It was April of 1984. I was in bed with bad jaundice. In the newspapers, I had been following the search for a Krishna or Draupadi, for the international production of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata.
I knew of him only via theatre friends. They always spoke of him with reverence, as the master magician of 20th-century theatre. The papers reported that he was here for only one of these two characters, and that would be the only Indian in the cast. He was to travel to the usual cities, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. The then Czarina of culture, Pupul Jayakar, had a list of close to 200 ‘suitable’ actors for auditions. And that script was followed.
One morning, about fifteen days after the news report, I received a telegram from the French cultural attache in Delhi: “Peter Brook and group flying to Ahmedabad tomorrow to see you”. Nothing else! Why, I wondered.
Barely out of bed, yellow and skinny, I met the formidable group the next morning in my apartment. The blue-eyed, balding Peter was accompanied by the scriptwriter, the dashing Jean Claude Carrier, Chloe Obelansky, the designer of the show, and Peter’s assistant Marie Helene. I was shy and had no idea what they wanted to meet me for. Perhaps some small role? In any case, I spoke no French. After chatting for about fifteen minutes, Peter said, “I want you to audition for Draupadi”. I nearly fell off the chair. Draupadi is about the only mythological character I had always admired.
Over the next few weeks, I auditioned, got the part, and in October found myself and my five-week-old son in Paris’ coldest winter that century. Fourteen hour rehearsals, in a cold, old building with no elevator to the eighth floor where we were practising. Improvisations. Playing Draupadi as a comic character. Playing Duryodhana. Doing bizarre acting and voice exercises. And being looked at askance by all the professional actors from around the world.
Peter is a follower of Gurdjieff, the Russian thinker who believed that a master must destroy the self of the pupil, and recreate it. I am a believer in the philosophy that all work must be ananda, bliss. There was a clash of wills. I hated the process. Every rehearsal was unhappiness. Peter did not like the fact that I disappeared as soon as rehearsals were over, taking my child with me, rather than hang around for a glass of wine and his gyan (knowledge).
I felt there were misrepresentations of women characters in the script, that the worldview was Anglo Saxon. I was told, “Don’t raise your voice, you sound like a shrew”, to which my response was, “We don’t have shrews in India, we have Shaktis”. He found the episode of Draupadi washing her hair in Dushasana’s blood, and tying it up after years, gruesome and not to be included. I felt it would be a travesty not to have it in. We argued for eight months. On the eve of the grand opening, it was included. The others saw Peter as a guru. I didn’t.
It was a tumultuous relationship. It started changing once it became evident that I brought some special quality to the performance. We became friends. At press conferences, he would insist that I talk about the awful time he gave me, about all the disagreements. We would laugh at all our disagreements.
When the five years of performances and the filming came to an end, I realised he had been a catalyst to a new me. That he taught me how to peel a character like an onion, till one came to the essence, which was shunyata (void). That by having me cogently argue every point of the character and the Mahabharata, of having to defend every thought and comment, he had honed my capacity to defend my position on issues. That the accolade I got playing Draupadi gave me the belief that I could reinterpret mythology from a feminist and humanist point of view and be able to reach people. These five years gave me the confidence to bring forth work that might bring derision and ridicule from the press or public.
In retrospect, those were five years that have formed the performer and creator I am today.
And I salute the master. Perhaps no one has done for The Mahabharata and a true understanding of its philosophy than he, for he brought the work not to Indophiles, but to the world. He brought it to those who thought India was little more than rope tricks and starving cows, and made them into Indophiles who went home to study and understand the true meaning of our composite cultures. This Padma Shri is deserved but should have been given thirty years ago.
Mallika Sarabhai is a dancer, actor and activist who played Draupadi in Brook’s The Mahabharata.