Peter Brook’s Battlefield springs forth from the last scenes of the Mahabharata, when Yudhisthira of the Pandava clan, having won the apocalyptic war against his Kaurava cousins, tastes defeat in the devastation of their victory. Battlefield will be the legendary British theatre director’s first play to show in India. It will be staged at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai in March.

The 90-year-old director was 20 when World War II ended. Battlefield is his third engagement in 40 years with the Mahabharata for its insights on the wreckage of war. Animated by the epic’s reflection of today’s brutal conflicts, Battlefield observes Yudhishthira and the blind, defeated king Dhritarashtra asking tough questions about their responsibility for the war that has decimated their families and allies.

“In the Mahabharata, they at least have the strength to ask these questions,” Brook said in Battlefield’s dossier. “Our real audience is Obama, Hollande, Putin and all the presidents. The question is how do they see their opponents in this day and age? When one watches the news, one is angry, disgusted, furious. But in the theatre, one can live through all that and leave more confident, braver, believing that one can face up to life. For me, theatre is the possibility to live, for an hour or two, in a space of concentration with the audience, a shared experience so that each may leave nourished by his own thoughts.”

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With a runtime of 65 minutes and a cast of four actors from Rwanda, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States, Battlefield is only a fraction of the size of Brook’s 1985 seminal play, The Mahabharata. That nine-hour production, with a cast of 25, occasionally played at full length from dusk to dawn. “It’s a completely new approach, very short, based on the fact that Yudishthira, who won the war, doesn’t want to be crowned king," said Jean-Claude Carriere, whose Mahabharata script was adapted for Battlefield. "There was a line, in our adaptation, when Dharma, under the form of a lake, asks questions to the Pandava. One of the questions was: ‘Give me an example of defeat.’ And the right answer is: ‘Victory.’”

Brook, his co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne with whom he adapted the play, and Carriere drew on more stories from the epic while retaining a few lines and the main situation from The Mahabharata. “We never forgot this deep line, in the Gita, when Krishna says to Arjuna that he will teach him about ‘the most secret battle’, which takes place inside each of us, and where we have to fight alone,” Carriere said. Of the cast, Rwandan actor Jared McNeill and Belgian actor Carole Karemera have worked with Brook and Estienne before, on The Suit (2012), about an unhappy couple in 1950s South Africa.

Estienne’s travels to India while working on The Mahabharata led her from Nepal and across India from Manipur to Kanchipuram, to meet “Brahmins and writers and dancers and theatre people” and “find many different forms in which the epic was told. “As it is said so many times in the epic, the Mahabharata does not and cannot leave you," she said. "It is there in you and it develops. It is natural to go back to it.”

Despite its length, the 1985 production didn’t afford time to develop the events concluding the war. In their 2002 play La Mort De Krishna, the god foresees his end. The death of Krishna, said Estienne, is an incredible, moving story. “But we discovered that the problem of Yudhisthira, who was to become king after such a human massacre, was deeply moving today, when politicians have so many difficulties to handle, all these wars and conflicts and the terrible pollution that we human beings created from our own hands," she said. "The way seemed clear, we had to do Battlefield.

Estienne assisted Brook on The Mahabharata and has collaborated with the director on several plays and operas at his International Centre For Theatre Research in Paris. “I work next to Peter,” she said of their dynamic. “We share things – we prepare the work, we find the actors, the musicians, we write, we rehearse and that is always new and rich and at the same time full of new material, even if the material comes from something we already studied, it is new again and has to be shared first with the cast and more important, with the audience!”

It is the reactions from the Indian audience that the team is really looking forward to. “We have performed Mahabharata in many different countries and each country had a different correspondence,” said music composer Toshi Tsuchitori, another long-time collaborator who has also worked on the first play. “This time we play in India, where everybody knows the story of this epic. I am interested in how we could share the play in India.”

Tsuchitori, who stayed in India for months to pick up musical elements for the 1985 play (he was particularly drawn to Rabindrasangeet), had been advised by Brook to “not use the music which everybody knows”, such as the sitar to create an Indian atmosphere. Tsuchitori finally involved musicians from Iran, Turkey and Denmark. He will be scoring Battlefield’s action with the sounds of the West African djembe. “I studied this drum before in Africa, but I don’t play like an African,” he said.

A scene from ‘Battlefield’.
A scene from ‘Battlefield’.

Brook first heard of the Mahabharata while rehearsing for the anti-Vietnam war play in the US in 1966, from an Indian writer who recounted the battlefield scene that spurred the Bhagvad Gita. “A great warrior about to launch a massacre suddenly stops to ask, ‘Why should we fight?’” Brook recalled in an earlier interview with the writer. He added that he hadn’t included Arjuna’s questioning in that production as “none of the world’s leaders possessed the courage and vision to question themselves so deeply”.

But the image haunted Brook, so much so that it took him 11 years to finally stage The Mahabharata. In 1974, for six months, Brook and scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carriere listened to Sanskrit scholar Philip Lavastine narrate episodes from the epic, delighting in its “extraordinary tapestry of meanings”. Over the decade, they carried a few of the 18 volumes along with them while working on their other film and theatre projects, first reading the epic alone and then with casting director Estienne. “The Mahabharata for thousands of years had belonged to its soil, India,” Brook said. “Now, just like Shakespeare, it demanded to be opened to all humanity.”

Brook’s The Mahabharata was a startling, pared-down, powerful telling that had an impact not only because it was the introduction for many Westerners to the epic, but also because it employed multicultural elements such as international martial arts for a culturally non-specific telling. The international cast was “the mirror of an international audience”, in Brook’s words, “actors who were deeply touched by the rich, complex and often paradoxical themes. Indeed, the actors gradually discovered that this Indian story resonated deeply within their own culture – from Japan to Africa and beyond.”

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Brook’s philosophy that any “empty space” can act as a stage, a neutral context for a theatrical language that transcends national and social barriers, has underlined works that are both groundbreaking and popular. The Mahabharata was “the most famous and influential work” to emerge from the idea of “international theatre – groups that do not belong to one place or people”, said British director Tim Supple, whose A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its multilingual cast of Indian and Sri Lankan actors was partly influenced by Brook’s 1971 staging of the Shakespearean classic.

Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream “brought the influence of foreign and popular theatre forms (Chinese circus) into the mainstream of British theatre which had previously been dominated by home-grown realism”, Supple said. “When I watched Mahabharata, I knew I was watching something utterly Indian in origin but also universal in its humanity. I am working in a way [which though not the same] was made possible by him.”

The telling didn’t work for everyone. Some have criticised Brook’s Mahabharata for underplaying its Vedic precepts and the battle of good and evil. Still, its impact across the industry cannot be ignored. The Mahabharata went on to be filmed, receiving a 20-minute standing ovation at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, and an Emmy Award for its televised series. Mallika Sarabhai, the sole Indian actor, told Tehelka that “using the arts for activism started after my work with Peter Brook, seeing the extraordinary effect that my interpretation of Draupadi had on women across the world”.

Brook and Carriere have continued to visit India, occasionally giving workshops – Brook most recently at the inauguration of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Carriere’s journey with the epic has seen him narrating episodes as the scribe Vyasa, accompanied by a sitar player and occasionally a dancer, in the US and France.

“It’s quite impossible to ‘forget’ the Mahabharata,” Carriere said, “The poem says it itself: ‘Everything which is in the Mahabharata is elsewhere; which is not in the Mahabharata is nowhere.”

Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.