Samhita Arni wrote and illustrated this version of The Mahabharatha when she was 12 years old. Her Mahabharata is bold and unorthodox in its depiction of character and in the critical tone it adopts with the epic’s main theme: war. Featuring her own amazing line drawings, this best-selling book offers children and adults a fresh perspective on the timeless epic.
Samhita Arni's Mahabharatha was retrieved by her mother, Kanchana Arni, from diaries, postcards and bits of paper. We had urged her to pull together her daughter's various stories from the Mahabharatha for us, enchanted as we were by the notion of a child re-writing this ancient tale. Kanchana played an indispensable part in finally assembling Samhita's stories and drawings into a coherent whole.
We learnt from Kanchana that Samhita read her first Mahabharatha when she was four. "She was fascinated by mythology, by stories of kings and princesses. When she was three years old she wanted fairy tales read out to her and would not let us stop, until she could narrate the tale back to us, word for word." says Kanchana.
Initially, it was Kanchana who encouraged Samhita to write the Mahabharatha, because it was vacation time and Samhita was finishing her story books much too fast: "1 was curious to know how much she understood of every book she read and I also wanted to keep her occupied and improve her writing skills. Samhita was excited with the idea and the first few chapters of the Mahabharatha took shape in her diary. Her drawings, done at first in ball point pen, were also in this diary. some time later at her brother's suggestion, she drew a scene on white paper. when I saw it, I instinctively knew it was something special. Samhita had done many drawings and paintings before, some of an abstract nature. But these were different: effortless, simple, but at the same time, so very dramatic."
We eventually got Samhita's entire narrative in crisp, lean and often sombre prose, with intricate illustrations in pen and ink to go with it. Apart from gently pointing out a few logical and syntactical errors, as well as correct spelling, we have left the text in her own words. While it was extremely riveting, we still had to "check" it for authenticity.
We discovered that her version, as she liked to call it, was a marvellous distillation of the many texts she had read. Clearly Samhita had not looked to one source for reference, but had chosen incidents and details from the several available to her. Peter Brook's Mahabharatha influenced her greatly, and as her mother observes: "Here was her favourite epic 'coming to life', with the costumes as intricate, detailed and beautiful as her drawings. This became her favourite video cassette and she would watch enraptured for a continuous four to five hours."
Obviously, Brook's complex and nuanced treatment of his characters touched Samhita. She preferred this to the popular television version which, in her words, is "crude, lacking in character, loud and filmy."
The epic and mythic quality that marks Samhita's text is at once child- like and profound in its appeal. For example, while narrating the story of Ekalavya, she writes of the injustice done to him with a candour only children would dare exhibit.
Samhita does not merely narrate. She exhibits feeling for her character, judges their actions, while remaining faithful to the epic, as many of us know it. This is evident in her handling of a character like Yudhishtira. She accepts he is righteous and wise, but while narrating the story of the great gambling match she notes that Yudhishtira consented to gamble a second time: 'Anyone would have thought that by now Yudhishtira would have learnt a lesson not to gamble again. But, no, they were wrong. Yudhishtira did not like to think it was Draupadi who had given them their freedom. He wanted to prove to his brothers he could win.'
It is clear that in the manner of many narrators who have re-told the mahabharatha throughout history, Samhita adds her own to an old story. Yet, her choice of incidents and narration of plot are not arbitrary They either help to illustrate character or explain motives. For instance, she has included an unusual story about Shakuni's hatred towards his nephews which helps us understand why this man nursed a life-long anger towards the Kurus. Epics such as the Mahabharatha continue to interest children and adults alike only because their narrators tell their own story, rather than merely repeat a tale.
Why did Samhita choose the Mahabharatha Why did she not choose to write the Ramayana? When we asked her, she exclaimed that she liked the mahabharatha, "because it is so evil." We were intrigued by her statement, for it raised larger and more fundamental questions of what children like or look for in the books they read. We also had to ask ourselves if a child likes a world presented to her in black-and-white terms, or whether she would rather have it shown to her in shades of grey. Working with Samhita has taught us that children grow up to take uncompromising and rigid stands on issues largely because they are socialised to do so. Left to themselves, they are comfortable with, and in some instances, enjoy ambiguity.
Samhita is emphatic about what she likes. She is convinced that stories should contain the bad with the good. She is clearly fascinated with a character like Ouryodhana and, as readers will discover, has captured the ambiguities which abound in a character such as Drona very well.
Samhita's Mahabharatha is a story of men and women who make and sometimes are forced to make difficult choices in their lives for themselves and for others. Though some of the characters in the story have superhuman qualities and there are references to gods and goddesses, the tale is neither religious in its intent or significance. In this sense, her Mahabharatha is much like the Greek myths, where gods and goddesses behave like human beings.
Her fascination for myth is most evident in her illustrations. Her characters are beautiful and grotesque in turn and several of them inhabit a world where human beings and beasts could easily trade form and places. Puppet-like in countenance and with exaggerated features, they recall those gorgeously costumed 'therukoothu' heroes and heroines who perform the Mahabharatha in several villages of Tamil Nadu to this day. Samhita's text and pictures complement each other in very interesting ways: while her tone is reticent and grave, her pictures are playful, extravagant and extremely animated.
I started reading the Mahabharatha when I was four years old. At that time my father was working in the government (he still is) and we had been transferred to Karachi. My parents hadn't brought many books with them and as a result I borrowed books from the Consulate library The Consulate library had only religious books. Among those book were countless versiors of the two great epics, the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana. My parents also had a few books on the epics, and I was soon engrossed in the details of the Kurukshetra battle and in the exile of Rama. Often I would hear the panchajanya blowing or see the ape banner of Arjuna fluttering in the wind.
When I returned to India, three years later I was extremery bored as school only started two months later (it was summer). Somebody suggested that I write one of the two great Indian epics. I fell in love with the idea and decided on the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana being very hard on Sita, an attitude that I did not like.
Another reason why I prefer the Mahabharatha to the Ramayana is that Vyasa maintains a more or less impartial account when compared with Valmiki. Valmiki clearly is a Rama devotee, when he describes Rama as an ideal man. Valmiki's epic is about the ideal man, the ideal wife, the ideal hero, the ideal father, the ideal mother, and ideal brothers. Probably Valmiki wanted his book to depict how an ideal life should be lead. But one question remains unanswered - why did Rama exile his pregnant wife Sita when Agni himself verifies her purity? Wly should he listen to mere gossip, thus disregarding the words of a god?
I decided on writing the Mahabharatha. The next day I was seen dictating the epic in my own words to my grandmother, much like Vyasa and Ganesha (my handwriting being unintelligible). Even if my grandmother made a grammatical correction, I would not accept it and would change it to whatever I had earlier said.
When I joined school, I was too busy to continue the book as I was catching up with the Indian syllabus. Gradually I forgot about the book. Two years later, I wrote a collection of stories based on the childhood of my (other) grandmother as a birthday present to her. One of my mother's friends, on seeing the finished production, gave me the name and address of one Gita Wolf. My mother showed my work to Gita who liked the illustrations and the writing. Gita asked whether I would illustrate the cover of her new book Landscapes (Gita was a publisher). She also asked to see my other attempts at writing.
My mother uncovered the old dusty diary where the Mahabharatha was written. After I finished the cover of Landscapes, Gita assigned me another project: to complete my Mahabharatha. To make it easier, the book was to be divided into two, Part One and Two. Part One ended at the beginning of the Pandavas' exile, Part Two carried on from there. It took me a long time to finish writing Part One. Only after a year was it completed. But the second part, thought longer, was completed in a mere three months.
When I was dictating the epic to my grandmother, I would often illustrate the current chapter. So Part One and Part Two are both illustrated. Actually I had started drawing the scenes of the Mahabharatha long before I was writing it.
My favourite character is Kama. The suffering that he has been through, his unfortunate life, all make him an innocent, hapless, righteous character sticking to his duty and his Dharma. He is drawn into this entanglement of war between the cousins only to find that he is the actual heir to the throne. But for the sake of his friend Duryodhana, he gives up all that codld have been his. My next favourite is the greedy Duryodhana. Even though heroes should be favoured, I always take a partiality to the villain.
I favour Duryodhana because 1 feel his claim to the Hastinapura throne was justified. Moving along the hereditary line, we find him to be the eldest son of the eldest son of Vyasa. Whereas the Pandavas were not the actual sons of Pandu, but were the sons of gods. Anyway Dhritarashtra outranked Pandu in age. Pandu had only been co- regent with Dhritrashtra, since his elder brother was blind. In my view Duryodhana was the true ruler of Hastinapura.
But like every other character in the Mahabharatha, Duryodhana was not faultless. His disrobing of Draupadi was completely unrighteous. He also had wives, and would have known not only what the Pandavas were going through, but also what Draupadi was feeling. By ignoring this, he brought about his own death. I also feel that playing the game of dice was not right. But he is not altogether to be blamed. It was Shakuni s idea, and Yudhishtira could have refused to play the game.
I feel the worst character is Yudhishtira who continually nurses a vengeance towards Draupadi for preferring Arjuna. Why did Yudhishtira stake Draupadi? Why? Was it to get back at her for favouring Arjuna? When a person's truthfulness is described and admired in such great words. his sins are magnified. On the other hand, I do not blame Yudhishtira for his one lie, but rather more for his unusual passion for the sinister game of dice. Being a logical person, he should have stopped the game when it was getting out of hand. Anyway he had taken an oath at the Rajasuya sacrifice not to play dice. Why did he just throwaway the kingdom he had so carefully and lovingly amassed? The question whether Yudhishtira had bouts of madness, and one such fit of insanity took place at the fateful game of dice, still remains.
Among the Pandavas my favourite is Bhima, the son of Vayu. The reason why I like Bhima is because of his innocence. He was the one person among the Pandavas who was frank and would not hide his emotions. The things to be admired in him are his loyalty and his childish affection for his brothers, his mother, and most of all for Oraupadi. But Bhima also had his faults for he killed his cousins Dushasana and Duryodhana brutally. The oath he took to kill all of his cousins, his killing of Jarasandha and the killing of Ashwathama the elephant, to trick Orona, are just few among his many sins.
Arjuna is an unpredictable character. Sometimes he is subdued, sometimes he is like an erupting volcano. His emotions are ever- changing. He is a person who can be mistaken for being meek, withdrawn and obedient, because of his silent manner. But actually he is proud and arrogant. These emotions are brought out in his encounter with Ekalavya. He has his fortunes, misfortunes and his sins like any other character. The death of his sons Iravat and Abhimanyu are some of his greatest misfortunes. He married too many women.
Another point which I would emphasise, is that the sons of Madri, Nakula and Sahadeva, are virtually non-entities in the Mahabharatha. They perform no heroic deeds whatsoever, and actually they might as well be delected from the epic, In all probability they are just tools to illustrate the greatness of the elder three brothers.
Draupadi, the common wife of the Panda vas is an interesting character. She is not oppressed, but does and says as she pleases. Among the much oppressed women of the past she stands out as a unique figure. Born with the sole purpose of marrying Arjuna she accepts her fate, which many of her caste would have been ashamed to do, to marry five men at the same time and be their com mom wife. Her favourite is Arjuna, but only when she is about to meet her end does she realise that Arjuna did not have feelings for her, but that Bhima was the one who had loved her most.
She leads an unfortunate life - first marrying five men, then being staked by one of her husbands - nearly losing her dignity in the process, She then wins back the freedom of her husbands, but only to see it gambled away once again. She spends a miserable life in the forest, unable to get her revenge on the people who insulted her. Ashwathama then burns the Pandava camp and she loses all five of her sons. Her last misfortune is to hear from the lips of Yudhishtira, that her only sin was preferring Arjuna to her other husbands. But that is no sin at all, she thinks, as she hears the bitterness in the voice of Yudhishtira. And I feel that she commited no sin at all in preferring Arjuna.
When I compare Draupadi with Sita, the heroine of the other great epic, the Ramayana, I find many differences and similarities with the two women. Both were daughters of the earth, both being born of sacrifices. Both go into the forest. Both have to leave the luxuries of their great, princely homes. Both lived in the forest for fourteen years. Both were involved in wars. But Draupadi was a woman who stood for what she thought was right.Whereas Sita was a meek woman, who obeyed the words of her husband even when he exiled her from the kingdom when she was pregnant! This would not have been tolerated by Draupadi. But in the end Sita has her way, she returns to her mother, Earth.
Another character I found particularly interesting was Krishna. I feel that Krishna was a very complex being. As Irawati Karve, the author of Yugantar has written, his main aim was probably to be a 'Vasudeva'. In those times Vasudeva would be the title of a man commanding power and respect, who had a large kingdom and plenty of women. There would be only one Vasudeva in a generation. Krishna's father was the Vasudeva of his time, and Krishna, most likely, wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father.
Some of Krishna's actions seem very difficult to understand. Why did Krishna cover the sun with his discus during the slaying of Jayadratha? Why did he whisper in Arjuna's ear to kill Kama, when Kama was pulling his chariot wheel out of the ground? According to the' Dharma' of a Kshatriya, or anybody of that time, these were sins. And, who was the person who rejoiced at Gatotkacha's death and who, instead of weeping at the fate of Abhimanyu, scolded Arjuna for swearing to avenge his son's death? That person was Krishna. But, without Krishna there probably wouldn't be the Mahabharatha, or at least the way we see it today.
I think I have given fairly neutral narrative, though in some parts I may tend to favour the Kauravas. The Mahabharatha, I feel, is not a book dealing with ideals as the Ramayana does, but its moral is that nobody is perfect, and that nothing is worth it in the end.
When I first read the Mahabharatha I read the version by C. Rajagopala- chari. One wonders how I was able to comprehend such a complex version at such a young age. One thing that troubled me at that time was the constant changing of names for the same person. For instance, I kept on wondering who janardan was and why he appeared in the story, instead of Krishna.
For the young reader, who has read my version and is interested in reading other versions, I would recommend Meera Oberoi's book, then R K Narayan's. After that Rajagopalachari's, and finally the version by Kamala Subramaniam. I would suggest that children above seven years of age start with Shanta Rameshwar Rao, read my version, and then carry on form there to Meera Oberoi. For the highly restless reader, the Mahabharatha series by Amar Chitra Katha, which is a much condensed version, would be a safe bet.
I am currently interested in Greek mythology, women's rights, child labour, reading, drawing and political issues. I am culturally inclined, at least that's what I feel. I do not like PT. and absolutely hate COMPETITIONS.
I thank my mother, Gita Wolf, V. Geetha, C. Arumugam, Gita Gopalakrishnan, and Saraswati Ananth for helping with The Mahabharatha.
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