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All-Night Epic: Gilgamesh - Channeling my inner Enkidu

Saju Hari Enkidu statue
Photo by Godot Photography

In this blog I will reflect on some of my experiences of working with mythology. As an Indian, Gods, mythical characters, demigods, demons, ghosts and ancestral spirits were all part of our upbringing. Initially, as a contemporary abstract mover/ creator, I stayed away from all these in my creative work as I considered this subject is normally tackled by classical artists! But I feel I am coming around to working with all these concepts as a result of the organic progression of my creative work...

In July 2022, I was invited to spend a week in the studio with the poet Alice Oswald at Oxford University. We were based at St Hilda's College, at the Jacqueiline du Pré Music Building.

It was a week of discovery for me. I was always haunted by any type of literature/ text in my work environment. I consider movement as my starting point and my main tool normally, but like pure movement, one could argue that poetry is also not a slave to its literal meaning. I consider that poetry's truest form exists when it is recited/ expressed by the author and therefore it is ephemeral; dance is a time bound activity and therefore it is ephemeral too. This clarity was liberating and has impacted my own choreographic thinking.

Afer this, Alice and I continued our collaboration, on a ‘site sensitive’ work at the beautiful Oxford Botanic Garden, with a larger group - including story tellers, actors, poets, singers and musicians. We performed in various chosen areas of the botanic garden and the audience members moved around the garden in groups to experience the events on that stunning summer day in 2022.

Fast forward to 2023. I was invited back to the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building to take part in an event called All-Night Epic: Gilgamesh, conceived and directed by Alice Oswald.

It would start at 8pm on the evening of 30 April and end at 6am on 1 May, coinciding with the Oxford May Day celebrations. May Morning is an annual event in Oxford, where thousands of people gather on the streets before dawn to welcome the start of May. These celebrations are a tradition that stretch back for more than 500 years and mark a significant date in the Pagan calendar.

All-Night Epic: Gilgamesh

All-Night Epic: Gilgamesh was a 10-hour, all-night durational event in which the epic of Gilgamesh was narrated by a cast of storytellers, dancers, poets, actors, students, school children, musicians, and the audience's own imagination.

The audience was invited to enter the 'Dream House' to sleep, wake, sing and listen to the story of a man's search for immortality. They were free to bring sleeping bags and cushions, and settle in for the night. It reminded me of all those all-night temple performances that I had witnessed during my childhood.

Gilgamesh was a king of the Sumerian state of Uruk. He is estimated to have lived around 2,000 BC. His epic story was inscribed onto 12 clay tablets which were lost then rediscovered in 1849 AD by an English archeologist.

In a significant part of the story, Gilgamesh comes across a man who was brought up in the wild by the animals. His name is Enkidu. They fought at first, but then made friends after finding some commonalities, and a brotherly love developed between them.

Alice Oswald had the idea to divide the night into 12 segments referring to the 12 tablets, and invited artist groups or individuals to create 12 events based on their practice.

I was offered the option to create a dance event for a particular tablet or to improvise throughout the night. I chose to improvise throughout the night which resulted in me performing on various tablets throughout the night, including me reciting a story.

Alice Oswald and Peter Oswald in the middle of storytelling
Alice Oswald and Peter Oswald in the middle of storytelling. Photo by Godot Photography.

Tablet II

Theatre director Tim Supple was to create an event around Tablet II (Enkidu Was Sitting). Tim decided to make up a story recital with dramatisation of Tablet II and invited me to take part as Enkidu. This meant that I embodied Enkidu throughout the night! I loved it - Enkidu is wild - I could call upon my own wild side!

Enkidu was a wild man who never ate bread or drank beer. He never cut his hair and his friends and family were wild animals in the forest. Priestess Shamhat, after making love to him for seven days and seven nights, said to him:

“When I see you, Enkidu, you look like a god.

Why do you roam the wild with the beasts?”

In the story she makes him ‘human’ by her love, and cleans him up. Enkidu’s appearance resembled Gilgamesh’s! They became best friends although they fought during their first meeting! Later in the story, they fought shoulder to shoulder and killed the brutal savage beast of the forest ‘Humbaba’.

“Enkidu! Born to a gazelle

and an onager, your parents,

you were brought up by donkeys

and led to pasture by the beasts!”

Tablet VII

Tablet VII depicts the disturbing dream of Enkidu:

“Why, my friend, were the great gods in council?”

“My Brother, what a dream I had tonight! Anu, Enlil, Ea, and the heavenly Sun God were assembled, and Anu said to Enlil: ‘Because they killed the Bull of Heaven, and because they killed Humbaba, who kept the mountains thick with cedar,’ said Anu, ‘one of them must die.’ And Enlil said: ‘Enkidu will die, but Gilgamesh will not die.’

Xanthe Gresham, Ammar Haj Ahmad and Saju Hari
Photo by Joe Oswald featuring Xanthe Gresham, Ammar Haj Ahmad and Saju Hari

Tablet VII was recited by scholar and performer Annina Lehmann. I was invited to recite a story alongside Annina while she recited the tablet. As a structure, for the 20 minutes, we had agreed we would take turns interweaving our stories and decided on painting each other as an activity.

I told the story of a man I knew from my childhood. Inspired by a real story..

It is human nature to create gods!

Saju Hari storytelling

In my childhood village there was a man who had very long hair, metres long dreadlocks. He sat under a huge banyan tree and therefore he was called a Swami/ Sadhu. The banyan tree was between the Devi temple and the Lord Ayyappa temple. Anyone sitting under a banyan tree is doomed to be a Swami/ Sadhu! So if you don’t wish this, avoid banyan trees.

He, the Sadhu’s wrinkled face was made enigmatic by his deep eyes which were mostly still. He was a very quiet man who never ever felt the need to interact with anyone. He had a cup of tea in the morning and another in the evening and of all the years I knew him, I never saw him consume any solid food. But then he would just sit and stare at the floor all the time, never moving around much. So I would say those teas were enough.

Another particular thing about him was that he always used the leaves of the banyan tree to touch anything, as if the tree was his physical connection to the world.

Every time I walked along the path, past the banyan tree, I used to see people sitting under it, facing the Sadhu. There was a feeling of devotion and a sense of peace, a spiritual cushioning in the air.

Sometimes people went really close to him, perhaps to share his energy. When people got closer than he liked, he used to curse them saying ‘Fuck Off’. People considered this abuse as a verbal blessing and were very happy to receive it.

Image by Joe Oswald

The news of him reached far and wide. Many more people arrived, sitting under the banyan tree, staring at him, hoping for the ‘Fuck Off’! Some were lucky to get it and some were not.

Once a man was insistent on getting the verbal blessing and went very close to his face. Annoyed, Sadhu whacked his head with a stick. He was bleeding and thought that was a much better blessing. The man who got whacked started noticing some changes in his life ever since! His son got a job, his daughter got married and so on, which made him happier.

Buses brought fortune seekers from far and wide to get a verbal or a physical blessing. Local business flourished, opening up more tea and snack shops. Everything in that area now carried a value. A spot for parking, flowers picked from the local area wrapped in banana leaves, a bucketful of water and so on. A bucketful of water which was always free was now 10 Rupees!

Shops also started selling plastic things in the shape of millions of other gods, as ‘offerings’ to the Sadhu and spread myths that he liked items from some shops better than the others. This contributed to piles of rubbish around him. He used banyan tree leaves to pick these up to deposit inside a hut next to where he sat. He did this in the quiet of the nights.

During this time I went away to a different city for studies. When I came back I saw the locals had built a wall around him to ‘protect’ him from the increased number of visitors. He didn’t like this wall or the people. The constant pestering and the wall cut him off from his environment which made him unwell and he fell sick. Finally, he said goodbye to his favorite banyan tree and his soul left his body under the banyan tree.

But the luck seekers celebrated his departure and noted down the celestial constellation at the time of his departure, marking it as an important time. They collected the plastic offerings from his hut as spiritual memorabilia. Over time, the luck seekers built a massive temple in his name. They made a big sculpture of him in front of the temple and a small one inside the temple. The big sculpture is roughly a morph between him, the Sadhu and Superman.

And so a god was born!

This story was a good one to mix up with the Tablet VII. Enkidu fell ill and started to face his death like the Sadhu in my story and it coincided beautifully during the recital.

Enkidu lay ill for one day, and a second.

In his bed, Enkidu

A third day and a fourth, Enkidu.

A fifth, sixth, and a seventh day, an eighth, ninth, and a tenth day,

Enkidu’s illness.

Saju Hari and Annina Lehmann
Image by Joe Oswald featuring Saju Hari and Annina Lehmann

It is very enriching to have experiences like this. I recognise my fear sometimes in working in new realms, but always after the experience one gains more tools.


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