A group of women have gathered in the courtyard of a house in Haryana, presumably in the afternoon, done with their chores and away from the admonishing eyes of their men. As they enjoy the few hours of unencumbered time, they enact the story of Draupadi, the Panchal princess who is married, without once being asked for her views, to the five Pandavas.
Guided by the older women, the members of the group assume the roles of the main characters in the Mahabharata. When Draupadi enters the royal household as a bride, her new family is being wrenched apart in a land dispute: the Pandavas have divided the land with their cousins, the Kauravas. "I thought I had entered a house with 100 brothers-in-law," she wonders.
As Draupadi enacts her thoughts, a woman in the cast breaks out of her scripted role and relives the nightmares of India’s partition. "There were bodies of children on the railway tracks," she wails. "A drama cannot do justice to a story of partition: whether it is Indraprastha and Khandavaprastha, or India and Pakistan."
Atul Satya Koushik’s Draupadi, enacted at the Hindustan Times Kala Ghoda Arts Festival on Monday, retells the story of the Mahabharata through the lives of village women. As the 12 women take up characters from the epic, they realise that their lives are not very different from Draupadi’s.
Draupadi is married to five men but loves only Arjuna; she is forbidden from expressing her love for him. "I was never asked whether I wanted to marry five men," she protests. "But you did not protest either," replies Arjuna. A girl in the group asks her mother why she is not allowed to choose a husband.
When Yudhisthir, her senior-most husband, is about to wager her to the Kauravas after losing everything else in a game of dice, Draupadi is having her menses and has been consigned to a room where she hides away from the eyes of men lest her ‘impurity’ pollute them. "Is it any different now?" one character wants to know.
Written in a mix of Haryanvi, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and splashes of Persian, Draupadi was also staged at the Delhi Youth Festival. Koushik said the play was a rereading of the Mahabharata. "Mythology is known to everyone; there is nothing I can add," said Koushik, who runs The Films and Theatre Society in Delhi. "When times are changing, what are the lessons that I can draw from mythology?"
When Draupadi learns that Yudhisthir has pawned her after losing the game, she wants to know whether he had offered himself first as collateral. When she is humiliated in the court by the victorious Kauravas, the women ask: "Were only the Kauravas responsible for Draupadi’s fate? Her own men were guilty too."