alphabet. But Shikhandi’s devotion is to his purpose, not to any god, and his sections of the poem unfold as a war manual: there is merely deliberate, unflinching action here, no thought nor doubt. Amba while recalling her past begins and ends in Petrarchan sonnets whereas in the middle section, the trauma of abduction is relived first through blank verse, then it veers into free verse, broken, repeated lines with no punctuation, no pauses before swerving back into a calmer space.

While for Vrishali, I employed rimas dissolutas, quite an obscure French form built in sestets that rhyme not within each stanza but across them (abcdef abcdef). It seemed apt for the endless spiral of her grief, which grows through the length of each sestet, then returns to the same starting point. As if grief renders her thought trapped in a circle, although it is gaining momentum, deepening as she speaks until her chosen end. I wanted it to resemble a solenoid, a tightly wound coil, that my engineer friends kept referencing when we were young.

You asked about the canzone. Someone, perhaps Jeet Thayil or Gorge Szirtes, called it a sestina on Speed. In fact, doesn’t Jeet Thayil have a character in Narcopolis declare that every poet should write at least one canzone in his/her lifetime? It’s a bloody high-wire act, sustained across 65 lines, clamouring both extreme precision and acrobatics. Because once you begin working on one, there is an insane adrenaline rush. There is so little space for free movement if you don’t use the set end-words to direct thought—it feels like highly calibrated choreography. So, 5 stanzas of 12 lines and a envoi of 5 lines, with only 5 end words allowed across those 65 lines, words that repeat in a strict, unchangeable order:

To me, the canzone seemed best equipped to reflect the obsessions around which Kunti’s life revolves, five words on which every thought is hinged. It hints at her resolve, her ruthlessness, her momentum, if you will.

While on Kunti: as she talks of her firstborn son Karna, whom she had had to abandon, you portray her not as so many Mahabharata tellings do – as the anguished mother – but as a fiercely practical woman who knows realpolitik and the necessity for sacrifices. “Sons, like pleasure, should serve a purpose,” she says chillingly. Your other narrators are mostly clear-sighted and direct too. What do you find useful or stimulating about this approach to the characters?

Well, several – Satyavati, Kunti, Hidimbi, Ulupi – are rulers, directly or indirectly (queens, regents, dowager and king-maker in Kunti’s case). Many I saw like policy-makers of the corporate world: naturally result-oriented and pragmatic, some ruthless and manipulative, like the Yadavas, or detached and purposeful, like Ulupi. Hidimbi, for example, despite her love for Bhima, realises that it is best for her land and her son that the Pandavas leave at the earliest, they bear too much potential for carnage and are indifferent to everything but their prophesied destinies. But that does not preclude her ample capacity for emotion: her letters to Bhima and Kunti are meant to suggest the depth of her love and apprehension, even as we see the shrewd queen in her longer missives to Kirmira.

As for Kunti, given her rather estranged, lonely childhood, then her late husband’s obsession with kingship and dynasties, and the challenges of surviving in a hostile palace environment, I thought she’d be rather contemptuous of emotional frailty, careful to anchor her life around tangible goals. Both Irawati Karve and Pradip Bhattacharya have praised her resourcefulness and far-sightedness, I just spelt out what that must have meant during intensely emotional moments, whether it be the mistake of Karna’s birth or his arrival in Hastinapur.

And with Poorna and Sauvali, surrounded as they are by the machinations of court and palace intrigues, with their wellbeing and even survival contingent on so many factors external to themselves, how could they not be both disabused by power and wary of its tentacles? There is ancestral distrust here, and with good reason!

There’s always the risk of alienating readers who would prefer a more admiring portrayal of a “Mother Courage” like Kunti, or of Krishna, but this is my attempt to be faithful to these characters, many of whom Vyaasa sketched in variegated shades of grey.

One poem has as its epigraph a verse from the Gulzar-penned lyric “Naam Ada Likhna” (from the film Yahaan), and after providing your translation of the lyrics, you then use the glosa form for your own poem (where the lines of an existing text – in this case, the Gulzar song – are incorporated as the 10th line of each successive stanza in your own poem, often with delicate shifts in meaning). You do something similar with Niranjan Iyer’s “Ek Ghadi” song from the film D-Day. I find it fascinating, this juxtaposition of relatively less-known poetic forms (which many people would consider “elitist”) with popular songs from Hindi cinema. What have your major influences been as a reader, writer and consumer of culture?

I am the proverbial magpie, or like the crow in Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems: I pick up threads and twigs, strands of silver and fallen hair, beads and mothballs indiscriminately to line my poetic nests. Some influences endure; others shift and sink and rise. A lot of them come from performance art, especially dance. So, it’s a higgledy-piggledy list, here are just a few:

Terry Pratchett, oh for so much! For the endless inventiveness, for making fantasy/ science fiction so hugely entertaining and so mordantly, precisely satiric: about politics, about society, racism and sexism and corporate greed and and and. For his depiction of Death, close at hand…

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, for what dance critic Sanjoy Roy calls her “exacting pursuit of compositional principles.” Structurally, I keep referencing one of her earliest works (Fase): Constancy VI in Until the Lions draws from its compositional framework, so do my earlier poems like Ya’aburnee.

Rachid Ouramdane and Gregory Maqoma, both choreographers, I admire for their fearlessness and skill in making the political intensely personal, essential, and therefore universal. They remind me that political engagement in art – often a bad word – need not be boring or obvious, that it can transcend pamphleteering and didacticism. That it can refract deep and complex realities stunningly, imaginatively.

Marilyn Hacker for her deep interest in form, for her effortless, innovative use of traditional forms of poetry – from all over the world – and her abiding engagement to this flawed world we live in, especially the corners that are so easy to forget. David Shulman for his work on medieval South Indian poetry, for his scholarship into – and efforts to sustain – endangered theatre forms like Koodiyattom, and again, his peaceful activism for Palestine, his resistance to the Israeli Occupation.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – their work from the 80s, really – who made stand-up comedy so topical, so utterly irreverent. Hrishikesh Mukherjee too – whom we have discussed so often – for a gentler brand of humour, for opening my eyes to the inner lives of marginal characters, when I was seven or so.

Sahir Ludhianvi and Gulzar—two poet-lyricists whose work was my introduction to the might, the wingspan, the omnipresence of poetry, and their readiness to break all the idiotic perceptions of demotic or elitist art. I mean, they could gracefully spring from an addictive nonsense rhyme to a haunting anthem in the space of the same film. They drew poetry out of a school syllabus and into the head, the blood. And Kunchan Nambiar, the Malayalam poet, did the same, with the sheer musicality, the rhythm in his writing.

Patrice Chéreau, for many reasons, mostly for his ability to spin magic, his pursuit of truth, through theatre and cinema. I abide by his belief that theatre – but also art in general – can, unapologetically, enchant. Enchantment need not mean escape from brutality or depth, quite the contrary: it can be bloody and iridescent, strange and real, all at once. Also, as I’ve said before, he had an exceptional talent for highlighting the body – whether the sexual or solitary body (Intimacy), the body as a ‘meditation on mortality’ (His Brother) or as a mirror to the elements (I Am the Wind) – and for making it the locus of his work. There were times when I literally could not move, after watching his work. The body throbbed too much.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, with whom I worked for nine years: more as a beautiful reaffirmation, reassurance in a world where high-art and low-art tend to be separated behind spiked iron fences. Larbi, more than almost any other artist I see – except Salman Rushdie, perhaps – is genuinely indifferent to divides and definitions about art. He traverses modern and traditional, dives into medieval music and Cirque du Soleil, manga and conceptual art, Bollywood and opera; works with disabled actors, ballerinas and street dancers, Benedict Cumberbatch and warrior monks from the Shaolin Temple, without hierarchy, a rare and wonderful trait. There’s some form of alchemy at work when he is at his most inspired and focussed.

The choreographer and dancer Akram Khan – with whom you have worked closely in your other avatar as a dance producer/curator – has a production of Until the Lions out soon, centred on your “Amba” poem. Tell us something about that, and the part you played in it.
And related to this: while reading the poems I often felt like I had to read them out loud to really feel their full power; it wasn’t enough to encounter them on the page. And even when read out, some of the more intense voices feel like they have to be performed, dramatically, for full effect. Is that how you would intend some of them to be read? And any plans for further productions – part from the Amba one – that would help achieve this?

That's a really perceptive reading of those poems: yes, a lot of them are very performative, and draw from dance or theatre environments (Constancy VI which I'd mentioned; the entire Amba/Shikhandi poem which is in two parallel voices interwoven; Sauvali; and it transpires the Mohini Jeremiad has an ostinato-like structure—to mention a few). I had gooseflesh when I heard Kathryn Hunt read Manual for Revenge and Remembrance (excerpts of which appear in the AKC Until the Lions trailer)

Just around the time I'd begun, Leesa Gazi, the wonderful Banglaeshi-British actress - with whom I had worked on DESH - expressed interest in having some of the voices staged (she was, in particular, curious about Draupadi). Unfortunately, the theatre director whom she approached was more interested in Abhimanyu and the angle of young martyrdom—which is a stirring prospect, just not one I was absorbed by. So we never moved further on that but now that the book is ready, I will send Leesa the rest of the voices (though Draupadi does not form one of them...)

And an actress friend from the oldest theatre in France is also very keen on staged readings, and she has put together a proposal to her management. I’d be delighted if that happens because her portrayal of Antigone two years ago was hugely inspirational while writing Until the Lions, and it will be rewarding to see her take on some of these characters.

As for Akram Khan, funnily enough, each time I have worked with him, it has been as a writer, never as a dance producer. First, I co-wrote DESH, his 2011 piece (for which I’d also written the story that became the book The Honey Hunter), then I scripted its adaptation into a show for young audiences this year, Chotto Desh.

With Until the Lions, I had shown Akram Khan Company’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry – someone whose opinion I value much – the initial poems in early 2013, and he was convinced Akram should read them, that it might be challenging to do something with them. And when Akram heard Amba’s story, he chose to stage it.

Typically, a dance staging – in the UK, unlike in Europe which has a rich practice of tanztheater where theatre and dance meld quite naturally – tends to be a totally distinct beast from its ‘literary’ source: text is primarily used as raw material, as ossature over which the tissues, blood and skin of movement, music, sets are laid. I don’t expect to see any text in an oral form unless it is strictly functional, thankfully.

Specifically, for AKC’s production, I wrote detailed ‘chapters’ detailing the action and atmosphere in those sequences (self-contained ones, so they need not follow a linear narrative), then equally detailed character sketches, so that they could feed into the movement and the dramaturgy. I also culled certain portions of the Amba and Mohini poems that might be useful as a refrain, or as part of the soundtrack. 

Since then, I’ve attended rehearsals from time to time, where I am probably a giant thorn in the dramaturge’s skin. You know, it must be terrible for dramaturges to have to deal with a living, breathing (worse, speaking!) writer! I mean, there's the poor dramaturge, used to being the compass for the process, when wham! someone pops up like a jack in the box, reminding him or her of intent and character arcs and emotional impetus and plot axes; questioning structure and the random use of lines. What a nightmare. Dead writers are so much more malleable! For a serene creative process, I'd recommend Shakespeare and Yeats and other buried brethren.

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