Art & Entertainment

Peter Brook Was A Groundbreaking Director, Used Multi-Culturalism To Its Best Advantage: Mallika Sarabhai

Mallika Sarabhai, who played Draupadi in Peter Brook's 'The Mahabharata' talks about how Brook was as a director and shares her experience working with him.

Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi in the Peter Brook-directed 'The Mahabharata'

Peter Brook's understanding and respect for cultures, especially across Asia and Africa, was "deep", says veteran theatre artist-dancer Mallika Sarabhai.

Sarabhai, who played Draupadi in the globally acclaimed British theatre director's nine-hour stage extravaganza 'The Mahabharata', also credited Brooks for familiarising the West with India through his 1985 retelling of the epic.

In an interview, Sarabhai called Brook a "groundbreaking theatre director" whose imagination could strip down everything to its essential core and then rebuild it. "He had a deep understanding and respect for cultures all across, especially Asia and Africa. For him, to take those, distill them, and present them to the world was a huge service to Asian and African culture," Sarabhai said.

Two-time Tony Award winner Brook, who had settled in France decades ago, died Sunday at the age of 97. Apart from 'The Mahabharata', he was known for directing the film adaptations of his best stage works as well as the 1963 movie 'Lord of the Flies'.

Brook smartly used his ability to interpret texts of different cultures and present them to a new audience with his stage productions, said Sarabhai.

"In India, we still have a white complex. We accept things that a white man or a woman accepts. In Peter's case, that worked to the advantage of India, especially with 'The Mahabharata'... People went to see Peter, and not necessarily the story from a particular country. He used this multiculturalism to its best advantage..."

"They would perhaps say, 'We were not interested in India, but it was Peter Brook's 'The Mahabharata' therefore we went to see it and then became interested in India'. I think this was (true) for many countries," she added.

Brook's play in French, based on 'The Mahabharata', toured around the world for four years. Its last two years also saw the show being performed in English.

Sarabhai described her position on 'The Mahabharata' as "strange". As the only Indian artist on the stage production, she would often be the "authentic" go-to person when the master director was in doubt, much to Brook's annoyance.

While working on the theatre adaptation, Sarabhai said she and Brook often had differences of opinion, "especially about the women characters". "I had studied and read many versions of the 'The Mahabharata', Draupadi was one of my favorite characters... I had read other interpretations, feminist interpretations. Sometimes actors would ask, 'What do you think about this?' Peter would get disturbed by that. He felt that if I had a difference of opinion if I had a comment to make or bring something to the table, I should go to him, discuss it, and then he would present it to the group," she added.

The contrast between their interpretations was so glaring that she once even joked that he should instead do a production of 'Ramayana' as that was a "much calmer" story than 'Mahabharata'.

On the eve of the play's opening at the 1985 Avignon Festival, Sarabhai said she had an argument with Brook over the scene where Draupadi washes her hair in Dushasan's blood. "He would say, 'It's too bloodthirsty, it's too bloody'. I would say to him, 'Then why didn't you do the 'Ramayana'? It's so calmer and more serene' and he would laugh! He did let me do it, interpret it, but he wouldn't do so without an argument," she added.

Playwright and theatre director Abhishek Majumdar said Brook had once surprised him by coming to watch the London show of his play 'The Djinns of Eidgah' in 2012. Brook, however, became 'the main event' that evening, he said.

"Everyone was thrilled that they got to watch the show with Peter Brook! When I met him in the interval, I was so nervous I had two glasses of wine in 10 minutes. I was tongue-tied because, like many others, I had read his books, his work was influential," Majumdar told PTI.

The playwright said Brook was instrumental in starting the movement of making work go around the world. "He was an absolute pioneer in this idea, that one could make theatre which was multicultural. All of this was before the Internet age," he added.

Theatre director Sunil Shanbag said he was influenced by Brook's books, especially "The Empty Space". When Brook visited India in 1982 for the inauguration of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Shanbag said he gatecrashed his three-day workshop, which he said, "changed my life". "I was at an early stage of my theatre (studies) and his workshop transformed me. Many of the confused ideas I had about theatre became crystal clear after listening to him. In many ways, I came back confident from the workshop about the way I was approaching theatre," he told PTI.

Actor Adil Hussain said he was "deeply indebted" to Brook for his vision of acting and theatre. 


"Good bye master. Peter Brook. Thank you," wrote actor-lyricist Swanand Kirkire on Facebook.

[With Inputs from PTI]