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The Spectre of the Original: Sanskrit Mahabharata in Modern Re-Tellings of the Mahabharata


· Chinmay Sharma Assistant Professor, Shiv Nadar University (Delhi, India)


07/27 | 16:30-16:50 UTC+2/CEST


“I have come to prefer the world tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-text-usually Vālmīki’s Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa, the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But…it is not always Vālmīki’s narrative that is carried from one language to another” (Ramanujan 1999: 134). Building on Ramanujan’s argument with reference to the Mahabharata, this paper argues that the Sanskrit Original and its putative author, Veda Vyasa, are an important presence for modern re-tellings, even if the modern re-tellings do not actually adapt the Sanskrit text. This essay surveys Mahabharata re-tellings in Hindi and English produced after 1947 spanning television, theatre, poetry and prose, to analyse why and how different modern re-tellings of the Mahabharata chose to invoke the Sanskrit Original, mapping the relational citation matrices between Mahabharata re-tellings. Complicating the relationship between the idea of the Sanskrit, ‘Original’ text and Mahabharata re-tellings, I argue that invoking the Sanskritic original is a clear invocation and re-production of Brahmanical legitimization of culture. However, this invocation is mediated by the form and intent of the re-telling itself. As a result, the essay goes on to argue, not only do the re-tellings narrate the Mahabharata for a new audience, but also re-produce the Sanskrit Mahabharata as a ‘spectral original’, leading to a discursive position that acknowledges other Mahabharata re-tellings, but also foregrounds the Sanskrit narrative as ‘first among equals’.