Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India. Picture: Simthsonian Freer Sackler Gallery
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Mahabharata unbound: rewriting the world's longest poem

Coming in at three times the length of Paradise Lost, Carole Satyamurti's modern version of the epic is a remarkable achievement.

Mahabharata: a Modern Retelling
Carole Satyamurti
W W Norton, 889pp, £25

Though it has been around for more than 2,000 years, the Mahabharata unfailingly surprises, with its imaginative density and narrative complexity. First of all, there is the coherent framing device, sustained for the entirety of the poem: a series of recessed narrators tell the story and signal its telling. The longest epic poem in the world even contains a meta-narrative of its own transmission. The sage Vyasa not only composes the poem and passes it on to one of the narrators but is also a major player in the story – he is the grandfather of the 100 Kaurava and the five Pandava brothers, the cousins who engage in a war that is at the heart of the epic and destroys almost the entire cast of characters.

The spine of that central story, however, is just the bare bones. The rest, a profusion of stories, is cornucopian. There are inset narratives, which can be self-contained or related organically to the main story, such as the parables and fables in books 12 and 13, designed to deliver or illustrate a particular point of wisdom. There are the astonishing genealogies, which are about as far as one can get from the dry roll-call of proper nouns in the “begats” of Genesis and Numbers. No birth in the book is straightforward or undramatic. The Pandavas, for example, are the sons of gods and Kunti and Madri, the two wives of Pandu, but behind this story lies an older one of how the gods had to be born as human beings in order to redeem a fallen world. Karna, a vital character in the action, is the brother of the Pandavas; he was born to Kunti after she was impregnated by Surya, the sun god, well before she married Pandu. In a prolonged deployment of dramatic irony, it’s a piece of information that is kept secret from the actors in the drama, with devastating consequences.

The narrative fertility and proliferation are reflected in the size of the poem: three million words, about 15 times the combined length of the Old and New Testaments. You would be hard-pushed to find a narrative so long yet so gripping. Mahabharata readers divide into two categories – those who read it purely for the story and those who read it for its moral and spiritual content, for the epic is also a central text of the Hindu religion. The latter aspect resides mostly in the Bhagavadgita, or “The Song of God”, comprising the sermon that Krishna gives Arjuna on the battlefield when he becomes overcome with slackness and grief at the thought of attacking his cousins.

A pervasive theme is that of dharma – it is a difficult word to translate but “right conduct”, or “the right way of living one’s life”, gives an approximate idea. It is the slipperiest of concepts, contradictory, inconsistent, evasive, forever changing according to context or contingency. “Dharma is sukshma [subtle],” we hear time and again, an acknowledgement that human beings can only ever do the wrong thing within the matrix of life ordained for them by the gods. This is the other philosophical underpinning of the epic, the tension between predestination and free will and how, ultimately, the preordained order trumps human agency. Nowhere is this illustrated more vividly than in the crucial dice game at which Yudhishthira gambles away everything – his kingdom, his brothers and Draupadi, the wife of the five brothers – despite repeated warnings from several quarters to stop while there is still something salvageable. Yudhishthira is powerless. He says, “What happens to us, good and bad, depends/on what’s ordained. Whether I accept/or refuse, in the end it makes no difference.”

The last English translation of the Maha­bharata, John D Smith’s 2009 Penguin Classics edition, was a happy midway mark between a proper scholarly or academic translated edition and a text for the general reader. Carole Satyamurti’s Mahabharata, crucially not a translation, uses previous English versions as a springboard for her blank-verse “modern retelling”. Her aim has been to produce a readable and gripping narrative, focusing on the story, for the reader who may have little or no previous knowledge of the epic, and in this she has been resoundingly successful. Her lines of iambic pentameter, with their rhythms, stresses and flow of ordinary English speech, give the narrative an easy, elegant momentum. Scenes of action are vivid and charged with a fast, drumming beat, quickening the reader’s answering pulse. The very rare infelicity – Bhishma’s name, for example, is glossed as “awesome”, a word for ever tainted by the Friends generation – only accentuates how her remaking, a monumental task that has resulted in a narrative poem nearly three times as long as Paradise Lost, is a remarkable achievement. 

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.