and the Cross-Cultural Product
India’s knee-jerk reactions to Peter Brook’s Mahabharata film have been plentiful, many of them dismissive. Now that the film has done the rounds of the major cities, perhaps it is time to reflect a bit more on it. The first question that comes to mind in the context of the dismissive criticism is over the very idea of cross-cultural art; is it by nature contemptible or is there any valid possibility to it? Clearly, it is impossible for people of one culture to apprehend another totally in the terms of the first; perforce, an Indian audience will understand a Japanese film and an American audience a Kathakali performance in its own way. That understanding, misunderstanding, if you like, is bound to be absorbed and reflected within the culture of the receiver—even the most well informed. Even within India, one region has serious problems in the cultural product of others. Magnificent Naga dances often provoke laughter among audiences from the plains. Is that essentially wrong, corruptive of both? Should cultures, therefore, be hermetically sealed off except where the outsider can become an insider through a lifelong effort?
But it can equally well be argued that one lifetime is not enough to get to the heart of another culture; it takes generations to do so. What happens then to the creative energies generated by the inevitable contact between cultures in a shrinking world? The fact is that cross-cultural products are inevitable and cannot await anyone’s pleasure, including that of the country from which borrowings are made. Hybridization has been, and remains, an essential part of the flow of cultures. We in India are constantly adapting Western films and plays into our languages, both in the elite and popular theatre and cinema. Indian culture today is the product of admixtures with Persians, Greeks, Shakas, Hunas, Mongols, Caucasians, with the Indus Valley people, the Aryans, and the tribals. What is hybrid in one century often represents the essence of purity in another.
What is more, the Mahabharata takes us back to a time when the nation-state of today was unknown. Borders shifted with the fortunes of frequent battle; borrowings and commonalities were plentiful. To attack another king’s territory was a duty, a part of Kshatradharma. What we tend to see as a unique tradition today, such as the Hindu pantheon, was actually shared with the Greeks and large sections of West Asia. Shiva and Dionysius have uncanny similarities, and so have Krishna and Achilles; one of the names of the terrible Sumerian Goddess Innanna was Kali; the worship of Durga corresponds with harvest festivals across vast transnational territories and harks back to the days of matrilineal society dominated by the worship of the Great Goddess. The ancient Indian war chariot was the same as those used in Assyria, for instance. Indeed, the type shown in Brook’s Mahabharata is very like the Hittite variety seen on Carchemish bas reliefs of the 12th-8th century B.C., very close to the period generally ascribed to the Kurukshetra war. Northwestern India of the first millennium B.C. was a polyglot mixture of races with varying physiognomies and many hues of complexion. It is in the nature of nation-state chauvinism today to ignore these past commonalities and see its own tradition as a uniquely national product uncontaminated by mlechchas and Yavanas and people across what was regarded as Kalapani until a few decades ago.
So the only valid way to judge a cross cultural product like the Brook film is by its internal logic rather than the exactness of its correspondence, literal or otherwise, to our epic. As for its “essence,” how many Indians understand it and how many understand it in even roughly the same way? The popular view of the Mahabharata reflected in B. R. Chopra’s television series on Doordarshan is of a battle between good and evil. This is very far removed from the actual text which is laden with contradictions and ambiguities that in fact make it the great and universal work it is. All it needs to respond honestly to a foreigner’s view of the epic is to see it with an open mind and to make allowance for differences of cultural perception.
That is easier said than done. Not so curiously, even the elite commentators seem to find it easier to accept Caucasians as opposed to Africans. Many find it impossible to see the remarkable individuality and character in Kunti, played with intensity and assurance by Miriam Goldschmidt—whose face is like a cubist painting—just because she is black. Similarly, the tall ascetic agelessness of Sotiqui Kouyate as Bhishma is unacceptable in its blackness. They do not object that Krishna and Arjuna, who are both described as black in the text, are played here by Caucasians.
There are many extremely unusual elements in Brook’s film; the variety of races is only one of them. Take for instance the use of Rabindrasangeet. The opening scene has the song “Antara mama bikasita karo, antaratara hay.” It is the individual’s prayer to the being within to open the mind, to make it pure and to illuminate it. In my childhood in Brahmo society, it was always sung on childrens’ birthdays. It is the plain Jane among Tagore songs. To hear it at the opening of the Mahabharata is, to say the least, startling. But usually it is sung at a sprightly pace with a harmonium or cottage organ accompaniment by someone in the family with a very ordinary voice. Here it is almost unrecognizable, sung to an extremely slow tempo, making it almost into a chant. Sharmila Roy’s limpid voice renders it with an exceptional purity and steadiness.