Five hundred years ago, an elephant trudged around 3,000 kilometres from Lisbon in Western Europe across the plains of Spain, past the Italian Alps, to Vienna in Central Europe – and along the way, it took a perennial place in the imaginations of European towns and villages.

Now, the journey of Solomon or Suleiman the elephant will be retold in Gajab Kahani, a new play by Pune-based theatre group Aasakta Kalamanch. Based on Portuguese Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s 2008 novel The Elephant’s Journey, the play in Hindi and gibberish will be staged at a black box theatre at G5A auditorium in Lower Parel, Mumbai, between May 21 and May 28.

Saramago’s novel is a fluid episodic narration of imagined events from the elephant’s unsought travels, equally a commentary on the whims of the closely intermarried aristocracy of 16th century Europe as on the political landscape of its peasantry.

Director Mohit Takalkar’s Gajab Kahani closely follows the events of the novel and mirrors its speech, but the narrative is flipped: instead of focusing on the European setting, the play gazes at the intimate relation between Solomon the elephant and Subhro, the imagined Bengali mahout who tends to him. Both the elephant and his caretaker are adrift in an incomprehensible world, far from all they know. It has an added innovation as a tip to the fluidity of the novel: the play unfolds on a 360 degree stage set built around the audience who will sit on swivel chairs in the centre.

“The first day when I stepped into the rehearsal room, I was initially excited that we would do something new,” Takalkar said. “But then for 15 minutes, I was unable to say a single word because I realised this was going to be very difficult to design. When do people enter, from where, when will the audience first turn to see something different? We really don’t know how this will be received.”

Aasakta Kalamanch has something of a reputation for experimental theatre. This is the group’s second take on Saramago’s book. The first, staged six years ago, was a somewhat traditional adaptation: the action unfolded on a proscenium with the audience seated in front. This version of the play bears no resemblance to the first, Takalkar said, which is the only reason they are doing it again. Even the scriptwriter is different. Amitosh Nagpal, who adapted this edition, had not watched the first and so scripted it differently. The new format requires far more energy for the actors as well, who need to always be on call.

“In the proscenium, you have set points where you can concentrate your attention,” said Ajeet Singh Palawat, who plays Subhro, Solomon’s mahout. “Here you have to think big, whether for small or large entries or even something like a monologue because you don’t know where the audience is paying attention.”

Ajeet Singh Palawat and Geetanjali Kulkarni. Credit: Aadyam

Playing an elephant

As a play titled Gajab Kahani (gajab means fantastic and alludes to gaj, a Hindi word for elephant) or a novel called The Elephant’s Journey might suggest, the linchpin of the story is the elephant, who Saramago calls Solomon in the Portuguese.

Geetanjali Kulkarni, of Court fame, played Suleiman the elephant in the 2011 play and reprises the role in Gajab Kahani. She has a compact, lithe frame, but her presence fills the entire room. From exuberantly interacting with the audience at the start of the play, as time and Solomon’s journey wears on, Kulkarni withdraws into herself, becoming removed and inaccessible, yet looming above all.

Six years ago, before essaying the elephant’s role, Kulkarni had trained by practicing yoga and kalaripayattu. Now, her body has aged. “My body has changed and I have changed, so I was doubted whether I had the physical strength to do this. I had to regain that strength with training, because if that elephant’s presence, strength and balance do not show, then no matter how well I speak, the role won’t work.”

A curious beast

The real Suleiman was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the stables of the king of Kotte, Bhuvanaikabahu VII. The Portuguese had secured a trade agreement with Kotte in 1505, and from then, a steady stream of animals were regularly shipped from the island, across the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, back to Portugal to improve trade relations – or as tribute.

Suleiman, a fine bull elephant, was among the first Ceylonese elephants to make the arduous voyage across the sea around 1542, though King Joaõ III’s father Manuel I already had pachyderms in his stable. It was during Manuel’s reign that Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama managed to skirt the tip of Africa, becoming the first European to establish a sea trade route with India in 1498. Among the more famous elephants of that time was a white one named Hanno or Annone, who was gifted by Manuel to Pope Leo X, a scion of the famous Medici family. Hanno is buried under the Vatican.

Sketch of King Manuel I riding Hanno, from title page of Leitura Nova. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Joaõ inherited and augmented this exotic menagerie of animals, which included elephants, and which the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian had visited in Lisbon in 1548, soon after his marriage. When Maximilian, who later became Holy Roman Emperor, expressed a fondness for the elephants in his uncle’s zoo, Joaõ magnanimously promised him the next such animal to arrive from Ceylon.

This was Suleiman.

On his arrival after a six-month sea voyage, the elephant was named Suleiman – an open dig at Suleiman the Magnificent, the ruling Ottoman emperor and a bugbear to Christian Europe’s trade ambitions with Asia. Suleiman the elephant was dispatched first to Joaõ’s grandson in Spain as a playmate, and when he proved too expensive, was sent farther on to Maximilian in Valladolid in Spain just before the young royal was to return to Vienna.

'Suleiman the Elephant', a children's book by Margret Rettich. Image via

The people and settings of Europe must have been just as strange to the elephant and his two Indian mahouts as they were to the Europeans. Gajab Kahani increases the distance between Subhro and Solomon, and the Europeans they encounter by rendering their speech in gibberish, sprinkled with a few recognisable words.

“The animals were treated as gifts, packaged and sent away as if they were in envelopes,” said Nakul Bhalla, who plays the Portuguese commander who escorts the elephant to the custody of Maximilian’s Austrian troops and strikes up a friendship with Subhro. “They become inanimate. Something alive has been picked up and sent away as if it is an object, which is in a sense a theme of the play.”

Bhalla, as the only European who speaks Hindi, even if it is in aLagaan-style British accent, is the only one who reaches past this divide to see both the elephant and mahout as worthy of respect.

Living in the imagination

Memories of Suleiman’s trek linger in Europe even today. The elephant found itself painted onto the wall of Hotel Elephant in Brixen, high in the Alps in Italy, as a large pig-like creature with an elongated nose, attended on either side by a troupe of cheerful Europeans playing instruments. The fresco was painted by Leonard Mair while Suleiman rested at this inn for two weeks before making his final push past the challenging mountainous passes, to the Danube River and northwards to Vienna. Inside the inn, a series of tablets still on display depict the elephant’s trek to that point in the journey.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This inn in Brixen was the inspiration for Saramago. His Elephant’s Journey mixes the story of Suleiman with a generous dose of fiction and is written in the Nobel laureate’s characteristic laconic style with few punctuation marks and a flowing narrative.

“Old Saramago writes with a masterfully light hand, and the humour is tender, a mockery so tempered by patience and pity that the sting is gone, though the wit remains vital,” wrote Ursula K Le Guin on The Elephant’s Journey in The Guardian, a month after Saramago’s death in June 2010. “In his understanding of people Saramago brings us something very rare – a disillusion that allows affection and admiration, a clear-sighted forgiveness.”

Others adopted a more straightforward approach.

There is, for instance Rajas Reise, or Raja’s Journey, a documentary by Swiss filmmaker Karl Saurer, which features Gandhian activist Rajagopal talking about the historical context of Calicut, another place from where elephants were sent to Europe. A German children’s book by Margret Rettich features charming illustrations of the procession of European villagers trailing the elephant and his royal escort. A kitschy sound-and-light show, called Suleiman’s Dream, is scheduled in Brixen at the end of this year.

Solomon or Suleiman was not the first elephant to enter Europe – Hannibal, general of Carthage, in Tunisia in northern Africa undertook a more famous journey with African elephants across the Alps in 218 BCE. In a spectacular painting around 2000 years later, JMW Turner depicts these elephants as ghostly apparitions seemingly descending from the skies upon cowed soldiers on a battlefield.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The elephants that later travelled to Europe in peacetime were kept as curiosities or as exotic pets. But an elephant is not an easy to maintain. For one, it can eat up to 150 kilos of food a day. For another, it needs a retinue of servers. The elephants of the Mughals, we are told, had an average of 12 carers each. Many of the petty royals in European were yet to acquire the staggering wealth of their counterparts in India and were unable or unwilling to pay for the elephants’ upkeep – as a result, most elephants that went across had short lives.

Barely two years after his walk to Vienna, Suleiman died in December 1553. His two mahouts had been dismissed and his diet was poor. In his final days, the Austrians even plied him with red wine, exacerbating his illness. After his death, his bones were carved into chairs and ornaments, supplying the Austrian court with potential gifts for years to come. His stuffed carcass made for a showpiece at the court for several years before being transferred to museum in Munich where it succumbed to mould and disintegration in 1941, after a bomb raid during the Second World War.