Akram Khan’s latest show draws on Karthika Naïr’s poetry to give the women of the Mahabharata a raging voice and tell of our fractured times
Begin to begin
Begin to end
The words of Karthika Naïr’s poem echo around the round stage of the Roundhouse, repeated, overlapping, painting a soundscape for the dancers to start.
Begin to win
Begin to end
But where do you begin? And where does it all end? The questions circle around each other endlessly in Until the Lions —a dance piece by Akram Khan, adapted from a poetry book by Karthika Naïr, inspired by the mother of all epics, the Maha (great) Bharata (story of the Bharata dynasty), the originary text for the development of Hinduism and the idea of India as a nation state.
Recognising that all beginnings are mid-way points in other stories, I can trace my entrance to this story to a train ride into London on 8 July 2005, the day after four Islamic extremists carried out suicide bombings on the London Underground trains and a bus, killing 56 people including themselves, and wounding 700 others. The city was reeling as I made my way past the twisted metal and police cordons around King’s Cross Station to Sadler’s Wells theatre to watch Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s dance performance, Zero Degrees.
Two years later, a friend sent me some poems written by a friend of his, in which the poet writes of a ‘duet/duel’ between a warrior and a monk:
before I read which is which, if one’s end
spells start elsewhere.
Monk departs, a worn being in his hands,
crooning of a day when borders and walls
Khan and Larbi’s exploration of borders and walls, of passport controls and fractured identities, could not have been more prescient in these times of refugees and war and terror. Reading the poem, I realised that here was someone who understood dance, who brought the physicality and energy of moving bodies vividly to the page. The poet was Naïr, and this was the beginning of a friendship and creative partnership which brought us to today, the Roundhouse, the launch of the UK edition of her book and the preview of Akram Khan’s latest work.
Dance is sometimes said to be ‘poetry in motion’, and, in its intense physicality— with guts and sinews and muscular body parts—and its pauses and leaps across the page, and its tightly choreographed, rigorous attention to form, Naïr’s poetry is a dance of words. ‘Dance is silent poetry’ in the words of the Ancient Greek poet, Simonides. The two are inextricably intertwined.
Even the phrase ‘Begin to begin’ Naïr tells us was taken from another dance: Eva Recacha’s 2011 piece of the same title. But what for Recacha was ‘a piece about dead ends’ has here been transformed into a vibrant outpouring of new beginnings.
Naïr, herself a dance producer, was commissioned by Khan as principal storywriter for his 2011 award-winning dance, Desh. The retelling of a Bangladeshi folk story of the goddess Bon Bibi and the demon-tiger Dakkhin Rai subsequently inspired the illustrated children’s book, The Honey Hunter, written by Naïr and illustrated by the French artist Joëlle Jolivet. Words inspired the dance; dance led to the book. In the case of Until the Lions, the roles were reversed: Naïr’s poems inspired Khan to create the dance adaptation, and here I was, gazing at the appropriately circular stage of the Roundhouse in Camden waiting for the dancers to begin. Begin to begin.
Akram Khan’s story in a sense begins almost 30 years ago, with Peter Brook’s ground-breaking staging of the Mahabharata. At 13, he was one of the youngest of a cast that included actors from 16 countries, in a production that was originally written in French, and translated into English, which ran for nine hours and toured the world, resulting in a six-part televised mini-series and an Emmy award- winning film. With its dramatic visuals and pioneering multi-national cast, it introduced the ancient epic to a vast international audience. No longer was it an arcane and convoluted myth peopled by remote characters with unpronounceable names, it—according to The New York Times—‘did nothing less than attempt to transform Hindu myth into universalised art, accessible to any culture.’ And yet, its female characters were given short shrift. “I don’t remember the women being super celebrated. They were not the main protagonists,” says Khan in his interview with theatre director Danny Boyle. “Looking back, I can see that it gave a very male perspective, which is often the case with mythology.”
The imperative to correct that perspective was one of the impulses that drove Naïr to tell the story of the Kauravas and Pandavas through the voices of the women: Satyavati, Amba, Ahalya, Ambika and Ambalika, and the rakshasi, Hidimbi.
With Amba/Shikhandi, for instance, Brook’s play shows that the reborn warrior forgets the reason why he wants to kill Bhishma, and abandon the final duel. For Naïr, it was also this “unforgiveable” distortion of Amba’s story that fuelled her desire to not just retell the story from Amba’s perspective but to give her a voice. And what a voice. Full of fury, implacable will, a thirst for justice and a strident singlemindedness, Amba wages war in full knowledge of the havoc it will wreak, ending with an unpunctuated march through the alphabet, leaving letters strewn behind her like bodies on a battlefield:
strike strike that spear through gullet and
lung and ligament shatter his skull shred
might and right and thought to blood bone
gristle snuff out your soul triumph
In these times of airstrikes and drones, the women’s voices that rage and keen and lament through Until the Lions reminds us that war is not a clash of ideologies and its victims not statistics but individuals: someone’s child, someone’s lover. The title of Naïr’s book comes from an African proverb which says that ‘until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. In her poems, you hear the answering roar.
For the performance, Khan tells the story of Amba with two female dancers —Ching-Ying Chien, who plays Amba, and Christine Joy Ritter as Shikhandi, the male reincarnation of Amba who she becomes in order to kill Bhishma (played by Khan himself), the regent of Hastinapura who abducts and then spurns her in her earlier life.
The stage is set. Like a massive tree trunk felled to reveal the growth rings radiating out, and split through with fissures that bristle with bamboo stakes, providing impromptu spears for the dancers to wield. Ritter enters, twisting and crawling across the circular stage like a sinuous lizard, exploring the space, testing its edges, fingering the cracks. The only other prop is a disembodied head, lit gunmetal grey, which she cradles like an ostrich egg and impales on a bamboo stake.
Stationed around the edges, very much like a Greek chorus, are the four musicians, whose howls, cries and drums create the mesmerising soundscape for the drama of vengeance and bloodshed to unfold. Bhishma enters, striding fast around the stage, the prone Amba slung over one shoulder as she flings her hair around, medusa-like, in her struggle to escape. In fact, hair —and heads —figure just as much as limbs and torsos in this strange ritual: Khan with his familiar bald pate, Ritter with a tight, martial top-knot like a samurai, and Chien with her wild, untrammelled locks. There’s one long sequence, where Khan dances, one hand clamped to his face, alternately plucking at it and having it removed and swiftly replaced by Chien—hands become masks, blinding the wearer to his actions and their repercussions. The two dancers execute a curious duel/duet—not so much pas de deux as mains de deux—as they grapple with each other, echoing the dance of the hands that Khan and Larbi perfected in Zero Degrees.
Anyone who has seen Khan in action in earlier dances would also immediately recognise in Until the Lions that particular blend of contemporary and Kathak styles that he has made his own. His flat feet strike the stage with such rhythm and ferocity that you half expect to see sparks fly.
The story of Amba is particularly interesting because of the sex-change she undergoes. Amba (and her two sisters) is abducted by Bhishma on her wedding day and given by him to his brother. His brother rejects her, and Bhishma also refuses to wed her as he has taken an unbreakable vow of chastity. Spurned and ruined, she vows to take revenge. The strength of her tapas, austerities, are such that Shiva himself responds, granting her the power to kill Bhishma —a feat only possible for a man. She kills herself, in order to hasten the course of justice; is reborn as a woman, and finally becomes a man —Shikhandi —through the intercession of a yaksha. Answering a question from the audience at the book launch about the work’s ‘feminist credentials’, Naïr said that it was telling that even though this is, in a sense, about the (female) righting of a male wrong-doing, the woman in question can only see justice done in the body of a man.
‘This time, I shall battle you unfettered, free/of my female frame,’ she declaims. And then, in an inversion of the marriage vow, not even death shall them part: ‘neither shall win: for I will slay you, but first you shall watch me die.’
Herein lies the endlessly creative churn that the Mahabharata represents. It is, in Wendy Doniger’s words, ‘an exposition of dharma (codes of conduct), including the proper conduct of a king, of a warrior, of an individual living in times of calamity’ but that ‘the conflicting codes of dharma are so ‘subtle’ that, in some situations, the hero cannot help but violate them in some respect, no matter what choice he makes.’ Less a moral grey area than a vivid rainbow, the Mahabharata is a radically open text: open to different interpretations at different times. The recent feminist re-readings (Samhita Arni, Arshia Sattar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Kavita Kané, to name but a few) are just the latest in a two-and-a-half-thousand year old history of such engagements. At the other end of the spectrum is the hysterical insistence by contemporary far-right Hindu ideologues on the historical veracity of its mythological events as they seek to authenticate their own warped sense of cultural and national supremacy. Viewed through the narrow blinkers of Hindutva, never mind the rainbow, even the moral grey is reduced to black and white.
The dance ends in a chilling climax, the musicians processing around the edge of the stage in cacophonous Dionysian revelry led by Amba, hair aswirl, free at last. The fissures in the stage heave, as one section rises and another is lowered. Steam issues from the glowing abyss as though a continental shelf is splitting, rising to form a Himalaya atop which the women stand triumphant, with Bhishma lying at their feet, speared by his own petard.
As the audience drained out of the Roundhouse, I wondered whether this collaboration would mark the end of the twinning of Khan and Naïr, or —more likely—what other new beginnings it would catalyse in their, or other people’s lives. Naïr’s poetic retelling is subtitled, tellingly, ‘Echoes from the Mahabharata’, and it is the echoes—the reverberations, mishearings, transformations —that ripple outwards giving rise to new incarnations. As Akram Khan’s producer Farooq Chaudhry, puts it, “Epics were never meant to be read; they were meant to be told —to be performed.” Whether that means poetry—words read aloud, for their sound and rhythm and cadence —or dance, that silent song of the body, some combination of the two, or some different new form entirely, remains to be seen.