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Theatre Interview: Author Devdutt Pattanaik discusses Natya-Shastra and Storytelling


Devdutt Pattanaik writes on relevance of mythology in modern times, especially in areas of management,governance and leadership.Trained in medicine, he worked for 15 years in the healthcare and pharma industries before he focused on his passion full time. He is the Author of 30 books and 600 columns, with bestsellers such as My Gita, Jaya, Sita, Business Sutra and the 7 Secret Series.

He was a speaker at TEDIndia 2009 and spoke on Myths that Mystify, East versus West. His TV shows include Business Sutra on CNBC-TV18 and Devlok on Epic TV.He consults organisations on culture, diversity and leadership and also consults various television channels and filmmakers on storytelling. His story "The Pregnant King" has been made into a play by Theatre Nisha, Chennai and Theatreworms Productions called "Flesh." The play "Flesh" has also been selected for Theatre Olympiad 2018 in Sisir Mancha, Kolkata.

Theatre taps on mythology be it Indian or Greek . Rasa Aur Drama in this interview chats with the author and extensive knowledge on mythology. We chat on his books and then on theatre.

Rasa Aur Drama: In your book Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths you tell “Greek bards (poets) narrated mythos (myth) stories that sought to make sense of the world. Greek philosophers preferred 'logos', reason, to make sense of the world."

Rasa Aur Drama knows your idea of “myth” but what is your idea of Reality?

DP: I believe everyone has their own reality. That is a myth to me. That is the only reality I know.

Q2.) That is why you talk about my world and My Gita. In your book Myth=Mithya you say “Mithya not the opposite of objective truth, but a finite expression of satya, that which is infinite? So you agree that myth has a level of truth in it? Will it ever become complete truth? Or it creates value with its-becoming?

DP: By definition of infinity, completion is unachievable. We are always going to live in fractured worlds. Quest for complete truth is essentially a quest for power, hence domination, born of insecurity.

Q3.) Can we say the stories in your books is kind of “cosmic theatre”. There are so many stories, so much drama Devas and gods flying over planets, in the netherworld? Can it be all traced to a storytelling tradition? Do they have a strong base of music and action with emotions, which keeps the "cosmic theatre" going?

DP: I don’t listen to music. But yes, story-telling is a key tool used in Hinduism to communicate ideas. This is missing in other religions where God seems to be somber; they never dance or sing. Natya-Shastra is considered the fifth Veda.

Q4.) Can you tell Rasa Aur Drama about some of your favorite stories which will make excellent stage script?

DP: I am surprised no one has made stories based on Rig Vedic tales of Apala who seeks sexual maturity, Lopamudra who seeks sexual companionship and Pururava who craves for his beloved Urvashi who has abandoned him and their child. Or the story of Madhavi, who is treated horribly by her father Yayati. Or the Biblical tale of Dinah whose husband is killed by her brothers, who accuse him of rape, or the Greek love story of Eros and Psyche.

Q5.) Can you recommend any source of the myth that theatre artists can dig into?

DP: Wikipedia is a good place to begin the search for mythic stories. It is very well categorized.

Q6.) There is a text, there is the director's interpretation. Add to that the actor's improvisation. So much could be lost. How can artists be truthful to mythology on stage? For eg: in Girish Karnad’s “Nagamandala”?

DP: Nothing is lost. There is no truth. There are multiple truths with multiple layers. Nagamandala is very different from the original tale, and it is full of Girish Karnad’s contemporary politics which mocks traditions that gave rise to this tale in the first place.

Q7) There is no reference to the “Natya Shastra” in your oeuvre. Is it because you trace the stories to Puranas and Vedas only?

DP: Both Natya-shastra and mythology use the same source of stories – Vedas, Puranas, and Itithasas. Natya-shastra presents it. Mythology decodes it.

Devdutt Pattanaik

" I am surprised no one has made stories based on Rig Vedic tales of Apala..."

Q8.) Would you call magic realism of Harry Potter, a mythology? Or mythology-in-the making?

DP: Harry Potter is NOT AT ALL mythology. It is fantasy, based on Biblical myth, with Harry Potter being presented as the savior child who fights the forces of darkness.

Q9.) You cleverly talk about science and faith in your oeuvre. Rasa Aur Drama feels you are also blurring the lines between them with your writing. Could you comment?

DP: There is no blurring of lines. Science is based on evidence and measurement. Faith is indifferent to evidence and measurement.

Q10.) How important are images and drawings to mythology? Can the lack of pictures and images kill mythology? A documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog once said that, if you do not get fresh images “our civilization will die.” Can mythology survive without images and symbols?

DP: The original source of mythology is ritual, then symbol. The narrative is crudest source of mythology, but most accessible and popular. Images never die. We keep reusing the same images in different ways all the time. Emojis are symbols created by technology which are really no different from hieroglyphics and cave writing.

Q11.) Do you think Shiva is a theatre artist, who does tapas and Tandav?

DP: No Shiva does not care for an audience. He does not dance for anyone. So he is not a theatre artist. Krishna is Natawara who performs for the audience on ranga-Bhoomi, the world is his stage. Shiva’s tapa and tandav are self-serving. That Bharata is inspired by his dance is incidental.

Q12.) “The rediscovery of Greek philosophy in Europe, however, was not accompanied by a resurgence of Greek mythology, except with a sense of nostalgia. People preferred the story of one God to the stories of many gods. The curious mixing of Greek philosophy and Christian theology resulted in a new wave of thinking that gave rise to what we now called secularism.” [Quotes from Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths.]

Wow. Rasa Aur Drama feels that you can summarize the history of any culture or school of thought in five lines. It takes us to the Nobel Prize-winning writer Bertrand Russell’s “The History of Western Philosophy. Would you like to tell us about your craft of writing?

DP: I am a strong believer in the sutra way of writing followed by ancient Indian thinkers. Sutra is a short terse sentence packed with a lot of information. It is a word-seed that germinates with a fertile mind.

Q13.) Do you agree that there is a strong element of structure and design in your writing?

DP: I am a structuralist. I enjoy design. I see patterns everywhere.

Q14.) “The point is not to replace false knowledge with true knowledge; the point is to expand the mind to accommodate all kinds of knowledge?” So, is falsehood a part of reality? [quote from your book]

DP: What is falsehood for one is truth for another. Karni Sena is convinced Padmavati is real and is willing to kill for it. You may mock them, but they can kill you. So pragmatism (reality?) needs to accommodate Karni Sena’s truth, else you will end up putting yourself at risk.

Q15.) Is the Platonic view of “allegory of the cave” not comprehensive according to you? Whereas the Indian perspective broader?

DP: Plato assumes there is only one sun out there. Maybe the sun we find is another shadow.

Q16) “Within infinite myths lies an eternal truth

"Who see it all?

Varuna has but a thousand eyes

Indra a hundred

You and I, only two” [quote from your book]

Rasa Aur Drama does not agree to this. Art is seeing the same thing with multiple perspectives. You could have two eyes but thousands of visions, perception, and interpretation. Remember “Rashomon” by Akira Kurosawa! Any thoughts?

DP: You don’t have to agree. You don’t see everything, do you? You have only two eyes, after all.

Devdutt Pattanaik at Jaipur Literary Festival

"Upanishad means sitting next to each other and having a conversation..."

Q17.) What do you mean when you say “An Upanishad was about to happen between a warrior and a sage” in your book Olympus?

DP: Upanishad means sitting next to each other and having a conversation, a dialogue.

It was a delightful chat, we love you, do keep writing!

Some sketches from the books of the author:

Some books by the author:

BOOKS ON MYTHOLOGY

1. Shiva – An Introduction (1997)

2. Vishnu – An Introduction (1999)

3. Devi – An Introduction (2000)

4. The Goddess in India (2000)

5. Hanuman – An Introduction (2001)

6. Man Who Was A Woman (2002)

7. Lakshmi – An Introduction (2003)

8. Indian Mythology (2003)

9. Shiva to Shankara (2006)

10. Myth = Mithya (a handbook of Hindu Mythology) (2006)

11. The Book of Ram (2009)

12. 7 Secrets of Hindu Calendar Art (2009)

13. Jaya (illustrated retelling of Mahabharata) (2010)

14. 99 Thoughts on Ganesha (2011)

15. 7 Secrets of Vishnu (2011)

16. 7 Secrets of Shiva (2011)

17. Business Sutra (2013)

18. Sita (illustrated retelling of Ramayana) (2013)

19. 7 Secrets of the Goddess (2014)

20. Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell us (2014)

21. My Gita (2015)

22. The Girl Who Chose (2016)

23. Devlok with Devdutt Pattanaik (2016)

24. Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Mythology (2016)

25. Leader: Insights from Indian Mythology (2017)

26. Culture: 50 Insights from Mythology (2017)

27. My Hanuman Chalisa (2017)

FICTION

The Pregnant King (2008)

BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

1. Hanuman’s Ramayana (2010)

2. Gauri and The Talking Cow (2011)

3. Devlok Omnibus (2011)

=>Indra Finds Happiness (2011)

=>An Identity Card for Krishna (2011)

=>Saraswati’s Secret River (2011)

=>Kama v/s Yama (2011)

=>Shiva Plays Dumb Charades (2011)

4. Fun in Devlok Omnibus (2014)

5. Pashu: Animals in Hindu Mythology (2014)

BOOKS ON MANAGEMENT

1. Business Sutra: A Very Indian Approach to Management (2014)

2. The Success Sutra: An Indian Approach to Wealth (2015)

3. The Leadership Sutra: An Indian Approach to Power (2016)

4. The Talent Sutra: An Indian Approach to Learning (2016)

About the Blogger:

Deepak Sinha writes on theatre at My Theatre Cafe and now at Rasa Aur Drama. He loves to cycle and play basketball. He loves to organize TEDx conferences and is an organizer at TEDxPune.

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