The words were unfamiliar. The costumes were striking. The gestures were hugely exaggerated, a bit like classical drama. And yet, the story seemed all too familiar. Kings and heirs, scheming characters, a game of dice, loss and ignominy, a mother’s pleas, philosophical dilemmas amidst war and the inevitability of karma. The drama of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita unfolded on a brilliantly lit stage, but it was surreal to witness it in the form of kabuki, the stylised, classical 17th century dance-drama of Japan.
On stage at the Kabukazi Theatre, in the middle of Tokyo, known characters such as Yudhishtira, Karna, Arjuna, Duryodhana, Kunti, Bhishma, and others, dressed in elaborate costumes and heavily made-up faces, almost pranced around, delivering their lines in a high-pitched falsetto. For non-native speakers, it was possible to follow the story through subtitles on digital tablets that were hooked on to the seats in front; the locals seemed equally riveted to the drama.
The sense of tradition is overarching, even with kabuki. Going back more than 400 years, the form traditionally employed storylines entrenched in Japanese history, myth and legend. So, my guide Akiko-san said, the audience usually knows what to expect and is quite vociferous in its reaction and feedback. As much as the form and the language were unfamiliar to me, the story was unfamiliar to the natives; but the interest was quite evident. It was all part of a new generation of artistes seeking to adapt not just new storylines but also introduce the kabuki form to newer audiences outside Japan.
Spearheading this effort is Onoe Kikunosuke, a fifth-generation kabuki artiste. A visit to India a few years ago, and a chance encounter with kathakali and the Bhagavad Gita, mesmerised him so much that he began working on adapting the story to kabuki. The result was Kiwametsuki Indo-den Mahabharata Senki (The War Chronicles of the Mahabharata), which was billed for a month at Tokyo’s Kabukazi Theatre. Done in three parts, it was spread over four hours and 30 minutes, and yet, not for a minute did it feel like a drag. Though the story was familiar, Onoe had tweaked it to make it interesting.
And so the story unfolded through the eyes of Karna, essayed by Onoe himself, who later told me that he felt the “character of Karna is not just an ordinary hero; he gives his earrings to follow his Dharma and although he was an adamant pacifist, in the end, he becomes a fighter to fulfill his belief in Dharma. So I chose to play Karna to highlight Karna’s tragedy and the confrontational structure of both families.” That was not all: the character of Duryodhana had been made female to suit another artiste who excelled in playing the female protagonist.
There were other points of more familiar reference. A set of characters depicting the pantheon of Gods were dressed in elaborate beige and gold kathakali costumes, though the faces were made up in kabuki style rather than the brilliant colours usually used in kathakali. However, what struck me more than anything else was the swirl of activity, histrionics, dance and music on stage — it was a task just to keep up with all of it.
The flurry, the colour and the excessive gestures and emotions were in complete contrast to the last few days that I had been in Tokyo. There was so much equanimity on the streets and everywhere else, that it was difficult to imagine the Japanese ever being ruffled. The serenity seemed further amplified at the Asakusa temple. Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji (Asakusa was the name of the district and synonymous with the temple), was fronted by a long avenue packed with shops selling souvenirs, handicrafts, and an array of sweets. The avenue ended in front of a massive ceremonial gate beyond which was a courtyard in which stood a huge sand-filled cauldron. The devout were sticking masses of incense sticks, giving the whole place a foggy and surreal look.
Beyond this courtyard was the Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon, also known as Avalokitesvara. A giant chochin (typical Japanese lantern covered in red paper) adorned the entrance. Inside was the deity, supposedly recovered from the river Sumida in the early 7th century by fishermen. To one side of the main temple was a five-storeyed pagoda and on the other was the Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine also known as Sanja-sama, dedicated to the people who founded Senso-ji. It was less flamboyant but held very sacred by the Japanese.
By the time I stepped out, it was early evening and the city’s lights beckoned, so I headed to Tokyo’s most famous shopping district, Ginza. It was a buzzing area with bright lights and an electric atmosphere. The area was packed with towering skyscrapers housing every possible global luxury brand, interspersed with niche art galleries and boutique stores.
The next morning, however, Tokyo’s penchant for poise and tranquillity was in full display at the lovely Hamarikyu gardens. Dating back to the 17th century, it’s located almost in the heart of Tokyo — a beautiful square park at the mouth of the Sumida river and surrounded by a moat filled with seawater. Walking paths wound their way all through the park, passing lush lawns and trees. In the midst was a serene water body with wooden bridges and a teahouse in the middle.
And yet, much like the play, it seemed to be a microcosm of modern Japan: gigantic high-rises and a warren of busy streets surrounded the park, the modern living comfortably with tradition. But inside, it was all calm, save for the sounds of birds and insects. Just like the play, it left me with a sense of incredible quietude.