Producing a play was very different from just being an actor, says theatre actor Shivani Wazir Pasrich on the staging of Draupadi in Mumbai recently.

Shivani Wazir Pasrich was once often seen on the catwalk, her back straight, her stride measured, her head held elegantly. And then she stepped out of the limelight and into a world that was more private, personal, her own life.

But her next step was on to a different stage, one where she could communicate with an audience every time she spoke, talking to each person sitting in front as if they were her friends, the faces changing every day but the intimacy always staying the same.

As a theatre actor, Pasrich has found a new world to challenge her, a world that has accepted her and lauded her talent. This was obvious after the staging of “Draupadi”, a play in English that she, as first-time producer, recently brought to Mumbai, to the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

It has managed to bring the classic heroine out of the shadows of her many husbands and onto centre-stage, literally and metaphorically, with a little help from luminaries such as Ritu Kumar (costume design), Aman Nath (set design), Shubha Mudgal (music/voice) and Anjolie Ela Menon (a signature painting). “Draupadi” was directed by Tina Johnson and Pasrich herself.

The story draws on the original character from the Mahabharata, but begins after the war has ended. Draupadi (Shivani Wazir Pasrich) is wandering through the netherworld that lies somewhere between heaven and earth and is wondering why her life has been the way it has.

As she did on so many stressful occasions through her life as wife of the Pandavas, she talked to Krishna, her confidante, advisor and saviour. Why do women need to suffer, especially the way she did, she wants to know.

Krishna (Dilip Shankar), the all-seeing, all-knowing, introduces her to Maaya (Charu Shankar), a modern woman in today's world who has faced societal abuse and is on the verge of killing herself. Draupadi strikes a bargain with her for her life versus Draupadi's salvation. And the debate of revenge over resilience, life over death, pain over endurance begins…

According to Pasrich, the process of producing a play was very different from just being an actor playing a part in one. “It was as traumatic as the story of Draupadi!” The venture was never planned to happen in the way it did, since “At the core I am an actor. I am used to taking a subject and making it my own, in my own space and comfort zone.” A producer is exposed to the elements — I would laugh at production people when I was doing television and plays.”

When she watched Dilip Shankar during the process of Mahesh Dattani's Dance Like a Man with Lilette Dubey, “Dilip did the lights — he would be looking after everything, and I would laugh and say ‘You could easily be an actor, why do you do this?'. Inadvertently I became a producer.” Suddenly I realised that as an artist many ideas come to you and some day someone would ask you to do something that relates to it all — the road that you take in life has no knowns; it is just a very hard road.” She realises that “if you set your heart to something, you need to find the route to make it happen…and it does!”

Result of research

“Draupadi” came from the research that Pasrich did while she was working on a project dealing with Karna, the anti-hero figure in the Mahabharata. “I found it was all quite male-centric and did not do justice to Draupadi. I thought long and hard — why is it the same kind of track people think about when it comes to her? As a human being, there must be many aspects to her. There seemed to be a strong parallel to many of us today — we are individuals on so many fronts, so why box us into whatever limits we are in? We are after all as rounded as anyone else, and need to explore as many possibilities as anyone else. If you — or I — are going through a tough time, so is everyone. Draupadi went through more difficulties than anyone else,” Pasrich thought. “I did a lot of research on her — the story in my mind that took shape was that as women we face challenges — we have to be malleable as clay, as hard as rock and like sand, fill gaps wherever they appear. It is not possible to be all three in any situation with a given conflict. You will always have problems, but if other women have survived, dealing with more conflicts, so can you.” For her, “Draupadi was an inspiration to conquer all adversity, as strength, as that voice inside speaking out against injustices meted out by society. The whole concept is to not let it all fly into anger and rage and emotions that have no resolution, but to create a system of actually harnessing that energy and channelising it positively.”

And the choice of Pasrich as the title character seemed pre-ordained. As she tells it: “We were rehearsing for a play on Karna; I was playing Draupadi. I wanted to improvise, but the director did not like it. And a man from ISCON who came to watch said, ‘Ma, you are Draupadi'.”

Over two years, paths just opened up, says Pasrich, “The ones I had chosen were blocked, others opened up, and it made me very vulnerable, emotional, fragile. ‘Draupadi' was never just a play for me. It is much more. I don't think it has changed me, but it has changed people's perception of me — which is very flattering. I hope it does not change me! The whole idea of creating is to know who you are and what you are, you know that you are grounded and solid.” And who is she? “I am the mother of my two daughters — but with that, I feel greatly inspired to do things that could change the perception of what women are how they are perceived in society.”

Draupadi, the woman may have been traumatised by circumstances and has risen above them to become a heroine of all times, but “Draupadi” the play is “completely entertaining,” insists Pasrich. “It is not a sermon, yet it has a message, not something that is preached, but an insight into life. This play really is about healing in a sense. I believe it is so relevant in our modern-day world, where we face so many expectations, so many burdens, as wife, mother and human being. We need to be kinder to ourselves.”

The play has been staged in Delhi and Mumbai. Pasrich looks forward to staging it in Chennai and Hyderabad. She enthuses, “I am looking forward to performing in the South — they are so aware of the epics and our history and tradition and it would be interesting to see what they say about this take on the character.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012