Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bhasa's Mahabharata plays

Just out: a new edition of The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays, an English translation (by A N D Haksar) of six plays by the great Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa. These are all based on episodes in the Mahabharata. Reading “Pancharatram” (“Five Nights”), which begins with Duryodhana, having performed a great sacrificial ceremony, seeking the blessings of his elders, I was struck by déjà vu. From the opening page:

Duryodhana: Preceptor, my salutations.
Drona: Come, my child. But that is not in order.
Duryodhana: Why, what is the order?
Drona: Don’t you see? You should first salute the blessed Bhishma. I don’t consider it in order to be saluted before him.
Bhishma: No, no, sir. You have precedence over me for many reasons. I am born of a mother, your birth was immaculate...

For more on “immaculate” births in the Mahabharata, see this post. One must wonder now if the Kuru elders spent all their time discussing each other’s fantastic origins and precisely where they should be placed in the respectability hierarchy.

Bhasa is one of the major names in classical Sanskrit literature. Though there is no consensus on when exactly he lived, it’s known that he preceded Kalidasa, who praised him in the prologue of one of his own plays. (It was a somewhat backhanded compliment though: Kalidasa asked the rhetorical question “How can the work of the modern poet Kalidasa be more esteemed than that of established worthies than Bhasa etc?” and then supplied his own answer: “Everything is not more praiseworthy just because it is old, nor should a poetical work be dismissed just because it is new.”)

Reading The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays, it’s interesting to see how Bhasa uses creative license to extrapolate dialogues and imagine scenes that were not in the original text of the Mahabharata, but which are largely consistent with the tone of the epic. This is, of course, something that interpreters of the vibrant epic continue to do more than 2,000 years later (Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni is one example among many of books that tell the story through the eyes of a particular character; and there are more conventional translations, such as the beautiful one by Kamala Subramaniam, which expand the dialogues and internal dilemmas).
Also notable is his treatment of the characters – for instance, Duryodhana is frequently depicted as a noble, generous prince mindful of family honour (he is also the tragic hero of the title play, "Urubhanga") while Bhishma sometimes comes across as manipulative. It’s a recognition of how complex and many-sided the people in the epic are, something you won’t find in some of the condensed translations (such as the overrated one by C Rajagopalachari) or in that TV soap made by B R Chopra in the late 1980s.

The one notable deviation Bhasa makes from the original story is in “Pancharatram”, where Duryodhana agrees to return the kingdom to the Pandavas after their exile, provided their whereabouts can be discovered within five nights. This play appears to end on a reconciliatory note, but subsequent plays like “Duta Vakyam” (“The Envoy”) and “Karnabharam” (“Karna’s Burden”) indicate that the great war did take place after all. Much of Bhasa’s work has been lost; I wonder if he had dealt with the Mahabharata more comprehensively and if perhaps there were other works that bridged the gap between the events recounted in “Pancharatram” and those in the later plays. We'll never know, of course.


  1. What ho, Jai. I guess you have a bit of an insider's view into this matter of publication of Indian classical literature, particularly by more upmarket houses such as Penguin. Is this a new trend? Is there much demand for these translated works? Just curious, because certainly in the 1980s and 1990s there didn't seem to be such a wide availability of these books. I mean, other than the academic studies by Motilal Banarsidass, and the occasional Rupa publication, I couldn't find much of old Indian literature around. Perhaps I was not looking in the right places?

  2. C Rajagopalachari's book is condensed and hence only shows characters in their dominant nature. Of course you can argue that a chain is as strong as its weakest link; or that it wasn't their dominant character after all. Perhaps. But condensed books have their place in literature and are not "over rated" whatever else they are.

    As usual, loved the post! Thanks.

  3. Feanor: Penguin India has done a fine job in making available good translations of classics and modern classics (e.g. Parashuram's stories and Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third) in recent months. Hope that continues. Also hope I find the time to read some of them!

    Neha: to me, Rajagopalachari's book is overrated because nearly every time the subject of the Mahabharata comes up, someone or the other tells me that they've read only the Rajagopalachari version and thought it was brilliant. (I'm talking about adults here, not 12-year-olds, who are the ideal readers for that book - it's the next step up from the Amar Chitra Katha versions.)

    C Rajagopalachari's book is condensed and hence only shows characters in their dominant nature...

    I would argue that for a work as full of complexity and contradiction as the Mahabharata (and as dependent on those complexities for it to be meaningful), this is a big flaw. Condensations do have their place, of course, but we tend to grow out of them eventually (at least if we're making a genuine attempt to experience the work in question).

    I should add here that my feelings about the Rajagopalachari (and R K Narayan) condensations also come from my own perception of the Mahabharata as a great, multi-layered work of literature, not as a simplistic good-vs-evil story with a facile moral.

  4. I guess you need the condensed versions, and yes, to a certain extent even B R Chopra's Sunday special, to familiarise yourself with the basic storyline and characters. I think it would be quite a nightmare to plunge into one of the more complex versions or the ones told from a 'different' point of view without knowing the basic stuff, given that the Mahabhrata's timeline and chronology can often be quite confusing.

  5. TMM: ya, no issue with people stopping at the condensed versions (everyone should make their own decisions about whether they want to explore a work further) but the problem is when they think reading those versions gives them an indepth understanding of the epic. I haven't read the unabridged versions of many classics of world literature (Don Quixote, for instance) and I wouldn't presume to get into an intensive discussion about them based on knowledge gleaned from Cliff Notes.

  6. I sometimes wonder if the writers of puranas and the epics were something akin to comic book artists and sitcom writers, where characters from "Mad about You" spill into "friends" which spills into "Joey" and "Cheers" leads to "Frasier".

  7. The greatest thing about the epic is its many layers of human behaviour. I would even say that people teaching organisational behaviour or human psychology, should make an in depth case study of some parts of Mahabharta. There is a great deal of complexity found in the magnificient epic. It does not preach you extended and superficial sermons of morality and piety ; but is superb in its depiction of the complexities of human nature.

    The characters of Pandavas , Drona , Bhishma ,Draupadi are so open to different interpretations that various theories or new literature can be written by just analysing their actions. I believe this is the greatness of Mahabharta which makes it as probably the greatest epic known to mankind.

  8. Though you discuss the plots of the plays,you did not touch upon the translation.I've read this book,but found the translation a bit too simplified for my taste.
    Though this might be because'the endeavour has been to produce a translation into readable English to convey the pace and flavour of the original plays',as ANDH mentions in his introduction.I feel the pace could have been maintained without the oversimplification.
    Would love to know your views on the same.

  9. Hardik: I'm not qualified to comment on the quality of translation (beyond the question "Does it work on its own terms?") because I haven't read the plays in the original Sanskrit.

  10. dude i am writing my thesis and my primary text is The Mahabharata. Your blog has been a great source of help. I appreciate it, man.. thanks.