The Mahabharata of Women (MOW), as the title suggests, is centred on women. The play brings to light important and secondary female characters of Mahabharata, the well-known Indian epic.

Three contemporary characters, Mother, Son, and Sister spend their evenings listening to stories narrated by Mother. Among these stories is the legend of the Young Woman, believed to be an ancestor of Mother, who was burned alive by her brothers to save the so called honour of the family. Before dying, Young Woman curses the male descendants of the family. Mother’s obsession with Young Woman’s curse, makes her fear Son’s destiny and above all, perceive all the women characters of the Mahabharata as various avatars of Young Woman.

MOW presents a world vision of women where the characters are often the victims of patriarchy, age-old blind superstitions, and war.

MOW has successfully been staged in French, in Canada and France, by French speaking actors; in German, by German natives for the Baaden Wurtemburg festival of South Germany; and has had tremendous positive response in India too, in its English version.

We took time out from a rehearsal to catch up with Cherian Jacob (Actor/Production Manager) and K. Madavane (Director) to find out more about this amazing production.

TP: What do you believe audiences will take away or expect from this production?

Cherian: The present production in Melbourne will be the first Australia-India collaboration of its kind, bringing together actors within and outside the Indian community. With a mixed cast, this production will be a genuinely intercultural exposure for the actors as well as the audience. With its rich visual imagery and the use of life-size puppets to bring out the larger dimension of mythology, K. Madavane’s direction, a unique blend of body movement and diagonal blocking, the production of Mahabharata of Women will be a truly singular experience.

TP: What are the key challenges you've faced when staging this piece?

K. Madavane: There were a number of challenges unique to the experiences in each country. The common themes were around the mythological aspect and the richness in the text. Actors initially found it challenging to identify with the characters even when approaching it in a conventional way. This block was gradually lifted when methods were introduced to help the actors to appropriate the text in a manner that later allowed them to bring their own creation to the table.

TP: What has the reaction been like in other cities that you've performed?

K. Madavane: The play has been performed in Paris, Karlsruhe, Ulm, Montreal, Lomé (Togo) and various cities in India, each triggering varying and unique reactions. The audience of the German production in 2002 (Karlsruhe and Ulm) retained the futility of war as the message of the play. The Montreal performances in 1995 evinced a feminist reading of the play. In Paris (2011), it was more about mythological wealth that the play had to offer. During the Q&A session, one of the members of the audience broke down and said "it is cry that comes from very far". The productions in the different cities of India (1999, 2000, 2003) evoked various responses: the urban youth admittedly learnt about their own mythology; some were taken up by the curious mix of naturalistic and stylized techniques of acting; others commented on the peculiar style of blocking in my direction; a group of American visitors to the country chanced upon this production and wanted to know how a male could have written such a feminist play.

TP: It sounds like a particularly contemporay style of theatre. Is this something you've developed yourself?

K. Madavane: In search of an alternative aesthetics based on asymmetrical space projection, my style of direction emphasizes mainly on two aspects:
1. Etching several diagonals on stage, wherein I venture into an exploration of various positions of the actors as well as their movements.
2. Like any musical instrument, the emission of sound depends on the form of the instrument. My method involves sculpting the bodies of the actors on stage so as to change the emotion of their voice. I encourage the actors to trust their bodily emotions rather than intellectualize the script. In other words, it is "voices of the body in search of emotions. It is an intercultural approach based on different energies".

TP: As an actor, what are the major challenges in performing this piece?

Cherian: The challenges were in the richness in the text, identifying with Indian mythological characters, and the ability to visualize the director’s vision and images. This took some time, but through persistence and regular practice, his vision began to unfold in a way that made us giddy! This was not just a preparation for a play, but an initiation into a method that could perhaps alter the way we view and conduct life.