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‘Until the Lions’ – the personal echoes struck a chord with Akram Khan, writer Karthika Nair tells us (Q&A)…

‘Until the Lions’ – the personal echoes struck a chord with Akram Khan, writer Karthika Nair tells us (Q&A)…

AKRAM KHAN COMPANY’S (AKC) current production of ‘Until the Lions’ is inspired by the notion of metamorphosis (of the body) and how the central character transforms herself from a woman into a man to obtain justice.
This is what Karthika Nair, the French-Indian poet of the original,
Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata’ tells us in a Q&A about the rendering of Khan’s ‘Until the Lions’ – which makes a return to its original stage at the Roundhouse in London on Friday (January 11) – since it premiered there in 2016. Nair also suggests that Khan, a father of a young daughter, worries about the hostile world women have to confront.
Until the Lions’ refers to the idea that it is the triumphant and victorious who write history and until the ‘slain lions’ write or get someone to record their history, the glory belongs to their hunters and naturally, the lions are the enemy and evil and have to be killed.
However, Nair has pointed out that ‘The Mahabharata’ isn’t quite as simple as all that (in painting a simplistic good and evil) and that some level of ambiguity remains in the text.
Nair believes the book is “timelessly relevant” because of it – and that the established and accepted narrative contains contradictions and fissures she comes to explore and excavate in her own book, and which give rise to a different perspective and reading altogether. A chapter from her book, ‘Until the Lions: Echoes from The Mahabharata’ forms the basis of Khan’s dance piece and at its heart is a subversive purpose, arguably.
The Mahabharata’ is itself an ancient epic story with a battle between two families at the centre of it and contains many sub-plots and characters – and many of these are well-known both in popular and literary culture in India; and to varying degrees outside India among communities who have a Hindu cultural heritage.
Nair’s ‘Mahabharata’ gives voice to the many women of the Hindu epic, but in doing so, she chooses to articulate the sentiments of those on the margins or often overlooked or simply ignored in most narrative accounts (analogous somewhat to our slain lions).
In Khan’s ‘Until the Lions’ the tale revolves around Amba, a princess who is abandoned on her wedding day and seeks revenge from the gods. Nair is also a dance producer and is settled in France after her higher studies. She first worked with Khan on ‘Desh’ and the mutual and initial link was through Farooq Chaudhry, Khan’s long-time producer. (ACV): Has much change since you first started working with Akram Khan on his own ‘Until the Lions’ piece?

Karthika Nair

Karthika Nair (KN): Well, the book got published while Akram was in rehearsals (my publishers had allowed AKC to reference the manuscript) and since then it has led a very exciting life: in India, it received much recognition, winning the Tata Literature Live Award for Book of the Year in 2016, after being nominated alongside Salman Rushdie’s (‘Two years eight months and twenty eight nights’) and Amitav Ghosh’s (‘Flood of Fire’) then latest novels.
In the UK, it was highly commended in the 2016 Forward Prizes. Several stagings – from a dramatised reading at the Comédie-Française to an opera adaptation in Rhin (France), to a high school in South India – happened or are on the cards.

ACV: What do you think Akram Khan saw in your story that wanted him to make a dance piece from it?

KN: Akram was first drawn to this story in particular because at that time he was very interested in the representations of metamorphosis in the body, in Amba’s choice to transform into a man to obtain justice. But also because of his own memories as a teenager working in Peter Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata’: the hugely talented actress (Corinne Jaber) who played Amba was one of his favourite people, and her portrayal of Amba was one that he had deeply admired. But in Brook’s telling, Shikhandi forgets his reasons for revenge at the very last minute (which we both found unfair to the arc of that character), and he loved the fact that in my version, Shikhandi duels Bheeshma directly and kills him (he is not an instrument for Arjuna and Krishna here). But reasons change for us human beings: today, he attributes it to concerns as the father of a young daughter growing up in a world generally hostile to women.

ACV: How does it feel to be returning to the Roundhouse where it first premiered?

Akram Khan in ‘Until the Lions’ pic by Jean Louis Fernandez

KN: I watched it several times through its three-year touring life, in the round but also on proscenium stages so I am delighted it will return to the central configuration, where the connect with the audience is much more intense, almost hypnotic. I also saw it with the extraordinary Indonesian dancer, Rianto, in the role of Bheeshma; he brought vulnerability to the role, and underscored the fear of desire in Bheeshma’s refusal of Amba. It will be intriguing to watch Akram’s portrayal again, as a hardened, implacable near-ascetic, whose speed and power are wielded as a shield, almost, to prevent him from thinking or feeling.

ACV: What was it about Amba (from ‘The Mahabharata’) that made you want to write about her?

KN: The Amba/Shikhandi chapter is only one out of 19 in ‘Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata’; that’s why AKC’s is called a “part adaptation”. I channelled several marginal characters – male and female, human and animal – in the book.
Amba, in particular, because she stands out for her belief in justice, and the lengths she will go to attain it. At every point in her life, even when she is abducted and helpless, she never ceases to exert agency – through speech and desire, when not through action. That resolve never falters, even in the face of death. It’s also an invaluable reminder by Vyaasa (the author of ‘The Mahabharata’) that revenge triggers a vicious, endless cycle: Shikhandi dies a horrible death, and will actually predecease Bheeshma, something she acknowledges in my book.

Listing ‘Until the Lions’, Akram Khan Company, adapted from Karthika Nair’s ‘Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata’, at The Roundhouse, Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London NW1 8E from January 11-17. Tickets/Info:

Pictures: Courtesy of Akram Khan Company

Until the Lions: Echoes from The Mahabharata by Karthika Nair –

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture