Roundhouse, London January 11-17
Akram Khan Company
In my previous post, I considered how a recent performance of Memorial, Alice Oswald’s retelling of the Iliad, creatively negotiated dynamics of temporality and how it represented the suffering of those about whom the poem remains silent. This post takes a lateral step, considering these interleaving issues in light of a performance of Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (2015) a retelling of the ancient Indian epic. The poem is attributed to the sage Vyasa and tells the story of the world-shaking struggle between two branches of a single family. A narrative that dwells on and in violence, intimate and epic, the Mahabharata is thought to have such perlocutionary force that it is customarily kept out of Hindu households to ward off the possibility of inviting in such familial strife. Comparative study of the poetics of the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) with Homeric epics is by no means a new scholarly activity. If one of the main advantages of reception studies is the ability to approach traditions critically, then comparison of the contemporary performance reception of these poetic traditions might be a way of circumventing the worst orientalist impulses that were historically part and parcel of the comparative method.
Akram Khan has toured his soaring, visceral dance adaptation of Until the Lions around the world and brought it back to London for a limited run. Khan is one of the foremost choreographers and performers of his generation: he innovatively marries his early training in the classical north Indian Kathak tradition with the forms of contemporary choreography. His style is arresting and thrillingly kinetic. A raised stage intentionally recalled a cross-section of a felled tree with its concentric circles, across which Khan himself as Bheeshma, Ching-Yien Chien as Shikandi and Joy Alpuerto Ritter as Amba work out this slice of the Mahabharata in the frequently non-mimetic idiom of contemporary dance. Unlike Brink productions’ of Memorial in which singers and performing chorus of hundreds were physically separate, here the three dancers and the five musicians interacted, telling the story together, whorling around the tree-trunk stage or using the stage as an enormous percussive instrument in its own right.
A central observation for Nair and Oswald is that power operates at the core of ancient epic narrative. Moreover both writers share a concern with radically revising the structure of the epic poems in their creative responses. In this interview, Nair demurs from a direct comparison with Oswald, citing not only her lack of direct access to the Vedic Sanskrit (where Oswald could get inside the Homeric Greek) but also the difference in their creative methods. If Oswald seeks a kind of ‘poetic archaeology’, Nair insists that her retelling of the Mahabharata is a process of ‘refracting’ the ancient material. This difference of method emerges in the way that Oswald preserves the omniscience of the narrator, where Nair fractures the narrative into eighteen different voices. As Nair says in an interview with Tishani Doshi : “My real concerns when I began working on Until the Lions revolved around structure. I fretted about chronology. I was anxious about channelling the Mahabharata through eighteen sets of narrators without turning it into a kaleidoscope of voices.”
Khan deals with the anxiety about kaleidoscoping voice by choosing one narrative on which to focus: the story of Bheeshma and Amba. As Madhavi Menon reminds us (2018:117-9), this narrative tangles up desires multiple and celibate, temporalities elastic and ruptured. Bheeshma was a warrior who undertook a vow of celibacy (Bheeshma means ‘he of the terrible oath’) in return for which he was granted the boon of choosing the moment of his death. In the course of the war, he took Amba as a ‘spear won bride’ to give to a male relative, to use a euphemism straight out of the Homeric primer. On discovering that she was in love with someone else, Bheeshma attempted to release her back to her beloved but failed because Amba was now ‘soiled goods’ because of her contact with Bheeshma. Unwanted and unloved, Amba undertook severe penances and threatened to throw the whole cosmic order into disarray with her grief (not unlike the scale of Demeter’s grief for Persephone). Shiva therefore intervened and granted her the boon of killing Bheeshma in her next life. Amba became Shikandi, who though born a woman is eventually transformed Tiresias-like into a man on a mission to revenge himself on Bheeshma. They met on the battlefield where Bheeshma recognized his enemy as Amba/Shikandi – he laid down his weapons and allowed Shikandi to take vengeance, though invoking his boon, he delays the actual moment of his death till after the war.
This is how Nair imagines Shikandi’s mother (an unnamed woman in the original epic) dreaming of her child’s sex-change and unnaturally over-long desire to kill:
In these dreams, Shikhandi crushes
both breasts and unwraps sinewed legs,
casts shoulder and pelvis in male
mould then carves muscles till they shine—
bronzed, blood-soaked, a warrior’s shield.
Is that past or future? He slips
into Bheeshma’s sleep, a land he
has owned for thirty-six thousand
nights and days. Honour lies in wait,
a quivering, tongueless, wild beast.
For they who’ve never tasted love
cannot know hate, and Shikhandi
has hated longer and better
than most on earth. He borrows rage
from the sun, endurance from stars.
Nair’s methodological ‘fretting about chronology’ point us towards looking at how time is organized, particularly around the figure of Amba/Shikandi. In the passage cited above, we see that fretting has morphed into the existential terror of a mother struggling to understand her dream-child, a malevolent figure whose motivating rage extends beyond a single human life. No wonder she asks: ‘Is that past or future’? The figure of Shikandi is rage as embodied anachronism, unsettling the normative accounting of human life in time or in flesh. This puts me in mind of the conversation between Solon and Croesus (Hdt 1.29-33), an episode that we on the Anachronism and Antiquity project read as a crucible of anachronism. It is not at the end of a life that Shikandi and Bheeshma get their respective satisfactions. Rather happiness is forestalled, long after the allotted moments of their biological death, thus causing creating complexity for how we think humans experience time – memories are carried over into differently gendered bodies, hearts hum with ancient misery, arrows pierce a hero made invulnerable by his celibacy.
Watching this adaption of Until the Lions made specifically for the Roundhouse’s circular performance space, I was struck by how these conflicts in desire and temporality were distilled in the staging and the physical space of the performance. For the entire performance until Bheeshma’s death, a cast of a severed head is mounted on a pole as a memento mori governing the action, placed there by Shikandi at the start. At the moment of the climactic encounter between Bheeshma and Shikandi, the seemingly solid ground gives way. Amba has previously drawn attention to this deep crack in the earth in her desperate clawing at it, an attempt to hide her shame and rage under the ground perhaps. As Bheeshma realizes, Hector-like, that the gig is up and the scales have always been divinely tipped agains him, he turns and walks slowly to the mounted severed head. As he moves, the stages rises in uneven pieces, Shikandi standing triumphantly on the highest jagged outcrop. The lighting and smoke from below give the sense of Shikandi standing on top of a lavafield, or in the smouldering aftermath of an apocalyptic event. The normal sequence of time has been disrupted by Shikandi’s triumph, and so the orderly rings of the tree stage which fitted neatly together, have given way under the pressure of the cosmic proportions of one person’s despair and revenge.
- Nair, K. (2015) Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Harper Collins India)
- Menon, M. (2018) Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger Books)
- Udumudi, S. (2017) Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview with Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee