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When we started working on the Mahabharata, in 1974, we knew very little about it. At the end, 11 years later, we had gone through a fantastic experience, not only about theatre, but about India itself,” recounts Jean-Claude Carriere, an award winning French screenwriter and playwright. The Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India (SACHI), the Asian Art Museum, and EnActe Arts are collaborating to bring Jean-Claude Carriere to the Asian Art Museum to present a 90-minute, one-man rendition of the Mahabharata.
Carriere believes the Mahabharata is one of the world’s great masterpieces, and has worked for decades to bring the epic to the attention of the world. “The Mahabharata that we have introduced to the rest of the world is, at least for me, as magnificent as Shakespeare’s work. Why not the Mahabharata in the west?”Carriere is an Academy Award and Oscar Award winning screenwriter and playwright with over 170 films to his name, including the Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The recipient of a Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and an Officier de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, Carriere is recognized as one of the greatest storytellers of our time. For over a decade Carriere traveled to India, “often with an entire team of 21 actors from 16 countries plus the production crew, researching the epic to grasp its many dimensions and ethnic variations” explains Kalpana Desai, Program Co-Chair of SACHI. The result is a nine hour play of the Mahabharata, condensed by Carriere and director Peter Brook into a film version. Carriere has now refined his creative work once more. As a talented actor who’s appeared in over 80 films and television series, Carriere will personally present the Mahabharata as Vyasa in San Francisco.
“I have the feeling that I have old cousins in India, made of stone and wood, cousins I know everything about (even some secrets), and from time to time I’m going to visit them, to see how they are,” says Carriere of his decade long research process. “Carriere is a master storyteller in the tradition of Indian storytellers who travel from village to village narrating episodes from the epics” explains Mary-Ann Milford, Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Mills College and Vice President of SACHI. Through the process of developing his understanding and interpretation of the epic, Carriere brought the Mahabharata deeply into both his work and his life. “The epic and India are inseparable. Now the epic, its vocabulary, its many stories, its way of looking at ‘reality,’ its mythical atmosphere, its strange logic, are all a part of me, whether I like it or not,” says Carriere. Vinita Sud Belani, Artistic Director of EnActe Arts, elaborates, “When a master storyteller lives with a story for eleven years and lets it seep into every pore of his being, the experience of the retelling becomes transcendental.”
“In India and Southeast Asia bards have always faced the question of how to condense an epic of the huge length and complexity of the Mahabharata. Carriere does what has always been done: he focuses on what he sees as the kernel that will be most engaging and relevant to his audiences,” says Forrest McGill, Chief Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum. For Carriere, this means exploring and developing the character that shapes the entire Mahabharata, Vyasa. “Vyasa the poet, but who doesn’t know how to write, is one of the characters of his own work. And the poem can be told, it’s often the case in India, just by one man. This gives a real freedom,” explains Carriere. While dictating the epic to Ganesha, Vyasa enters and exits the narrative while interacting with the other characters and even, at times, grasping for the next plot twist. “I do not pretend to be all the men and women who appear in the epic. I’m just a tramp, going places, and telling the most beautiful story ever told,” comments Carriere.Pitched for an audience of all ages, Carriere’s Mahabharata is a unique experience to see the epic in one sitting. “It covers the whole of the machinations of the human imagination, recognizing the inevitable strife that occurs between people, families, and nations,” says Milford. Despite the epic’s breadth, though, Carriere is primarily concerned with the epic as it impacts individuals.
“Most of us in India absorb the stories of the Mahabharata through osmosis and through episodes enacted in a live performance or serial,” says Desai. This is what Carriere was most curious about during his research, “He did a detailed study of what the story meant to the common man on the street. He was fascinated by the fact that most Indians know the story, [but] very few people actually read it,” says Belani. The Mahabharata is historically, and remains today, deeply interwoven into the psychological fabric of South Asia.
“Episodes have always been discussed at all levels of society, and its characters are looked to as examples of behavior to aspire to or to avoid,” comments McGill.“As it is said in the Mahabharata, ‘We must listen to stories. It is pleasant, and sometimes it makes you a better person.’ Sometimes. Not always. But it is worth trying,” says Carriere. And telling one of the greatest stories ever told is why Carriere is making a special trip to Houston and the Bay Area this spring. SACHI, founded on 50th anniversary of Indian Independence in 1997, is committed to furthering understanding of the arts of South Asia. And this opportunity to bring Jean-Claude Carriere, in close collaboration with the Asian Art Museum and EnActe Arts, fulfills an important part of their mission. The event will start with an introduction by award winning film director Philip Kaufman, followed by an invocation dance by Vidhya Subramanian and Laikh Tewari. Amie Maciszewski will provide sitar accompaniment for the performance. “Some Indian friends told me, ‘Beware. If you put one foot in the Mahabharata, you’ll never get out of it.’ That was perfectly true, but I don’t complain,” says Carriere. And luckily for Bay Area audiences, Carriere has kept himself in the Mahabharata for a very long time.
Sunday, March 17. 1-3:30 p.m. Samsung Hall, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco. Tickets start at $22, http://www.asianart.org/helios/events/http://www.sachi.org/events.html