Consciousness, Literature and the Arts




Volume 11 Number 2, August 2010


Peter Brook’s Mahabharata: An Intercultural Consciousness


Susan Mower

 University of Lincoln



     The creation by Western practitioners of a “global” performance, based on an epic and endlessly-faceted, sacred Hindu text, seems, by its very paradox, a gargantuan feat, bringing with it great risks and, moreover, the fear of committing an injustice to some of the many ancient non-Western traditions to whom performance rituals serve as an intrinsic and revered aspect of culture. According to Eugenio Barba, Director of the International School of Theatre Anthropology, however: “Different performers, at different places and times and in spite of the stylistic forms specific to their traditions, have shared common principles.”[1] As Ian Watson writes, with contextual consideration of the intercultural work of Barba: “Culture is a holistic complex, with an interrelated palimpsest of determinants which comprehends, among other things, socio-historical identity, mytho-religious belief systems, rituals, kinship, ethnicity, national heritage, value systems, various modes of creative expression, as well as social behaviour.”[2] If these aspects of one’s identity, regardless of individual background, are deemed to inform what we, as humans, feel to be our cultural make up, the possibility surely arises that, regardless of location, a certain universal bond can be formed through sharing experiences and cultural history via the medium of the exchange of performance techniques, and by the unwritten contract between spectators and actors of diverse ethnicity.


     One of the most keenly documented and, indeed, controversial “global”, or “intercultural”, productions of the twentieth century, came to be in the July of 1985, when the first performances of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata were staged. The choice of The Mahabharata, an Eastern epic, fifteen times the length of the Bible, by Brook, a renowned Western theatre artist, for stage adaptation, could be seen as a bold and daring step, in light of the fact that, as Vijay Mishra writes: “It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that The Mahabharata is the founding text of Indian culture.”[3] Transforming, “…this vast, heterogeneous text of 100,000 verses (or shlokas)…”[4] into three plays, totalling nine hours, Jean-Claude Carriere worked alongside Brook to produce a piece of theatre, later adapted to a six hour long film, that would cause such debate that David Williams came to compile a publication, Peter Brook and The Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, devoted entirely to its discussion. As Professor Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe illustrates: “The production caused a stir in the worlds of entertainment and academia, hailed by theatre critics as one of the major productions of the twentieth century, and predominantly judged a failure by theatre scholars, especially those from India, who, on the whole, felt offended by the way Peter Brook treated ‘their’ national religious epic.”[5] Writing of the challenges that he and Brook faced in realising a stage performance of The Mahabharata, and on the condensation of the Hindu text that the collaborators felt necessary for their production, Carriere comments: “In order to adapt The Mahabharata, to transform an immense epic poem into a play, or three plays, we had to draw new scenes from our imaginations, bring together characters who never meet in the poem itself.”[6] This wielding of artistic licence upon a fundamental and sacred Indian poem is just one of the areas attacked by those who view Brook’s The Mahabharata as “…one of the most blatant (and accomplished) appropriations of Indian culture in recent years.”[7]


     Williams himself gives a first-hand account of his experience, as a spectator of, “…the marathon version of Peter Brook’s and Jean-Claude Carriere’s The Mahabharata at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris”, stating: “The performance began shortly after 1.00 p.m. and finished at 11.00 p.m., with substantial pauses between the separate parts – the equivalent, I am told, of staging the Bible in about 40 minutes.”[8] Amongst a wealth of praise and criticism from diverse sources, Indian director and critic Rustom Bharucha, whose less-than-favourable critique of Brook’s The Mahabharata, entitled “Peter Brook’s Mahabharata: A View from India”, leads the procession, in a manner of speaking, of detractors from the piece, adopts the following position in relation to Brook’s contraction of this grand narrative of the human condition: “To attempt an encapsulation of the Mahabharata in its entirety is a hubris of sorts, but to limit that encapsulation to nine hours is the reductio ad absurdum of theatrical adaptation.”[9] Accusations of hubris aside, Bharucha explains that, in his “view from India”, Brook would have been better advised to focus his efforts on representing a few scenes from The Mahabharata, rather than attempting an overview of the whole: “In India a Kathakali or Koodiyattam performance would need approximately nine hours to dramatize a single episode from the text…The purpose of traditional performance is not to tell a story from beginning to end, but to dwell on specific moments in the story, so that its minutest details can evoke a world of sensations and truth.”[10]


     It is the very existence of a “world of sensations and truth” in Brook’s The Mahabharata that is of interest, for the purposes of this study, as, according to Meyer-Dinkgräfe, “…by taking the Indian epic and adapting it for an audience (irrespective of the audience’s culture or nationality), he [Brook] did make its essence available to all involved, facilitating the development of higher states of consciousness.”[11] The “essence” of The Mahabharata, of which Meyer-Dinkgräfe speaks, could be seen as being drawn directly from the wealth of sensory experience employed in Brook’s production,[12] along with its sense of universal truths, which stir the spiritual self and release the mind from, “…space-time entanglement.”[13] As Peter Malekin writes: “Liberation in this sense is some or total freedom from the constraints of time and space that characterize ordinary everyday human consciousness, a liberation that affects potentially the whole of human experience and the whole of theatre experience and dramatic performance, including language, timing and relationship to a role.”[14] The liberation of the mind thus, through performance, equates to moksha, according to Indian Vedic philosophy, and in India, “…literature and art are considered to be connected inseparably to the social and ethical well-being of individual life.”[15]  Using Indian theatre aesthetics as a point of reference throughout, and respectfully taking into account Bharucha’s argument, along with critical perspectives from a variety of sources, this paper will explore the “intercultural” debate surrounding Brook’s The Mahabharata. Further to the already well-publicised discussions on interculturalism and theatre, however, and more fundamental to the purpose of this essay, Brook’s “world of sensations and truth”, that being the world of his The Mahabharata, will be explored for its impact on human consciousness; therefore Meyer-Dinkgräfe’s theories, established in the benchmark text Theatre and Consciousness, will be closely referred to, along with other texts from the consciousness studies arena. As Dr. Sreenath Nair writes of the widening field of study: “Consciousness studies, as an academic discipline, includes a wide range of theoretical investigations across the disciplines of philosophy, neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology, physical and biological sciences and computer science.”[16]


     As Mark Fortier illustrates: “Phenomenologists often posit the possibility of a more authentic way for humans to exist in the world, one which brings them in fuller touch with things and themselves and which ultimately gives them access to truth and even a spiritual realm.”[17] In this very sense, the enchantment of performance space, and the bringing of energies intrinsic to this ritual, is a spiritual element of the ancient Kathakali and Koodiyattam traditions. As a Western audience member attending a Kathakali performance, one can enter an almost cathartic state with the wealth of phenomena experienced - without being aware of its spiritual value, its roots in the ancient Keralan temple rituals and, furthermore, being unequipped to translate the intricate language of gestures brought into being by the artists. The spectator of a Kathakali performance can become entranced by the powerful dance drama, which fills the senses from a phenomenological point of view, (with the burning of incense and candles, the intensity of the drums and the vocals, and the rhythms created by the bare feet striking the floor), without being able to accurately interpret the language system formed by the alphabet of hand gestures, facial expression and full body movement. Fortier writes: “Phenomenology’s primary concern is with the engagement in lived experiences between the individual consciousness and reality, which manifests itself not as a series of linguistic signs but as sensory and mental phenomena – the ‘world’ is what we encounter in perception and reflection, while the ‘earth’ is things as they may be in themselves outside human perception (the tree falling in the uninhabited forest).”[18] In terms of phenomenology, and in relation to those matters that largely fall “outside human perception”, Nair explains that: “Dualist theories of consciousness propose that phenomenal experience occurs in a non-physical place.”[19] Brook himself alludes to this very same notion in his seminal text The Empty Space, with the description of his concept of “The Holy Theatre”: “We are all aware that most of life escapes our senses; a most powerful explanation of the various arts is that they talk of patterns which we can only begin to recognize when they manifest themselves as rhythms and shapes.”[20] Certain performances, then (Kathakali being an example which I use as a touchstone due to its importance in the Indian theatre aesthetic, Brook’s crucial experience of the art form and, moreover, as I can subjectively comment regarding its impact on the untrained Western consciousness, having personally attended performances), can attain the ultimate goal of emancipating the spectator from the shackles of the daily, physical reality of existence, into a higher, ethereal mind-plane, through their sensual stimuli. Furthermore, when Brook speaks of his “Holy Theatre”, he observes the following: “The theatre is the last forum where idealism is still an open question: many audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experience in life.”[21]


     Brook himself explains his first contact with the Kathakali performance tradition; this contact informing the basis of his relationship with The Mahabharata itself:

The day I first saw a demonstration of Kathakali, I heard a word completely new to me – The Mahabharata. The dancer was presenting a scene from this work and his sudden first appearance from behind a gold curtain was an unforgettable shock. His costume was red and gold, his face was red and green, his nose was like a white billiard ball, his fingernails were like knives; in place of beard and moustache, two white crescent moons thrust forward from his lips, his eyebrows shot up and down like drumsticks and his fingers spelled out strange coded messages. Through the massive ferocity of the movements, I could see that a story was unfolding. But what story? I could only guess at something mythical and remote, from another culture, nothing to do with my life.[22]


Interestingly, the “unforgettable shock”, that Brook recollects of his first witnessing the Kathakali performer, may have contributed to his decisions in omitting some of the more traditional Indian performance techniques from his version of The Mahabharata. Brook writes:

There is a joy in violent shocks. The only trouble with violent shocks is that they wear off.[23]


With reference to the above, we could concede that as Brook’s vision, as it were, was one of an accessible adaptation of The Mahabharata predominantly for “the West”, cultural “shocks” were perhaps not deemed as necessary or, indeed, favourable aids to his mise-en-scene, as if such “shocks” were to “wear off” quickly, it could leave the spectator in an unfamiliar situation which could, as is the nature of unfamiliarity, soon lead to boredom and disillusionment. The performance being executed on a level of pure consciousness, however, and thus operating on the level of pure consciousness in the mind of the spectator, would lead to its internalisation by said spectator, regardless of their academic understanding of specific techniques and systems used by the artists: “The transformation of consciousness from the daily to the extra-daily through perception and experience is the most focussed area of debate in Indian aesthetics.”[24] Indeed the audience’s reception of any performance is dependent, on one level, very much on the unique qualities of each individual human consciousness, any collective constituting, “…empirical individuals with their psychological and social backgrounds and positions, which influence how they react to the stimuli of the performance.”[25] It is an unfortunate circumstance perhaps, or mere contradiction, that Brook initially felt that the story of The Mahabharata was “nothing to do with [his] life”, as he himself, and almost in the same breath, also describes it as, “…a work which only India could have created but which carries echoes for all mankind.”[26] Brook’s self-observed alienation from this spectacle, however, led him toward the following realisation:

Gradually, sadly, I realized that my interest was lessening, the visual shock was wearing off. After the interval, the dancer returned without his make-up, no longer a demigod, just a likeable Indian in shirt and jeans. He described the scene he had been playing and repeated the dance. The hieratic gestures passed through the man of today. The superb, but impenetrable image had given way to an ordinary, more accessible one and I realized that I preferred it this way.[27] 


     Bharucha reflects upon Brook’s “confession” to a lack of unbound knowledge/experience of Indian performance tradition in the following manner: “Whilst appreciating the honesty of this response, I wish that Brook could have devoted more time to understanding the ‘hieratic gestures’ of the performance, instead of settling for a more ‘ordinary’ and ‘accessible’ rendition of the same performance.”[28] In what appears as a scathing attack against Brook’s lack of ability/desire to create a pseudo-authentic Indian performance, Bharucha continues his appraisal thus: “Instead of opening himself to the discomfort and vulnerability of learning the gestures of a tradition (which could have resulted in failure), Brook arranged for the tradition to be represented in such a way that he could understand it.”[29] However, it seems valid to assert reference here to the fact that Brook’s very aim in adapting The Mahabharata, was, indeed, that “we in the West” “could [begin to] understand it”, it does not seem that he pretended otherwise. Bharucha’s aforementioned statement implies an ignorance on Brook’s part to any culture other than his own, and an arrogance in presuming that exception should be afforded to him, and fundamental religious narratives adapted solely for the purpose of his understanding. Whilst there is documented evidence to suggest that Brook made certain “cultural blunders”, to say the least, in his dealings with the Indian people whilst travelling through India, the purpose of this study is to examine the work produced in The Mahabharata itself; it would be ill-advised to enter into what is a sensitive and personal area for those concerned, particularly as many of the discrepancies arise from Brook’s “…inappropriate behaviour…”[30] toward Indian people, on which subject I cannot comment having not witnessed events. Bharucha rightly asserts that: “Unavoidably, the production raises the question of ethics, not just the ethics of representation, which concerns the decontextualisation of an epic from its history and culture, but the ethics of interacting with people (notably Indians) in the process of creating the work itself.”[31] Meyer-Dinkgräfe highlights that: “Some or all of these points of criticism [those raised in relation to Brook’s time in India] are then usually subsumed under the umbrella of neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, cultural theft, and orientalism.”[32] In terms of neo-colonialism, as a secondary point worthy of note, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, raise the issue of possible implications when applying this term to literary studies: “Such a broad definition, of course, lays itself open to the charge that post-colonialism refuses to acknowledge that the colonized can ever entirely free themselves from colonial influences.”[33]   Bharucha does, however, allude to neo-colonialist theories, when he describes how Brook’s The Mahabharata, “…suggests the bad old days of the British Raj.”[34]


     Brook categorically states that, rather than attempting mimicry of the Indian theatre universally admired for its heritage and artistic complexities, Carriere and he endeavoured to, “…find a way of bringing this material [The Mahabharata’s abundance of rich, literary fabric] into our world and sharing these stories with an audience in the west.”[35] It is on this crux that the controversial Mahabharata debate hangs, as it something of a looking glass through which to analyse the effect produced by the seemingly heavy hand of Western, patriarchal consciousness on the subtle, spiritual, and philosophical consciousness of the Indian theatre aesthetic. The aforementioned being taken into account, it may, then, come as no great surprise that Brook, in his version of The Mahabharata, opted to try, “…to suggest the flavour of India without pretending to be what we [presumably himself, the production team, multicultural cast etc.] are not.”[36]  This particular statement is answered by Bharucha with a certain amount of contempt, in the employment of which he does not stand alone but, rather, as one of a great number of critics, with opinions on Brook’s epic as diverse as the cast he chose to play it out:  “When Brook says in the Foreword to his play that ‘we have tried to suggest the flavour of India without pretending to be what we are not’, he is gracefully evading a confrontation with the historical context of Indian culture.”[37] By the employment of the term “evading a confrontation”, Bharucha suggests that a potential warlike situation threatens to erupt in the amalgamation of Eastern and Western approaches to the sacred text of The Mahabharata – rather fitting given the subject matter of the narrative itself. Certainly we can hear the sound of ideologies clashing throughout Bharucha’s “A View from India” essay, in which he never fails to remind us that, for him, Brook’s “flavour of India” is at best patronising, and at worst offensive; both a usurpation and an utter avoidance of Indian tradition and culture, or “…a tale told by an idiot.”[38]  Speaking of Brook’s “flavour of India”, in a more subjective manner, as a spectator, and in order to approach the debate from a consciousness studies perspective, Meyer-Dinkgräfe explains the term, upon which so much emphasis has been placed, accordingly: “Similar to the experience of rasa, which is at the centre of Indian theatre aesthetics as described in detail in the Natyashastra, it is an aesthetic experience that is created with the spectator while watching the performance.”[39] Rasa, in this sense, literally meaning, “…a certain white liquid extracted by the digestive system from the food”, yet its “main seat [being] the heart”[40], it is apt, perhaps, that Brook chose to strive more towards a “flavour of India”, rather than attempt a didactic recreation of the country’s vast history in a nutshell. If such an attempt had been made, Brook’s production would undoubtedly have yielded far greater errors, and given more rise to complaint from members of Indian society, who would then have had unquestionable cause to challenge Brook on neo-colonialism, as this would mean that Brook presumed himself in a position to teach them about their own rich heritage; it is, then, the “flavour” of his performance itself that we must look in order to gauge its effect upon spectator consciousness. Bharucha puts forth his own evaluation of the aforementioned concerns regarding Brook’s analogy of cultural cuisine: “If Brook had been sufficiently aware of the numerous metaphors of cooking that have been used in the Natyashastra and other aesthetic commentaries on the rasa (literally ‘taste’) of a performance, he might have used the word [flavour] with more caution.”[41] 


     The Natyashastra (Natya meaning drama, and Shastra meaning holy text), considered as, “…the fundamental Indian text on drama and theatre…”[42] offers direction for the greater spiritual well-being and guidance of those coming into contact with performance, laying particular emphasis on histrionic representation (abhinaya): “The text [of the Natyashastra] contains repeated instructions of how to combine elements of those four performance categories [gestures (angika abhinaya), costume and make-up (aharya abhinaya), representation of the temperament (sattvika abhinaya), and the particulars of verbal representation (vacika abhinaya)] to convey the emotions of the characters to the spectators, to arouse the adequate rasa in the spectators.”[43] Meyer-Dinkgräfe explains that: “In the context of Indian aesthetics, rasa is understood as the actor’s and especially the spectator’s aesthetic experience.”[44] There is something of a parallel here, one might venture to infer, with the ancient teachings of Aristotle, whose rasa could be viewed as developing from those factors of drama which may well bring about the effects associated with catharsis; this being described as, the incidents of the play being properly executed, the arousal in the spectator of, “…pity and fear…” and, as a direct result of these empathetic feelings being stimulated, “…the proper purgation of these emotions.”[45] Similarly to Aristotle’s description of catharsis, the Indian aesthetic concept of sattva explores the ability of those persons involved in both the creation and reception of drama (e.g. writers, actors, audience), to relate to, and empathise with, both the joy and misfortune experienced by their fellow men. This empathy with fictional characters, suffering recognisable and essentially universal plights, could in turn lead to immersion of the individual in the theatrical event, where elation and sorrow are made manifest; these underlying human emotions being internalised and thus personalised by writer, actor, and spectator alike. It is possible, in this sense, that the production of drama could indeed lead to the “purgation” of the aforementioned human emotions, for writer actor and spectator alike, as these “demons”, as it were, are given vent in the controlled environment that is the theatre and thus exorcised safely and accordingly. There is something of an undercurrent of rasa/catharsis/sattva to be felt in the echoing ideals of Antonin Artaud, whose reverberations can be felt throughout Brook’s “Holy Theatre”, and go some way towards its conception: “Artaud talks about a trance-like state that is induced in the spectator, and observes that the spectator’s thoughts (intellect) and feelings (emotion and intuition) are dissolved and thus returned to their pure state.”[46]


     To work on the deep-rooted psyche of the audience members, from an anthropological and phenomenological viewpoint, the removal of the standard confines that dictate literary doctrine as the sole means of expressing a narrative, along with the addition of those sensory experiences that theatre intrinsically offers as part of its unique character, can make way for a more organic rendering of a tale of pride, violence, passion and suffering; to name but a few of The Mahabharata’s aspects. As Barba points out: “Historical understanding of theatre and dance is often blocked or rendered superficial because of neglect of the logic of the creative process, because of misunderstandings of the performer’s empirical way of thinking, and because of an inability to overcome the confines established for the spectator.”[47] The most primitive and universal human instincts are explored in The Mahabharata, allowing its resonant messages to release from confinement and penetrate the deepest layers of human consciousness, regardless of the historical co-ordinates, race or gender of the person coming into contact with its transcendent philosophy of the human condition. Taking a text that precedes the Natyashastra, and likely informs its content, in his realisation of The Mahabharata for stage, and indeed screen, it could be inferred that Brook, knowingly or unwittingly, strives to create the experience of rasa in the spectator, by allowing the universal poem to be “heard” through the myriad of receptive, sensory organs of the body, rather than related purely in the storyteller’s (oral) tradition, the way in which it was disclosed to him: “When I next encountered The Mahabharata, [Brook’s first experience of the epic detailed above] it was a series of stories told to Jean-Claude Carriere and me with passionate enthusiasm by a remarkable Sanskrit scholar, Phillipe Lavastine…we began to understand why this was one of the greatest works of humanity, and how, like all great works, it is both far from us and very near.”[48] As Brook became subject to vacika abhinaya, “…representation through words…”[49], as he learnt through Lavastine, in using words (vacika), temperament (sattvika), gestures (angika), and costume and make up (aharya), Brook’s production of The Mahabharata, in its very essence, and utilisation of the differing languages of theatre, deliberately or inadvertently, gives birth to dominant states (sthayibhava), temperamental states (sattvikabhava), and transitory states (vyabhicaribhava), which combine to produce rasa.[50] In much the same way, the ancient Kathakali tradition uses its inscribed performance techniques and visual spectacle to celebrate The Mahabharata’s literary wealth, in a manner that transcends words alone. With the employment of Navaras, facial expressions displaying the nine basic moods (bhavas), and the twenty four mudras, hand gestures used in various combinations to produce over seven hundred words, as part of a complex system of art, the Kathakali technique follows this basic principle:

Where the hands move, there the eyes follow,

Where the eyes move the mind follows.

Where the mind goes, the mood (Bhava) follows

And where the mood goes, there the flavour (Rasa) arises.[51]


     In Brook’s The Mahabharata, there is a meditative quality, which slowly draws one into the world of the performance from the very opening, and allows the normative concept of time to dissipate; I am driven to suggest this from my own, subjective, point of view, as I found, surprisingly, that the full weight of the film, in terms of its uncommonly lengthy duration, did not seem to rest heavily upon me, but rather carried me willingly along with it, on a journey that promised enrichment. The Mahabharata’s musical score adds to its atmospheric, soothing quality and, coupled with the introduction of The Boy, played by Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan, his lighting of candles and his centred reverence, brings an air of sanctity, apparent from the first sequence and onwards. There is something of the temple about Brook’s mise-en-scene, and Brook’s relatively small team of musicians aid the transition from the unnecessary, “…daily drabness…”[52] to the “holy”. Brook himself makes the following observation on music: “Despite the absurd means that produce it, through the concrete in music we recognise the abstract, we understand that ordinary men and their clumsy instruments are transformed by an art of possession.”[53] This recognition of the abstract through the concrete is entirely the underlying principle of Brook’s “Holy Theatre”, or, “…The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible…”[54], which, evidently, music goes some way towards making manifest. It would be unfair, however, in a discussion of music in Brook’s The Mahabharata, in the interest of presenting a fully-rounded argument, to discount Bharucha’s feeling that: “The music epitomises the general confusion of the whole production: it doesn’t want to be Indian, and yet it tries to be Indian in its own way.”[55] On the subject of music and phenomenological and anthropological impacts on the psyche, Nair advises: “The ordinary individual mode of consciousness, according to Malekin, can be altered through ritual, music and chanting.”[56] The Kathakali performance tradition (similarly to Brook’s The Mahabharata, though naturally its far more culturally intrinsic predecessor, with a unique historical context that can be assigned directly to the Hindu faith), draws upon and celebrates its own sign-system, as a means of adapting tales from The Mahabharata and The Ramayana for the purpose of ritualistic theatrical event: “Artists of many cultures have long made art used in rituals – church music, altar pieces and devotional paintings, temple icons, masks, religious dances and dramas, and so on.”[57] On a fundamental, spiritual level, the physicality and discipline of the Kathakali performer can stir the inner mechanism of the spectator’s consciousness, bringing the soul into closer contact with the universal life-force inherent in each and every being: “After 100,000 years the Mudras are able to contact the very core of our understanding and generate a connection with the most basic of our instincts, the desire to create, explore the unknown and express what we find in others.”[58] The Kathakali dance/drama arose from a religious devotion to communicating symbolic Hindu stories to the people of India, regardless of caste, whereas Brook’s The Mahabharata, was born of a desire to share these narratives with a broader, Western audience.  


     Like many Western theatre practitioners and artists, both contemporary and historical, Artaud observed a need for a greater spiritual reckoning to emerge from performance. Brook writes of Artaud:



Railing against the sterility of the theatre before the war in France an illuminated genius, Antonin Artaud, wrote tracts describing from his imagination and intuition another theatre – a Holy Theatre in which the blazing centre speaks through those forms closest to it. A theatre working like the plague, by intoxication, by infection, by analogy, by magic; a theatre in which the play, the event itself, stands in place of a text.[59]


Artaud’s own concept of a “Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible”, in this sense, arose from a desire to elevate consciousness through theatre, and a sensitivity to the need for society to become attuned to the ubiquitous, magnetic force-field created by the energy that passes through the universe and each and every being that inhabits it: “In the anguished, catastrophic times we live in, we feel an urgent need for theatre that is not overshadowed by events, but arouses deep echoes within us and predominates over our unsettled period.”[60] As mentioned previously, Brook, himself greatly influenced by Artaud, speaks of The Mahabharata carrying “echoes for all mankind”. These “deep echoes”, of which Artaud speaks, could then be viewed as the universal echoes within our human consciousness, the stirring of which allows a transcendence from the daily events that necessitate modern existence, and causes elevation of the mind to a level of pure consciousness. As Meyer-Dinkgräfe writes: “Whereas European theatre mainly serves entertainment purposes…Balinese theatre, for Artaud, takes on the dimension of a religious ritual ceremony.”[61] Moreover: “Artaud felt that it was possible, through this kind of bodily language practised by the Balinese performers, to ‘re-establish theatre as a pure and independent creativity’ on the level of the spectator’s consciousness.”[62] If, in this case, theatre could be thus re-established, it is possible that the spectator be brought to prakriti, the natural mind state from which all creation arises, as: “Through repeated exposure to the experience of pure consciousness, brought about by actor’s art in the theatre, the spectator’s consciousness is trained to uphold pure consciousness for longer periods of time, ultimately indefinite, not only in subsequent theatrical performances, but also in daily life outside the theatre.”[63] If this be true, then it could indeed be argued that: “Theatre in this context thus has the direct and explicit function to restore the golden age, for humankind, implying restoration of the state of perfection, liberation (moksha), enlightenment, higher states of consciousness for all people on earth.”[64] In terms of Brook’s The Mahabharata, and its potential for development of consciousness, Meyer-Dinkgräfe suggests that: “No matter what may be the background of someone who comes into contact with the epic, its texture is so rich that everyone will benefit on at least one level of the mind.”[65]


     As Jerzy Grotowski writes, of the relationship between the work of Artaud and that of Brook, and the influence that the former artist shines upon the latter:

When an eminent creator with an achieved style and personality, like Peter Brook, turns to Artaud, it’s not to hide his own weaknesses, or to ape the man. It just happens that at a given point of development he finds himself in agreement with Artaud, feels the need of a confrontation, tests Artaud, and retains whatever stands up to the test.[66]


Speaking of the relationship between the work of Grotowski and that of Artaud, Brook writes: “Grotowski’s theatre is as close as anyone has got to Artaud’s ideal.”[67] The unity that links the three practitioners, Brook, Grotowski, and their predecessor Artaud, does seem to emanate from the shared desire between them for a spiritual and universal discourse to evolve from the theatrical event; this theatrical event being something that is born of a different language to that of words alone, and one that takes its inspiration readily from the intensity of discipline displayed in certain Eastern performance traditions. In terms of “testing” Artaud’s theories, however, Grotowski places forth the following observation:

Artaud’s secret, above all, is to have made particularly fruitful mistakes and misunderstandings. His description of Balinese Theatre, however suggestive it may be for the imagination, is really one big misreading. Artaud deciphered as ‘cosmic signs’ and ‘gestures evoking superior powers’ elements of the performance which were concrete expressions, specific theatrical letters in an alphabet of signs universally understood by the Balinese.[68]


In direct response to Grotowski’s statement, Meyer-Dinkgräfe asks the following question: “However, does the existence of a theatrical alphabet which the Balinese understand intellectually, rule out that the practical use of this alphabet in performance has direct or indirect effects on the spectator’s consciousness independent of whether he or she knows intellectually what a particular letter is supposed to mean?”[69] Furthermore, Grotowski’s dialogue on the fixed nature of Indian signs loses some of its validity when we consider that, “…though the mudras and other means of histrionic representation are apparently fixed codes, laid down and described as such in the text of the Natyashastra, they originate in the very moment they are created by the enlightened actor.”[70] Grotowski does, however, concede that Artaud, “…in his description [of the Balinese dance] touches something essential, of which he is not quite aware…the true lesson of the sacred theatre; whether we speak of the medieval European drama, the Balinese, or the Indian Kathakali: this knowledge that spontaneity and discipline, far from weakening each other, mutually reinforce themselves; that what is elementary feeds what is constructed and vice versa, to become the real source of acting that glows.”[71] In terms of a theatre of the “sacred”, (as Artaud, Brook and Grotowski all allude to a “sacred” or “holy” theatre), Sacred Theatre, edited by Ralph Yarrow, explores such a concept from a consciousness studies perspective: “Unlike sociology and psychoanalysis which understand the sacred in materialist and functional terms, theological discourse grants the sacred holy or transcendental significance . . . the transcendental is a value or ‘truth’ that has no origin in human history . . . although the transcendental can be ‘experienced’ by a human agent, we can never know its origins.”[72] Looking to Artaud then, as a predecessor to, and influence on, Brook, and his interpretation, misguided or no, of the Balinese dance/theatre (perhaps seeing its “truth”, without necessarily knowing “its origins”), another angle is assumed, from which to gain an overview of the intercultural performance problem, as it were.


     R. K. Narayan writes, in the introduction to his particular version of The Mahabharata, another adaptation as, although the tale is a part of his particular cultural heritage, he too has condensed it (and further condensed it than Brook and Carriere in fact), and therefore re-told it in a variant medium from the original stanza-based form; that of the novel, in this instance:

For a modern reader in English, one has necessarily to select and condense. I have not attempted any translation, as it is impossible to convey in English the rhythm and depth of the original language. The very sound of Sanskrit has a hypnotic quality which is inevitably lost in translation. One has to feel content with a prose narrative in story form.[73]


Brook’s version of The Mahabharata carries none of the unique qualities of genuine Sanskrit rhythm, and it would be impossible for it to do so, as it is a production conveyed through Western language, and, as with Narayan’s novel, Brook’s production adopts a linear narrative; much to Bharucha’s dismay: “Nothing could be more foreign to the Mahabharata than linearity”.[74] However, the technicalities of the language barrier aside, it seems reasonable to suggest that as Artaud felt himself moved, on whatever level, consciously or unconsciously, by the Balinese performance, perhaps we too may be moved to a level of pure consciousness, or prakriti, by The Mahabharata, by the very nature of its great, spiritual depth, regardless of how far removed we are from it as a piece of intellectual literature, and, rather, come to view it as a universally understood piece of theatre or film. Undoubtedly, certain of its characteristics will be lost in translation into any language other than its own, just as none can fully appreciate Shakespeare’s true worth as a poet and crafter of language as the English-speaking person. Furthermore, as Shakespeare’s great body of work, exploring the fundamental and universal state of existence itself, is known worldwide and appreciated for the content, in some cases rather than the form, should we not, then, have access to, in order to appreciate on any level possible, an unquestionable masterpiece of Hindu philosophy, regardless of mother tongue, if we can decipher at least part of its meaning? Shakespeare’s work has, however, also been used in intercultural performance, and the use of a Shakespearean text in this manner yields certain demands, and a certain discipline which can be found in abundance in many non-Western theatre practices. According to Ariane Mnouchkine, who has used Shakespearean texts in intercultural performance: “The reference to this great traditional form imposes rules for working: precision of gesture, cleanness of line, the meeting of an extreme truth and an extreme artifice within a kind of performance that might be called hyperrealistic.”[75] It is this very notion, of truth and unity within a fantastical framework, with which it seems the flow of The Mahabharata carries the spectator, and the “great traditional form” of the epic, deserves a substantial undertaking in its enactment. The expended efforts of Brook’s production, for one example the assemblage of an international cast, surely cannot be said to have fallen short insofar as the most ambitious, epic endeavours go.


     Bharucha writes, of Brook’s international cast for The Mahabharata, “…what is the point [in employing such a diverse cast] if most of the actors’ voices, rhythms and performance traditions have been homogenised within a western structure of action, where they have to speak a language unknown to most of them?”[76] Pradip Bhattacharya shares an affinity with Bharucha, stating that Brook’s production is far removed from the Indian experience, and that it is, in fact, “…more a showing off of his brilliance as a director in assembling an international cast than a sensitive depiction of the heart and soul of India through the most traumatic of epics in its merciless exposure of human frailty and heroism.”[77] Whilst adopting a “Bharuchian” stance in relation to Brook’s The Mahabharata, however, Bhattacharya does not find himself to be in agreement with his peer in terms of Mallika Sarabhai’s portrayal of Draupadi. Bharucha writes of Sarabhai, the “…only authentic Indian presence on stage…”[78], speaking “…as she has been directed to speak, unlike some of the African actors, whose rhythms resist the ‘simple, precise, restrained language’ created by Carriere and translated by Brook.”[79] Bharucha further speaks of a lack of resonance in Sarabhai’s delivery of Draupadi’s lines, which he goes so far as to describe as “…monotonous…”[80], whereas Bhattacharya hails the performer as bringing, “…to her role that fire and grace which befits one described by Vyasa as born of the sacrificial Agni.”[81] The only performance that raises any praise from Bharucha is that of Yoshi Oida, of whom he admits:

Undeniably, when Yoshi Oida speaks this language, [the aforementioned ‘simple, precise, restrained language’] he brings a very appealing humour to the intonations of Drona. He is also able to separate himself from the language – his voice does one thing, his body another, which creates a very interesting tension.


In Oida, an inner, yet resonant, stillness seems to penetrate his scenic bios (produced by balance, weight and the use of the spinal column, and, no doubt instilled in him through his classical Noh training) – a certain pre-expressivity is constant within him, and permeates the consciousness of the spectator. In this sense, Oida displays qualities of total and complete mastery of his craft, having a trance-like hold on our thoughts: “The fully developed actor…achieves his effects on the spectator by stimulating the spectator’s senses, his intellect, the emotions, and both through stimulating all these, and unmediated, the actor reaches to the spectator’s pure consciousness, which is the ultimate target of his art and skill.”[82] Of this spiritual quality, possessed by the great actor in his ability to transform and heighten levels of consciousness, Nair writes: “In India, great performers and artists were traditionally regarded as saints.”[83]


     It is Bharucha’s express view that, “…the Mahabharata must be seen on as many levels as possible within the Indian context, so that its meaning (or rather, multiple levels of meaning) can have some bearing on the lives of the Indian people for whom the Mahabharata was written, and who continue to derive their strength from it.”[84] As Meyer-Dinkgräfe explains:


A production based on Indian material and directed by a Western director, then, according to Bharucha, has to pay its respect to the source material by leaving the material taken up for the production as much as possible within its cultural context. The aim of this has to be a potential benefit for the audiences in the source culture, who produced the cultural material taken up in the Western performance in the first place, and for whom this cultural material is supposed to have beneficial effects.[85]


 A moment’s reflection on Bharucha’s advocacy here, seems to generate a peculiar and significant paradox. The Mahabharata, then, is an exclusive text, written for the Indian people, who alone should receive the benefit of any representation of it being witnessed by any hearer/spectator. It seems curious, using this viewpoint as a theoretical “backcloth”, as it were, that so many inhabitants of the “West” “derive their strength from” the Bible; a text whose action takes place in such spiritually significant places, to the “Westerner”, as Jerusalem, and whose constant reading by the “Westerner”, surely then demands to “have some bearing on the lives” of the Israeli people of today. It is an inexplicable double standard that one Eastern text be claimed fully by the country of its birth, whereas as an, arguably, Middle Eastern text becomes the basis of Western, patriarchal, normative religious doctrine, which shapes the consciousness of Western civilisation whether we all subscribe to it or not. It would be interesting to survey the percentage of those Westerners devoting their lives to the teachings of the “holy” Bible – a Middle Eastern “story” – that have actually visited Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem etc., observed the way of life, learnt and understood any of the culture, and therefore feel themselves qualified to transform, “…synthetic, tacky, sticky…” commercialised Christianity, to which we are frequently subjected, “…into a deeply spiritual experience…”[86], as Indians apparently can Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana. It is important to note that Brook need not have felt obliged to represent The Mahabharata with a “…mish-mash of cultures…” and “monochromatic presentation of characters…”[87], as Bharucha highlights that Sagar demonstrates the way in which Indian people are also, “…capable of misrepresenting the epics [them]selves.”[88] Many questions, then, are here raised: Is it because of Brook’s “Western” status that he is berated more soundly than Sagar? When does cultural theft become so, and why is the commandeering of one non-western text overlooked, whilst another is seriously reprimanded? Can we not, then, choose, as, if it boils down to cultural knowledge and understanding, all Eastern texts are classified as being without our realm of accessibility and therefore equal, which ones to illicitly draw inspiration from? If so, I find more, in my admittedly very limited experience, to relate to in The Mahabharata than the Bible. “One cannot separate the culture from the text”[89] cries Bharucha; however, how often does the Western reader place Jesus in the context of Middle Eastern societal culture? Rather, he seems to have taken the ethnicity of any place claiming him as its own, as can be seen by the varying iconography depicting his form; the “Western”, white-skinned Jesus that we most frequently see, for instance, and who could not be further removed from the geographical likelihood of truth. Jesus has become a universal “everyman” figure, whereas the Hindu faith has remained unspoilt and true to its origins.


     By way of reflection (and as can clearly be seen documented in a plethora of literature, some of which I have detailed above, whilst other available works could, no doubt, lead to an even broader study), Brook’s The Mahabharata, “…inevitably caused much discussion of interculturalism in the contemporary theatre.”[90] Marvin Carlson writes: “Despite the respect, one might even say the veneration and love which these productions [Brook’s The Mahabharata and Mnouchkine’s L’Indiade] manifest for their subjects, the traditional dynamic of Western appropriation seems still operative here.”[91] Certainly Bharucha would second Carlson’s words here, as would Bhattacharya, who sees Brook’s The Mahabharata as, “…a wholly gratuitous and uncalled-for tampering with the [original, ancient Mahabharata] text.”[92] However, if we regard the production in terms of consciousness studies, “…in the case of Brook’s Mahabharata, the source material from the epic is such that, hologram-like, even fragments of it contain the whole, and thus suggestion of it triggers the emotions appropriate to specific situations, while at the same time enabling the experience of pure consciousness.”[93] To conclude on an auspicious note, in striking parallel to Meyer-Dinkgräfe’s comment above, Brook makes the following observation:

The present moment is astonishing. Like the fragment broken off a hologram, its transparency is deceptive. When this atom of time is split open, the whole of the universe is contained in its infinite smallness.[94]


In his reworking of The Mahabharata, then, it could be said that Brook brought the epic into “the present moment” and displayed the entire world of the poem in a form of, almost Artaudian, “total theatre”, where race and culture play second place to a universal and spiritual consciousness.





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Additional Information


The Mahabharata. Dir. Peter Brook. DVD. BFI, 1989.





[1] Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. (London: Routledge, 1991) p. 8.

[2] Ian Watson, Negotiating Cultures: Eugenio Barba and the Intercultural Debate (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 2.

[3] Vijay Mishra, “The Great Indian Epic and Peter Brook”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, ed. David Williams (London: Routledge, 1991) p. 195.

[4] Mishra, “The Great Indian Epic and Peter Brook”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 195.

[5] Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness (Bristol: Intellect, 2005) p. 114.

[6] Jean-Claude Carriere, “Introduction”, in The Mahabharata, trans. Peter Brook (London: Methuen, 1988) p. xi.

[7] Rustom Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture (London: Routledge, 1993) p. 68.

[8] David Williams, “The Great Poem of the World: A Descriptive Analysis”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 117.

[9] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 74.

[10] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 74.

[11] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 119.

[12] For the purposes of this study, I draw from witness accounts of the stage production, as my personal experience of the much debated performance piece extends to the film version and the written play only.

[13] Peter Malekin, “Time”, in Sacred Theatre, ed. Ralph Yarrow (Bristol: Intellect, 2007) p. 55.

[14] Peter Malekin, “Time”, in Sacred Theatre, p. 55.

[15] Sreenath Nair, “Saundarya: The Concept of Beauty in Indian Aesthetics”, in The Future of Beauty in Theatre, Literature and the Arts, ed. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005) p. 155.

[16] Sreenath Nair, Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance (New York: Rodopi, 2007) p. 154.

[17] Mark Fortier, Theory/Theatre: An Introduction (9th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2002) p. 42.

[18] Fortier, Theory/Theatre: An Introduction, p. 41.

[19] Nair, Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance, p. 156.

[20] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (London: Penguin, 1990) p. 47.

[21] Brook, The Empty Space, pp. 47-48.

[22] Peter Brook, “The Presence of India: An Introduction”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 41.

[23] Brook, The Empty Space, p. 61.

[24] Nair, “Saundarya: The Concept of Beauty in Indian Aesthetics”, in The Future of Beauty in Theatre, Literature and the Arts, p. 159.

[25] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 127.

[26] Brook, “The Presence of India: An Introduction”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 44.

[27] Brook, “The Presence of India: An Introduction”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 41.

[28] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 75.

[29] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 75.

[30] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 117.

[31] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 84.

[32] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 117.

[33] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back (2nd ed.) (London: Routledge, 2002) p. 195.

[34] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 68.

[35] Brook, “The Presence of India: An Introduction”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 42.

[36] Brook, “The Presence of India: An Introduction”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 44.

[37] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 71.

[38] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 76.

[39] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 119.

[40] K. C. Pandey, Comparative Aesthetics Vol. 1: Indian Aesthetics (Banaras: The Chpwkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1950) p. 10, quoted in Meyer-Dinkgräfe’s, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 95.

[41] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, pp. 70-71.

[42] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 93.

[43] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 97.

[44] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 95.

[45] Aristotle, Poetics, trans. and critical notes S. H. Butcher (New York: Dover Publications, 1951) p. 23.

[46] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 109.

[47] Eugenio Barba, The Paper Canoe (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 11.

[48] Brook, “The Presence of India: An Introduction”, in Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives, p. 41.

[49] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 96.

[50] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 94.

[51] The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company, Kathakali (Southampton: The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company, 2008) p. 23.

[52] Brook, The Empty Space, p. 48.

[53] Brook, The Empty Space, p. 47.

[54] Brook, The Empty Space, p. 47.

[55] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 82.

[56] Nair, Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance, p. 160.

[57] Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction (2nd ed.) (London: Routledge, 2006) p. 87.

[58] The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company, Kathakali Mudras: The Ancient Language of India (Southampton: The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company, 2008) p. 32.

[59] Brook, The Empty Space, pp. 54-55.

[60] Antonin Artaud, “Theatre and Cruelty”, in The Theatre and its Double, trans. Victor Corti. (London: Calder, 1993) p. 64.

[61] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 108.

[62] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 107.

[63] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 102.

[64] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 1.

[65] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 121.

[66] Jerzy Grotowski, “He Wasn’t Entirely Himself”, in Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. Eugenio Barba (London: Methuen, 1991) p. 85.

[67] Brook, The Empty Space, p. 67.

[68] Grotowski, “He Wasn’t Entirely Himself”, in Towards a Poor Theatre, pp. 88-89.

[69] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 108.

[70] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 111.

[71] Jerzy Grotowski, “He Wasn’t Entirely Himself”, in Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 89.

[72] Carl Lavery, “Modern Views of the Sacred”, in Sacred Theatre, ed. Ralph Yarrow (Bristol: Intellect, 2007) p. 35.

[73] R. K. Narayan, The Mahabharata (London: Penguin, 1978) p. xii.

[74] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 75.

[75] Ariane Mnouchkine, “The Theatre is Oriental”, in The Intercultural Performance Reader, ed. Patrice Pavis. (London: Routledge, 1996) p. 95.

[76] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 80.


[78] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 79.

[79] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 79.

[80] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 79.


[82] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, pp. 101-102.

[83] Nair, Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance, p. 159.

[84] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 70.

[85] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 116.

[86] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 70.

[87] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 72.

[88] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 69.

[89] Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, p. 70.

[90] Marvin Carlson, “Brook and Mnouchkine: Passages to India?”, in The Intercultural Performance Reader, p. 81.

[91] Carlson, “Brook and Mnouchkine: Passages to India?”, in The Intercultural Performance Reader, p. 82.


[93] Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Theatre and Consciousness, p. 125.

[94] Peter Brook, There Are No Secrets: Thoughts On Acting and Theatre (London: Methuen, 1993) p. 81, quoted in Yarrow’s Sacred Theatre, p. 52.