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Yajnaseni - Born from the womb of fire

August 12, 2023

As the story of the essential human being, who through years of varying political contours and civilizational changes both negotiable and non-negotiable, continues to display the same characteristics even today, it is hardly surprising that the Mahabharata as an epic should still be the subject of discourse. Significantly, in the episodes surrounding its heroine Draupadi, one is struck by the discovery of an unabashed rootedness through Time, of the issues centered round society's treatment of women. In the occurring shame of women being assaulted and disrobed, debris from Draupadi's struggle in the Kaurava court still seems to glow ominously.

Emerging, along with brother Dhrishtadyumna, from the sacrificial offering poured into the fire of the Yagna by Drupada thirsting to avenge his defeat by Drona, Draupadi, the heroine of Vyasa's Mahabharata, has held the creative imagination of mankind, since time immemorial. This dark beauty Krishnaa, wedded to five husbands, as the common consort of the five Pandava princes is Panchavallabha, and is known by several names like Panchali, Agnisuta (child of fire), Yajnaseni, Ayonija (not born of a womb) etc. Her life of extremes is rightly summed under Fire and Ice. Subjected to the highest of admiration along with the most demeaning of insults, she was the Empress presiding over a Kingdom one moment, and having to live in exile the next; Experiencing the pride and joys of motherhood with each of the five husbands siring a son, she was also subjected to the inconsolable anguish of losing all of them in the war (with father and brother also felled, in the same Kurukshetra battle). Born from fire, but ending life in the Himalaya peaks, while aspects of her life like polyandry were not of her choice but forced on her by circumstances beyond her control, it was her anger and determination to avenge the insult heaped on her, that caused the terrible war, destroying the entire Kaurava clan, and along with it her own progeny.

Among the several works inspired by Vyasa's Mahabharata, Yajnaseni penned by Oriya writer Pratibha Ray, published in 1984, though as she herself said, had been written earlier. And woven round Jajnaseni, the Fire to Frost story of Draupadi, the Central Sanskrit University in association with Central Sangeet Natak Akademi and W20, sponsored Krishnaa - Fire to Frost, a dance theatre production, at the Kamani auditorium, produced by Nirupama Rajendra, the event being part of a two day National Conference prompted by 'Demystifying Women in Indian Epics and Literature'.

An introductory session chaired by the Vice Chancellor of the Sanskrit University Sri Srinivasa Varakgedi, with the Minister for Education Dharmendra Pradhan, SNA Chairman Sandhya Purecha, Professor Bhagirathi Nanda, and the author of Yajnaseni Dr.Pratibha Ray, brought out some interesting information. Naming women as skilled architects of society, leaving their mark on domestic and societal issues through the ages, the need to demystify heroines serenaded in our epics and literature was stressed.

The Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan published Professor Bhagirath Nanda's Sanskrit translation of Yajnaseni, which is in Oriya - very close to Sanskrit. But even so what professor Nanda did seemed a process in reverse - for usually it is a work in Sanskrit, not being a spoken or understood language today that gets translated into various regional languages. Pratibha Ray's work had such an impact that it led to translations in English, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Assamese, Bengali, Nepali and even in Hungarian by Sona Pokhrel.

Reminiscing on how he wrote the Sanskrit version, Bhagirath Nanda mentioned how his pen seemed to move without any intention on his part to translate Yajnaseni. It was as if some involuntary force was doing the work. In fact so taken up with this Odiya work was he that he was even told that he would be called Yajnaseni Nanda. Ultimately, the Sanskrit version, without spinning out a ponderous work requiring frequent references to syntax and grammar by the reader, stuck to a simple narrative moving in tune with the work being translated. He was taken up with the motto of how without dharma there was no satya. Yajnaseni, with the questions Draupadi asked of those present in the court, remains for him, a constant pointer to Nari Shakti. But for Draupadi's anger, which led to the war, there would have been no Gita - a kendrabindu for society.

It was particularly interesting, listening to the author Pratibha Ray who mentioned how the seeds of Yajnaseni were implanted in her creative self through years of watching around her, dramatic narrative forms like Pala. While the anger had built up against those in the Kaurava clan who played a major role in the Cheerharan, she was stung by the issues Draupadi raised: Is woman merely man's movable and immovable property? Who has the rights over her body? Can a man who has already lost his position in defeat, stake his wife's freedom by using her as a pawn? As a wife, Yajnaseni's loyalty and compassion in the face of deep distress are a hallmark of greatness. When Dridharashtra grants her two boons, Draupadi, despite the ignominy of having been used as a pawn by Yudhisthira, asks that her husband be rid of slavery, so that son Prativindhya can grow up as a free man, and she asks for the freedom of her husbands along with the snatched weapons being handed back to them.

A busy housewife with kids, full of her deep belief in woman's ability for both domestic and outside work, and in the equality of man and woman, Pratibha Ray defined herself, while drawing special attention to woman's place in society, not as a Feminist but as Humanist. One of the most interesting lines of thinking expressed during the evening was of Draupadi symbolizing not the horror of vastrapaharan but the pride of Akshayambar (defying assaults and nudity, blessed with an unending supply of clothing).

The main focus of the evening namely, the dance theatre production as it was described, Nirupama Rajendra's creation Krishnaa- Fire to Frost, unfortunately fell short of expectations. A high costume/drama production on an expansive scale, the thrust on gloss, more in the cinematic pattern, lost out on internalization - the sine quo non, for highlighting the character of Draupadi. Where was the dignity of this woman so wronged - asking the court gathering questions on the rights of the woman - posing issues which still reign supreme in society? That part just did not get the thrust needed even with all the theatre. Exalted and inspiring prose, which one would consider the starting point in the script, was missing. And one seemed to lose sight of Kathak aesthetics which was missing in a large part of the presentation. The production is said to have followed Kumara Vyasa's Karnataka Bharata. But in the Hindi script and the music - Shatavadani Ganesh as writer of lyrics for the music composed by Praveen D. Rao, both highly respected names, were mentioned - somewhere the conceptualization fell short.

The helplessness of men in the court owing loyalty to the Kaurava clan like an honourable Bhisma, or a confused Karna (who born of royalty, due to no fault of his own, suffered ignominy as a suta putra), did not come out in the attitude of the actors, and while not the main thrust of the story, the scene of Satyabhama being told how Draupadi could please each of five differently endowed Pandavas, was too fleeting to register. Yajnaseni highlights the Draupadi/Krishna closeness. But Krishna as the Sarva vyapi and 'sakha' of Draupadi, nurturing a special friendship and closeness, albeit his exalted position needs to be without his becoming the boy next door type of personality.

Nirupama-Rajendra have earned a reputation with their organization Abhinava. A frank exchange on how one reacted to Yajnaseni evinced an encouraging response - to start working at a quieter, more intense Draupadi! Here's wishing the effort luck!

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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