By Swati Chopra
Between 1982-85, legendary French scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière made several trips to India to research the Mahabharata (an Indian epic) for Peter Brook’s memorable marathon play of the same name. Two decades later, Carrière’s love affair continues, as much with the epic as with the country that spawned it
This man seems to contain within himself the wisdom of centuries,’ I muse as I look at Jean-Claude Carrière holding forth animatedly on India and the Mahabharata. The deep vertical lines running down his face seem more like battle scars than old-age wrinkles. Yet the gentleness in his eyes is unmistakable. Here’s a man, I say to myself, who has done battle, lost some, won others, always managing somehow to glean from each moment its core of eternity. Here’s a man who has lived.
Film lovers all over the world, know him as the scriptwriter of some of the best films (directed by Godard Louis Malle, Philip Kaufman…) made in the last century, but Carrière is best known in India for his work on director Peter Brook’s film and stage version of the Mahabharata. Carrière was in Delhi recently to release In Search of the Mahabharata (Macmillan India), the English version of his French original La Recherche du Mahabharata. The book, translated by Aruna Vasudev, editor of Cinemaya, carries a collection of anecdotes, conversations, and line sketches, from Carrière’s travels in India with Brook to research the epic.
EXCERPTS FROM A CONVERSATION WITH CARRIÈRE:
How did you, and other members of Peter Brook’s team, manage to break out of the ‘obligatory tourist circuit’ most foreigners remain confined to, and come in contact with the spirit of India?
When we came to India, we did not come to visit the country, we came to visit the Mahabharata. India, for us, was the country where the Mahabharata had been composed. So we first met theatre persons to get a feel of how the epic is performed in India today.
After a few weeks, we found that that was not enough. In India, the Mahabharata is not only a classic of Sanskrit literature but is part of everyday life. Many day-to-day references used by any Indian often are from the Mahabharata. This realization made us feel that we had to go through the real life of India. It was to experience this that we came back again and again.
How were elements of the Mahabharata you discovered assimilated into the film and play?
We knew from the very beginning that we could not, and did not, intend to imitate any of the Indian ways of presenting the Mahabharata. We had to do it our way. And in French. We had to find actors and crew from all over the world since we were, and still are, part of the International Center of Theatre Creation. It could not be an Indian show, but India had to be part of it.
This added to our problems. For instance, we wondered whether it is possible to present to a French audience a play in which the characters are called Dhrishtadyumna, or Yudhishthira, or Ashwatthama. So the question really was: how much of India should we retain in the show? To find an answer we had to see the relationship between Indian peoples and the Mahabharata.
And what sort of a relationship did you discover?
If you travel from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, it is like going to a totally different country. The people don’t dress the same, eat the same or speak the same language. But they all know the Mahabharata. Whereas if you go from France to Germany, there’s nothing in common, not even an epic. In that sense, epics like the Mahabharata are the invisible cement that binds India into one. For us, it was a great surprise to see how cohesive this cement actually is. Even Muslims in India know the Mahabharata and refer to it.
What is the Mahabharata’s stand on conflict?
Peter and I had a long discussion about this. Peter feels that the notion of conflict is at the heart of the Mahabharata. Why do we fight with each other, especially within the same family? Conflicts, such as to protect the kingdom against invaders, are perfectly understandable. But what motivates two groups of cousins to fight till death over a piece of land? That was the question for Peter.
And what did you examine?
Apart from the notion of conflict, I was interested in two other ideas. One is ‘oblivion’-we forget who we are. The Kauravas and Pandavas are demi-gods, yet they forget. They cut the link between heaven and earth and plunge into a bloody conflict. Again, when Karna dies, he desperately tries to remember the magic formula Parshurama gave him to summon help from heavenly beings. He cannot, and dies. The other issue was of mortal danger. The earth is in danger and the idea travels with me, now more than ever after the tragic events of September 11 and its aftermath.
So you see a parallel between the Mahabharata and today’s war-like atmosphere?
If you consider what’s happening in the light of it being the end of an era, Kaliyuga, these events emerge in a very dark light. In the epic, both the warring factions possess Pashupata, the exterminating weapon. Both can destroy any life on earth. The very grass trembles in fear. And that is something all of us can identify with today.
What about the element of spiritual conflict in the Mahabharata?
What do you mean by ‘spiritual conflict’?
For instance, at the beginning of the war, Arjuna is in great conflict, prompting Krishna to tell him the Truth of being.
Not ‘conflict’, it is more of a ‘dejection’ of Arjuna. The Gita was actually the only thing I knew about the Mahabharata before I read it. And the first thing I thought of when I knew the whole story was: why is Arjuna depressed? At the beginning of the war, he is supposed to give the signal for fighting and he can’t, because his knees tremble and his bow drops from his hands. His body reacts to something his mind has not perceived yet. That reaction of Arjuna’s is the basis of the Gita.
I believe the Gita to be the canter of the whole epic. It is a guide to action. ‘You have to act,’ says Krishna, ‘but in a certain way, which I will teach you.’ The Gita is very complex and intense, sometimes even incomprehensible. It was difficult for us to decide which part of the Gita to retain in the play. For instance, in Kathakali (an Indian dance form) performances, the Gita is reduced to a few very simple ideas.
Interestingly, at the end of the Mahabharata, Arjuna asks Krishna: ‘What did you tell me before we began fighting? It was something strong and beautiful. What was it?’ And Krishna says: ‘I cannot tell one thing twice.’ This means either you get it, or you don’t! It is up to you.
The Mahabharata is tough that way; it is pitiless and matter of fact. There is nothing idealistic about it. This is the way we are, it seems to be saying. Even the best of us, like Arjuna, can forget. And again, you might have answers to deep questions, yet not to simple details. For instance, Abhimanyu knows how to enter the chakravyuha (maze) but not how to get out. Today, the American soldiers know how to get in Afghanistan; they haven’t been told how to get out. The same situation reappears time and again. The Mahabharata has the power to project a light on life, and we have to listen to and remember that light, and not forget it like Arjuna did with the Gita.
What about India fascinates you?
Well, in the rest of the world, one thing is this or that. In India, the same thing can be this and that.
The play of opposites?
Absolutely. That is something so interesting about India. It has something that is so flexible, something not straight, even in the dancing, in temple pillars. Everything undulates. I firmly believe that here, the shortest distance between two points is a curve, and not a straight line.
You say: ‘The Mahabharata will never leave me.’ Have you had any transformational experiences related to the epic?
I am often asked this question. I cannot answer, because I don’t know what I would be without the Mahabharata. It is part of me; I’ve spent such a long time working with it. I acquired a new vocabulary. I found a new country. I have met a lot of very interesting, and very diverse people. What would I be if I had not worked on the Mahabharata? That’s an interesting question for Vyasa!
You’ve used the image of Draupadi’s disrobing to describe your relationship with India-the more you uncover, the more there is to discover. What are the layers that you have managed to uncover?
Every time I come to India, I know before the plane lands that I am going to see something that I have never seen before-maybe a minor detail, sometimes the behavior of someone. A new place, a new concept. Which is not the case when I go to New York, for instance. I am not expecting to be surprised. I know the country and that everything follows certain rules. Here, it changes, all the time.
India is fluid; it is the essence of movement itself. India, for me, symbolizes the very spirit of change, that everything which is stable, steady, firm, like the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, collapse. And everything that is like the wind-subtle, invisible, moving-remains. This is what I experience in India. India tells you to be careful about being rigid and steady and to wait for unexpected things to happen.
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