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Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata Paperback – 29 Sep 2015
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“There is a dazzling range of forms from pantoums and ghazals, to Spanish glosa and sestinas; all of which is carried off with considerable aplomb and bravura technique… But what Nair has done in Until the Lions is recast the Mahabharata in language which reaches deep into the core of the original and makes it triumphantly, vibrantly new.” Ian Pople, Manchester Review (March 2016)
“Yet beyond its blood-soaked destinies and edgy verse is a moving humanist call to better understand history and epic, and our own violent impulses that (mis)shape both. Naïr’s raw representation of emotion, metaphysical meditations and technical artistry make her one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Indian poetry in English today.” Sneharika Roy, Journal of Post-Colonial Writing (January 2016)
Until the Lions by Karthika Naïr is an exceptional book…The women characters of this epic – from Hidimba to Uttara and many shadowy presences in between – come alive in compelling dramatic monologues that segue between diverse poetic forms, swivelling dramatically from cameo to centre-stage. The result is not a series of grand rhetorical flourishes. Instead, these monologues make room for the overlooked, the marginal, the quirky, combining direct and oblique interrogations of the status quo with a tender wealth of detail. Arundhathi Subramaniam, Biblio: Reviewers’ Choice 2015 (December 2015)
… a beautiful, difficult, discomfiting and physically stirring book of intricately connected dramatic monologues performed by marginal characters from the Mahabharata who are mostly female. Aveek Sen, Biblio: Reviewers’ Choice 2015 (December 2015)
They’re all great books, but Until the Lions was a revelation about the kind of power that can be held within lines of words… The lines of Amba, for instance, are so intense it felt like they were faintly vibrating before my eye. Raghu Karnad, Deccan Herald: Favourite Reads of 2015 (December 2015)
It is fabulous and that’s the reason this book can’t be reviewed properly. You need to read it. Bibek Debroy, OPEN Magazine (October 2015)
But in all truthfulness, it’s unfair to quote anything from Naïr’s book, just as it is unfair to cut out separate segments from a painting and present those as an example of an artist’s talent. Naïr’s words have to be read in their right context, not least because of her emphasis on, and experiments with, myriad poetic forms in this book: forms like the canzone, the landay, the Spanish glosa and concrete poetry among others. In Until The Lions, the words are actually seen dancing on the page. Vineet Gill, Business Line (December 2015)
Indeed, these women are, in Naïr’s rendition, lionesses. They embody the reclaiming of discursive authority that Chinua Achebe gestures towards, in the anti-colonial observation that gives this book its title; Achebe notes that “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. Ranjit Hoskote, Indian Express (November 2015)
A seminal work involving vast research and remarkable inspiration, and told with flair and aplomb, Until the Lions is a rare treat for lovers of poetry, mythology and accomplished writing. Kankana Basu, The New Indian Express (November 2015)
Naïr’s grounding in the performing arts lends itself to the poems in two ways: First, its voices are rich and resonant, begging for performance. Second, the poetry performs itself on the page, in visually arresting design. To look at the book’s pages is to experience the pleasure of a thoughtful and exacting harmony. To read it, however, is to feel, often viscerally, the force of the home truth that Vyasa’s epic reaches into the heart of the darkness that drives families and nations apart. Supriya Nair, Live Mint (September 2015)
Karthika Nair has given us the most eloquent meditation on the Mahabharata in this generation—a lyrical, unflinching exploration of the souls embodied in many of the great epic characters, a moving and intricate weaving together of their destinies and desires, a stunning attempt to create a language commensurate with those destinies, and a profound lament for the suffering that all human beings must know. In her hands, the ancient epic assumes new life, one that is somehow close to our own experience of the world, familiar yet also utterly strange and new. Hers is a voice of clarity and passionate empathy; no one has read the Mahabharata this way before her. - David Shulman
Karthika Nair explores the contrapuntal stories of the Mahabharata in a virtuoso collection of dramatic monologues. Queens, warriors, sages, slaves and peasants, even wolves have their say, as the tales of rulers and lovers, parents and children, gods and humans, are retold in metered prose and poetic forms of myriad origin: the Spanish glosa, the Malay pantoum, the Provençal sestina, the Pashtun landay, shaped stanzas and nonce forms. This is a glorious work of storytelling and a poetic tour de force.- Marilyn Hacker
In this retelling of the Mahabaratha from the point of view of its hitherto minor female characters, Karthika Nair uncovers a seminal feminist text. Until the Lions makes dazzling use of concrete verse and surreptitious rhyme to tell a story you think you know. By poem’s end you understand, with gratitude, that you know nothing and the old world has been made new. This is nervy and accomplished poetry. Listen - Jeet Thayil
Until the Lions is a powerful lesson in how the legacy of hate can flow from one generation to another. Nair’s writing is constantly informed by the intricate structures of choreography and, at the same time, has had a profound influence on several prominent dance artists of this generation.- Alistair Spalding
Here's a work that's galvanised both by human and divine history and by the history of the epic itself. The result is a narrative poem of great imagination and incandescence, about a subject at once deeply familiar and deeply strange. - Amit Chaudhuri
About the Author
Poet and dance producer/curator, Karthika Nair was born in Kerala and lives in Paris. Nair is the author of Bearings (HarperCollins India, 2009), a poetry collection and The Honey Hunter/Le Tigre de Miel (Young Zubaan, India/Editions Helium, France, 2013), a children's book illustrated by Joelle Jolivet. She was also the principal scriptwriter of DESH, choreographer Akram Khan's award-winning dance production. In Karthika Nair's resume as an enabler, one finds mention of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet, Kafig/Mourad Merzouki, two Olivier awards, Auditorium Musica per Roma, the Louvre, the Shaolin Temple, misadventures with ninja swords and pachyderms, among others, many of which find their way willy-nilly into her poetry (though, hopefully, not into this retelling of the Mahabharata).
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The diction is absolutely superb. This book can easily be called a treatise on language and lexicon. It will certainly be enjoyable for lovers of language.
Yet, despite such an amazing effort (it truly does deserve the utmost respect), the book fails to capture the essence of the women it tries to represent.
After completing the book, I found myself wondering if it was possible that the characters never experienced even a sliver of happiness in their lives. It seems almost unbelievable that all they experienced was sorry and heartbreak; that they never had a moment’s joy or love to recollect and reminisce about. This is what makes the book difficult to connect to and the women difficult to sympathise with.
Additionally, while I loved the vocabulary, it does destroy the flow of reading. You will find yourself checking the dictionary for the meaning of words, in every second line. With atleast 20-30 lines in each page, that’s atleast 15 times disruption in each page. This certainly doesn’t add to the experience.
Until the Lions has the potential to be something great; if only one can look past its pessimism and elitism in the use of language. Yet, I do recommend it for the new wine in the old bottle that it is.
This version reverts to the original poetic version.
Essentially, it is a narration by Satyawati – she of the piscine birth. Other minor characters – mainly female – too contribute their bit. The cover had me foxed, it shows an anachronistic Ashoka lion in an archaeological dig that purports to be from the time of the Mahabharata.