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FESTVAL: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTS : 'One of the world's greatest works'

August 16, 1987|Sylvie Drake

For people who like statistics, "The Mahabharata" (the story of the Great Bharatas, a legendary family that by extension is taken to mean the larger family of man) is about 15 times longer than the Bible and eight times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. At more than 100,000 stanzas, it is the longest poem ever written.

Based on historical events of heroic proportions that took place no later than the 10th Century BC, it is heavily laced with legend and was written--or more likely compiled--by the sage Vyasa ("the arranger"), achieving its present form in AD 400.

In his introduction to the French script of "The Mahabharata," director Peter Brook noted that he and writer Jean-Claude Carriere owed their infatuation with this great Indian poem to Philippe Lavastine, a professor of Sanskrit who, in the course of a memorable evening in Paris in 1975, recounted for them some of "The Mahabharata's" more remarkable stories.

"We began to understand," Brook wrote, "why this poem is one of the world's greatest works and, like all great works, is at once remote and immediate. It contains the most profound expressions of Indian thought and yet, for more than 2,000 years, it has so intimately permeated India's daily life that for hundreds of millions of people its characters are eternally alive--as real as family members with whom one shares quarrels and problems.

"Standing on the sidewalk of the Rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts at 3 in the morning . . . we made a decision: We would find a way to share these stories with a Western public."

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