What defines gender? What makes us male or female? Is it the body? Could it be deeper, unnamed impulses that drive desire or expression—an inner calling? Or is it just external: an identity bracelet society hands out? How permanent and unchanging do these labels remain? And what part does Time, master sorcerer, play in our perceptions?
On the cusp of his fortieth year, keenly aware of the complex demands of the body across time, of the transition from power to endurance, Akram Khan turns his gaze on these questions through the prism of one of his best-loved epics from childhood: the Mahabharata.
As both performer and choreographer, Akram Khan has shared an uncanny, enduring equation with the epic. He performed in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata as a teenager. In Ronin (2003), Third Catalogue (2005) and Gnosis (2010), he staged stories of other heroes from the epic.
Until the Lions revisits the great epic, but through the eyes of another compelling character, this time a woman: Amba, who questions the definitions of manhood and womanhood, and challenges Time. Amba, a princess abducted on her wedding day by Bheeshma, regent of the neighbouring kingdom, and offered as bride to his brother. Though she regains liberty, Amba’s life is destroyed: she is rejected by her family, her betrothed—for having been won in battle by another man, later by her abductor, who refuses to redeem her honour; and all of society. Amba then invokes the gods . . .
Until the Lions looks at what happens when those society’s rules for each gender destroy rather than protect. What does a woman do when she loses ownership over her body, equated with her virtue? To what lengths can she go to regain control over her life, to gain justice? When the quest for justice swerves towards revenge, what price would the body have to pay? And what price would humanity have to pay?
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” says an Ugbo proverb. For Until the Lions, Akram Khan reunites with some of the artistic collaborators behind his acclaimed and award-winning solo DESH: writer Karthika Naïr, visual designer Tim Yip, lighting designer Michael Hulls and dramaturge Ruth Little – joined by composer Vincenzo Lamagna. Together they attempt to be “historians” to one of the great, unsung heroines of the Mahabharata, whose tragedy finds urgent echo even today, in all too many parts of the world.
Until the Lions is a choreographic response to the tale of Amba/Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, the classical South Asian epic that has been beloved by Akram Khan since his childhood. Poet and writer Karthika Naïr reimagined this story and those of several minor characters from the original in her award-winning book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (2015). Nair’s retelling in verse gave voice, dignity and intention to these female characters whose lives and stories, as well as their roles as catalysts and witnesses, have remained largely subaltern.
We begin with the wedding of Amba, the eldest daughter of the King of Kashi, who is about to choose her husband during a public swayamvara ceremony when she is abducted by Bheeshma, son of the Kuru king. An unparalleled warrior and archer, he defeats Amba’s potential suitors including her true and secret love, Shalva.
Bheeshma has made a vow of lifelong celibacy (Bheeshma means “he of the terrible oath”). Intending Amba as a potential bride for his half-brother, crown prince of the Kuru, Bheeshma discovers that she loves another. He releases her, but Shalva spurns Amba because she has been won in battle by another man.
Amba then returns to Bheeshma and insists he right the wrong done to her by taking her as his bride. Bound by his vow of celibacy, Bheeshma refuses, and Amba’s pleas for justice fall on deaf ears. Amba swears she will be revenged on Bheeshma and dedicates the rest of her life to this purpose.
She undergoes years of extreme penance, which unbalances the universe. Finally, Lord Shiva appears and promises Amba that she will destroy Bheeshma, but in her next life. Amba burns herself to death to hasten her quest for justice, and is reborn as Shikhandi, another princess later given male form by a forest spirit.
Trained as a warrior, burning with the memory of Amba’s vow, Shikhandi finally confronts Bheeshma on the battlefield on the tenth day of an apocalyptic war between the Kaurava and Pandava clans. Recognising Shikhandi as Amba’s reincarnation, and a woman by birth, Bheeshma lays down his weapon, allowing the warrior Arjuna to attack him from behind Shikhandi. Pierced by Shikhandi’s and Arjuna’s arrows, Bheeshma falls, severely wounded, and awaits his death and the war’s end, on a bed of arrows.
Until the Lions, though, imagines this final confrontation as one between Shikhandi (fuelled by Amba’s spirit and boon) and Bheeshma. The two tortured souls alone, with no other adversaries or allies: it becomes the culmination of two lifetimes of loyalty through betrayal, devotion through wrath.
On the night after the 18th and final day of war, Shikhandi is murdered by the three surviving warriors from the Kaurava army, who, in their desperate rage, break all the rules of battle, and kill him in his sleep, thus denying his soul a place in heaven.