WELCOME TO LEELA KIYAWAT'S MAHABHARATA
YUTC's 2021 Inaugural Season
THE HISTORY OF THE MAHABHARATA
DRAMATURGICAL PRESENTATION FROM OUR PLAYWRIGHT, LEELA KIYAWAT!
The Mahabharata is many things. Some prefer the term ancient Indian epic or mythological tale, others refer to it as a Hindu text, or my childhood bedtime story. Whatever term you prefer, there is no denying that the ambitious tale has withstood the ultimate test of time. First composed in Sanskrit by the sage Vyasa (and thousands of other storytellers), the poem was written between the 3rd century B.C.E and 3rd century C.E, though Indology scholars argue over the exact dates. The original story deals with a bloody war between two groups of royal cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas. Many mini-legends are woven into the backstories of the characters, who have philosophical awakenings, magical confrontations, deity conflicts, and more.
The Mahabharata also happens to be the longest story in the world, a fact that invoked a child-like excitement in me (I’ve always wanted to replicate the “longest drawing in the world” from Ramona and Beezus). I went in with the intention of adapting all 200,000 verse lines, but it was the three initial stories from the prologue that really spoke to me, so I disregarded the Kauravas and Pandavas entirely. If you want to check out an adaptation that does include fratricide, I highly recommend reading up about Geetha Reddy’s spectacular adaptation, starring the incredible J Jha, that premiered last year with the Oakland Theater Project. I had the opportunity to see it in person and walked out of the theater feeling like a completely different person, student, and writer.
I also encourage you all to read Wendy Doniger’s essay, “How to Escape the Curse,” which details multiple retellings of The Mahabharata from different Indian perspectives-- the adaptations range from Shashi Tharoor’s rather nationalistic tale to a contemporary Dalit Buddhist critique of Vyasa’s elitism. I am intrigued (and a bit terrified) at how we tend to manipulate stories to our liking, reiterating ancient texts to support our particular sentiments. To an enthusiastic patriot, The Mahabharata is a national bible. To a marginalized artist, The Mahabharata is a sociopolitical commentary. To a child, The Mahabharata is merely a riveting fable.
Who knows? Maybe this “interpreter’s bias” is an adaptive thing. In my psychology class, we frequently discuss evolutionary psychology, the study of cognitive adaptations in a changing environment. Perhaps The Mahabharata has survived for so long because us humans love to interact with fantastic stories, revising them with a modern lens for entertainment and social justice purposes. And who can forget Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, and his words on the universality of storytelling. “Large numbers of strangers,” he wrote, “can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” It is our fairy tales that bind us together, giving us a sense of purpose and meaning in a harsh and unforgiving world.
So here is my question: what is The Mahabharata to you? After all, you are the audience. You have just as much of a right to interpretation as I have, and, as my great-grandmother would say, Indian mythology is meant to be read between the lines. It is a beautiful thing to create a narrative within all the noise, and then claim it for yourself.
-Leela Kiyawat, Playwright
THE MAKING OF OUR MAHABHARATA
Take look of what it means to build a teen run virtual production!