Pamela Lothspeich: Epic Nation-reimagining the Mahabharata in the age of the empire, 
Oxford University Press, 2009, 281 pages, Rs.625.

There is a prevalent belief that the Ramayana is far more dominant in the Hindi heartland 
than the Mahabharata. In her fascinating study Pamela Lothspeich of North Carolina 
University dispels this misconception. Writers of plays, poetry and fiction who sought to 
establish Khari Boli as the language of choice for people at large in "Gandhi's India" turned 
to Vyasa's mighty creation much more than to Valmiki for material that they could mould 
into effective vehicles for voicing the aspiration for liberty from foreign rule, simultaneously 
holding up to the effete brown sahibs heroic ideals for emulation.
This rewarding read is split into eight chapters covering the making of Pauranik literature, 
early Hindi retellings of the Mahabharata, the renaissance of Hindu myth through the Khari 
Boli campaign focussing on Abhimanyu and Draupadi (Mahavirprasad Dwivedi's prose 
Sachitra Mahabharat 1908 translated from Surendranath Tagore's Bengali abridgement, 
Maithilisharan Gupt's poem Jayadrath Vadh 1910, Badrinath Bhatt's drama Kuru-van-
dahan 1912, Narayanprasad Betab's play Mahabharat 1913, Radheshyam Kathavachak's 
drama Vir Abhimanyu 1916, Ramcharit Upadhyay's prose-and-verse narrative Devi 
Draupadi 1920). The chapter surveying the Hindu ethnic revival embedded in the politics of 
the early 1900s provides an excellent overview of how litterateurs strove to project the 
wonder that was India as the foundation for its emergence as a great modern nation. The 
Mahabharata, with its theme of recovery of a lost inheritance, held greater appeal for the 
colonised consciousness striving to preserve its distinctive culture and create a national 
identity. In that process, myth and history were conflated and the epics were treated as 
enshrining India's past. 
Maithilisharan Gupt is celebrated as the poet who, after Tulsidas, popularised the Ramayana 
most. Actually, Pamela points out, he wrote far more on themes drawn from the 
Mahabharata. Abhimanyu was projected as the teenaged heroic revolutionary entrapped and 
slain through the treacherous machinations of goliathan oppressors. No wonder the British 
government tried to proscribe several plays celebrating Abhimanyu. Draupadi was figured 
forth as the embodiment of Mother India, repeatedly violated and stripped even of her 
dignity. Instead of Vyasa's raging Fury, she is depicted as the ideal daughter, wife and 
compassionate mother (pardoning even Ashvatthama) invested with the wisdom of 
Sarasvati, Parvati's gentleness and Durga's tenacity. Although female characters received 
considerable attention in this literature, they were portrayed as supportive mothers, wives 
and daughters to the nationalist heroes, not as their equals in the public arena. Kabi Sanjay's 
medieval Bengali Mahabharata, on the other hand, has Draupadi leading a force of Kuru-
Pandava women against Drona after Abhimanyu's death.
These Khari Boli writers moved away from both Urdu and Brajbhasha-the one regarded as 
vitiated by Persian and the other as erotically spineless-and create a popular consciousness 
throbbing with fervour about epic India's heroes. In this, they drew inspiration from 
Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's Anand Math and Krishna Charitra, Girishchandra Ghosh's 
Pauranik plays (Abhimanyu Badh 1881 surely inspired the series on this character in Hindi) 
and Michael Madhusudan Dutt's epic Meghand-vadh-kavya. Scrupulously avoiding 
Brajbhasha's staple diet of erotic sport in Vridavan, they followed Bankimchandra when 
dealing with Krishna, restricting themselves to his life in the Mahabharata. 
The study does not notice the remarkable coincidence that the apotheosis of Draupadi as 
Bharat Mata emerges around the same time in the Tamil laureate and freedom fighter 
Subramanya Bharati's long poem Panchali Sapatham Pt.1:1912; Pt.2: 1924 (available from 
the Sahitya Akademi in an excellent transcreation by Prema Nandakumar). Nor is there any 
mention of the large corpus of Mahabharata-based Pauranik plays in Bengali by 
Khirodeprasad Bidyabinod of which Nara Narayan (1926) is the most famous. Unlike 
Dwijendralal Roy in Bengali, why the Hindi playwrights did not take up historical subjects 
like Rana Pratap, Shivaji etc. to voice their protest against foreign rule has not been 
explored. Where Roy celebrated heroines in Tarabai (1903) and Noor Jahan (1908), nothing 
comparable is seen in Hindi despite Durgavati, Ahilyabai and Lakshmibai being ready to 
hand till we come to Subhadrakumari Chauhan in poetry and Vrindavanlal Varma in novels. 
Possibly the realm of myth was a safer sphere than that of history from which allegories of 
protest could be voiced.
In her research Pamela very effectively brings out the anti-colonial discourse articulated by 
these pioneers of literature in Khari Boli, particularly the path-breaking initiative of Betab 
and Kathavachak calling for considerable risk-taking in introducing it in Parsi theatre. She 
has made a valuable contribution to scholarship in this niche area.
Pamela's work needs to be edited out of its dissertation format. Every chapter begins with a 
presentation of its layout, explaining what is proposed to be covered. That is necessary in a 
doctoral thesis, but becomes rather awkward in a book. There are a few errors such as 
"Sthanadayini" (p.190) for "Stanadayini", Gargi was a renowned seer, not Yajnavalkya's 
wife (p.212), Ambika was not the nameless maid sent to Vyasa (p.230), Pratibha Ray's novel 
on Draupadi is not "originally in Bengali" (p.234) but in Oriya for which Bharatiya Jnanpith 
awarded her the Moorti Devi Puraskar. It is reassuring that ultimately OUP is getting back to 
its pristine standards of proofing-typos are very few. The cover is striking, using a 
Nandalal Bose painting in orange, brown and gold. The reproduction of relevant illustrations 
and covers of the rare publications discussed embellishes the work, enhancing its value 

Pradip Bhattacharya, International HRD Fellow (Manchester), retired as Additional Chief 
Secretary, West Bengal. His PhD was on the Mahabharata.