‘Peter tried to destroy, recreate us. I wasn’t willing to be destroyed’

I WAS a dancer and had done lots of films, but, when Peter Brook selected me to be Draupadi in Mahabharata, I was the only one in the play who had never worked in professional theatre before. I also did not know French, the language he and the rest of the team talked in. More importantly, I was the only Indian, as well as somebody who had read many, many different versions of the Mahabharata and who had always had Draupadi as her favourite character.

October 1984 was the coldest winter Paris had experienced in a century and I was there with my five-week-old son, rehearsing for the Mahabharata. There were conflicts of interpretations between Peter and me about how some scenes were seen. We talk of women as Shakti; they call women like us shrews. I used to always tell Peter he was an Anglo Saxon male and, therefore, should have taken up the Ramayana and not the Mahabharata.

We were both battling about styles and positions for many months and I often wondered if he ever regretted taking somebody like me who could argue the hind legs off a donkey — and who thought that she knew the Mahabharata. At the same time, he wanted my presence in the play. He didn’t like my talking to other actors about scenes; he preferred that I have discussions with him. Many times, I wanted to run away and it was always the scriptwriter Jean Claude Carrier who calmed me down.

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Peter, who had studied George Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher, was of the opinion a teacher should destroy the ‘self’ in a student and, then, transform the person. Peter tried to destroy each one of us and recreate us. I was not willing to be destroyed. But, he taught me how to act. He managed to create a lot of what I am and I will always be grateful.

Once the preview of the Mahabharata started and I began getting recognised, I understood I was bringing something into the play that Peter saw when he had asked me to do it. Our relationship became playful and we would tease each other. He would introduce me as the woman who hated working with him. He would say, ‘If you want to know how horrible I can be, then talk to Mallika’.

I think we recognised there was symbiosis in the fact that he was creating the Mahabharata and I was in it. The five years I spent with him as Draupadi made me see the effect one single character could have on women across the world, from the smartest French women from the Sorbonne to those in the aboriginal areas of Australia. All the work I have done after the Mahabharata, post-1990, would not have been possible if those five years had not been lived, listening to Peter.

In 2016, I went to Mumbai to see Battlefield, Peter’s new production on Mahabharata. My friend, Toshi Tsuchitori, who had been the music director on the Mahabharata was in Battlefield. I disliked the play and thought it was dull and a rehash of what Peter had done before.

I saw Peter last in 2018, when the world was still not as conflicted as it is now. I hadn’t been in touch with him since then, but I am sure he was greatly despaired by how things were becoming.

As told to Dipanita Nath

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