On the heels of International Women’s Day (March 8) and the ongoing International Women’s Month, the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) in New York City hosted the North American premiere of a unique and thought-provoking Indian play called Draupadi – Will My Spirit Live On? Produced and conceptualized by Shivani Wazir Pasrich, and co-directed by Pasrich and Tina Johnson, Draupadi weaves a tale from the Hindu epic Mahabharata with an intense contemporary story of a woman battling her experience with sexual abuse. The play sheds light on the plight of many women suffering such abuse, connecting a mythological tale with a modern parallel, and delivers a mostly engaging experience.
The play extends the story of Draupadi (played by Pasrich), from her travails that were supposed to have triggered the Mahabharata war, crossing centuries to meet Maaya (Charu Shankar) in modern day India. Draupadi is stuck between heaven and earth, pondering her fate and choices, and being guided by her confidant Lord Krishna. Maaya is a young housewife who is taken advantage of by her husband Arjun’s brother Kaurav, and is too afraid of societal taboos to fight for justice. Added into the mix is Krishna, who flits in and out of situations donning various avatars to help guide the two women in distress towards finding peace with their own respective scenarios.
The story’s bridging of different eras provides an intriguing backdrop that is punctuated with Mahabharata references. While the names Kaurav and Arjun are borrowed from the epic, the family owns a candle factory that is based in Hastinapur (a city that was the focus of the great war). Maaya also becomes the center of a familial feud that echoes the epic. While these references anchor Maaya’s story as a parallel to Draupadi’s, they also become slightly distracting after a while. It could have been more effective, perhaps, had Maaya’s life not followed literal parallels to Draupadi’s and instead the two women bonded over a common plight from different scenarios.
One of the play’s greatest strengths is in its talented and accomplished cast. Pasrich as Draupadi exudes confidence and power in her quest for salvation and also helping Maaya out of her predicament. She does, however, remain angry throughout, thus affecting the depth of the character. Shankar plays Maaya with a dignified innocence and is quick to gain audience sympathy. The most spirited performance comes from Dilip Shankar as Krishna, portraying a deity with an edge. He provides the comic relief in many tense scenes and dishes out ample doses of tough love that would come from any respected mentor, heavenly or human. Among the rest of the cast, Arjun Fauzdar as Maaya’s husband Arjun and Ashish Paliwal as Sukarna are both competent in their roles. Sanjit Bedi (a regular of Balaji Telefilms soaps) as Kaurav maintains a solid presence throughout but often wavers on soap opera or overly filmy histrionics. Aniruddha Das appears for a much welcomed dance performance. Supriya Manchanda, as Ammaji, seems the most out of place in a role that is written like a parody of overdramatic filmy mothers. The music and vocals by Shubha Mudgal are soothing.
When asked about the genesis of the play, Pasrich explained, “It’s just essentially that as women we judge ourselves very harshly and we expect ourselves to perform so many different roles. And we do it happily with a smile. But at the end of the day we realize everybody’s going through the same kind of situation, our issues are similar, and there’s a great strength that you get out of that. So that was the reason to bring [Draupadi] into the current times because, if anyone’s had a difficult life, it’s Draupadi. So whoever today is having a tough time, it couldn’t be tougher than Draupadi’s life and if she moved on, so can everyone else.”
Draupadi – Will My Spirit Live On? is an important work of theatre for confronting through the arts an issue that plagues Indian society today. It is, however, held back from its fully hard-hitting potential by some drawn-out scenes, a few overacted characters, and certain instances of preachy dialogue. What could be conveyed through a sharing of experiences is sometimes projected as directives to the audience and society. These shortcomings aside, Draupadi is a show to be watched and lauded – such artistic confrontations of social plagues need only be encouraged.
Image courtesy of Shwetha Subramanyam.