Posted by Rituparna Sengupta
Myths and epic stories from the Indian subcontinent have been adapted innumerable times, in different narrative and aesthetic traditions, spanning genres, formats, regions and languages, reflecting changing contexts. Here is a list of seven (by no means exhaustive) contemporary texts—novels, short stories, plays, graphic novels—that have explored the Mahabharata with a sensitive focus on its female characters.
1. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions (Picador, 2009)
If there is one novel in English that triggered a trend of rewriting an epic narrative from the point-of-view of a female character in all its interiority, then it is this text, that set the standards for several contemporary writers (like Kavita Kane). The novel places “women in the forefront of the action” and narrates “the story that lay invisible between the lines of the men’s exploits” in the Mahabharata.
The narrative voice is that of Draupadi’s, whose access to the (male) realm of action is limited to observance and reflection. She finds herself in the curious space between the worlds of men and women, born for great things, beautiful and accomplished, restricted by her gender within the royal chambers where her spirit feels stifled. Resenting the lack of creativity her name implies, she refashions herself as Krishnaa and Panchaali and struggles to find her identity in each of the places she inhabits.
The narrative delves into realms of female desire and longing for spiritual awakening, even as it fashions the protagonist along the lines of a tragic figure with a fatal flaw in a bildungsroman narrative. As she constantly negotiates her way as an anomaly, Krishnaa is granted a special insight that leads to her ultimate realisation at the end of the war of which she has been an instrument. This one is an accessible text palatable to the tastes of international audiences who have had their lessons in feminism 101.
2. Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean (Harper Collins, 2012)
Amruta Patil’s Parva duology is a disruptive, valuable addition to the burgeoning literary world of the graphic novel in India. The epic tale is firmly placed in its epic context, replete with mythological significance and a different realm that unfolds in our consciousness.
Positioning herself as one amongst a long line of sutradhaars, the writer-artist asserts that “Cosmic tales are like fish tanks in their need for continuous aeration”. Though the first book Adi Parva is not only about the female characters, it is, by the author’s own admission, an ode to the feminine elements of sensuality, creation and fertility.
Here, masculine and feminine are interpreted as manifestations of abstract concepts. Jealous devas, stunning apsaras, insecure parents and wise children form narrative and artistic tropes and motifs that recur in this cyclical saga. The unexpected narrator is Ganga, elegant and unsentimental, who skillfully plays with the different narrative threads in her hand, wresting them away from the conventional male epic bard. In contrast, the second book Sauptik dwells on the masculine code of conduct of war and destruction, and presents a peculiarly female perspective on ‘epic’ values, even though it chooses a vulnerable Ashwathhama as its narrator.
In a world saturated with the sophisticated gloss of 3D computer graphics, Patil’s various aesthetic methods and mediums from charcoal sketches to collages of fashion magazine photos to pastiches of famous works of art, places her work both, in a multivalent narrative epic tradition, and also the postmodern present, with its layered and multiple sources of inspiration. What makes her work even more significant is the special care with which she carves out spaces for scepticism, dissent and debate within the texts themselves, reminding us about the dynamic contexts which the epic has evolved in and emerged from.
3. Trisha Das’s Ms Draupadi Kuru—After the Pandavas (Harper Collins, 2016)
Though contemporary adaptations of the epics span different genres and formats, this chick lit entry is nevertheless a surprise. It is based on the interesting premise that the women who attained heaven at the end of the Mahabharata are bored there, with nothing to do. While the men are being entertained by sensuous apsaras and have no need for the company of mortal women anymore.
Draupadi, in particular, misses the earthly experience of feeling alive and dynamic, given her static and purposeless heavenly existence, and is appalled to learn of her legacy as inauspicious and unlucky, down on earth. She reasons, “All of us women were hurt and used by men who were too busy chasing their own ambitions to give any thought to us. So, I wonder sometimes, when will it be our chance to find some happiness? Don’t we have the right to try and do things for ourselves after spending the whole of our mortal lives sacrificing for others?”
Along with Amba, Kunti and Gandhari, she manages to wiggle out a boon from Krishna to have a second, temporary lease of life by reincarnating in present-day Indraprastha, err, New Delhi. Light and humorous though it is, the novel manages to keep the individuality of each character in place, as each charts her own journey towards overcoming the regrets and longings of their respective past lives. The story is in a way a continuation of the author’s previous work on the epic, The Mahabharata Reimagined, where startling revelations about different characters and episodes from the epic provide important motivations for many incidents in the epic.
4. Maheswata Devi’s After Kurukshetra & Draupadi
(After Kurukshetra: Seagull Books, 2010, translated from Bangla by Anjum Katyal)
After Kurukshetra is an anthology of three short stories centring around subaltern female characters from the margins of the epic. However, these characters are not in need of sympathy or rescue, but chart their own destinies such that the value systems of the janavritta (common folk) triumphs over that of the rajavritta (royals).
Five enigmatic women become companions for the pregnant and inconsolable Uttara after the carnage of Kurukshetra, a shadowy presence haunts Kunti in the forest in the twilight of her life as she reflects on her ‘unpardonable’ sins and a woman living in the margins of the town welcomes her son who has fought and survived the war. Strong and articulate, these women subvert the dominant social order that overlooks their “insignificant presences” and sacrifices them without a second thought.
The Padma Vibhushan awardee’s short story Draupadi has long been considered in academic circles as a radical transcreation of the epic Draupadi’s story. Here, the protagonist is a tribal woman Dopdi Mejhen whose response to brutal sexual violence emerges from outside patriarchy’s frames of reference, and also those conventionally accessible to contemporary feminism.
The translator Gayatry Chakrovorty Spivak also provides a searing insight into this powerful text in her introduction to it. In all these stories, the intersection of gender and class produces potent rebellions by ‘marginal’ characters.
5. Saoli Mitra’s Five Lords Yet None a Protector and Timeless Tales: Two Tales
(Bhatkal & Sen, 2006, translated from Bangla by Rita Datta, Ipshita Chanda and Moushumi Bhowmick )
These two plays that are also companion pieces written and performed by Saoli Mitra in katkatha style since the 1980s are feminist-humanist readings of the Mahabharata, heavily drawing upon Yuganta, the famous commentary on the epic by Iravati Karve. Five Lords Yet None a Protector expands on the popular idiomatic description of Draupadi as ‘nathavati anathavat’—the paradox of a woman with many husbands, and yet as good as one without any.
The kathak, or the narrator, reflects upon Draupadi’s life, her marital fate, her humiliation and exile with her husbands, her call for a dharmayuddha, its culmination and her mahaprasthana. In a metatextual gesture towards our present times, Draupadi demands to know, whether if she were to forget a ‘personal insult’, it could be ensured that “in the future no women will ever be persecuted and demeaned” like her.
The companion piece Timeless Tales is another meditation on the Mahabharata, but on a larger canvas of several female characters—Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari— and the similar tragic end of their ambitions. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Foreword and Mitra’s Introduction and Appendices provide further contextualisation to the two plays.
6. Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s Telugu novel Draupadi
(Sahitya Akademi, 2014, translated from Telugu by K V Purneswara Rao)
The Telugu novel, penned in 2010, went on to win the Sahitya Akademi award despite generating criticism in conservative circles for its ‘desecration’ of Draupadi’s character. Having first appeared in serialised form in the Telugu weekly Andhra Jyoti, it was eventually translated into various Indian and other languages.
Written in the third person, the novel focusses most of its attention on events in the Mahabharata that directly involve or influence Draupadi. The novel focuses majorly on Draupadi’s sexuality and intellectual growth rather than seeing her as a merely objectified female or a transaction between males in a patriarchal world that has no space for an exceptional woman like her.
Particularly appealing are the descriptions of her relationship with each Pandava brother, and the nuanced representation of the assembly scene in Hastinapur, where the legal and moral dilemmas of the episode are examined in telling detail. Without venturing into the realms of speculative fantasies, the book is a skilful exploration of the interiority of a female character, sensitively carried out by the Padma Sri writer, a rare achievement for a male author.
7. Atul Satya Koushik’s play Draupadi
Kaushik’s trio of plays on Draupadi, Raavan and Krishna have been much appreciated by critics and audiences alike in the recent years when they have been on stage. In a village in Haryana, as the men in the household travel in a wedding procession, the women stay back and entertain themselves by taking turns to enact scenes from the Mahabharata.
This story within story structure brilliantly mimics the epic style. As each woman dons the role of Draupadi (and other male characters), she finds uncanny similarities between the epic character Draupadi and incidents from her own life and this leads to a night full of revelations, individual and collective. Topics from domestic property tussles, the Partition of the subcontinent, sexual violence: all find sensitive reflection through the play.
An unexpected delight is the humorous yet earnest song addressed to Krishna, demanding to know why menstruation falls to the lot of women. It is a refreshing experience to see these diverse women, hemmed in by an evidently patriarchal structure, frankly discussing their experiences and trying to make sense of them through the dramatic device of Draupadi, whom they rile, but also sympathise with. An excellently written and directed play by one of our best contemporary male playwrights, about the need for female solidarities in a world that has, after all, not changed much from the Mahabharata epoch.
Which additions would you like to make to this list?
Rituparna Sengupta is a PhD scholar in Literature at IIT Delhi. She is working on her doctoral thesis on contemporary popular English adaptations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. She can be followed on Facebook and her film reviews can be followed here.
Featured Image Credit: Umbilical