This weekend I went to see a 100-minute long Hindi play on the well-known episode of Chakravyuh in the Mahabharata where on the 13th day of the Great War, Drona, the commander of the Kaurava forces arrays his army in a circular formation. In the past, this play has been staged for an audience as high-profile as members of the Parliament of India with leading politicians in attendance. The BJP stalwart L.K. Advani is said to have attended multiple performances at various venues. In case you are not aware of the Chakravyuh story, Google is your friend. Here is an interesting Quora thread for the more curious ones: https://www.quora.com/How-was-a-Chakravyuha-Mahabharata-beaten
The biggest attraction of the play for me was Nitish Bharadwaj reprising his role as Krishna, albeit off-screen this time. Having been an ardent fan of the way he played his character in the BR Chopra version of the epic that used to air in the late ‘90s, I was quite pleased. I had booked my ticket 2 weeks in advance and was fortuitous to get a seat in the third row, the first two being reserved for high profile guests and not available for booking. Bharadwaj didn’t disappoint and played his part with the same flourish, fluidity and touch as he did on-screen two decades ago. Age did seem to show on his face a bit with some wrinkles visible from so near the stage. The performance itself, however, was flawless. The expressions and the dialogue delivery had an all too familiar ring to them. The actor also engaged in a 10-minute Q&A session with audience members post the play where he was questioned on various aspects of the play and the epic.
Among other characters, the actors playing the parts of Duryodhana and Yudhishthira were cast very well in their respective roles. Those playing Abhimanyu, Uttara and Subhadra did justice to their roles as well. Sachin Joshi as Bhishma didn’t seem quite convincing though. The force of Bhishma’s personality and his towering presence were missing. War scenes showing Abhimanyu taking on the mightiest Kaurava warriors single-handedly have been very well-choreographed with high energy and intensity on display throughout. The play provided several instances of levity throughout with Krishna taunting and berating the Pandavas in his characteristic style, made all the more effective by Bharadwaj. Quite a few dialogues prompted spontaneous applause from the audience for the wisdom they professed to reveal. Credit is due to Atul Satya Kaushik who has written and directed the play. Expectedly, the play ended with a couple of dialogues from Krishna about the analogy of Chakravyuh with our modern day lives and the possibility of attaining moksha only if we manage to find a way to extricate ourselves from it.
The play delves on some little-explored facets of the Great War. In response to Arjuna vowing to kill Jaidratha the following day or give up his own life, Krishna’s patience gives way to frustration at the habit of the dynasty’s stalwarts to take vows and oaths. He admonishes the Pandavas saying that it was this tendency that had led to this war in the first place. Bhishma’s vow of protecting the holder of Hastinapur’s throne, no matter what, forces him to side with Duryodhana. Bheema’s vows to drink Dushasana’s blood and wash Draupadi’s hair with the same (not to mention Draupadi’s vow not to tie her hair till she had done so) as well as to break Duryodhana’s left thigh with his mace led to the war getting unnecessarily prolonged. He cites two instances when Abhimanyu had Duryodhana at his mercy but let him off keeping in mind Bheema’s vow. Arjuna too could have finished off Duryodhana easily whenever he wanted, for the latter was no match to him with a bow and arrows. The continued survival of Duryodhana was causing the war to drag on endlessly and tragically. It’s another matter though that despite the boon of bodily protection granted by his mother Gandhari, Duryodhana has been repeatedly described as getting injured in the story of the war, whichever version you read. The protection works only against the blow of a mace it seems.
More than the story itself, it is the many subtle and vital questions about the various facets of society – erstwhile and current- as well as human nature which are thought-provoking and intriguing. Krishna tries to give courage to the young Uttara who is all of 16 and just been widowed when she asks how she would be able to raise her unborn child without its father. He gives several examples of single mothers from the past, states that every human being has both male and female characteristics and mentions that in the future single motherhood was going to become all too common.
Nitish Bharadwaj talked about the thinking of the times (or zeitgeist as we know it) in response to a question after the play and another audience member asked if the thinking of the times forced the elders in the court to keep silent during the Draupadi disrobing episode. Bharadwaj interestingly pointed out that the question Draupadi asked of the elders was whether Yudhishthira had the right to gamble away her freedom when he had already lost his. According to the shastras, the elders knew that Yudhishthira, even as a slave had that right but they didn’t want to utter this in court and hence kept silent. Basically, Draupadi asked the wrong question. If she had invoked her status as the daughter-in-law of the dynasty and asked the elders to act, they would have been compelled to. Bharadwaj cited the book “Yugaant” by Irawati Karwe (originally in Marathi, now translated to Hindi and English) for this. The name sounded familiar to me and I soon found out why when I added it to my Wish List on Amazon. It had been sitting there already for quite some time!
The one thing I have never understood is why Arjuna held Jaidratha as the chief culprit in the tragedy that befell Abhimanyu. The latter was simply doing his duty in not letting the Pandava brothers past the entry to the Chakravyuh. The deceitful plot to kill Abhimanyu was suggested by none other than Drona, his revered teacher who also partook in the boy’s shameful murder. Was it because Arjuna wanted to avoid confronting this uncomfortable truth out of the reverence and awe he held his teacher in, and was looking for a scapegoat? The anger that Arjuna feels when Dhrishtadyumn murders Drona while the latter had his eyes closed suggests that in Arjuna’s eyes, Drona was not a culprit. And yet, Krishna is able to rouse Arjuna enough to persuade him to shoot a defenceless Karna by invoking the part played by the latter in Abhimanyu’s killing. It seems that even the heroes of yore were not immune to double standards and convenient rationalisations.
Another aspect of the story doesn’t quite sound convincing. In the play Arjuna asks Krishna, who had been Abhimanyu’s teacher throughout, why he hadn’t taught the latter all about the Chakravyuh as a part of his education. Krishna replies saying that Arjuna was Abhimanyu’s father and it was his duty as a father to finish what he started (alluding to the fact that Abhimanyu had learnt the art of breaching the formation while in the womb). Krishna says that he cannot substitute for Abhimanyu’s father. Two simple reasons why one can’t digest this sorry explanation are the fact that the guru was held in higher regard than parents in those times and that Arjuna had no way of knowing that Abhimanyu had obtained half the knowledge.
All said and done, I strongly recommend watching the play if you get a chance to do so. Do share your opinions on some of the mysteries and unresolved questions in the epic.