Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata


Published: 11/12/19





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Book Description

A dazzling and eloquent reworking of the Mahabharata, the ancient Asian epic, through nineteen voices on the periphery. With daring poetic forms, Karthika Naïr breathes life into this ancient epic.

In Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr retells the Mahabharata through the embodied voices of women and marginal characters, so often conquered and destroyed throughout history. She captures the richness and complexity of the Mahabharata, while illuminating lives buried beneath the edifices of one of the world’s most venerated books. Through shifting poetic forms, ranging from pantoums to Petrarchan sonnets, Naïr choreographs the cadences of stray voices. And with a passionate empathy, she tells of nameless soldiers, their despairing spouses and lovers, a canny empress, an all-powerful god, and a gender-shifting outcast warrior. Until the Lions is a kaleidoscopic, poetic tour de force. It reveals the most intimate threads of desire, greed, and sacrifice in this foundational epic.

I get lost in the grand narrative retelling of the literary legend, and then I am astounded by the personalized shifts with which Karthika stamps her voice on the Mahabharata, so tender, fierce and visionary. It's a liberating experience to be dissolved into what Amjad Nasser called 'the ten metaphors of poetry,' so to speak, between grief and love, ecstasy and despair, meaning and nonsense.
Fady Joudah, Shelf Awareness

The most lyrical of all such attempts to see the Mahabharata through the eyes of its characters is the remarkable dramatic poem Until the Lions by the Kerala-born, Paris-based poet, dance producer, and librettist Karthika Naïr ... The thirty haunting, heartrending chapters, in a wide range of forms and styles, resonate powerfully with one another...Women whose names are known from the Sanskrit epic but whose character and inner experience are muted there suddenly come to life as full-blooded people caught up in the destruction endemic to a male world...

David Shulman, New York Review of Books

The Mahabharata, the larger of India’s two epics, was composed roughly 2,000 years ago . . . In reading Naïr’s book, I felt as if I had scratched the surface of a palimpsest (the epic) and discovered a room teeming with three-dimensional living souls . . .Until the Lions adds a brilliant new thread to this rich literary tapestry . . . Until the Lions is undoubtedly a tour de force.
Ken Langer, Harvard Review

John Dryden famously spoke of translation taking three forms: metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Though written in English, Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions certainly fits this last category. Her feminist take on the Mahabharata, India’s great epic, is an astonishing demonstration of the power of translation to reshape and renew the literature of the past.
Edwin Frank, Words Without Borders

Naïr, in nearly three hundred pages of connected poems, reimagines the story of the Mahabharata as the lions’ story, giving a voice to nineteen of its characters and allowing them each to tell their own account . . . Employing poetic structures including the canzone and the obscure French form rimas dissolutas, among many others, Naïr deftly shifts from one voice to the next.
Bibi Deitz, BOMB

Karthika Naïr, in Until the Lions, powerfully reimagines the national epic from the margins, allowing the suppressed voices to be centered and given subjectivity. Lyrical and somatically dense, the prose and verse of this book creates an intense and coruscating chorus. In a world that seems more riven by the political tensions of capital and multiplicity, that seems more dangerous and conflicted, this epic feels like a balm.
Kazim Ali

Until the Lions is the Mahabharata I longed for as a child. These are the voices I imagined as I sat through enforced viewings of the endless TV series, bristling with waxed mustachios and phallic posturing. Karthika Naïr has pulled off a truly epic feat. Both the scope of her ambition and the skill of her execution inspire awe and elation.
Shailja Patel

Whether it’s about war, grief, love-making, or revenge, every poem of Until the Lions is charged with Karthika Naïr’s electric voice. The lines fairly hum with it. In a strange unexpected way, this epic re-singing is also a deeply personal book.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

In this retelling of the Mahabharata from the point of view of its hitherto minor female characters, Karthika Naïr 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

One of the most remarkable epics, timely and timeless, for where it was written but wherever it can be read, The Mahabharata has fired imaginations for centuries. Writing in English, Karthika Naïr has taken female voices from this work and given them, and the larger work itself, vivid new life. In a dazzling array of poetic forms, Naïr gives voice to the gamut of expression and emotion, voices beset by conflict, by warfare, by forces arrayed against them of circumstance and fate. This is beautiful, utterly human work, a cry from deep in the past, so relevant to here and now.
Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company

Karthika Naïr 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

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

Karthika Naïr 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

It is fabulous and that’s the reason this book can’t be reviewed properly. You need to read it.
Bibek Debroy, OPEN Magazine

Naïr’s intervention – a series of dramatic monologues that give the epic’s women psychological depth, wrath and despair – is brilliantly executed. Expressed in a range of poetic forms from the concrete to the glosa, Naïr’s voices give one a sudden fluency with a complex narrative that is immediate and surprisingly subtle – so alive are her voices, so chilling are the prophetic leaps into the chaos of prehistory.
Sandeep Parmar, Times Literary Supplement

Until the Lions is a powerful lesson in how the legacy of hate can flow from one generation to another. Naïr’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

Until the Lions is a triumph of narrative and poetic risk-taking. Five years in the making, Naïr’s collection of poems, written in the voices of women in the Mahabharata, has been rightly hailed as a magnum opus by the critics. The most recognisably remarkable thing about the books is its beautiful, languorous, old-world English that blends right in with her subject matter.

Aditya Mani Jha, Wasafiri

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 Naïr 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

A fascinating and creative interpretation of the Mahabharata.

Salil Tripathi, The Hindu: The Author's Choice

Karthika retells the Mahabharata in many voices, each hitherto unheard of, and it is impossible not to be captivated by them. A brilliant poetic tribute to the epic.

Anees Salim, Deccan Chronicle

The Mahabharata will always take you back to the deepest existential questions. It continues to instigate superlative writing as well. Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions (Harper Collins) is an unshakeable masterpiece of modern poetry, and one of the great retellings of the text.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Indian Express

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

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

Until the Lions, a poem cycle set at the margins of the Mahabharata, uses modern forms but doesn’t shy away from the strangeness and ferocity of its setting . . . Until the Lions is, despite or because of its ancient milieu, one of the most powerful anti-war statements I’ve ever read.
Brendan Moody, Late Democracy

Read an interview with Naïr in Mint Lounge here.

Tishani Doshi and Naïr discuss dance, poetry, and the legacy of mythology for Granta Magazine here.

Read an excerpt of Until the Lions over at Live Mint here.

Watch Karthika Naïr read from Until the Lions at the Winter Warmer Poetry Festival here. She comes on about 40 minutes in.

Watch Karthika Naïr and Jai Arjun Singh discuss stage adaptations of Until the Lions, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, here.

Listen to Karthika Naïr and David Naimon discuss Until the Lions on Between the Covers here.