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Ravi Jain, Why Not Theatre’s artistic director is shown in this file photo.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Three decades after British director Peter Brook's version of the The Mahabharata took the Western theatre world by storm, Toronto's Why Not Theatre is teaming up with the Shaw Festival to create a major new stage adaptation of the ancient Sanskrit epic poem featuring a cast from the South Asian diaspora, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Fuelled by a $375,000 New Chapter grant from the Canada Council, Why Not's production will be the biggest ever mounted by the accomplished independent theatre company – and will premiere as part of the 2019 Shaw season in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., before embarking on what is expected to be an international tour.

Why Not's artistic director Ravi Jain and New York director Jenny Koons are co-directing the project – which will have an initial workshop this December with a cast of nine in London, organized with the support of Complicité, the British company run by acclaimed director Simon McBurney.

In India and throughout the South Asian diaspora, The Mahabharata's philosophy- and religion-filled tales of the Kurukshetra War are extremely well-known, Jain says – and the Hindu epic exists in myriad and evolving forms including Sikh and Jain Dharma versions.

"When I was kid, we grew up with these stories in the house," says Jain, born and raised in Toronto, of the poem that has been compared to ancient epics of Homer and Virgil in Western literature but exists in forms about 10 times the length of The Odyssey and The Iliad combined.

"In India, there was a television series [based on it] that the country would just stop to watch. … My dad bought a set of 100 DVDs," he says.

"The challenge is how to create an experience for people who have no experience with it and those who know it well."

Jain's interest with staging The Mahabharata began when he and Koons, a well-known Korean-American director, worked together on a solo show based on the Bhagavad Gita, a section of the epic that deals with Prince Arjuna, for the Pan Am Games in 2015. The two artists were intrigued by its contemporary resonances to, for instance, the refugee crisis and climate change, and wanted to go further.

Coincidentally, while Why Not was working on its grant proposal to do so through the special sesquicentennial New Chapter program, the Shaw Festival's new artistic director Tim Carroll approached Jain – whose hit productions as director include a production of David French's Salt-Water Moon that just concluded a run with Mirvish Productions – independently to talk about possible projects and asked if Jain had any interest in The Mahabharata. Carroll quickly agreed to support Why Not's production and premiere it as part of the Shaw Festival season.

Jain and Koons have assembled a cross-border group of collaborators that includes set designer Camellia Koo and musician Gurpreet Chana from Toronto – as well as sound design Elisheba Ittoop and dramaturg Natasha Sinha from New York. But the exact form of the large-scale show they hope to build will only take shape over a series of international workshops.

Jain suggests, for instance, that the final production may end up playing in multiple locations at the Shaw Festival – perhaps partly on its main stage, partly in its Studio Theatre and partly as a performance in the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

"In The Mahabharata, you have stories within stories – and the ways they're told can be really different," Jain says. "We just want to be flexible and look at different ways of sharing this with an audience."

Both Jain and Koons know well that they are following in illustrious footsteps – having studied the 1989 film of the Brook version when they were students together at New York University.

The legendary director's nine-hour production of French playwright Jean-Claude Carrière's adaptation of The Mahabharata that debuted at the Festival d'Avignon in 1985 has, as The Guardian's Mark Brown recently wrote, "gone down in theatre history as one of the greatest … of all time." It toured for years, sometimes to theatres built specifically to host it.

But Brook's version also has been the subject of a 30-year debate over its alleged cultural appropriation and orientalism. In a 1988 essay arguing just that, Indian director and critic Rustom Bharucha wrote that "The Mahabharata is not merely a great narrative poem; it is our itihasa, the fundamental source of knowledge for our literature, dance, painting, sculpture, theology, statecraft, sociology, ecology – in short, our history in all its detail and density."

"Peter Brook is Peter Brook – and in a way, as a contemporary theatre creator, you're always up against him," Jain says of the director who wrote the seminal theatre book The Empty Space. "The fear I have is less about him and that production – and more about ensuring we do this right, that we honour this story that means so much to so many people."

Jain says that there is already interest for tours in the United States and Britain – including producer Tim Nunn from the Tramway in Glasgow, a former tram shed that was transformed into a performance venue specifically to host Brook's production of The Mahabharata in 1988.

"He's going to come see the workshop – he's very excited about the idea of a South Asian diaspora cast, a different perspective of this story," Jain says.

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