Mahabharata: A spectacular retelling of the ancient Sanskrit epic, by Canada’s Why Not Theatre at Barbican London

Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata is the first major international adaptation led by a company from the South Asian diaspora, UK premiere at the Barbican from 1-7 October 2023; preview by columnist Riccha Grrover for Asian Lite International

Mahabharata (Mah-hah-BAH-ruh-tah) is a contemporary adaptation of the Sanskrit epic poem, that follows a devastating family feud and explores profound philosophical and spiritual ideas. Its stories are more than four thousand years old and foundational to Indian culture. The new, large-scale retelling by Toronto-based company Why Not Theatre is the first major international adaptation to be led by a company from the South Asian diaspora and makes its UK premiere at the Barbican Theatre this autumn (1 – 7 October). The world premiere was hailed by critics as “triumphant” (Toronto Star), “stunning” (Globe and Mail) and “Epic in every sense of the word.” (Intermission magazine) at The Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada in March 2023.

The stories collected in ‘The Mahabharata’ span thousands of years and over 100,000 verses –     almost four times as long as Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ & ‘The Iliad’ combined, and eight times as long as the Bible. To this day, favourite moments, characters and lessons are remembered and retold in the kitchens and temples of more than 1 billion people of India and its diaspora. These ancient stories continue to resonate powerfully today against a backdrop of territorial war, human rights violations, and climate change.

Almost 40 years since Peter Brook’s legendary production, Why Not Theatre’s adaptation takes audiences on a journey through the past in order to write a thrilling new future. Exploring the act of storytelling itself, the staging evolves from ancient and intimate – a storyteller around a fire and classical Kathakali dance – to a modern spectacle with projection, dynamic soundscapes, poetic stage design and a new opera for the most revered portion of ‘The Mahabharata’, the Bhagavad Gita. A live onstage band creates the atmospheric music score, featuring traditional instruments from the Bansuri (bamboo flute, often depicted as a favourite of the Hindu god Krishna) to the Tabla (percussion, an essential element in music and dance performance across the Indian subcontinent).

The production is presented in two parts and narrated by a storyteller (Miriam Fernandes), a charismatic guide who weaves a path through the forest of stories. Karma (Part 1), is the origin story of the rival Pandava and Kaurava clans, illuminating the choices we inherit and how those choices impact generations to come. In Dharma (Part 2), a great battle destroys the planet and the survivors are left behind to rebuild. 

Mahabharata is performed by a company from across four continents, all from the South Asian diaspora. Balancing East and West, traditional and contemporary, the production and ensemble     highlight the complex hybrid nature of cultures in today’s globalised world and interconnected lives. The cast includes UK based performers Ajay Chhabra (Rough Diamonds, Netflix), Neil D’Souza (How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court), Darren Kuppan (Let The Right One In, Manchester Royal Exchange), Goldy Notay (Life of Pi, UK Tour) and Sakuntala Ramanee (Life of Pi, West End), who are joined by Canadian and other international performers Shawn Ahmed, Jay Emmanuel, Miriam Fernandes, Navtej Sandhu, Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu, Ellora Patnaik, Meher Pavri, Munish Sharmaand Sukania Venugopal, and understudies Varun Guru, Karthik Kadam, Suma Nair, Ronica Sajnani and Ishan Sandhu. Performing in the live band are John Gzowski (Conductor/Co-Composer/Co-Sound Designer/Guitar), Suba Sankaran (Band Leader/Co-Composer/Co-Sounder Designer/Vocals), Dylan Bell (Bass/Keyboard), Gurtej Singh Hunjan (Percussion), Hasheel Lodhia (Bansuri/Vocals) and Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed (Tabla).

The cast of Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Associate Director, Co-Writer, Storyteller and Why Not Theatre Co-Artistic Director, Miriam Fernandes, said:

“We are a small strand among a great lineage of storytellers who have weaved this epic of ‘The Mahabharata’ over the ages. These stories have been passed from storyteller to audience for thousands of years and span the earth, traveling in the memories and imaginations of the South Asian diaspora. Though first composed in an ancient time, the themes of greed, revenge, ecocide and privilege feel acutely relevant in our globalized world.”

Director, Co-Writer and Why Not Theatre Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Ravi Jain, said:

“As a student in London, I watched the world masters dazzle audiences on the Barbican stage. 20 years later it’s a dream come true to share this complex work we’re so proud of at this truly special venue.”

Toni Racklin, Head of Theatre & Dance at the Barbican, said:

“We are thrilled to present this groundbreaking new production to our audiences, a masterclass in exhilarating stagecraft inspired by ancient oral traditions and poetry. We are honoured to welcome Why Not Theatre to our main stage for the first time, following their studio residency in 2019, and we hope that, for many of our audience members, Mahabharata will resonate with the stories that have been passed down for generations. Exploring the power of storytelling to understand where we’ve come from and to help us navigate our future, Mahabharata invites us to connect with perspectives from across the world and inspire us to reimagine what we can achieve together.”

The first sparks for the project started in 2015. Ravi Jain (Founding Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre) chose to adapt just one story (the Bhagavad Gita) within the sprawling Mahabharata for a commission by the intercontinental Pan Am Games. Backed by funding from Canada Council of the Arts, Ontario’s prestigious Shaw Festival Theatre then invited Ravi to ‘Dream Big’ and stage the entire epic poem. Having grown up with the Indian stories transplanted to a Canadian context, Ravi was inspired to dive deep into his past, taking inspiration from many South Asian sources as well as Peter Brook’s 1985 production. Ravi wanted to find a way to share this story with a modern audience by highlighting the myriad ways we tell stories. As part of Why Not Theatre’s deeply ingrained collaborative approach, Ravi teamed up with Miriam Fernandes (now Co-Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre). Together they built the script, drawing primarily from Carole Satyamurti’s ‘Mahabharata, A Modern Retelling’, Devdutt Patnaik’s ‘JAYA’, and the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, but also pulling from wildly diverse perspectives and combining influences,     including folk tales, street theatre, western European physical theatre (from their training at LAMDA and the Lecoq School and contemporary companies such as Simon McBurney’s Complicité and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil), oral storytelling traditions, and the popular Indian staples they grew up with, such as Amar Chitra Katha’s Mahabharata comics and B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharata TV series.

Mahabharata is adapted by Why Not Theatre’s Founding Artistic Director Ravi Jain and Co-Artistic Director Miriam Fernandes, using poetry from Carole Satyamurti’s ‘Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling’. The original concept was developed with Jenny Koons. Set design is by Lorenzo Savoini, costume design is by Gillian Gallow, lighting design is by Kevin Lamotte, projections are by Hana S. Kim, sound design is by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran, original music is by John Gzowski andSuba Sankaran, with contributions from Dylan Bell, Gurtej Singh Hunjan, Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed and Hasheel Lodhia (who also serves as traditional music consultant), and choreography is by Brandy Leary with contributions by Jay Emmanuel and Ellora Patnaik.     Lead Producers are Michelle Yagi and Kevin Matthew Wong, with Production Manager Crystal Lee. The production is directed by Ravi Jain and made its world premiere at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada.

Miriam Fernandes as the Storyteller, with Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna and Neil D’souza as Krishna, in Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shas Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Why Not Theatre is an international theatre company based in Toronto, Canada, operating at the intersection of art, innovation and social change. Rooted in values of community and collaboration, Why Not challenges the status quo, rethinking how stories are told and who gets to tell them. Since its inception, the company has developed and produced 50+ new plays to critical and public acclaim. These works have toured to over 50 cities and garnered over 40 awards and nominations. Why Not is led by Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Ravi Jain, Executive Director, Karen Tisch, and Co-Artistic Director, Miriam Fernandes.   

Neil D’souza as Krishna and Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna in Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Supporters credits

A Why Not Theatre Production. Originally presented and commissioned by the Shaw Festival in association with the Barbican.

The Barbican presentation is generously supported by the Bagri Foundation.

Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna, Munish Sharma as Bhima, Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira and Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma with the cast of Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

Why Not Theatre acknowledges the support of its Major Production Supporters: Shaw Festival, Canada Council for the Arts, National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, The Slaight Family Foundation, Kingfisher Foundation, Deb Barrett & Jim Leech, Lindy Green Family Foundation and Wuchien Michael Than Foundation.

L to R: Darren Kuppan as Duryodhana, Navtej Sandhu as Karna, Sakuntala Ramanee as Shakuni, Harmage Singh Kalirai as Dhritarashtra, Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma and Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira in Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

About the Barbican

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