When Draupathy performs  
by Padma Jayaraj, Trissur 
e-mail: padmajayaraj@sancharnet.in 

May 31, 2004   

Draupathy seems to resurrect from the smouldering fire in the substratum of women’s experience in India.  The situation is horrific: sex-selective- abortion among the affluent, female infanticide among the rural poor, eve teasing in every form, dowry death, gang rape to settle scores, the old lonely mother; the experience scalding. The girl child in India is born from fire, the woman lives through fire, and her children lost in the battles of life, the unwanted mother dies in icy indifference. It is the same tale retold, countless times. The legend of Draupathy acquires the dimensions of a metaphor. 

Ever since Mallika Sarabai introduced a feminist version of Draupathy in the eighties, women dancers have presented her born from the fire of Yaga as in the myth, passing thro’ the fire of unusual situations, with interpretive possibilities, living an ironical life in utter loneliness and finally dying in stony unconcern whence she is elevated to the status of a goddess. Draupathy handled by these artistes seems to have more theme than story. Of course each one of these dancers incorporate their own multi-shaded magic. 

Draupathy, the mythical heroine is an archetype of Indian woman. She takes us back to the days of the Vedas and Puranas when gambling and playing chathurangam was the accepted game of politics. In an age when money was unknown and wealth consisted of cows, horses and slaves, selling women as slaves was common and they were teased and dishonoured without an iota of conscience. King Harichandra, the champion of truth, sold his wife and son to keep his word. Draupathy is the traditional self of Indian womanhood - a born princess, born to rule, yet a slave to patriarchal societal demands. 
With the advent of modern philosophies Draupathy resurrected as the symbol of wronged womanhood down the ages. Her leaping, luminous double in a philosophical plane suggests freedom, individual strength, moral authority, and a personification of the urge to break away from an existence dictated by others. She is the modern woman with ideas of liberation yet chained inexorably to life-situations full of shadows that lurk and lunge, where compromise is inescapable. 

The troupe of Chitra Visweswaran in her Chathurangam, the game of dice, projects Draupathy against the backdrop of evil:  an eternal theme of modern relevance. The emphasis is on the game of dice that evokes political intrigues beyond the barriers of time and place. The inter-play of good and evil that leads to war is the highlight.  Dancing from one corner to the other on the stage, displaying the might of evil, anger, and spite, the dancers recreate the dark world where all intrigues are born. The court and the power struggle with all the political nuances evoke human history down the line. In the modern presentation of an old theme, Draupathy is a powerful, yet graceful woman asking questions about the moral right and wrong of social customs, asserting her right to be an individual and her right to individual choice. But all the notions of values are of no avail before the selfish designs of the evil and its brute strength. The good takes a beating. Truly, a predicament in which we are caught up in this post-modern times! Only spiritual strength (Krishna) saves, after a lot of tragic loss. It is as if we could learn only after a catastrophe. Though the old myth is cast in a new light Krishna is still the God and intervenes in life. The story remains within the traditional framework. 
Vasundhara Doraisamy in her solo performance of Draupathy tells the tragic tale of a brave woman, a strange saga of contradictions: of her birth, of marriage, of husbands, of pride, of heroism, of slavery, of revenge, of loss, of sorrow, of strength, of loneliness in the middle of plenty. Although the artiste concentrates on the mixing up of Yakshagana and Bharathanatyam idioms to present the sathvika and thamas (the good and evil) the drama unfolds the story of a woman born to rule, fated to be a slave who toils alone in heroic manner braving the bizarre in her life. Born from the fire she is not scalded by the trials in her life. She is bold enough to laugh at the powers that be. The only time she is unnerved is when her honour is at stake and when all elders fail her. After the initial shock, once again she rises from the fire of ire with a rare spiritual strength to save her dignity even if it destroys the entire clan. She cannot accept defeat; she is bent on punishing the guilty. Never afraid of the mighty, she could even manipulate Krishna to fight for the wrongs done to her. After such a long struggle and the loss of her sons in unequal battles, she understands the enigma of life. Understands that war is both victory and loss, understands that life is never unmixed blessings. In utter loneliness, in a mood of renunciation, Draupathy following her five husbands falls dead among the icy peaks of the Himalayas. The surprising end of a strong woman born from fire, who lived thro’ fire and ends in ice! 
Hema Malini’s production Draupathy, based on the text of Asapoorna Devi, has a complex theme. Incorporating elements of dance and that of the screen the ballet is an audiovisual treat. Though lighting is filmy at times, it highlights a fourth aspect. The classical dimension is given using the kathak and odissi idioms while the projected image of Draupathy soliloquizing on the screen, is her modern persona. The presentation highlights the ironic contradictions of a woman’s situation: the strange twists and turns of her eventful life, her basic loneliness in a love-lost world, her indomitable spirit, the tale of a wronged yet powerful woman, the prototype of womanhood in our days of feminism. 
Draupathy, a princess, on the threshold of youth falls in love with Krishna, a casual visitor to her father. Krishna accepts her garland in his hands pledging eternal bond to his sister. For her, born out of fire, life will be unusual, predicts Krishna, which Draupathy recalls at every crisis to point to the incongruous in her life. Princesses forced to marry the best warrior should have been part of political diplomacy in those days of Swayamvara! With the charming assurance of Krishna, Draupathy weds and falls in love with Arjuna like a dutiful Indian woman committed to marriage. But strange Fate intervenes when she is forced to accept five husbands. On the projected image of the screen, her soul rises in revolt against the decision of the elder brother to satisfy the whimsical illusion of his mother whatever be their reason. Once again she recalls Krishna’s prediction accepting another twist in her life. She makes her home in the forest with a companion, Maya the illusory guard sent to protect her by Krishna. She accepts Subhadra as her sapathni just because she is Krishna’s sister.  

And it is another ironic situation in life that of all the brothers Bhim loves her best while she loves the distracted Arjuna unable to reciprocate Brim’s passion. The tender tale of the emotional bond between Krishna and Draupathy is a prelude to the help Krishna gives in her crises. Basically it is the metaphor of a woman’s love and faith. That Krishna is the manipulator with a hidden agenda, which Draupathy almost guesses is a postmodern thesis. After the war, Bhim brings the blood of her enemy to anoint her hair. Though her vow is fulfilled, she pays a costly price with the death of all her sons at one stroke - revenge for revenge! Wisdom dawns only when at the point of no return. She must have lived as a selfless queen after such bitter experience. She falls dead among the foothills of Himalayas highlighting the basic loneliness of life.  

What does the repetition of the theme in art project? For women the world is still a fiefdom of intolerance and Draupathy is born again and again to spark the freedom struggle. The number of women activists who defy gang rape repeat the sorry plight of Draupathy. The violence against women in our public space, the civil society looking on failing to react, is nothing short of the re-enactment of the personal trial of Draupathy. Where is Krishna? 

 “Throw your teats to the men 
Throw them like the rotten flesh to the dogs…”,  
sang a poetess in disgust.  Perhaps Krishna lives in their indomitable will that enable them to survive every assault and move on and on. Perhaps, the purpose of life is to live it, heroism in its own right. 
At a subtler level, in a world where changes are afoot, the ballets document an anxiety that threatens the freedom that women artists take for granted. Draupathy is placed in modern dance dramas to turn her mirror into an estranged past and to an unfathomable future, a mysterious mirror that refuses merely to reflect. In an unsettling penumbral atmosphere, her liberated self examines the victim and finds signs of a struggle struck by the common fate of women.  

Again, in a feminist perspective human predicament can be overcome by an affirmation of life. Never despair, we are still going thro’ a bad patch, Yes, we must go on, awareness is crucial for the forward march. And women have to take a decision, as to where to stand. The road is stony, dry without much promise for the starry eyed before their life is to be cast differently, bravely, and heroically. 

Padma Jayaraj is a regular contributor to narthaki.com.