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A timeless woman

Using the device of a play within a play, “Draupadi” opens with a small gathering of women of different ages.  

Some stories are timeless. They resonate across ages, time and borders. Their form morphs, but the essence remains. Perhaps this is why Haryana in the 1960s can so easily remind us of the Mahabharata’s Draupadi, and its women can find age-old words echoing their own tales.

Written and directed by Atul Satya Koushik, The Film and Theatre Society’s play “Draupadi” comes at an eerily opportune time. As an angry wave of cries for justice for women washes over the country, the play seeks to examine the very question of timeless subjugation, discrimination and injustice.

It’s an intelligent juxtaposition that “Draupadi” offers. By creating a world that is so clearly removed from the original time, age and setting of the Mahabharata, it forces the audience to pick out the similarities, which come in the form of its women and their place in the world they inhabit.

Using the device of a play within a play, “Draupadi” opens with a small gathering of women of different ages, who have a wedding in the neighbouring village to thank for their temporary but very welcome bout of freedom from the men. While the men attend the wedding feast, the women gather to celebrate and find entertaining ways to pass this valuable time, finally deciding to enact scenes from the Draupadi’s life. The play they choose has been banned by the village men, and the very act of choosing this script sets the tone of the play. Guided by the older women in the group, the women quickly transform their humble courtyard into a stage, assuming both male and female roles, and choose chapters from the Panchal princess’s life to perform.

What starts as a light, casual activity soon grows into something deeper, casting a shadow over the performances. Remembering episodes from this woman’s life, married to five men without a say in the matter, the women slowly begin to break away from their scripts, sharing instead their own experiences. The similarity shakes them, forcing each of them to accept that their situation isn’t very different at all. Like Draupadi, who was forbidden to have a say in her own fate, they are silenced too; like Draupadi, they can’t pick their own spouse; like her, they face sexual humiliation and violence, and like her, they are condemned to a life that is marginalised and separated.

With each episode, from Draupadi’s entry into the Pandava palace, to Yudhisthir’s fateful dice roll, and moments from the Pandavas’ exile, the role of Draupadi is assumed by different women from the village, and each time, it invokes an aspect of her own life. Questions are asked and parallels drawn — “Are things any different now?”

What ties the play together and adds another layer to it is the music. The use of different musical styles, including the Haryanvi Ragini, ghazals, qawwali and folk music, each emotion finds reflection in the play’s music. A majority of the dialogues are in Haryanvi, but the actors switch seamlessly to Hindi during the scenes from Draupadi’s life. Peppered with quick one-liners and bittersweet observations, the play manages to stay true to a very serious subject without becoming too dark and oppressive itself.

“Draupadi” stays visually arresting, using brightly coloured flags and costumes to add shades of reds, oranges and yellows to the performances. The colours become symbolic, adding a sort of festive, brave quality to the story, and the gathering of women, so easily slipping in and out of their male and female roles, offers the suggestion of an alternate community, one that allows freedom of expression, speech and equality. The end, while drawing the conclusion that time has not altered the fate of women, manages to steer clear of hopelessness and negativity, instead closing with a song that evokes a land of freedom and music.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 8:44:43 PM |

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