Of women wronged – an epic reprised


Her husband gambles, he places her as a stake in a game, and in just a roll of the dice, he loses and she becomes fair game for his opponent. In a hall full of family and people of high-standing, she is disrobed.

This is of course a familiar story that we have all grown up hearing, reading and watching on stage and film the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.But it was only last evening as I watched the play of emotions on Usha Nangiar’s face that it hit me with a resounding thud.

Nangiar Koothu, Koodiattam performance by Usha Nangiar
Nangiar Koothu, Koodiattam performance by Usha Nangiar

Perhaps it was Nangiar’s intense emotive ability; she is an internationally acclaimed Kootiyattam exponent. The incredulous shock on Draupadi’s face when she hears that Yudhistira has used her as a stake and lost to Duryodhana. Her shame as she is dragged by her hair by Dushasana to the court. The rising horror as she hears Duryodhana order her disrobement. Her pitiful pleas for help. The shame as she is disrobed. Who comes to her rescue? Krishna, who uses divine powers to make sure she is not completely naked. Who vows bloody vengeance? Bhima, one of her four other husbands.

I find myself shaking yet again as I write these words. Powerful emotions rock me, enrage me. The fierce energy of of the mizhavu percussionist is still playing out in my head, and my blood boils as it whips up to a crescendo.

This is history written by men. How does a man insult another? By victimizing the enemy’s mother, wife, sister, daughter.
How should women feel when they are molested? Ashamed.

Why do we perpetuate these gender power plays? Why should a woman be a pawn in a fight between men? Why should a man have to defend her? Why does she need a man to avenge her?

We know these stories from childhood, and have become inured to the gender disparities that they perpetuate. Simply because we are blind and deaf and heedless of the damage we sustain from the actions in these myths, which by being recounted innumerable times have become accepted and acceptable. That’s why men think its ok to harass and humiliate women, and women feel ashamed and turn to other men for succour. Subliminally, overtly, which ever way it comes across, such stereotypes have become sticky because of reiteration.

About the show itself, Nangiar’s performance at Rangashankara on May 8 was an excerpt from the second of a three- act narrative, known as Nangiar Koothu, from her full length production on Draupadi. Set in the time just before the Kurukshetra war when Krishna makes a final effort to broker a peace and prevent war, it examines the thoughts running through Draupadi’s mind as she goes to meet Bhima to remind him of his terrible oath in the aftermath of the game of dice that he would kill Dushassana and drink his blood and her vow that she will not tie up her hair till she has washed it in Dushassana’s blood.

Usha Nangiar is perhaps the last of the  professional Nangiarkoothu artistes from the community of Nangiars, who traditionally participate this ancient form of theatre .
Usha Nangiar is perhaps the last of the professional Nangiarkoothu artistes from the community of Nangiars, who traditionally participate this ancient form of theatre .

Koodiyattam, certified by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, is a Sanskrit drama of Kerala. It is also the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit theatre. A traditional full length Kootiyattam performance is performed over 32 days, with a 2- hour segment being performed every day.
Usha Nangiar
Usha Nangiar

Usha Nangiar is the only full-time professional Nangiarkoothu artiste from the traditional community of Nangiars. It is a little difficult to fathom the intricacies of the caste system, especially the sub-caste system, but ironically for this path-breaking woman artiste, the puritans treat her as an outcast because she married outside the prescribed sub-caste. She has told The Hindu in an interview that though she has also performed Nangiarkoothu for seven consecutive years from 1990 at the ancient Koothambalam (traditional temple theatre) of Vadakkunnathan Shiva temple of Thrissur, which has played a prominent role in preserving Koodiyattam, Chakyarkoothu and Nangiarkoothu,they have not invited her after she married VKK Hariharan, a sought-after Mizhavu performer from the Nambiar community.http://www.hindu.com/mag/2006/03/26/stories/2006032600240500.htm

A positive sign is that their teenaged daughter has been learning this theatre form; “It is a little difficult” she told me, but with a happy smile on her lips and in her eyes. She played the kuzhithalam (cymbals) and recited the sparse Sanskrit shlokas in the show last evening.

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Author: sandhya mendonca

outpouring of occasional whimsies

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