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Pañcarātra (“The Five Nights”): A Miniature Mahābhārata in an Unusual Disguise


· Nell Hawley Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America)


07/28 | 17:30-17:50 UTC+2/CEST


While the field of Mahābhāratas represents a spectacular diversity of languages, genres, and localities, one narrative line cuts across much of it: the story of the Pāṇḍavas living in disguise in the court of King Virāṭa. Many Mahābhāratas spotlight this branch of the sprawling story, among them Mahābhāratas in Tamil (Shulman, 1985), Old Hindi (Pauwels, 2020), Apabhramsha (De Clercq and Winant, 2020), and Telugu (Kamath, 2020). Why so popular? The story’s themes of renewal, inversion, and subversion (van Buitenen, 1977; Shulman, 1985) are well suited to literary and performative creativity. Its narrative arcs reach (relatively) clear points of resolution—e.g., the killing of Kīcaka—that make it possible to express core elements of the Mahābhārata story without lingering on the ethical and emotional instabilities that fill much of the epic tradition. And since the Virāṭa story mirrors the greater Mahābhārata, it allows poets and performers to gesture at the Mahābhārata as a whole—an irresistible offer. Here I discuss one such encapsulation: Pañcarātra (“The Five Nights”), one of the six Mahābhārata-themed “Trivandrum plays” edited by the Bhāsa Projekt Würzburg (e.g., Brückner, 2007; Steiner, 2007) and linked to kūṭiyāṭṭam performance (Oberlin, 2001). The Pañcarātra makes an important and surprising move. It uses the Virāṭa story to bring the Mahābhārata to an early conclusion: the cousins split the kingdom and avert the war entirely. This, I argue, reflects the Virāṭa story’s tendency toward self-resolution but also carries out its ethos of masquerade. The play’s unusual denouement offers the only semblance of a resolution—a fraught conclusion disguised as a happy ending.