NEW YORK – There’s this sublime moment on stage at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Symphony Space, when some of the most popular and powerful characters of the Mahabharata share space, at the same time. It creates an immediate umbilical cord with the audience. Breaks down the complex, gigantic epic attributed to Vyasa into the simplest of narrative. The good, the bad, the tragic hero and the divine immediately demarcated, as it has and will be for posterity.
‘The Mahabharata: Part 1: Of Vengeance & Promises’ by Navatman, a New York City-based performing arts organization, played last week at the Symphony Space with an all-female cast of dancers-cum-actors (bar some male child performers), who interchanged dancing and acting roles engagingly and effortlessly on stage.
The over two-hour long stylistic Broadway-style production had accompanying live instrumental and vocal music. The task of communicating through dance and bare bones narrative the story of Mahabharata without too much distraction and distortion is credit worthy in itself. Navatman achieved that.
It’s a mind boggling feat, especially for an audience who may not be familiar with intricate and intertwined tales and themes of the epic: with the sheer number of names and hundreds of myriad stories and parables that twists and courses through the Mahabharata’s 200,000 individual verse lines and long prose passages, like tributaries of a giant river that go their own merry way, before finally emptying into an ocean. The Mahabharata with around 1.8 million words is roughly 10 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Ramayaṇa.
In one episode when the Pandavas, Kauravas, Karna and Krishna are all shown together on stage, it’s a fascinating spectacle. They each occupy a ‘pocket’ of the stage, go about life unaware of the others’ actions – delineating time, space and fate in the epic.
It gives a fascinating insight into the innards of a complex story that even today generates intense philosophical debates among newbies and scholars alike on the action and karma of some of the characters, and the effect of war, statecraft, aggression and indeed passiveness too; its grave repercussions.
Where Navatman does falter and which detracts sometimes too much from the adaptation is inability to fill up frequent gaps between narration of episodes, especially in the first half of the play when the background and history is being set down for the grand war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The silence and inaction between some episodes becomes tedious. The play loses momentum and tends to get lethargic periodically, for that reason, and the verbal narrative tends to subsequently drag and become heavy.
What eventually shines through the course of the play is how a bunch of women performers manage to adeptly project the ultra-masculine characters of the Mahabharata with aplomb. In a storyline where women for the most part are relegated to the margins, are mostly victims of the whims and fancies of superior male characters, it’s startling how the cast of Navatman manage to bring across the different male personas effectively – even without sounding too sonorous, make them believable.
With the first part of the play tantalizingly poised before war breaks out between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the second part of the Mahabharata will be eagerly awaited.
MAULIK PANCHOLY DAY IN NEW YORK
Ask Maulik Pancholy, a New York-based Indian American actor and activist, how life is treating him, and he’s more than likely to tell you “just great!”
Pancholy’s debut novel for children, ‘The Best At It’, revolving around the life of a 12-year-old Indian American boy, Rahul Kapoor, who’s gay, hit stores this month, and he’s been doing book tours. The story reflects also Pancholy’s own struggles growing up gay.
In the book as Kapoor is heading into seventh grade in a small town in Indiana, middle school is making him feel increasingly anxious. His favorite person in the world, his grandfather Bhai, gives him some well-meaning advice: ‘”Find one thing you’re really good at. And become “the BEST at it.”
Pancholy himself grew up in Ohio. He attended Northwestern University and then the Yale School of Drama where he got his Master of Fine Arts. He is the recipient of an Asian American Arts Alliance Award and the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award.
Pancholy’s novel has got good reviews, and has been recommended as a read for middle schoolers.
Beyond critical acclaim for his novel, Pancholy got accolades from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio himself this past weekend. The Mayor declared a ‘Maulik Pancholy Day in New York’ at a reception at his house, for Diwali, taking note of the work of Pancholy which stands up to bullying.
Pancholy is an award-winning actor whose career has spanned hit television shows, animated series, the Broadway stage, and films.
In 2014, Pancholy was appointed by President Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). As a Commissioner, he co-founded an anti-bullying campaign called #ActToChange – designed to meet the unique needs of AAPI youth – which he continues to lead to today.
Pancholy played Alec Baldwin’s intrepid assistant Jonathan on the Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning NBC comedy 30 Rock, and Sanjay on the Showtime hit series Weeds. He also played Neal on the NBC comedy Whitney, and his numerous recurring and guest starring roles include The Good Fight, Dynasty, Star Trek: Discovery, Elementary, Friends from College, The Good Wife , Web Therapy, The Comeback, The Sopranos, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Pancholy has entertained both children and adults as the voice of Baljeet on the Emmy award-winning Disney animated series Phineas & Ferb, and as the title voice of Sanjay on Nickelodeon’s Sanjay & Craig. He has appeared in blockbuster films such as Hitch and 27 Dresses, and his many theater credits include starring on Broadway opposite Matthew Broderick and Martin Short in Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play, and playing opposite Ed Harris in David Rabe’s Good For Otto. He will next be seen on Broadway in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Pancholy had this to say on Facebook after being honored by de Blasio: “A very cool way to round out the celebration of one of my favorite holidays. I’m grateful to be able to bring visibility to our communities as an actor, to be standing up to bullying alongside the incredible and tireless team at Act To Change and to offer representation for AAPI and LGBTQ kids.”
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)