Emotionalizing the Mahabharata: Adding fresh perspectives to the world’s oldest tale

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_Ganga_and_Shantanu_(1890)

One of the first questions I am often asked at book launches is why I am writing a series based on the Mahabharata. When I first told my agent four years ago that I was thinking of doing something like this, his advice for me was: ‘Don’t do it.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘It has been done to death. Nobody wants another version of the same story.’

Along the same vein, my best friend burst out laughing when I told him that my latest book was a re-telling of the Mahabharat. ‘You’re already running out of ideas, aren’t you?’ he said. Maybe I am or I am not, only time will tell, but I understand the sentiment here. ‘It has been done so many times before you by authors, movie directors, researchers, historians, poets and singers before you. What can YOU bring to the table?’ In other words, how can I make an old story ‘fresh’?

That question led me into reading a lot of work based on the epic, and though I cannot say that every book advanced my knowledge, I came away with one telling insight: all derivative work that has come out based on the Mahabharata dealt with masculine issues. By that I don’t just mean that the main characters are male, but also the themes and motifs are male. War, property, heroism and valour are given much importance. Even in the occasional female point-of-view retellings that we’ve had (Palace of Illusions being the most famous one), the underlying themes are all masculine, and the main character often weak and self-loathing.

This is where I saw I could wedge myself in. Is it possible, I asked myself, to not just switch viewpoint in name and tell the same story again, but actually transform the whole mood of the tale into something softer, something more emotional, where the main characters don’t think as much about war and property as they think about things such as love, happiness, contentment, motherhood, sexuality and the like? Sure, the overarching milieu will still be Hastinapur where the final act will be an epoch-ending war, but can we make war a result of our character’s emotional conflicts rather than just a blind race for wealth and valour?

I began writing with this in mind, and after a few false starts, the characters of Ganga and Satyavati began to take shape. Motherhood plays a big role in both their lives, and so does sexual union. Their goals and motivations are not grand, but their journeys are. They wrestle with their emotions, they don’t settle, they persist, they argue, they fight; in their own small ways they unwittingly sow the seeds of the Great War that is still three generations away.

In the second book, there will be three more characters that will take the story forward, and in following their emotional journeys they build the first foundations stones on which the path to Kurukshetra will be laid.

That was my answer to how to add freshness to the Mahabharata. No doubt you will have yours too. If you had the budget to make a movie today, or the time to write a novel or short story, how would you go about making it fresh? What do you think is missing in most current re-tellings of the epic, and what do you think is overplayed to the point of nausea? I will be very interested to know your thoughts.

 

Comments

  1. That is an interesting point you make there, and a true one at that too when you say that even the books with the female point of view such as the Palace of Illusions is primarily dealing with masculine issues. Love the fact that you had the idea of taking up the ’cause’ so to say of the female characters, and also the fact that you managed to come up with a cropper of a book in The Winds of Hastinapur. You managed to pull off Ganga’s and Satyavati’s stories quite well and am sure the rest of the characters you have picked also will also love having their tales told by you.

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  2. Oh, and to answer your questions – to me what is missing in most retellings is the fact that this great epic is much more than just a property and ego dispute between two sets of cousins and the wife of the Pandavas. Most retellings fail to convey the more subtle messages that the various smaller stories and sub stories of this great epic. And what has been overplayed is the covert and overt feministic angle of Draupadi, her suffering through the entire story, and also Karna, and how he was a victim of fate, as if he had no choice in any of his actions and words.

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    • Yes, I enthusiastically agree with the overdoing of Draupadi. I find it rather shameful that for someone who is meant to be independent and strong, Draupadi’s main claim to fame in most retellings is getting disrobed in open court.

      Thanks for your comment, Jairam. I am making an effort in writing this series to do exactly what you mentioned – not to focus on the overdone so that the traditionally undercooked elements can float up to the top.

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  3. It is a good perspective. For once someone is going to the root cause of where it all started. My father used to say that the entire Mahabharatam was the consequence of one guy’s sexual powers and hunger.
    But I won’t say it is fresh. may be for english, Yes! Kindly try and read the tamil poetry called “Panjali Sabatham” which literally translates to Draupadi’s oath. I haven’t read the entire thing. Just bits and pieces from here and there and it was good. Completely Draupadi’s point of view and her life. It might give you some more ideas and all. Just a suggestion from a fellow reader who loves the epic. It is a good thing you are taking up Ganga’s and Satyavati’s stories first.
    I would love to read your book sometime. (I am a bit lazy when it comes to reading. I take my own sweet time.)

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    • Sharath Komarraju says:

      Hi Aratrika,

      Great to hear from a fellow epic lover. I should have made the exception in my post about Draupadi: she’s practically the ‘only’ female character in the story that has attracted the attention of historians and researchers. Yajnaseni and Palace of Illusions are good examples in addition to Panjali Sabatham that you mention. Interestingly, translated into Telugu (my mother tongue), the title reads ‘Panchali Shapatham’. I think there is a movie by that name.

      Out of curiosity, who was the ‘one guy’ that your grandfather thought caused the war?

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