Mahābhārat 2

Group: Natadha

Dramatist: Shib Mukhopadhyay

Director: Arna Mukhopadhyay

Recommended ★★★★


When Natadha staged their Mahābhārat in 2002 with leading actors from other groups, I had commented that the compression could not possibly do justice to the sweep of the epic. They have rectified that approach with Mahābhārat2 on at least three different counts. First, Shib Mukhopadhyay has now dramatized only the Udyoga Parva, the fifth book, giving himself ample scope to examine its events and personages in much greater depth. Second, by keeping external participation to a minimum, Arna Mukhopadhyay reduces the risks of a star cast to serve his unified directorial vision better. Third, this method has actually allowed him to showcase latent talents within the group through a rigorous regimen that can boost both ensemble performance and morale. As a result of this triple action, Mahābhārat2 ranks among the best Bengali productions on view. Premiered before the lockdown, it has restarted now.

Any retelling of the Mahābhārata must interpret it as well—for simply presenting the storyline by itself merely redoubles what the audience already knows. At the same time, an interpretation cannot become so far-fetched as to stretch credibility or turn into just a novelty. Shib maintains a focus on the frantic negotiations to avert the war that seems more and more inexorable. Dhritarashtra sends Sanjay as envoy to persuade Yudhishthir not to fight, then Krishna goes on his mission to Hastinapur to convince the Kauravas (practically speaking, Duryodhan) to give the Pandavas Indraprastha as their rightful half. But of course, Duryodhan’s power-hungry delusions make peace an impossible prospect.

Within this narrative, two interpolated back-stories stick out as non-Vyasan, therefore digressive. One is that Krishna loved Draupadi secretly. Perhaps first posited by Gajendra Kumar Mitra in his novel Pānchajanya, it came to Shib via Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri’s writings. We do not know if any such speculation has classical provenance, but by arousing implications that Krishna may have come to the Pandavas’ aid for this ulterior reason, it unnecessarily leads us astray.

The other presumed romantic intimacy concerns Arjun and Uttara (Virat’s daughter). Arna defended this to me by saying that he thought it feasible that Uttara had found out about Brihannala’s real gender because they lived in such close proximity for so many years. Even if we did accept this unwritten subtext, it does not add anything of consequence to the point of this play.

Mahābhārat2 justifiably makes Krishna the protagonist and Duryodhan the antagonist, Arna effecting a double casting coup with Rudrarup Mukhopadhyay (photo, right) and himself (left) in these roles respectively. Rudrarup has never acted the lead before; but his very human Krishna, often looking slightly embarrassed, at other times reverting to equanimity, came as more than a pleasant surprise. Arna has performed antiheroes before, but his Duryodhan returns to the conventional characterization as quite full of himself, rather than the sympathetic Duryodhan frequently seen in contemporary productions.

Arna’s direction gives appealingly individualized portraiture to those characters (not all) who receive extended stage time. Among the Pandavas, for example, we see the normally ignored Nakul as a proactive personality. This naturally begs the question: why not Sahadev too? Koushik Chattopadhyay makes Dhritarashtra suitably weak and vacillating. Sohini Sarkar’s Draupadi conforms to recent feminist representations but is even more feisty. Arna imposes a welcome physicalization on the large cast, though at a few critical moments this can seem gratuitous. He also uses a masked chorus that functions a lot like in Greek tragedy.

In spite of the little quibbles, a strong show well worth watching.