This December, I’ve got a very good opportunity to watch and capture an art performance—a Javanese dance-drama. Entitled “Sang Maha Dewa Bharata” or “Bisma Mahawira”, the performance was a sequence from the amazing epic story of Mahabharata. It told the story of Bhagavan Bhishma—the son of King Santanu and Devi Ganga. Born Dewabrata or Devavrata, he attained the name Bhagavan Bhishma after becoming a priest. One of the most prominent characters in the epic, he was the grand uncle of both the Pandavas and Kauravas.
Bhishma means He of the terrible oath, referring to his vow of life-long celibacy. Bhishma was a great archer and a warrior. In the process of finding a bride for his half-brother the young king Vichitravirya, Bhishma cleverly abducted princesses Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika of Kashi (Varanasi).
Salwa, the ruler of Saubala, and Amba (the eldest princess) were in love. Upon reaching Hastinapura, Amba confined that she wished to marry Salwa. Bhishma then sent her back to Salwa who turned her down as it was humiliating for a man to accept a woman who had been so long in the company of another man. She then naturally approached Bhishma for marriage, but Bhishma refused her, citing his oath. Amba, humiliated and enraged beyond measure, vowed to avenge herself against Bhishma even if it meant being reborn over and over again.
In the great battle at Kurukshetra, Bhishma was the supreme commander of the Kaurava forces. He fought reluctantly on the side of the Kauravas; nevertheless, he gave it his best effort. In this war, Bhishma vowed not to kill any of the Pandavas, as he loved them, being their grandsire. The war was thus locked in a stalemate. As the Pandavas mulled over this situation, Krishna advised them to visit Bhishma himself and request him to suggest a way out of this stalemate. Bhishma knew in his heart that the Pandavas were righteous and chaste, and that he stood as the greatest obstacle in their path to victory, so when they visited Bhishma, he told them that if faced by another gender that is a gender which has both features of a male and female in battle he would cease to fight and not lift weapons against her.
And so it was, Shikhandi—a female warrior, believed to be the reincarnation of Amba, accompanied Arjuna to the battleground. Her presence made Bhishma put down his bow and arrows. Bhishma was then felled in battle by a reluctant, ashamed and tearful Arjuna pierced by innumerable arrows. As Bhishma fell, his whole body was held above the ground by the shafts of Arjuna’s arrows which protruded from his back, and through his arms and legs. Seeing Bhishma laid on such a bed of arrows humbled even the gods who watched from the heavens in reverence, silently blessing the mighty warrior.
The wonderful dance-drama was performed by Swagayugama (Yogyakarta Javanese Dance Community) of Gadjah Mada University on December 18, 2011 at Taman Budaya Yogyakarta.
And below are some other shots from the opening dance performed earlier, a dance entitled “Sasanti Mangayu-hayu”.