Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bhima’s story, thoughts on Yudhisthira, and the fluidity of myths

Prem Panicker has been working on an English-language re-telling of M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham, which is the Mahabharata from the point of view of the Pandava Bhima. It’s been going brilliantly so far: here are episodes 1, 2, 3 and 4, with many more to follow; Prem promises a couple of installments per week. (Note: the website is problematic, so refresh/reload a couple of times if it doesn't open at first try.) Wish I could read some of the other literature he mentions in his introductory post, but I don’t think there are any translations available.

Prem and I had an email discussion about the malleability of the Mahabharata and of old myths in general – how the plot specifics, and the way different characters tend to be regarded, vary greatly as you travel from one part of this vast country to another. Just two among the countless examples of what I’m talking about: the temples dedicated to Duryodhana in parts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal; and the contrasting myths about Shiva's wife Sati that have arisen in various pilgrimage spots around the country where different parts of her body supposedly landed after her corpse was sliced up by Vishnu's sudarshan chakra. (More on that gruesome story and its aftermath here.)

As I've indicated before on this blog, I believe that the Mahabharata is in many ways a work in progress, demanding constant reinterpretation and extrapolation - the only way to do justice to a story so complex and multidimensional is to read as many different versions, written from as many different perspectives as possible.
While characters like Draupadi, Karna, Bheeshma and Ashwatthama will always fire the popular imagination, I think it's high time someone did something on the more low-key characters, like Yudhisthira. He's usually thought of as insipid by most casual readers of the epic but there’s lots of potential for a deeper examination: the burden he always had to carry of being the embodiment of Dharma and how that might have affected his relationships with his brothers, wife and cousins, who were all more in touch with their baser feelings; the implications of the non-divine version of his birth, which has it that his real father was Vidura and that he was therefore the grandson of a low-caste woman – further muddying the issue of who “deserves” to be king.

(In a thoughtful essay on Yudhisthira in his book The Mahabharata: A Literary Study, Krishna Chaitanya points out that he isn’t as boringly moralistic and self-satisfied as he is made out to be; that he undergoes commendable personal growth over the course of the epic much like Karna does – though Yudhisthira’s growth trajectory, and life in general, are much less dramatic than those of his elder brother, with whom he shares many vital qualities. Chaitanya also alludes to the little-mentioned passage in the Mahabharata where, shortly after the Pandavas have been exiled, Yudhisthira confesses to his wife and brothers that he had accepted Duryodhana’s invitation to play dice in the hope that he would be able to win Hastinapura for himself.)

Anyway, back to Prem’s re-telling of Randaamoozham. You can read all the installments in order here.

And here's a relevant portion from the longer version of a piece I recently did for Tehelka, about mythological serials; it touches on some of the things Prem and I discussed on email.


[...My criticism of Kahaani… isn’t based on a rigid preconception of what the Mahabharata should or should not be. To the contrary, my own (irreligious) view of the epic is not as a holy text with lessons that are set in stone but a complex, fluid work of literature privy to constant rethinking and re-analysis. One of its great qualities is that it can be interpreted in many ways, ranging from Kamala Subramanian’s unabashedly sentimental view of the characters to Irawati Karve's clinical, anthropological take, which analyses the less-than-savoury ulterior motives of even the revered Bheeshma.

Read closely, the Mahabharata offers easy answers to no one, except, perhaps, to those who are determinedly seeking only the easiest answers (in which case the simple-minded 1960s film version – a collection of audience-pleasing setpieces about the heroics of Bheema and Arjuna, played by Dara Singh and Pradeep Kumar respectively – should suffice). Once freed from the shackles of an instructive morality play, it provides imaginative filmmakers and scriptwriters with many rich possibilities.

For example, it’s possible to depict Krishna as the dewy-eyed God of the Bhakti tradition, omniscient, forever in control, naughty smile permanently in place (which is how all the mythological serials I know of inevitably choose to depict him), but it’s equally possible to show him as a shrewd Yadav chieftain with a powerful understanding of the hearts and minds of other men. Or even an Avatar who has only a dim view of his role he must play in the larger picture, and who is frequently swayed by the human dramas around him. (Ramesh Menon’s renderings show Krishna as a lonely, almost frightened God as he prepares to impart the Bhagwad Gita to Arjuna, knowing that this is the moment that his whole life has led up to, and wondering if he will pass the test. Incidentally, this aspect of the Krishna portrayal reminds me of Gandalf in J R R Tolkien’s universe, a divine being who is an incarnation of the demi-God Olorin but in his present form often vulnerable and confused about his role in the larger picture.) Each of these interpretations could be fascinating and insightful if done well, but realistically speaking only one of them – the first one – will ever make it to our mass audience-pleasing mytho-soaps.

The criticism of Kahani... that I don’t agree with is that the Greek-centurion look of the show – inspired by films like Troy and 300 - is inauthentic. This is a ludicrously myopic argument. Who gets to define “realism” or “authenticity” when it comes to a work like the Mahabharata? Go down this dubious road and you’d need a dark-complexioned Krishna and Draupadi (and what are the chances of any of our mainstream TV shows doing this, especially if Fair and Lovely lined up as a possible sponsor?). Peter Brook's version of the epic used austere gowns and robes that could scarcely be regarded “realistic” in terms of what was worn in the India of 3000 years ago, and it had actors from around the world playing the lead characters, but it captured the epic's nuances better than most of the Indian versions we’ve see. It also highlighted what a universal human story the Mahabharata is.

The real problem with the look of Kahaani... is its inconsistency: while the mortal characters sport sharp-looking costumes designed by Manish Malhotra, the divine personages like Ganesha and Brahma are laughably tacky. (Frankly, the Troy look just doesn't coexist well with supernatural elements. It’s no coincidence that Wolfgang Petersen’s film – which, interestingly, got a lot of flak for not adhering to the Iliad, even though it had never set out to do so – consciously dumped the divine subtexts of Homer’s epic. When Eric Bana’s Hector asserted that "the Gods aren’t going to fight our battles for us", it was completely in tune with the look of a film that was self-evidently about the conflicts – external and internal – of mortal men.) Consequently, Kahani’s attempt to be stylish comes across as half-baked. The shoddiness of the script and direction and the gross simplification of the epic’s characters adds up to a strange mishmash: a show that tries to be cool and new-age but still bends over backwards to kowtow to popular sentiments. At the time of writing, it was in such a rush to get to the story of Krishna’s birth in time for this month's Janmashtmi that it had fast-tracked its way through three generations of Kuru princes, not even bothering to depict the arrival of Yudhisthira and Bheema...]

(Edited version of this piece - which draws on my earlier posts about the new TV Mahabharata - here)



  1. MT wrote RANDAMOOZHAM as an answer to the criticism that he can write only about crumbling old Nair households and its occupants.

    MT Vasudevan Nair (MT to his fans) has won the Jnanpith award amongst other laurels. He won the National Award for the Best Screenplay five times...and the first feature film he directed - NIRMALYAM (Offerings) - is a classic in Indian cinema.

    Glad Prem Panicker is doing something useful other than silly commentaries of cricket matches.

    Now if someone can translate Sukumar Azhikode's TATWAMASI to Hindi / English...that will be awesome.

  2. I sure thought Yudhisthira was fascinating in the movie - so I agree: more in depth perspective on him would be interesting.

  3. Minor point:
    Gandalf wasn't an incarnation of Olorin - he was Olorin.

    His reduced powers were not because he was mortal, but because he (and the other four Wizards sent to Middle-Earth) was restrained from using all his powers under the strictures of the Valar.

    End of pedanticity.

  4. Anon: nothing silly about Prem's commentaries or analyses - they're very intelligent. Unless you meant "silly cricket matches", in which case I'd be half-inclined to agree!

    Does Tatwamasi have to do with the Mahabharata?

    katinka: what movie do you mean? Not the Dara Singh-Pradeep Kumar one surely?

  5. ??! : My note on Gandalf was based on something I read in either Unfinished Tales or one of the History of Middle-Earth books (will retrieve and quote it as soon as I can) that distinctly implied Gandalf's confusion and inability to properly remember his life as a Maia during the ancient days. Of course, Tolkien did continually rewrite/alter details in his mythological back-stories - maybe that's where the confusion lies.

  6. True, the rewriting could be a pain. And I was going by what I vaguely remember of UT, too (I couldn't take all the endless notes in the History series) - about how he couldn't properly remember his time as a Maiar before the Ainur came to ME. Not remembering Valinor seems odd, because through the books there are many references to the times in the 'West', and even the Elves seem to remember them.

  7. Dude, why so much handwringing about Kahaani ? It is a piece of trash, just say so bluntly. That woman is in the business of entertaining housewives with mahabharat gossip. The show therefore is the Page 3 of Mahabharat. Whether she makes them wear greco-roman robes or manish malhotra suits or go commando is beside the point. The actors are flexing their pecs and giving the housewives much needed orgasms before their pudgy husbands come home tired from the hourlong commute to Noida. You otoh are looking for the litcrit section of Mahabharat. That section will never be published on TV for lack of viewers with such developed faculties, so you are relegated to perusing these MT/Panicker types. Please don't club them with the Kahaani bitch by talking about them in the same column, it is a disservice to all parties concerned. Have you ever been to the messageboards for indian soaps ? Do visit, it is a sheer delight. A whole new world of young housewives drooling over the handsome actors of Kahaani, their abs and biceps, and off-screen girlfriend(s) and ex's. Nobody there is paying any attention to the actual plot. They are Ekta's bread & butter.

  8. kahaani's scenes of pandu, dridarashtra and vidura are comical...in the least!
    love ur analysis of the mahabharata!

  9. You toh are looking for the litcrit section of Mahabharat. That section will never be published on TV...

    Anon: well, I've said as much in the post, haven't I?

    ...so you are relegated to perusing these MT/Panicker types

    Um, no. I've been "perusing" different versions of the Mahabharata since long before the Ekta soap (and even before the B R Chopra version for that matter; my memory reaches back to the Elder Days, as Elrond would say). And the bulk of this post at any rate was about the Randaamoozham and other perspective versions, not Kahaani....

    Thanks for the messageboard tip - should check out those sites.

  10. Never heard of this theory that Yudhishtira was infact the son of Vidura!

    I'm not sure the actual epic hints at that possibility. Or does it?
    But yes, the issue of whether illegitimate children, however capable, should be throned kings, is a major theme in the epic. Even the BR Chopra version did raise this point in some episodes.

  11. Also, the illegitimacy of the Pandava births as well as those of Dritharashtra and Pandu were secrets guarded by Kunti and Bheeshma respectively.
    It is rather Hitchcockian...the readers of the epic know these facts but the characters are unaware of them.

  12. Shrikanth: the idea that Vidura fathered Yudhisthira (possibly even all five Pandavas) is a widely disseminated theory in academic literature on the Mahabharata - especially the literature that holds that the core story of the Mahabharata was based on an actual historical event (minus any supernatural elements) that took place around 3000 years ago. This reading would of course require that the fantasy elements of the story be jettisoned altogether or seen as metaphors for more mundane happenings. In this context, Vidura was widely regarded as an embodiment of Dharma (the quality, not the God) and he shared a special closeness with Yudhisthira throughout the epic, so "son of Dharma" can have more than one implication.

    If you keep in mind that the first and second "drafts" of the epic, called Jaya and Bharata respectively, were much shorter than the current version and that the ostentatiously divine elements were later additions, it's quite feasible. The idea of Vidura stepping in to father Kunti's children because his brother Pandu was impotent/dead would not be different in any significant way from Vyasa fathering Ambika and Ambalika's children after the death of Vichitraveerya.

    About who is or is no worthy of being crowned king: that's a problematic question throughout the epic. After Bheeshma renounces his rights to the throne and Chitrangada/Vichitraveerya die young, none of the subsequent generations of princes can be considered direct descendants of the Kuru line in the strictest sense - the circumstances of all the births that follow are much too murky for that. In a way, they're all imposters, squabbling over a kingdom that rightfully belongs to none of them!

  13. Also, the illegitimacy of the Pandava births as well as those of Dritharashtra and Pandu were secrets guarded by Kunti and Bheeshma respectively.

    I don't think the Pandavas' birth was a secret - Duryodhana explicitly brings up the fact that the Pandavas weren't Pandu's sons and uses it to mock them/question their rights. And other characters repeatedly extol the valour of Arjuna/Bhima by referring to them as the sons of Indra/Vayu, though sadly hardly anyone does the same for poor Nakula and Sahadeva!

  14. Jai,

    Curious about your silence on the Foundation series. I guess it is not as rich and dense as the Lord of the Rings or the Mahabharat, but even so - never even a mention?

  15. Neha: haven't read it, sadly. Most of my sci-fi reading has been restricted to short stories (including dozens by Asimov) - with only a few novels/series thrown in here and there.

  16. Neha/Jabberwock:
    The Foundation series is quite as rich as the other two - but you have to include all the books in that setting, ie, starting with "I, Robot", through the Olivaw 'detective' books, and ending with Foundation and Earth.

    Jai, a must-read. If only for the delight over pondering the possibility of entire sentences being reduced to an eyebrow twitch (Second Foundationeers)

  17. Does Tatwamasi have to do with the Mahabharata?

    IMHO TATWAMASI is the definitive text book on Indian Philosophy - a very contemporary book on a subject as old as the human civilization.

    Azhikode wrote the book in Malayalam - making the book an immense gift to the language, but shutting out anyone who does not follow Malayalam.

    IIWAD - (If I were a Dictator) - I would have made TATWAMASI a must read for every goddamn citizen of this bloody country.

  18. Can anyone point me to a concise intro to Tatwamasi?


  19. ??!

    Yes, I am quite a fan of the foundation series too. I read it a long awhile ago, having borrowed it from my brother's friend - and I think I should like to revisit it soon. I don’t remember much of the richness - surely it was a little less when we find that complete languages were invented and more(as in LOTR) or generations are described down to each individual and dense philosophies are discussed and compared (as in the Mahabharata). But I think the beauty of the Foundation trilogy lies in it's pace and conciseness. What do you think about the books that followed the trilogy? I believe Asimov didn’t really want to write them, but was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. :)

  20. Oh! I meant part of the beauty lies in the conciseness and pace. The plot, how amazing is that!

  21. Have you read "Mrityunjaya"? It's the Mahabharata from Karna's perspective. It's originally in Marathi though there's an English translation available. I've heard Marathi-reading friends recommend it highly, but I haven't had a chance to read the it yet.

    The English version is called "Mrityunjaya - The Death of Karna".

  22. Ajay: I've read most of it, but in the Hindi translation (it's about the only full-length book I've read in Hindi) - would like to get my hands on the English one, though of course the quality of translation is always a factor.

    Like I indicated in the post though, I don't think there's much more that can be done with Karna - he just has too much appeal as a character, the original text has at least five or six really powerful and dramatic episodes built around him (more dramatic than for any other character, I'd say) and he's been deeply analysed in academic studies. At this point I'd be much more interested in a thoughtful perspective-study of Bhima or Yudhisthira or several other characters.

  23. thx for sharing Bhimsen link,

  24. I've been following Panicker's retelling of Randamoozham and it occurred to me that MT's book may have already been translated into English. I find that Macmillan India published one by P.K. Ravindranath in 1997, although as far as I can tell, it appears to be out of print. Have you seen or read it?

  25. There is another work of fiction in Malayalam based on the Mahabharatha, called "Ini Njaan Uranagatte" (And now let me sleep) by PK Balakrishnan.

    Its a retelling of the story from Draupadi's perspective. Its been quite some time since I read it, but I believe it is set in the night after the battle, when Ashwathama massacres the Pandava children.

  26. Hello Jabberwock,
    I have started watching a fascinating show on Netflix called Dharmakshetra (it is in hindi and apparently was recently telecast on an Indian channel called Epic?). It follows the workings of a tribunal headed by Lord Chitragupta (I think he is also called Yamraj) in Heaven following the Mahabharata war. Each character in the war is brought to the court and accused of various war crimes, and has to justify his/her actions. It is wonderful how they have some interesting material on Yudhisthir (one of the most interesting characters to me) (he's shown to have lusted for or being in love with Draupadi before she became his brother's wife, and have used various tactics to ensure she spent the most time with him during their early matrimonial years), Sahdev (shown to be very interesting and admirable, and apparently the most brilliant of all brothers), Eklavya and a wonderful contrast between him and Karna, an interesting commentary on Karna by Krishna which, while full of praise, addresses his grey areas like his deep-rooted insecurities, his obsession with being seen as a higher-caste, his use of archery to prove himself to be a member of the upper caste instead of a pure love for the art form (that Eklavya has), etc. I highly recommend it to someone like you who seems well versed in modern interpretations of the tale, and very interested in it.