Japanese playwright Hiroshi Koike breathes new life into an ancient tale with ‘Mahabharata Chapter 2’ at Salihara Cultural Center, South Jakarta. (Photos courtesy of Salihara)

A Theatrical Take on the Mahabharata

FEBRUARY 02, 2015

The haunting musicals score resonated through the theater, its somber notes presaging the unfortunate fate of the five Pandu brothers. The stark and solemn number particularly resonates, as the eldest of the siblings, King Yudhistira, embarks on a fateful game of dice against his Kurawa cousins for his kingdom and his wife Draupadi. The losers would be sent on a 12-year exile in the forest.

The deep sense of despair triggered by the loss of their kingdom is highlighted by the disrobing Draupadi at the hands of the Kurawas.

The sequence of events make up the opening scene of “Mahabharata Chapter 2,” a modern take on the eponymous, ancient Hindu legend by Japanese playwright Hiroshi Koike and his Hiroshi Koike Project theater troupe. 

Performed on Jan. 23-24 at the Salihara Cultural Center in South Jakarta, the play covers the period between the Pandu brothers’ 12 year exile in the forest and their epic war against the Kurawa. 

Koikei sought to turn the legend on its head by presenting it as a theatrical production instead of a dance, as it is customarily performed throughout Asia, an element he enhanced through his trademark use of colorful costumes, grotesque masks and a deep appreciation of the meaning behind the Mahabharata.

“I first got the idea to adapt [the Mahabharata] on stage following the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. At that time I was at a crossroads, as I just disbanded my previous troupe, the Pappa Tarumahara, and was wondering on what paths I should take in the future,” Koike recalls. 

“The disaster and the national soul searching that it prompted made me realize that Japan should reconnect with its Asian neighbors, instead of looking toward the West due to its status as a ‘developed’ part of the world. 

“I also wanted to use the story to highlight Asia’s eclecticism, as reflected in the multinational cast from India, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and several other Asian countries.”

The diversity and universality of both the story and its characters is reflected by the multinational cast and English dialogue. The experience is equally profound for the actors, who found their characters’ humanity and foibles resonate with them. 

“I can relate in more ways than one to Bhima, particularly his frankness, impulsiveness and need to protect his loved ones. Some of his actions might seem rash, but that’s understandable due to his displacement and exile,” says Japanese actor Koyano Tetsuro. 

Thailand’s Waewdaw Sirisook, who plays Draupadi, agreed: “Draupadi’s anger and wish for revenge struck a chord with me, as they stem from exile, displacement and exploitation, problems that hit women hard in the ancient world as it does today. 

“After all, Yudhistira gambled her away on a game of dice and she was humiliated by the Kaurawa,” Sirisook says, adding that Draupadi is her most complex role to date. 

“While I pity her because she suffered and was taken for granted, I admire her for her perseverance and resilience under adversity. However, I sympathize with the characters in the Mahabharata, even the antagonists, once we know their background.”

Koikei paid tribute to the Mahabharata’s symbolic power is also seen by his decision to stage “Mahabharata Chapter 2” in the southern Indian city of Kerala, which is traditionally regarded as the origin of the tale. 

The playwright also paid tribute to his Indonesian audience in Jakarta by holding dance numbers reminiscent of the Kecak dance from Bali, and even a number of Papuan dances.

In addition to its eclecticism and diversity, the production is highlighted by Koikei’s use of masks. 

“The masks are used to convey the characters’ true nature. They can range from the menacing and grotesque, to reflect the Kurawas’ twisted characters, to frank and naive, as see on some of the wild animals encountered by the Pandu brothers during their time in the wilderness,” he explains. 

This is particularly true in the Kurawa character Shakuni, whose masks reflected the twisted contortions of his body language and motives during the dice game.

Most of all, Koikei showed through “Mahabharata Chapter 2” that the tale is as relevant as ever, particularly in its dialogues between the Pandu brothers and the gods on the meaning of ethics, service and other aspects of life. 

There’s little doubt that audiences will find his take on the Mahabhata worthy food for thought.