Mahabharata is a contemporary adaptation of the Sanskrit scripture (of the same name), that follows a devastating family feud and explores profound philosophical and spiritual ideas. Its stories are more than four thousand years old and foundational to Hindu culture.
The new, large-scale retelling by Toronto-based company Why Not Theatre is the first major international adaptation to be led by a company from the South Asian community and makes its UK premiere at the Barbican Theatre this autumn (1 – 7 October). The world premiere was hailed by critics as “triumphant” (Toronto Star), “stunning” (Globe and Mail) and “Epic in every sense of the word.” (Intermission magazine) at The Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada in March 2023.
The stories collected in ‘The Mahabharata’ span thousands of years and over 100,000 verses almost four times as long as Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ & ‘The Iliad’ combined, and eight times as long as the Bible. To this day, favourite moments, characters and lessons are remembered and retold in the kitchens and temples of more than 1 billion people of Indian origin across the globe. These sacred stories continue to resonate powerfully today against a backdrop of territorial war, human rights violations, and climate change.
Almost 40 years since Peter Brook’s legendary production, Why Not Theatre’s adaptation takes audiences on a journey through the past in order to write a thrilling new future. Exploring the act of storytelling itself, the staging evolves from ancient and intimate – a storyteller around a fire and classical Kathakali dance – to a modern spectacle with projection, dynamic soundscapes, poetic
stage design and a new opera for the most revered portion of ‘The Mahabharata’, the Bhagavad Gita. A live onstage band creates the atmospheric music score, featuring traditional instruments from Lord Krishna’s favourite the Bansuri to the Tabla.
The production is presented in two parts and narrated by a storyteller (Miriam Fernandes), a charismatic guide who weaves a path through the forest of stories. Karma (Part 1) is the origin story of the rival Pandava and Kaurava clans, illuminating the choices we inherit and how those choices impact generations to come. In Dharma (Part 2), a great battle destroys the planet and the survivors are left behind to rebuild.
Mahabharata is performed by a company from across four continents, all from the Indian community. Balancing East and West, traditional and contemporary, the production and ensemble highlight the complex hybrid nature of cultures in today’s globalised world and interconnected lives.
The cast includes UK-based performers Ajay Chhabra (Rough Diamonds on Netflix), Neil D’Souza (How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court), Darren Kuppan (Let The Right One In, Manchester Royal Exchange), Goldy Notay (Life of Pi, UK Tour) and Sakuntala Ramanee (Life of Pi, West End), who are joined by Canadian and other international performers Shawn Ahmed, Jay Emmanuel, Miriam Fernandes, Navtej Sandhu, Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu, Ellora Patnaik, Meher Pavri, Munish Sharma and Sukania Venugopal, and understudies Varun Guru, Karthik Kadam, Suma Nair, Ronica Sajnani and Ishan Sandhu.
Performing in the live band are John Gzowski (Conductor/Co-Composer/Co-Sound Designer/Guitar), Suba Sankaran (Band Leader/Co-Composer/Co-Sounder Designer/Vocals), Dylan Bell (Bass/Keyboard), Gurtej Singh Hunjan (Percussion), Hasheel Lodhia (Bansuri/Vocals) and Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed (Tabla).
Associate Director, Co-Writer, Storyteller and Why Not Theatre Co-Artistic Director, Miriam Fernandes, said: “We are a small strand among a great lineage of storytellers who have weaved this epic of ‘The Mahabharata’ over the ages. These stories have been passed from storyteller to audience for thousands of years and span the earth, travelling in the memories and imaginations of the South Asian diaspora. Though first composed in an ancient time, the themes of greed, revenge, ecocide and privilege feel acutely relevant in our globalised world.”
Director, Co-Writer and Why Not Theatre Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Ravi Jain, said: “As a student in London, I watched the world masters dazzle audiences on the Barbican stage. 20 years later it’s a dream come true to share this complex work we’re so proud of at this truly special venue.”
The first sparks for the project started in 2015. Ravi Jain (Founding Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre) chose to adapt just one story (the Bhagavad Gita) within the sprawling ‘Mahabharata’ for a commission by the intercontinental Pan Am Games. Backed by funding from the Canada Council of the Arts, Ontario’s prestigious Shaw Festival Theatre then invited Ravi to ‘Dream Big’ and stage the entire epic poem.
Having grown up with the Indian stories transplanted to a Canadian context, Ravi was inspired to dive deep into his past, taking inspiration from many South Asian sources as well as Peter Brook’s 1985 production. Ravi wanted to find a way to share this story with a modern audience by highlighting the myriad ways we tell stories. As part of Why Not Theatre’s deeply ingrained collaborative approach, Ravi teamed up with Miriam Fernandes (now Co-Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre).
Together they built the script, drawing primarily from Carole Satyamurti’s ‘Mahabharata, A Modern Retelling’, Devdutt Patnaik’s ‘JAYA’, and the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, but also pulling from wildly diverse perspectives and combining influences, including folk tales, street theatre, western European physical theatre (from their training at LAMDA and the Lecoq School and contemporary companies such as Simon McBurney’s Complicité and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil), oral storytelling traditions, and the popular Indian staples they grew up with, such as Amar Chitra Katha’s Mahabharat comics and B. R. Chopra’s TV series.
The UK premiere takes place at the Barbican from 1-7 October 2023.