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Interpreting womanhood

Draupadi in the Mahabharata and Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied are characters who come up against a patriarchal set-up resistant to change. But can their experiences be contemporised? ROMAIN MAITRA reviews `Images of Feminity', an Indo-German project, to answer this question.

Emphatic body language ... a sequence from `Images of Feminity'.

SO long as a woman lives the life of the past, she can never come into conflict with history. But once she deviates from the cultural trend of the past, she encounters the full weight of historical inertia, and this unexpected shock can make her suffer, or simmer with revenge or cry for justice. But what happens when the idea of drawing images of womanhood on the contemporary stage is born through juxtaposition of the two ancient heroines, moulded to the necessities of the experiences of womanhood? Santanu Bose, a theatre director from Kolkata and Rita Stockhowe, a German performing arts student found a point of convergence between the characters of Draupadi in the Mahabharata and Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied.

After a year of spatial separation but with "conjoint organisation, calculation and recoverage", the joint effort to review these classical heroines in the context of today for a dance-theatre "femi-professional" project by Indian and German theatre groups eventually began last September in Kolkata.

Bose and Sophia Stepf, a student of Dramaturgy from Germany selected a few key scenes to extract their interpreted image of womanhood. They delved into the two epics so that their characters could be reincarnated in actual bodies and ancient anecdotes be given contemporary meaning.

To overcome the language barrier, Bose worked primarily with dance and movement while Stepf's choreography developed primarily from acting improvisations to find a joint theatre language. However, instead of building aesthetic coherence they searched for means of expression that would reflect the "fragmented reality" surrounding us today.

Bose, an ex-student of the National School of Drama, focussed on the hidden structures of patriarchy that is resistant to change whether in the fictional epic or in contemporary reality. The final production was first staged on November 1 and 2 at Max Mueller Bhavan in Kolkata.

While Kunti is giving birth to the Pandavas and Gandhari to the Kauravas, far away in time and place; in the castle of Worms, the Burgandian king Gunther and his two brothers want their sister Kriemhild to get married. Siegfried, the invincible dragon-slayer, courts her and Gunther promises him the hand of Kriemhild if he later helps him to beat the strong Brunhild in a sporting competition. Likewise, Draupadi is won by Arjuna but shared as a wife by him and his four brothers. Apparently, the uniting factor between the two epics is how impressionable women like Draupadi, Kriemhild and Brunhild are used as booty or a prize, to be manipulated, domesticated and publicly humiliated. However, the actors impersonating characters from one epic imperceptibly slipped into those from the other as each actor took on several roles. The male actors, rather subversively though, even changed their genders, as if to destabilise the rigid distinction ingrained in the reconstruction of male and female bodies.

Another aspect was the recurring trivialisation of the highbrow epic characters through slapstick comedy, often using lowbrow, street-corner parlance, while moulding episodes into gory, dramatic or trite sketches of patriarchal domination and assault. Whether making a parody of Panchali's swayamvara, or suggesting the image of dragging her to the court and stripping her as a metaphor of woman's exploitation by dragging her from the private space of her home to the public space at large, Bose treated this dance-theatre as one who "grew up as a man, with a male gaze within a patriarchal periphery, but mirror knows the rest of the story." This reflects the parallel of the ancient and the contemporary — Draupadi being tossed about by her five husbands or persecutors, or a woman being molested shown through the tearing of the newspaper which she reads as her mind is raped in the process.

Despite endless repetition of the image-motif of the "great male persecutor" and sketchy articulation of the literary sources, the production was endowed with emphatic body language, even stretched to male nudity, erotic kamakala postures, cross-gender androgynous outfits and fashion model sashaying. Also, creative costume designing (Christine Levanas), simple and suggestive décor (Sanchyan Ghosh), apt selection of a variety of music from the West (Alexander Barta) and tangential use of video clips during the show merit special mention.

But, Stepf's very fragmentary treatment of this early 13th Century German epic often failed to articulate the relevant episodes from her source, a common foible when an epic is adapted to suit a specific purpose.

Unlike Bose's hard-hitting slapsticks, her sense of the comic stems from showing human flaws in characters, being generalised, for instance, through interlude sketches of the slapstick encounter between a hero and a heroine/or anti-hero-heroine encounter in a Bollywood kitsch, perhaps all boiling down to how the Gunther in us has to get his Brunhild, irrespective of the means.

The modern woman is conscious of the undeniable fact that only in the state of love can she attain the highest and best of which she is capable and this makes her realise that love is beyond any ideological control.

But she is unaware that love can bring her into conflict with history. For such a thing she needs to be empowered, but may not be through fits of revenge like that of Draupadi and Kriemhild and we would then realise that history is not contained in the thick tomes but lives in our own volition.

The writer is a drama critic based in Kolkata.

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