Contemporary Theatre

There is a vibrant contemporary Sanskrit theatre in Kerala. The heroes there are Duryodhana, Karna, Dushyanta, etc. drawn from Mahabharata. But they are not repetitions of Vyasa’s characters, but new creations, novel interpretations. The presence of Mahabharata in the classical and contemporary theatre of Kerala is not in the form of direct readings of Vyasa; they are all rereadings. Theatre reads and re-reads the epic.

Take for example the interpretation of Urubhanga on the contemporary stage: Duryodhana (Urubhanga) is not the Duryodhana of Vyasa or Bhasa. There are three Duryodhanas in Urubhanga – The valiant hero, an ordinary mortal perplexed when facing death and the third a different person strange to him self. The third is presented as a teyyam standing on the stills.

The play starts with a description of the fight.. The cruelty of war is portrayed through the words of several characters. This is followed by the entry of Duryodhana; he drags himself along the ground, his thighs being broken. Bhasa has compared him to Vasuki; after the churning of the milky ocean, crushed floating with its hood withdrawn.11 The director has fully understood the significance of the image. Vasuki is not the hero or the beneficiary of the churning; he is only a tool. Death is the hero and war is the villain. War is the ultimate victor. Those who fought the war crawl with their hoods crushed.

Duryodhana sees his preceptor burning in anger, ready to smash everything. The terrible vow of Balabhadra is to annihilate all the Pandavas for treachery they have committed on Duryodhana. But when he came to know that the cheater was none other than his brother lo! he is freezed! On the other side he sees the son of his preceptor- Aswathama. Treachery wins and he becomes one among the immortals!

There is one more fascinating image in the second half of the verse: Balavratam Grahitah. Face to face to death everybody becomes innocent like a child. Duryodhana come to know the value of love for the first time – he sees his mother with a new eye. Her eyes, through tightly covered, turn wet. All through the drama she calls her Suyodhana – Oh! Valiant fighter. He wants to live more on the earth. He desires to be born to the same mother again. If he gets another life, he would not live it as he did. Death has taught many things to him. His misdeeds haunt him; the spring of love sprouts in his mind.

This is not the old text. It is a new commentary, interpretation or vision. This can be read as a play against war, against treachery, against cheating; also a play of love when a man relieved sees his naked self himself and longs for another life to live a better life.

Karnabhara raises a big social issue: the way a society reacts to one when he is a sutaputra and again as a suryaputra. The play raises higher questions: Karna believes in values but becomes a victim of cheating. He realizes the treachery when death confronts him, but he is unable to escape from the trap. That is the tragedy of Karna. Karna’s burden is not his actions; on the contrary it is his belief in values. Alas! These are not real values; they are artificial, counterfeit values!

The relevance of Mahabharata is not lost by time. It contains in itself several layers of meaning. Every age reads what it needs. And theatre is the best medium for such re-readings.

1. It is interesting to note in this context that the ninth century critic Anandavardhana considers Mahabharata as a purvapaksha. The end according to him is the Harivamsa where one attains the bliss by conquering all desires (trikshnakshayasukha). Does he mean that Mahabharata arouses only thrshnas without really answering to the real challenges of life?

2 At the end of a sacrifice, Duryodhana offers dakshina to Drona. He can ask for anything. The preceptor demands, as dakshina, the restoration of half of the Kindgom to the Pandavas. This is accepted on condition of discovering Pandavas within five nights. (Hence the title pancharatra). On the advice of Bhishma, Kauravas carry away the cattle of Virata king. They were defeated in a rescue operation led by Arjuna. This leads to the discovery of Pandavas. As had promised Duryodhana shares the Kingdom with the Pandavas and everything ends happily. The disastrous was in averted. The play in three acts belongs to the Samavakara type of rupakas.

3. For more details – Kutiyattam Theatre: The Earliest Living Tradition, K.G. Paulose, D.C. Books, Kottayam, Kerala, 2006

4. Bhima in search of Celestial Flowers, K.G. Paulose, Bharatiya Book Corporation, New Delhi, 2001

5. Vyangyavyakhya, the stage manual for the presentation of the two dramas.

6. Kutiyattam became confined to temple theatres by 14th Century. Ramayana plays became more popular during this period. Kutiyattam came to be performed on public stages in the latter half of 20th Century.

7. Kathakali had a wider range as it could be presented anywhere by anybody.

8. Bakavatham, Kalyanasougandhikam, Kirmiravadham and Nivathakavachakalakeya vadham. Theme for the last three is drawn from Mahabharata.

9 Bhasa has his own assesment of the epic characters which differed fundamentally from that of Vyasa. Duryodhana, Salya, Karna, Balarama, etc. are not the same as conceived by Vyasa. Bhasa casts aspersion even in the character of Krishna. In Dutavakyam he challenges through Duryodhana Krishna’s right to be an envoy in bringing about peace among kinsmen as he himself had set an example otherwise by killing his own uncle. Following are the plays of Bhasa the themes of which are drawn from Mahabharata - Pancharatram, Dutakhatotkacham, Urubhangam, Madhyamavyayogam, Dutavakyam and Karnabharam. Ghatotkacha’s role as an envoy is Bhasa’s on invention.

10. Urubhangam directed by Kavalam Narayana Panicker.


Glorious, smeared with blood which is like the sandal paste of war In infant's role now, crawling with dusty arms on the ground, He looks like Vasuki plying exhausted in the sea After the churning when released by gods and the demons. Looked in this way the discussion regarding the play being tragedy or not seems to be ridiculous.
Duryodhana is not the hero. He is only a tool. War is the hero as well as the villain. It is the final triumph of war at all ages that Bhasa has depicted in this drama.

12 Karnabhara directed by Chandradasan, Lokadharmi Tripunithura