‘Mahabharata, the grandad of all epics’-Kenneth Anderson

published on April 26, 2007

Mahabharata, the grandad of all epics


“It resembles a 20th Century saga-cum-soap opera, a marriage of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Arthur Hailey”. Guess what book The Guardian is reviewing in such scintillating terms? The answer is The Mahabharata.

This retold version of our age-old epic is a winner in the US and has been translated into Russian, Swedish, Korean, Hungarian, German and Croatian. Would Vyasadeva be pleased? Kenneth Anderson smiles.

“Supernatural sagas, mystical powers… Compare it to The Lord of the Rings. The Mahabharata is the grandad of ’em all. I only tried to introduce a dramatic element,” says the burly man, in Calcutta for the launch of his epic effort.

Anderson points to one reason for undertaking the task — the lack of a proper English translation. “The one by (Kisari Mohan) Ganguli is a century-old and written in archaic language. The others are largely abridged.”

But more than the language, his bigger quarrel is with the essence. “Vyasa has presented spiritual messages through the tales. Krishna is the role model of the Pandavas and the centrepiece of the epic is The Bhagavad Gita. The teachings get missed out in the translations. I have remained faithful to that,” he says, lifting up his “half-a-million word” tome that he calls a blockbuster.

Ask the 52-year-old who is his favourite character in it and his answer is Yudhisthira. Quiz him on the logic of gambling away one’s wealth and family (as the eldest Pandava did), and he offers a firm defence: “Yudhisthira’s intelligence was covered by yogamaya so that Kurukshetra could happen. And a Kshatriya cannot refuse if he is challenged. Even Draupadi could not find an atom of fault when she appeared in the courtroom.”

No wonder he is cross with Peter Brook for having shown a weak Yudhisthira in his multi-cultural stage production, The Mahabharata.

Anderson happily carries on about the “beautiful role models” The Mahabharata has, compared to the “degraded people promoted by Hollywood and TV”.

It is natural of him to make big of this aspect of the epic. Before he came in touch with Krishna, he was a second mate in the merchant navy, smoking 40 cigarettes a day and making the most of duty-free alcohol. A trip to a London temple, and he was ready to give up his addictions overnight. “My girlfriend of five years cursed Krishna and left me,” shrugs the BBC’s spokesperson for Hinduism.

The Mahabharata project took two years, aided by a Sanskrit scholar and translations. It was published in the UK in 1999. B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata had recently been telecast and lapped up by a record British viewership. So, the timing was perfect.

By then, he was married. “My children grew up on Amar Chitra Katha bought from Wembley,” smiles Anderson, introducing his family at a table nearby.

“We discuss The Gita for 20 minutes every week. Every other teenager in our country is on Prozac (an anti-depressant). And one in every two girls is not a virgin. In such a situation, I feel proud when my daughter is the only one in class to speak against abortion and fetches the highest scores in ethics,” says the mother of 17-year-old Radhika.

Yes, Anderson has converted to Hinduism. Guess what name he has taken? Right. It’s Krishna.

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