The Mahabharata: The Game of Dice

I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself.  As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films.  ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.

The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen.  Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story.  The first episode opens with a boy and a poet.  This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.

We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins.  Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family.  This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas.  The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop.  The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf.  What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom.  As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!

Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power.  ‘The Mahabharata:  A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

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Osborne House is a Treasure House

In (or on) the Isle of Wight so I visited Osborne House for the first time in about thirty years.  I remember parts of my previous visit but did not remember the Durbar room, the most impressive addition to the house in Queen Victoria’s time!

BlogDuleepSinghpaintingI was on the lookout for the portrait of Duleep Singh having read the novel based on his life by Navtej Sarna.  The location of this painting by Winterhalter is significant as the boy Maharajah was taken under the wing of the Queen when he was taken away from the Punjab and his mother at the age of ten.

The painting was commissioned by Victoria using the services of German artist Franz Xaver Wintherhalter, a court painter who worked for European royalty.  This work is dated 1854.

Surrounding the portrait were other paintings of Indian people, mostly men, collected or commissioned by the Queen for her house. Her status as Empress of India is reflected by the fact that India came to her; she never visited India herself.   There are princes, military types and servants represented here with little differentiation by rank.  Their position is all due to ethnicity.

As is usual on visits such as this, I came away wanting to know more about the unsung parts of history.  The painting of the man with the long hair was intriguing because he was shared a name with Duleep Singh.  Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh was his son and the godson of the Queen.  It was painted by Sydney Prior Hall and presented to the Queen by Duleep Singh at Christmas 1879.  Apparently, Her Majesty was much taken with the boy’s long hair but he had been given a short back and sides before attending school.  The painting was created with the help of a photograph that had been taken of him before his hair cut.

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Partition

The poem by Auden about the work (and supposed attitude) of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man given the task of dividing India into two new countries, seems somewhat harsh in light of the history books that suggest that he was a man brought low by the task and the repercussions.  He famously refused his fee.

I am unclear about the date this poem was written so cannot tell what the prevailing mood was about the man and his task.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot. 

W H Auden

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Partition: Radio Play

BlogPartition

Every once in a while I stumble across something golden while searching for something else.  Having thought the radio dramatisation of Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ was fantastic, I was pleased to discover this BBC Leeds radio play by Nick Ahad. Ordinarily, I would have no reason to listen to a Leeds radio station since I do not live anywhere near but I was searching for information about the partition of India at the end of British rule and came across this production by accident.

The play is a joint project with the West Yorkshire Playhouse where it was staged following the radio broadcast.

‘Partition’ tells the story of the past by focusing on the present day relationship between a couple about to get married.  He is a Sikh and she is a Muslim.  Their families have been invited to the wedding but her mother and his grandfather will not attend.  We may be in present day Leeds but history is not in the past for the generation that experienced the partition of India.

The play takes us on the wedding day to the ceremony where officials are used to dealing with unusual experiences, except for the registrar, this is her very first time officiating at a wedding and the non- arrival of witnesses is going to be a problem.  Both bride and groom- to- be are relying on their respective family members coming; witnesses from the street would be needed if they don’t turn up.  The play shows us what obstacles would need to be overcome to face a marriage across the divide.

‘Partition’ by Nick Ahad is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Midnight’s Children on the Radio

The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic.  Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.

The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special.  The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan.  The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.

The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one.  Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents.  It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man.  His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.

There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel.  The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off.  However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.

Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part.  As Saleem grows up, so does India.

‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by  Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Ballad of East and West

This is a poem associated for ever with the classroom where I encountered it.  Like many poems fed to my teenage brain, it was only later that the point behind the poem made any sense to me.  The first two lines were the only ones I held on to so it was good to discover it again in later life and realise that the third and fourth lines of the opening stanza were the most important.

The Ballad of East and West

0h, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border side,
And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride.
He has lifted her out of the stable-door between the dawn and day
And turned the calkins upon her feet, and ridden her far away.

Then up and spoke the Colonel’s son that led a troop of the Guides
Is there never a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides? “
Then up and spoke Mohammed Khan, the son of the Ressaldar:
“If ye know the track of the morning-mist, ye know where his pickets are.
“At dusk he harries the Abazai – at dawn he is into Bonair,
“But he must go by Fort Bukloh to his own place to fare.
“So if ye gallop to Fort Bukloh as fast as a bird can fly,
“By the favour of God ye may cut him off ere he win to the Tongue of Jagai.
“But if he be past the Tongue of Jagai, right swiftly turn ye then,
“For the length and the breadth of that grisly plain is sown with Kamal’s men.
“There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
“And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree.
The Colonel’s son to the Fort has won, they bid him stay to eat 
Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.
He’s up and away from Fort Bukloh as fast as he can fly,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare in the gut of the Tongue of Jagai,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare with Kamal upon her back,
And when he could spy the white of her eye, he made the Pistol crack.
He has fired once, he has fired twice, but the whistling ball went wide.
Ye shoot like a soldier,” Kamal said. ” Show now if ye can ride! 
It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.
There was rock to the left and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And thrice he heard a breech-bolt snick tho’ never a man was seen.

They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn.
The dun he fell at a water-course – in a woeful heap fell he,
And Kamal. has turned the red mare back, and pulled the rider free. 
He has knocked the pistol out of his hand – small room was there to strive,
‘Twas only by favour of mine,” quoth he, ” ye rode so long alive:
“There was not a rock for twenty mile, there was not a clump of tree,
“But covered a man of my own men with his rifle cocked on his knee.
“If I had raised my bridle-hand, as I have held it low, 
“The little jackals that flee so fast were feasting all in a row.
“If I had bowed my head on my breast, as I have held it high,
“The kite that whistles above us now were gorged till she could not fly.”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “Do good to bird and beast,
“But count who come for the broken meats before thou makest a feast.
“If there should follow a thousand swords to carry my bones away.
“Belike the price of a jackal’s meal were more than a thief could pay.
“They will feed their horse on the standing crop, their men on the garnered grain.
“The thatch of the byres will serve their fires when all the cattle are slain.
“But if thou thinkest the price be fair – thy brethren wait to sup,
“The hound is kin to the jackal-spawn – howl, dog, and call them up! 
“And if thou thinkest the price be high, in steer and gear and stack,
“Give me my father’s mare again, and I’ll fight my own way back! “

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and grey wolf meet.
“May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
“What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: ” I hold by the blood of my clan: 
Take up the mare for my father’s gift – by God, she has carried a man!” 
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast; 
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, ” but she loveth the younger best.
“So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
“My ‘broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrup twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew, and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he. ” Will ye take the mate from a friend? “
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
“Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!” 
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest.
“Now here is thy master,” Kamal said, “who leads a troop of the Guides,
“And thou must ride at his left side as shield on shoulder rides.
“Till Death or I cut loose the tie, at camp and board and bed,
“Thy life is his – thy fate it is to guard him with thy head. 
“So, thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,
“And thou must harry thy father’s hold for the peace of the Border-line.
“And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power 
“Belike they will raise thee to Ressaldar when I am hanged in Peshawur! “

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault.
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.

The Colonel’s son he rides the mare and Kamal’s boy the dun, 
And two have come back to Fort Bukloh where there went forth but one. 
And when they drew to the Quarter-Guard, full twenty swords flew clear
There was not a man but carried his feud with the blood of the mountaineer.
Ha’ done! ha’ done! ” said the Colonel’s son. ” Put up the steel at your sides!
Last night ye had struck at a Border thief – to-night ‘t is a man of the Guides! “

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling

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Burmese Days

This novel by George Orwell dates back to the 30s when Burma was part of British India and the British Empire.  John Flory is the central character, a man formed by his role in the Raj but detached from the colonial society he is semi-detached from.  The club plays an important role since it is where the British gather to be apart from the ‘natives’ they despise.  Flory finds himself out of sympathy with the prevailing mood; he actually maintains a friendship with a local doctor.

The novel is based on George Orwell’s experiences of Burma from the 1920s.  When published the Empire was still intact even if it was nearing its end and there were many who saw this as ‘letting the side down’.

Flory finds himself isolated over the issue of whether or not locals should be allowed membership of the club.  He has the doctor in mind as the best person to be the first new member, a view not shared by the others who see this as a lowering of standards.

When the orphaned niece of a fellow club member arrives in Burma, Flory is forced to confront the perception others have of him.  As he tries to gain her attention, he has to assess the importance to him of his place among the Europeans.

Themes of racism, imperialism, identity and Empire are all covered in a novel that, considered in the context of its time, is a brave one.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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