A modern Mahabharata arrives on stage at renowned Canadian theatre festival
The contemporary adaptation of Mahabharata involves bringing together classical dance forms such a Odissi and Kathakali, with opera, and modern media like television projections
Toronto: An ambitious reimagination of the epic Mahabharata, complete with gender fluid, diverse casting and classical dance forms combined with modern media, is being showcased at Canada’s leading theatre event.
The play, produced by the Toronto-based Why Not Theatre in association with the Barbican of London, will have its opening performance at the six-decade old Shaw Festival at the scenic township of Niagara-on-the-Lake on Thursday, after a series of preview performances.
The epic retelling is directed by Toronto-based Ravi Jain, who also wrote and adapted it with Miriam Fernandes. Given its complexity, the performance is divided into two sections: Karma and Dharma. Taken together, they take nearly five hours of stage time.
The pandemic cast a shadow over the production, delaying its premiere but also made the story more relevant to the current situation. As Jain pointed out, “Dharma is about those with the most privilege, of their responsibility to take care of those with the least.” As the world recovers from Covid-19, the play also focuses on addressing “inequities in society”, Jain said.
The contemporary adaptation involves bringing together classical dance forms such a Odissi and Kathakali, with opera, and modern media like television projections. The “big question”, he said, “how to take this ancient story and make it contemporary for modern audience.”
While the mechanics of the performance itself is part of the modern retelling, it features a diverse caste from the diaspora, including not just Indo-Canadians but with those with roots in Pakistan, Malaysia, and Mauritius. They also cut across religious lines and generations. It also brings in gender fluidity. “We challenge the ideas of gender and unlock something quite exciting,” he said. With non-binary and female actors enacting male roles, such as those of Arjun or Karna, among others, “we just don’t necessarily follow the traditional way you would see those people”, Jain said.
Previews for the spectacle, which will move to London after Canada, have been running since February 28 and drawn favourable response. The national daily, Globe and Mail, noted that like adaptations before, this “interpretation” of the Mahabharata “continues to prove it has something for everyone – it’s simply too grand not to”.
Among those who attended a preview was Mississauga-based cultural patron Atul Tolia, who said,” It was wonderful.” Among the highlights for him was the live music performed on stage, accompanying the dance, and the operatic rendering of the Bhagavad Gita. “That blew me away,” he said.
Jain said, “We’ve really tried to be very careful with the material and treated this in a way that is respectful and balanced it with the changing values that have happened over time.”
He is elated that its premiering at the Shaw Festival, which started in 1962 to honour Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and is a Canadian cultural institution now.