Thursday, 6 July 2006

A puppet show on the Mahabharata

2006
By Syed Akbar
It's a Mahabharata of a different kind. Twenty-five puppets, one man and a dimly lit stage. The Indian epic virtually comes to life as French story-teller Massimo Schuster moves his puppets with emotion-filled dialogues and re-enacts the Mahabharata for full 90 minutes.
For the first time the Indian audience had an opportunity to witness the Mahabharata through the eyes and sensibilities of a foreigner. The narration was so powerful and dialogues so highly interactive that time simply flew away. There was no break in the one and a half hour puppet show.
Massimo Schuster's Theatre de l'Arc-en-Terre and the Alliance Francaise of Hyderabad presented a puppet show in Hyderabad on Mahabharata in association with the Department of Culture. Massimo came to India with his puppets after performing in over 50 countries.
President of the World Puppetry Organisation Massimo is also an actor, storyteller and director. The Mahabharata puppets are statue-like and created by Italian painter Enrico Baj and his son Andrea Baj. Though their faces are Western, the colourful costumes they wear are Indian in outlook. It was a conscious decision not to choose the kathputli look for Mahabharata and opt for an Indo-European appearance. "I can't stand people who have been here for two weeks and claim to know all about the country. I'm not Indian and I don't want to replicate," he says.
As Massimo further points out, "this mixture of West and East symbolises the universality of the characters". Even the music score is international ranging from Indian Carnatic to Japanese drums and Finnish and Tibetan singing to Persian melodies and Western contemporary compositions. And there's Ustad Bismillah Khan's shehnai soothing the hearts.
Presenting Mahabharata through puppets is not an easy task for the French puppeteer. "It was a great challenge for me to present Mahabharata before the Indian audience. My goal is not to come to India to tell the Mahabharata to Indians, but rather to show Indian audiences that their magnificent epic has been a source of interest and learning to a Western artiste who strongly believes that mutual knowledge and respect are the only sure means to make our world a better place," he observes.
It took nearly two years for Massimo to do the complete research before coming out with the puppet show. The French artiste drew inspiration from Peter Brook's 10-hour film on Mahabharata. Massimo presented the show in association with Francisco Niccolini, acclaimed dramaturge, author and art director. Massimo has read all the versions of Mahabharata including Kisari Mohan Ganguly’s English rendition to the notes of a French scholar who spent 20 years working on a translation.
And how come a French man took so much interest in an Indian epic? Massimo says he loves epics from around the world and believes that in a multi-cultural world the rich West must acknowledge and recognise the greatness of other cultures. "I am so impressed by the story of Pandavas that I came up with the puppet show to narrate the events in their life to audiences, both in India and in the West. In this kalyug, I think the Mahabharata is the perfect story to narrate, because people from every culture see themselves reflected in it," he observes.
The story begins with Massimo donning the role of Maharshi Vyasa. He performs alone, going back and forth from storytelling to straight acting to puppeteering. The highlight of the play is that Massimo talks directly to the audience to keep their interest alive and share emotions.
He creates platforms of different heights on the stage to symbolise the palace of Hastinapur, the Indraprastha, the forest where the Pandava brothers stayed during their exile and the hall where the evil game of dice was played. As the war draws near, the whole space between the platforms is turned into the battle field of Kurukshetra. He pours life into 25 characters from the epic tale of three generations. As Massimo sits on the stage along with his puppets telling the story of the victory of the good over the evil, the audience are transported back in time to the days of Mahabharata.
The Massimo's group has presented the shows at Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Dacca (Bangaladesh). His earlier theatrical adaptations include Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings) from Ethiopia and Shahnama from Persia.
Speaking of his next show, Massimo draws innumerable similarities between the Mahabharata and the Iliad. "Arjuna's travels are similar to those undertaken by Ulysses. The birth of Bhishma is similar to the birth of Achilles," he argues.

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