Blesok no. 29, November-December, 2002
Gallery Reviews


Cultural Nationalism
and the Cross-Cultural Product

Chidananda Dasgupta


    India's knee-jerk reactions to Peter Brook's Mahabharata film have been plentiful, many of them dismissive. Now that the film has done the rounds of the major cities, perhaps it is time to reflect a bit more on it. The first question that comes to mind in the context of the dismissive criticism is over the very idea of cross-cultural art; is it by nature contemptible or is there any valid possibility to it? Clearly, it is impossible for people of one culture to apprehend another totally in the terms of the first; perforce, an Indian audience will understand a Japanese film and an American audience a Kathakali performance in its own way. That understanding, misunderstanding, if you like, is bound to be absorbed and reflected within the culture of the receiver—even the most well informed. Even within India, one region has serious problems in the cultural product of others. Magnificent Naga dances often provoke laughter among audiences from the plains. Is that essentially wrong, corruptive of both? Should cultures, therefore, be hermetically sealed off except where the outsider can become an insider through a lifelong effort?
    But it can equally well be argued that one lifetime is not enough to get to the heart of another culture; it takes generations to do so. What happens then to the creative energies generated by the inevitable contact between cultures in a shrinking world? The fact is that cross-cultural products are inevitable and cannot await anyone's pleasure, including that of the country from which borrowings are made. Hybridization has been, and remains, an essential part of the flow of cultures. We in India are constantly adapting Western films and plays into our languages, both in the elite and popular theatre and cinema. Indian culture today is the product of admixtures with Persians, Greeks, Shakas, Hunas, Mongols, Caucasians, with the Indus Valley people, the Aryans, and the tribals. What is hybrid in one century often represents the essence of purity in another.
    What is more, the Mahabharata takes us back to a time when the nation-state of today was unknown. Borders shifted with the fortunes of frequent battle; borrowings and commonalities were plentiful. To attack another king's territory was a duty, a part of Kshatradharma. What we tend to see as a unique tradition today, such as the Hindu pantheon, was actually shared with the Greeks and large sections of West Asia. Shiva and Dionysius have uncanny similarities, and so have Krishna and Achilles; one of the names of the terrible Sumerian Goddess Innanna was Kali; the worship of Durga corresponds with harvest festivals across vast transnational territories and harks back to the days of matrilineal society dominated by the worship of the Great Goddess. The ancient Indian war chariot was the same as those used in Assyria, for instance. Indeed, the type shown in Brook's Mahabharata is very like the Hittite variety seen on Carchemish bas reliefs of the 12th-8th century B.C., very close to the period generally ascribed to the Kurukshetra war. Northwestern India of the first millennium B.C. was a polyglot mixture of races with varying physiognomies and many hues of complexion. It is in the nature of nation-state chauvinism today to ignore these past commonalities and see its own tradition as a uniquely national product uncontaminated by mlechchas and Yavanas and people across what was regarded as Kalapani until a few decades ago.
    So the only valid way to judge a cross cultural product like the Brook film is by its internal logic rather than the exactness of its correspondence, literal or otherwise, to our epic. As for its “essence,” how many Indians understand it and how many understand it in even roughly the same way? The popular view of the Mahabharata reflected in B. R. Chopra's television series on Doordarshan is of a battle between good and evil. This is very far removed from the actual text which is laden with contradictions and ambiguities that in fact make it the great and universal work it is. All it needs to respond honestly to a foreigner's view of the epic is to see it with an open mind and to make allowance for differences of cultural perception.
    That is easier said than done. Not so curiously, even the elite commentators seem to find it easier to accept Caucasians as opposed to Africans. Many find it impossible to see the remarkable individuality and character in Kunti, played with intensity and assurance by Miriam Goldschmidt—whose face is like a cubist painting—just because she is black. Similarly, the tall ascetic agelessness of Sotiqui Kouyate as Bhishma is unacceptable in its blackness. They do not object that Krishna and Arjuna, who are both described as black in the text, are played here by Caucasians.
    There are many extremely unusual elements in Brook's film; the variety of races is only one of them. Take for instance the use of Rabindrasangeet. The opening scene has the song “Antara mama bikasita karo, antaratara hay.” It is the individual's prayer to the being within to open the mind, to make it pure and to illuminate it. In my childhood in Brahmo society, it was always sung on childrens' birthdays. It is the plain Jane among Tagore songs. To hear it at the opening of the Mahabharata is, to say the least, startling. But usually it is sung at a sprightly pace with a harmonium or cottage organ accompaniment by someone in the family with a very ordinary voice. Here it is almost unrecognizable, sung to an extremely slow tempo, making it almost into a chant. Sharmila Roy's limpid voice renders it with an exceptional purity and steadiness.



    As the keynote to a story of massive destruction informed by a simultaneous quest for the truth of what is right or wrong, the song is deeply moving. I tried hard to forget the meaning of the words and to judge it as pure sound and it still seemed very profound in its impact as the camera panned across the future scene of disaster to be brought about by a throw of the dice. The song is later picked up on the esraj as the theme tune and is brought back in Roy's voice as the exile of the Pandavas is pronounced. It was impossible not to be struck by the sense of purification through suffering suggested by the words. The Rabindrasangeet in slow tempo had become a little like an Indian equivalent to the Gregorian chant. A similar effect is achieved at the end of the war when Roy sings the Upanishadic verse Srinvantu Vishwe Amiritasya Putrat, a lofty call to humanity by one who has seen the luminous being who lies beyond all darkness. Both the songs, at the beginning and at the end, underscore a spiritual quest in strange contrast to a war of total destruction around which the narrative is constructed. Toshi Tsuchitori's music does not try to enhance the effect of the visual or suggest the meaning of the particular event on screen, it is almost entirely introspective, meditative, and imbued with a sense of prayer for understanding—mostly through a gentle counterpoint.
    Cinematically, the most successful aspects are the casting (if one concentrates on the sharp individuality of countenance and form), the battle scenes, and the images of Gandhari and Dhritarashtra sitting waiting for or listening to news of the war. Except in one or two cases (such as of Krishna helping the arrow into Bhishma's body—which is very Chopraesque), the battle scenes are impressive. There is both a sense of massive confrontation and of a misty past in which it is taking place. Considering that it is shot on the basis of a theatre performance, the sense of battle is remarkably well achieved.
    However, the theatrical base of the film betrays itself in the grouping of characters in the other scenes. Characters are invariably huddled together, no cinematic sense of large spaces is created; dialogue never takes place between people far away from each other.
    Camera angles are limited by the same factor. For instance, the scene of Yudhisthira's dialogue with Dharma at the pond after the death of his brothers cries out for a view from above, which could have been spectacular. In the epic, Nakula climbs a tall tree to spot water in the area; so a top shot is literally indicated. Similarly, a low angle shot from the point of view of Dharma who is in the water is also avoided. The eye-level shot predominates throughout the film.
    One of the things that helps the film's sense of spiritual quest is the acting of Ryszard Cieslak in the role of Yudhisthira and particularly the use of his eyes, which have great depth. His quiet bearing contrasts vividly with Duryodhana's restlessness. Duryodhana is the body and Yudhisthira is the spirit, as it were. But Duryodhana is by no means all evil, just as no character in the Mahabharata is wholly good. He is wholly a prince, an embodiment of Kshatriya desire for wealth and power. He fights for them honorably, will not strike a fallen enemy without arms, always observes the rules of warfare. He has not lime for the introspection that is Yudhisthira's life. Both actors convey the contrast to perfection.
    Much has been made of the absence of Bidura whose moralizing commentary is an important part of the text. But this does not seem all that important in the style and content of Brook's presentation. The ambiguity of the epic is amply reflected without such commentary. Is Krishna God or man? Brook is as evasive on this as Ganesha who says in answer to young Janamejaya's question, “One can never be sure.” The epic itself is not sure, no matter how much B. R. Chopra has tried to bend it. If Krishna is God, how is it that he can see some of the coming events but not others as the battle progresses? How can Gandhari curse him with the destruction of his own clan and an ignominious death? Why should his brother Balarama go against him and support the Kaurava claim to the throne? Most of all, why does he try to save the women of his clan by sending Arjuna to escort them from Dwarka? This episode is barely described by Krishna and not shown.
    To my mind, it is the most serious omission, because in the epic itself it makes Krishna a protagonist in the drama and provides the biggest contradiction to his claim to divinity, which, as we know, is the creation of Brahamanical interpolators. The destruction of the Yadavas also gives a great sense of the end of an era and raises the question: what did Krishna gain by helping the Pandavas to regain their kingdom at the cost of dharma and of the annihilation of their world? In this unanswered question may lie the key to the historical meaning of the Mahabharata. Even if Brook has stuck mainly to the Kshatriya war story (as did the first 24,000 verse version of the epic, called Jaya), the end of the Yadavas should have been a part of his scheme. More than Yudhisthira's ridiculous climb (up a rope ladder) to heaven, it is the self-destruction of the Yadavas, Arjuna's loss of his heroic power, and the death of Krishna by an arrow struck in his heel (like Achilles) that spells the end of the Mahabharata war. Did Krishna, referred to as Devakiputra in the Chhandogyopanished, where his name is first mentioned in Indian tradition (he is never described as his father's son but as his mother's), actually lead the change from matrilineal, Goddess-worshipping, woman-dominated, polyandrous society to the establishment of patriarchy? He himself had 108 wives and 16,000 playgirls—the archetypal male, the exact opposite of the woman-dominated man in a polyandrous, Goddess-worshipping matrilineal society whose traces we see in Draupadi, in Kunti's premarital pregnancy, and in Gandhari's authoritative spirit, undaunted by Krishna's divinity. Obviously, this is too gray an area, fraught with modern interpretative controversy, for Brook and Carrière to enter. They are content to take the stunning story of the Mahabharata as it exists today, with all its interpolations and consequent contradictions, and to present it without over-emphasizing its miraculous or divine aspects, maintaining its link with earthly reality as also its spiritual quest. In that effort, they have succeeded eminently.
    However, the Mahabharata is too great to be absorbed, not to speak of being exhausted by one film. It progresses in digressions and is a vast compendium of stories. In Indian performance tradition, it is treated episodically, in great detail. Perhaps there was need for a modern, linear narrative view as well (the Mahabharata is not lacking in one, as its original version Jaya clearly shows), compressed into one whole. One hopes that many films will follow, in India as elsewhere in the world, in a wealth of different interpretations, ending the monopoly of the traditional mythological genre's kitschy hold on it.




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