Canada’s Why Not Theatre, a diaspora-led theatre company rooted in values of community and collaboration, began a triumphant international tour of its critically acclaimed contemporary retelling of the ‘Mahabharata’ in London this week.
The modern adaptation of the world-famous Sanskrit epic, over 4,000 years old, follows the devastating family feud between the Kauravas and Pandavas and explores profound philosophical and spiritual ideas. The mega stage production, which is divided into two parts of Karma and Dharma and bridged by a storytelling break over an Indian vegetarian meal called ‘Khana & Kahani’, runs at seven hours in all as it attempts to tell the complete story known to millions of Indians around the world.
Associate Director, Co-Writer, Storyteller and Why Not Theatre Co-Artistic Director, Miriam Fernandes, said: “These stories have been passed from storyteller to audience for thousands of years and span the earth, traveling 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.”
Fernandes, who also plays the role of narrator as she hand-holds the audience through the many upheavals of the story, forms a pivotal character in the new production which runs at the Barbican Theatre in London until this weekend.
Their script draws from Carole Satyamurti’s ‘Mahabharata, A Modern Retelling’, Devdutt Patnaik’s ‘JAYA’ and the poetry of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
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“The way that Devdutt unpacks Dharma is that as humans, we have to be different than animals. In the law of the jungle, the lion eats the lamb and there's no judgement around that in the animal kingdom. But as humans, we have the capacity for empathy,” explains Fernandes.
Why Not Theatre’s adaptation is designed to take audiences on a journey through the past in order to write a thrilling new future.
Ravi Jain, Director, Co-Writer and Why Not Theatre Founder and Co-Artistic Director, said: “For London audiences we are excited for them to see an international South Asian cast. We're excited for them to really receive this story and get lost in the sea of stories.
“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.”
Exploring the act of storytelling itself, this staging of the ‘Mahabharata’ evolves from a storyteller around a fire and classical Kathakali dance to a modern spectacle with projection, dynamic soundscapes and innovative stage design. For the most revered portion of the epic, the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a stand-alone unique operatic performance transports the audience to another world. There is also a live onstage band to provide a very moving background score featuring traditional Indian instruments like the bansuri (flute) and tabla.
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Balancing East and West, traditional and contemporary, the production and ensemble highlight the complex hybrid nature of cultures in today’s interconnected lives. The cast includes UK-based performers Ajay Chhabra, Neil D’Souza, Darren Kuppan, Goldy Notay and Sakuntala Ramanee. They are joined by Canadian and other international performers including Shawn Ahmed, Jay Emmanuel, 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, Suba Sankaran, Dylan Bell, Gurtej Singh Hunjan, Hasheel Lodhia and Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed.