Two years ago, I was in Kolkata while the city performed her annual Durga puja. After a dinner party, a group of friends and I left an apartment with a view to visiting the nearby Navadurga temple. We were welcomed by nine supposedly different representations of Durga’s various aspects, all exact lookalikes. Standing upright, one next to the other, they resembled a crew of Bollywoodised flight attendants: blindingly white and tawdry mannequins with flagrantly rouged lips stretched into Mona Lisa smiles. It seemed as if Durga had been sublimated beyond recognition – there were no vestiges of her resolute self on any of those uniform, bleached out faces.
The real surprise, however, awaited in the adjacent room. Tucked into a wall niche was a miniature, dark-skinned Kali, decked with tribal beads and wrapped in a piece of colourful cloth the size of a handkerchief. At first, she looked like an ordinary straw doll. The black goddess was so strikingly inconspicuous – a dethroned and exiled splint of darkness. How had she shrunk to such infinitesimal proportions? What had happened to her, and whose company had she been keeping?
Some answers to these questions can be found if you dig through the prodigious bulk of scholarly work on Indian goddesses. You will be able, in some cases, to trace their origins all the way back to the pre-Aryan fertility cults, and the Great Mother Goddess, dark and primal. But to observe the contemporaneous vicissitudes of this link, its ongoing dialogue with the present, one would need to take a look at the equally prolific literary and artistic output that centres around archetypal female characters passed down by the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Semi-divine and pseudo-human, they echo the proto-goddess in ever-changing scenarios and rewrites.
When trying to identify the more transparent incarnations of the Black Goddess, Draupadi comes to mind. This epic heroine with blue locks and short temper – one of the leading female characters of the Mahabharata – is also known as Krishnā, or the Dark One (the long ‘a’ indicating the feminine gender in Sanskrit, as opposed to the Yadava prince Krishna, with whom she shares a special bond). Many scholars advocate her Dravidian origins. Also the embodiment of Shakti, Durga, Kali, or the Earth itself, she has taken on flesh in numberless revisitings and adaptations of the epic.
In most incarnations she is seen as a visceral, liminal character and an assiduous shapeshifter: a reluctant polyandrist, rebel, rape survivor, comrade, demon slaughteress, prostitute, boundary goddess, firewalker and a perfect vessel for the collective unconscious, its undercurrent sentiments and the abject. It seems to me that, in her avatar as Krishnā, Draupadi is used as a probe to explore society’s shadow. She is, like any archetypal character, an apt psychoanalytic tool: in her case, a mirror for the macabre and the marginal.
Mahasveta Devi has proven this to be the case with her short story ‘Draupadi’, which sets the classical heroine into a contemporary context – she is not a princess, but a tribal. In Devi’s text, the other version of the heroine’s name is Dopdi, which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who translated the story into English) interprets as Dopdi’s inability to pronounce her Sanskrit name – “the tribalized form, Dopdi, is the proper name of the ancient Draupadi.”
Dopdi the tribal
French feminist Hélène Cixous has written that a “feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive,” especially one trying to recast a female archetype. Dopdi is an illiterate Santal, a tribal rebel involved in the clash between the government’s army and West Bengal’s Naxalites in the 1970s. She is eventually captured by the army officer Senanayak, tortured and gang raped. Devi suggests the act of rape through the image of “active pistons of flesh” rising and falling over the “spread-eagled still body.” Similar phallic imagery is employed in the epic when the eldest of her five husbands, Yudhisthira, stakes and loses Draupadi in the infamous game of dice, and the opposing Kaurava clan wants to claim her as their own. At the climax of the disrobing scene in the Kaurava’s assembly hall, or sabha, when Dushasana starts pulling her sari in an attempt to strip and embarrass her in public, Duryodhana flashes his left thigh at Draupadi – the “stem of the plantain tree… the trunk of an elephant… endued with the strength of thunder.” Indologist Sally J Sutherland believes that the expression ‘left thigh’, savyam urum, is a euphemism for male genitalia. In both cases, power is implied and displayed by the symbol of the phallus.
In the epic, Draupadi’s ‘modesty’ is saved by the divine help of Krishna – her sari turns endless and unstrippable. But the events in Devi’s story take an unprecedented turn. Dopdi tears her blood-stained cloth with her teeth and walks naked towards Senanayak: “What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?… Come on, counter me”. In an act resembling contemporary performance art, she redefines her position as unthreatenable, and herself as – in the words of feminist scholar Sharon Marcus – “neither already raped nor inherently rapable”.
Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ is an attempt to lay bare the harsh political landscapes inhabited by the tribal or autochthonous peoples who almost always bear the brunt of forced development. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is a conflicting and collaged narrative with easily discernable seams and stiches where interpolations were fitted in. Each of these digressions was carefully chosen to prove or blur a point, depending on the agendas of a particular time and space. According to some scholars, the Mahabharata can be read as a record that both maps and justifies the imperialistic tendencies of the Pandavas, and their consequent claiming of the forests: aided by Krishna, Arjuna burnt the Khandhava forest to build their capital, Indraprastha. The various tribal people, who lived on the territory, were either killed or fled. Moreover, there is a distinct correspondence between Devi’s description of the official treatment of governmental violence against the tribals (“How many killed in six years’ confrontation? The answer is silence”) and the atmosphere in the sabha when Draupadi’s pleads before the assembly (“but the kings present didn’t say a word good or ill”). The two impenetrable walls of silence that Draupadi faces are made of the same stuff.
Palace of Illusions
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel The Palace of Illusions tackles the epic in a lighter vein. Draupadi, the novel’s protagonist and main narrator, retells the classical story from her point of view.
She is fire-born and “severely dark-skinned”. Society “looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk-and-almond hues,” and “this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl”. From very early on, she is aware of her gender, its socially imposed constraints, and the oppressing ennui that comes with it. Exclusion from the male arena and what seem to her a series of unfortunate but historically relevant events, makes her simultaneously keen to leave her mark and escapist in her desire to be left out.
The plot-driving tensions are built between Draupadi’s intimate, personal motives, and the historical role she has been allocated: to be the catalyst for the new world epoch, the Kaliyuga. While she negotiates between her divine mission and pursuits of the flesh, her mostly unconscious words and (re)actions instigate the great battle of Kurukshetra, the epic’s ground zero.
Yet, this Draupadi’s Freudian slips – a wrong word, an inability to suppress laughter, her sincere need to protect her loved ones (often translated as an insult to somebody else), or mistakes and miscalculations generated by her illicit desire for Karna – make her appear to have no more control over herself than she does over cosmic perturbations. She gropes in semidarkness (which is the position she’s been pushed into), trying to make sense of the shadows.
The intricate palace of illusions, the Pandava’s new home in Indraprastha – which the enslaved supernatural being, or asura, Maya (whose life was spared in torching down the forest) was ordered to build in the scorched wasteland – is Draupadi’s alter ego. It has “floors looking like rivers, waterfalls looking like walls,” and is so deceptive with its optical illusions that even the Pandavas occasionally wade into pools that are “disguised as stretches of marble flooring”. It feels as if, when it comes to Draupadi, the novel reiterates the motives of tripping and stumbling over, getting enmeshed into one’s own unconscious.
Consciously, however, she opts for something completely different for herself – political involvement, emancipation, recognition, freedom. When she joined the Pandavas on their final Himalayan pilgrimage, like in the sabha, she was treading a slippery, male terrain: “No woman had ever attempted it… But what was the alternative? To sit among bent grandmothers, gossiping and complaining, chewing on mashed betel leaves with toothless gums as I waited for death?” The temptation to once again be on par with men was too seductive to resist.
Although Divakaruni’s Draupadi is a warm and engaging take on the heroine, at times it feels like the author’s attempt to highlight Draupadi’s humanness inadvertently downplays the possibility of her being a more defined character. One wonders if more radical departures in that direction might have led her to emancipation from the standard plot altogether, and could have opened the traditional, mainstream narrative not just to reinterpretation and a shift in perspectives, but also to re-creation.
Shashi Tharoor’s satirical retelling of the Mahabharata, The Great Indian Novel, is dictated straight into the pen of Ganapathi by Ved Vyas, a member of the ‘Old Guard’ of the ruling Kaurava Party (Congress). The story is set during the Independence movement as well as post-Independence India that is struggling to keep Nehruvian democratic ideals afloat, temporarily abandoning them during Priya Duryodhani’s (Indira Gandhi’s) Emergency.
Although the character of Draupadi – who is personified as democracy – emerges only in the second part of the novel, she propels the plot from that point onwards as the elusive aspiration of the Congress. Draupadi Mokrasi (or D Mokrasi, pun intended) is born to political leader Dhritarashtra (Nehru) and Georgina Drewpad (Edwina Mountbatten), the British Vicereine of India. When she was a girl, one of Draupadi’s teachers said she had “an open manner, an ability to learn from and adapt to the conditions in which she found herself, and a willingness to play with all the children in the neighbourhood, irrespective of caste, creed or culture” – a flexibility and inclusiveness which her character exhibits throughout several artistic genres and forms of religious worship.
In a fable-like progression, Draupadi grows into a beautiful woman desired by everyone, and “though her skin was not of the pale colour prized by upper-class India, she was delicately dusky.” Her swayamvara, the ceremony during which she chooses a husband from a gathering of suitors, involves Arjun opening a ballot box (into which she has entered) and a misunderstanding similar to the one in the epic ensues: one of the Pandava brothers, Nakul, phones their mother Kunti to announce the surprise they are bringing home. Over the bad line, his words are indistinct, and Kunti simply tells them to share whatever it may be equally amongst themselves. Compelled by an indiscriminate obedience to their mother and enticed by desire, all five brothers marry Draupadi. On a more metaphorical level, however, the role of the five Pandavas is to uphold and sustain Draupadi, or democracy: Yudhishtir as the political leader of Hastinapur (Delhi) and the judiciary; Bhim as the army; Arjun as the media; and Nakul and Sahadev as the administration and diplomacy, respectively, though, as Tharoor writes, the twins have each taken up the position better suited for the other.
The notorious game of dice occurs at the height of Priya Duryodhani’s frenzied rule. Draupadi is again dragged into the sabha by her blue locks – the democracy kicking and screaming through its hardest moments, but not entirely stripped due to the timely intervention of Krishna. After the Emergency is lifted and free elections – “a great Indian tamasha” – announced, the novel wraps up by making a case for the fluidity and multiplicity of dharmas as cornerstones of a “darker,” authentically Indian democracy.
The epic story takes yet another twist in the terukkuttu, or folk theatre, plays performed as part of the South Indian spring festivals (mirroring Dussehra celebrations) dedicated to, this time, the folk goddess Draupadi. The Mahabharata’s Southern retellings have often differed from Northern ones, so it is not surprising that Draupadi has taken another form in the Tamil Nadu village of Melacceri, or Old Gingee (once part of the medieval Kingdom of Gingee). There, at the edge of the forest, stands Draupadi’s ‘temple of origins’, from where her cult has spread throughout Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In his extensive The Cult of Draupadī, indologist Alf Hiltebeitel juxtaposes the various terukkuttu plots with the classical storyline, and delves into their convoluted symbolisms.
Hiltebeitel argues that Draupadi festivals are a carnivalesque hotchpotch of various cults and forms of worship, which have, in their approaches to sacrifices and offerings, a “Vedic pedigree”. They cater mainly to the subcastes, and induce possession in both actors and spectators/participants. In such festivals, Draupadi is linked to Durga, Kali and several other South Indian goddesses. She is also identified as the chaste lady, fierce virginal goddess with two bodyguards by her side – the Hindu Pottu Raja and the Muslim Muttal Ravuttan. The latter serves, with Draupadi, as the protector of the Northern boundary against invading enemies. But, he has also been made into an alcohol-drinking, opium-smoking, non-vegetarian “criminal god” with a penchant for rape, pillage and black magic. Hiltebeitel continues that “the Draupadi cult has transposed an ‘Untouchable’ role – the handling of extreme sacrificial violence and its impurity – onto a Muslim.” However, his figure can also be seen as a mediator between the devotees and the goddess, a conduit for a tantric transformation of sorts, and therefore crucial to the cult.
Draupadi undergoes a few unexpected transformations herself, writes Hiltebeitel. In one of the terukuttu plays, called ‘Draupadi the Gypsy,’ she becomes a member of the low ‘seventh caste,’ and goes to Hastinapura to divine the future of the Kaurava women. During the Pandava’s forest exile, she takes on her aghora rupam (terrible form) every night and indulges in cannibalistic orgies: “And while her husbands sleep, she roams about from midnight to 3 a.m., devouring whatever comes her way.”
In one of the plays dealing with the disrobing scene in the sabha, Duhshasana slings caustic remarks at Draupadi, referring to her swayamvara: “You were just a prostitute there, wriggling, wiggling, glittering”. Nobody rises in her defence except the youngest of the heated Kauravas, Vikarna, when he calls all of them “a bunch of marijuana drunkards,” accurately assigning the disrobing scene the often smoothed-out bacchanalian, and highly sexual, overtones.
The festivals’ dramatic representations of Draupadi’s character swing from fierce and threatening to slighted and (temporarily) powerless. Or, maybe that’s the pendulum’s predictable trajectory for female deities? Indologist Brenda E F Beck has noted that the South Indian goddesses’ ‘time on earth’ is replete with sexual violations, anguish and manhandling. Could it be otherwise? It seems that the power imbalance between the genders, and the consequent religious interpretation of the same, persists on this inability to temper the extremes and allow the female to inhabit a more neutral space.
After all the drama, cathartic ritual fire walking ensues, as the climatic ceremony of the cult’s nine to 18-day cycle. Draupadi crosses first. The devotees follow her over the hot coals, now blanketed by her hair and saris. It’s all about transcendence, uniting the male and female principle, Ardhanarishvara (a reminder of Arjuna’s cross-dressing phase in the court of King Virata), Shiva-Shakti, Arjuna-Draupadi, writes Hiltebeitel. Born from fire, Draupadi has a singular relationship to this element. For her, this is not a hostile substance, but rather her tamed essence.
On that night in Kolkata, our taxi slowly inched its way back towards the flat, controlled by the intermittent red lights. Occasionally I glimpsed one of the pandals, erected on every other street to house various versions of the goddess. The previous afternoon I’d seen a few up-close – some artisans adhered to recognisable iconography, but there were also psychedelic Alien-Durgas surrounded by fluorescent trishuls, and diabolic babies floating over passers-by. The immersion of all of the city’s Durgas into the Hooghly would happen the following day. The river would dissolve the clay, and choke on the particles it doesn’t recognise.
“The earth for the first mould of a goddess’s idol is taken from before the threshold of a brothel. When he enters, a man leaves his virtues at the doorstep. They stay trapped in that fistful of soil,” explained a friend sitting beside the silent driver. Considering her earthly résumé, it seemed to me a gesture that she might, in her all-encompassing mothering, find unbecoming.
~Lora Tomas is a Croatian indologist, currently based in Bangalore. She contributes to various Asia-based publications.