Over 30 years ago.
A stage adaptation of the Mahabharata opened in Paris. Directed by Peter Brook, it was the first-ever stage presentation of the entire epic, and ran to 9 hours. It had a multi-racial cast—21 actors from 16 countries. Mallika Sarabhai was the lone Indian on the cast, playing the central role of Draupadi.
While many art-forms tell stories from the epic, usually it is only parts or specific episodes from the Mahabharata which are staged. This was the first (and till now, the only) time, the whole epic was adapted for the theatre. First made in French, later there was an English version too.
It made history.
It toured the world.
It did not come to India.
Why? Because there were protests in India against people from Africa playing key roles and depicting the Pandavas and some of our other heroes and heroines. There were especially strong reactions to Mamadou Dioume of Senegalese origin playing Bhima. (There were no problems with an Italian playing Arjuna, or a Pole playing Yudhishtra though!)
Peter Brook saw the Mahabharata as a universal tale, transcending time and geography, exploring the human mind and motivations. The depths the human character could plumb, as well as the heights it could reach. He saw it as the story of the race of man. And in this context, the diverse cast made sense.
Alas, the protestors in India could not see this.
We do not often think of racism as one of the many isms that mar us.
But it is there!
And many others.
And I don’t think any one of us is free of some prejudice or the other.
It is the time to dig deep and surface our biases, recognize them, and then grapple with them.
Not easy, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, life is not easy!