6 August 2008

Back to the future: Mohan Maharishi's Vidyottama

Time has always played the lead in Mohan Maharishi’s work, says Trisha Gupta, and it’s true of his latest as well.

Playwright-director Mohan Maharishi’s new play, Vidyottama, came out of a chance conversation. Maharishi was sitting around chatting with a few friends, when the conversation turned to the legendary Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidas. “How do we know whether someone called Kalidas produced these works? Suppose his wife wrote and he took the credit?” someone asked. A remark made half in jest, perhaps, but Maharishi was intrigued enough to return to some of Kalidas’s most famous works – Abhigyan Shakuntalam, Meghadootam and Kumarasambhava.

“I went through these texts again, and felt that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to have imagined female beauty in the way it is described in them,” says Maharishi, who spent two decades in Chandigarh as head of Punjab University’s Department of Theatre. However, he found himself increasingly arrested by the dramatic possibilities inherent in the fictive figure of Kalidas’s wife, Vidyottama.

“It is believed that Kalidas married the daughter of King Vikramaditya, whose name was either Vidyavati or Vidyottama. But there is very little historical detail available. We are not even clear whether this was Vikramaditya I or II. The tikakas, the commentators who came after him, talked only about his work, not his life. Perhaps it was not fashionable then to talk about a writer’s life,” suggests Maharishi.

The lack of biographical certainty, though, gave Maharishi the liberty to more or less create his own characters – something that might otherwise have been much harder. “I have imagined Vidyottama as a very intelligent woman and a brilliant classical dancer. She is also a Cassandra-like figure – she has a boon from Shiva that allows her to see into the future. In fact, to travel to a different time. She disappears for days at a time. And she raises questions that no one else does,” says Maharishi. At one point in Maharishi’s play, Vidyottama asks Kalidas why there are no evil Brahmans in his writings. How is that possible, says Kalidas, my audience will reject me. “Oh,” retorts Vidyottama, “So you admit that to survive, you have to believe whatever your audience believes?”

For Maharishi, the play has been a chance to think aloud about the difference between classical art and modern forms of creative expression. “In the classical view of things, raising social issues was not considered the function of art.” And yet, Maharishi believes that Kalidas’s works exhibit a sense of “connection… with the cosmos” that could not have been created by a writer “completely isolated from the outside world”.

It is the figure of Vidyottama who becomes, in Maharishi’s eyes, both Kalidas’s source of inspiration and energy, and the force that threatens to rupture his blissful world. In the play, Kalidas, attempting to write the scene where Shakuntala makes her way to King Dushyant’s court, asks his wife how she would react if her husband returned to his old life and refused to recognise her. “Gali deti,” says the straight-talking Vidyottama. Maharishi thus creates a very contemporary back-story for a famous classical scene. “This scene has perhaps the strongest language ever used by Kalidas, where Shakuntala calls Dushyant ‘anarya’ – one who is not an Arya,” he points out. Kalidas is unhappy with Vidyottama’s criticisms, or her freedom-loving nature, but he can’t do without her.

The climactic event in the play is a journey that Vidyottama makes into the future. “She goes somewhere, imaginatively, intellectually or physically – and returns violated. She finds the future so ferocious and violent that she comes back sick. The clash between the past and the present is borne by Vidyottama, on her body,” explains Maharishi.

The current play brings together many of Maharishi’s previous interests. He has been exploring the idea of time since he wrote his most famous play, Einstein, in 1994. “Time is as still as this door, this wall behind us,” he says quietly. “This idea that time moves is a very limited concept. Einstein understood that. But we persist in thinking that we have a past and a future… In fact, all time is always present.”

Is that why his approach to the “present” is always routed through the past? “I do not wish to be topical, to write about something that will come and go. So I look for symbols. I have always been concerned with the present. But the past is my interest because it refuses to go away. It persists.”

Source : Time Out Delhi Vol. 1 Issue 1. April 6-19 2007

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