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Legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere shares the making of Peter Brook's Mahabharata!

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

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I started reading the book BIG BHISHMA IN MADRAS IN SEARCH OF THE MAHABHARATA WITH PETER BROOK and completed it in one sitting.

I was expecting a book on theatre-lingo from the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, but the notes tuned out to be a journey full of wisdom across India.

Wisdom not because they have witty quotes, but such beautiful eyes to look into another culture. Some, things Peter and Jean find funny, and sometimes they are just curious.

In their journey and looking for actors and dancers they meet many dancers of different ages! They are advised not to ask many questions about the dancers. When they ask they are told "she dances beautifully"; which also means she is excellent and talented despite her age. And the conversation should end there.

Sometimes, Peter and Jean were asked bout their homes; in London. And also how many cows do they have in their homes? The book is some, broken, filling, scraps of thought during the making of Peter Brook's magnum opus film and plays The Mahabharata! The energy for the play and the milieu they found in this travel across India. Their finding of Draupadi in Mallika Sarabhai in Ahmedabad; and the meeting with the violinist Subramaniam. During their chance meeting with Satyajit Ray in Calcutta; Peter found him handsome, tall, and excellent English speaking! A thorough gentleman. The discussion moves to the Mahabharata and the difficulty he faces in adapting it to the screen; due to the limitations. The same is not there for Peter as he is not a native. Their chance meeting with Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram! Travel across Ahmedabad, Bombay, Kerala, Kolkata, Orissa, Bihar, Benaras, Madurai, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Madras!

Some notes from the book:

" Some beautiful women in the audience. They sometimes look boldly at us, eyeing us provocatively with an expression that in the West would be taken as an invitation. But that is not the case. Here one makes love only with the eyes. When we leave at the end, the young woman who, a few minutes earlier had been staring at us, turns and leaves with her friends, without once looking back. Something had transpired, but what ?"

----BIG BHISHMA IN MADRAS IN SEARCH of the Mahabharata with Peter Brook, SPEAKING TIGER

Through all this Jean-Claude and Peter Brook are thinking about the MAHABHARATA:

"What we understand more and more clearly is that the many different levels in the work--multiple, complex, moving from farce to the highest spiritual summit of the Gita--are levels that can be found in Indian society, in the Indian mentality!


Some observations about the actors:

"Here also the actors, back from the fields, with the night all around us, allow themselves to be made up for the roles they are to play!"

" The tenacious presence of the Mahabharata. It is everywhere, in all forms, even in the piles of comic books ( in Hindi and in English). It is perhaps the only really common point between different cultures and languages. Very well known, even among the tribals. More than the

gods, more than the laws."


On India:

"India is not necessarily a phantom. A place where everything seems to have been foreseen, from one extreme to the other. Anything that one can do with this or with that. Complete. The least boring in the world, that is certain. A meticulous exploration of reality. Continuity of ancient kingdoms, the only one left. A gigantic anomaly: unless all the other countries are shadows of India."


On India:

"What has India given us? Impossible to say. A secret dimension that will remain probably always secret, beyond wonder, charm, irritation, repulsion. The pulsating energy, above all else, and the mixture of things. The closeness that one only finds when working together and which no one can define. To travel in order not to see, travel to do, o to be. "



Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carrière (writer ), Marie-Hélène Estienne ( co-writer ) and Toshi Tsuchitori ( Japanese musician ) in 1982 are in a village in Purulia in West Bengal.

The team sees their characters shape all across the country; they find BIG BHISHMA in Madras!

Peter Brook's film adaptation is 5 hours, 30 minutes.

For the play, Peter Brook has stuck to minimalism. His famous lines on understanding of theatre: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.

“A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

In the play, the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière also used passages from Life Of Alexander by Plutarch.

Honorary Oscar winner screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere


Some images from the film Mahabharata:

You may read/order the book here on Speaking Tiger!


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