Prism of Change - a Study of In Search of the Goddess
It is easy to see that the duality of the sexes, like any duality, gives rise to conflict. And doubtless the winner will assume the status of absolute. But why should man have won from the start? It seems possible that women could have won the victory; or that the outcome of the conflict might never have been decided. How is it that this world has always belonged to the men and that things have begun to change only recently?
(Simone De Beauvoir, 4 – 5)
With the expression ‘woman,’ the first thought that flashes through is – being ‘no-man.’ This negative mindset comfortably facilitated the society to adopt a gendered, rather a misogynist, outlook. This sharp asymmetrical binary is felt in all spheres of life. The treatment of women as relatively invisible received a major seismic shift in the western world around mid-nineteenth century. Although deeply entrenched in the impenetrable hegemonic patriarchal social structure, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did faintly voice the feminist consciousness in the writings of Esther Sowernam, Bathsua Makin and Mary Wollstonecraft. All these writings viewed the position of women in various genres of life through the lens of feminism, to make them regain their lost glory. The existing parochial and unwarranted norms were challenged and deconstructed with an effort to re-conceptualise them. Echoing similar ideological motifs, Indian feminism, with its diversified theoretical and practical approaches, is concerned with empowerment of women and their emancipation from the fetters of patriarchy. Due to a different historical perspective, Indian feminism gained consciousness around the mid-twentieth century along with the nationalist movement for liberation from the colonial hegemony. Indian feminism affected major citadels of society that form the broader super-structure. Such motivation was propagated and continued by contributors from various fields in their respective ways. Politically oriented feminists established organisations like All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), National Council of Women in India (NCWI) etc. to gain for women their civic rights. Sociologists publicly demonstrated their protest against the oppressive social system. They aimed to ban persecution of widows, initiate widow remarriage, and forbid child marriage. Women-oriented journals like Manushi were instrumental in documenting gender issues and feminist movement activities. Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon established the feminist press, Kali for Women in 1980s, which increased the momentum of the feminist movement by serving as an outlet for books and articles by feminist writers. In the 80s, bookstores exclusively selling books on feminism and women’s issues also emerged. Streelekha in Bangalore is one such example. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) also furthered this movement. It culled avant garde plays for staging, with the motive of economic and social justice. Legislatures framed laws to safeguard a woman’s integrity. The feminist movement was also enriched by literary patronage. Unlike traditional authors, who portrayed their women characters as paragons of morality, Mahasweta Devi cast her female protagonists as activists and Ashapurna Devi’s domestic women characters were courageous enough to rebel against the dogmatic society. Pratibha Ray of Orissa instilled in her female figures progressive values to forbid them from being crushed under any circumstances. Kamala Das’s women were outspoken with unique distinction. These writers made their female figures occupy social as well as emotional space. Among them certain authors revisited the mythologies and re-cast the silently suffering women in them. Myths concretise the concept of inegalitarian society where women are presented as an object of male gaze, a property to possess. Feminist critics like Ritu Menon, Namita Gokhale, Malashri Lal and Kumkum Sangari focussed their concentrated effort to demolish such citadels of patriarchy. This effort further survives in the writings of practitioners as in Bhishma Sahani’s Madhavi, Mallika Sarabhai’s Sita’s Daughters, Shankar Shesh’s Komal Gandhar and many more.
To change the established truths of a society, the most effective way of perpetuating is to present the myths with a new cast, suggesting a new and radical vision of the world. As Mallika Sarabhai stated in an article in the Indianewengland magazine, "to go in through the familiar and then turn it on its tail, or put a sting in the tail, is one of the best ways of getting people." Recasting forms an integral theme in Indian feminism in presenting a challenge to the oppression of women and aims to attain equilibrium in the balance of power. Andrienne Rich appropriately elucidated the significance of the theme of recasting for women. In her words, it is a:
[Re]vision, an act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an
old text from a new critical direction – for us more than a chapter in cultural
history ... an act of survival.
Mythology has always been the storehouse of models. Every society patronises its models and defines their lives accordingly. Myths are male constructs, so are the female characters in them. The mythical women are presented as a pawn to focus on the heroic activities of men or on their extent of control on our society. These women were made the idols for the Indian women by the patriarchal society to continue their atrocities. But the accomplishment of these darker intentions received a setback with the uprising of the recasting theme. Mythical women figures are deserting their traditional garb with an effort to redress themselves with a newer cultural paradigm of equality. Such recasting often challenges the audience to reconsider marginalised female figures as heroic protagonists. Bhishma Sahani’s Madhavi is focussed exclusively on the minor character Madhavi, daughter of the King Yayati of the Mahabharata. In the epic Madhavi’s voice is heard for a single time while stating her utility to Galav. Bhisham Sahani carved out a humanised portrait of Madhavi from the puppet, who comes into the foreground, speaks, feels and protests against politics of patriarchy. Retrieving Madhavi’s fading image and placing her at the centre forecasts the tempestuous journey of the women from the shaded to the illumined area.
Mallika Sarabhai in her play Sita’s Daughters sharply focussed on the humiliations harped on Sita of the Ramayana. Sarabhai made her Sita question every past incidence. Sarabhai’s Sita accused her husband Rama of his misdemeanour towards her. The latter half of the play featured the modern women as Sita’s daughters who take refuge of the legal actions against male abominable activities. Besides recasting with a contemporary context, Sarabhai does make people heedful about the legal norms formed to safeguard women. Besides being in pen and paper, how far these judicial rules attain validity in the present society becomes itself an enigmatic question. But like a streak of light in this cloudy sky, legal procedures reflect a ray of hope in their long- awaited justice.
Shankar Shesh’s Komal Gandhar interrogates the ‘ab(use) of woman’ by monarchical patriarchy through his protagonist Gandhari. Shesh’s Gandhari is not a passive victim; rather she is strong, assertive and articulate. In the play, Gandhari defies the patriarchal interpretation of her blindfold as an act of obedience to her husband’s unlighted world. She observed it as a mark of protest, anger and bitterness for negating her right to swayamvara and getting her married to a blind man. In spite of her relentless effort to leave behind the patriarchal discourse, she is always pulled back into it. Towards the end, Gandhari was accused by her husband and son for her acquired blindness and was made to apologise for such an unjust act. Gandhari’s position in the play reveals the real status of struggling women in their long way to their accomplished end.
Mahasweta Devi, the activist, re-casts Draupadi in a tribal backdrop of the Naxalbari movement in a short story, Draupadi. To grant a more realistic essence, she modified her to tribal Dopdi. Dopdi was a naxalite, arrested by the army and was subjected to sexual assault by six to seven soldiers. This assault can link itself to Draupadi’s undeserving polygamous marriage. When the army chief wanted to question her, she tore up her remaining strips of clothes and defiantly stood upright with her bruised face and heart in face to face with him. The armed commander was thoroughly bewildered. Thus, Dopdi, the recast of Draupadi, challenges the patriarchal establishment with her weapon of femininity (italics mine). Such powerful recasting augments the movement of Indian feminism. This short story puts forward the potential of women in disclaiming the ‘natural right’ of men to subjugate women. Mallika Sarabhai continued this theme in her play In Search of the Goddess, which is dealt in detail in the following section.
Mallika Sarabhai’s recasting of female characters from mythology in a modern day backdrop acquires a new relevance. She retold these famous stories from the women’s point of view for a positive reassertion of image of womanhood. Women are always placed by men at the receiver’s end. In the introduction to her play, In Search of the Goddess, Sarabhai jogged our memory that every construct around us is a view through a single prism – ‘the prism of patriarchy’ (Sarabhai, M, 1). She certified it with instances like myths through ages are constructed by men, priests guiding through its interpretations are men, writers of history are men and even today men decide on a woman’s social demeanour. And in this ‘very male world’ (1) women lose their rational identity and live on with the identity ordained by the society. Such strict social structure does not even keep goddesses outside their periphery. One such goddess is Draupadi of the Mahabharata, who was treated so vilely that in certain places her status of being a goddess was diffused. Draupadi in the pan-indian epic Mahabharata was a princess, the queen of the famous five pandavas, the mother of five brave sons, friend of lord Krishna. But the real story is hardly seen through this valorised presentation. She is being upheld as an archetype of sacrifice. Mallika Sarabhai attempts to focus on the real, unbiased, still unattended narration by looking at it from ‘a non-male prism of change’ (2). This modern Draupadi vents out her long suppressed suffering in Sarabhai’s In Search of the Goddess. Among the other women folk, Draupadi was fortunate to have her swayamvara, but in it she was only a ploy – she herself was ‘the garland’ (2). Her respected father and beloved brother arranged for a tournament. For the winner Draupadi was the prize. Sarabhai’s Draupadi complains:
Not mine the decision, whom to MarryMy heart was pledged to a bow and Arrrow
My life an offering to the shooter of The fish. (2)
Thus married to Arjuna, leaving behind all the princely leisure, she made her way into her in-laws house in the forest. Unfortunately, with the inadvertent words of her mother-in-law, Kunti, she became the consort of the five pandavas. Thus, unintentionally she was tied in a polyandrous relationship of marriage. The twentieth century Draupadi questions such a grim situation:
All rights belong to husbands, so says
But to be shared by five, a commodity in the market place? (2)
Invited by Duryadhana, Yudhisthira went to participate in a game of dice. The Pandavas lost whatever they had, even themselves. Without least concern, Draupadi was placed as a bet in this already lost match. Consequentially, they lost their last hope and Draupadi was dragged by her hair into the assembly of ‘lust-blinded men.’ Her pleading to all the icons of patriarchy yielded no result. ‘Robbed limitlessly’ (3) she was rescued by the God. Lord Krishna supplied her cloth. The devoted wife of the famous pandavas had to bear this unfathomable insult. For such an experience her indignation knew no bound, which found expression in the questions of this Draupadi:
Where was the Gita’s truth?Was Arjuna not already in need of
That counsel then? (3)
Draupadi’s suffering torturous frustration finds an indirect expression in her question and censure. But her inner emotional suffering acquires prominence with Draupadi saying:
All this I accepted, became the wife of fiveTo each gave a son
Yet was the only wife of none. (2)
Sarabhai presented a humanised portrayal of Draupadi. The epic is completely silent about her mental trauma in marrying five men, living with their co-wives, losing all her sons in the battle. She is only presented as a tool to valorise the heroic deeds of her men and to project the extent of their control on her. In this androcentric world such women are idolised for the perpetuation of their all-but-irremovable hegemony. In their last journey towards the snow-clad Himalayas, Draupadi was the first to fall. For the women who unquestioningly followed her husbands’ footsteps, swallowed all indignation, nobody extended a hand, even none turned back. After leading a tumultuous life in the epic, the modern Draupadi realized, ‘heaven too must be only for men.’ (3) This recasting of Draupadi by Mallika Sarabhai reconstructs the epical image of Draupadi prevalent in the society, thereby empowering the present day women – Draupadis of today – with their voice, legal rights, justice, etc.
Besides delivering a raw deal to Draupadi, mythology manhandled lives of other goddesses also. Some lives are misinterpreted to subjugate common women for ages. A glaring example of such misrepresentation is that of Sati Savitri. Savitri, the daughter of king Asvapati tied her wedding knot with her self-arranged bridegroom, Satyavan, inspite of the warnings of Naradmuni that Satyavan’s life would end on the completion of one year of their marriage. With the arrival of Yama on that ill-fated day, Savitri defies him and wins back her husband’s life. The patriarchal interpretation goes – Savitri refused to live without her husband, Satyavan. Over the ages this connotation has attacked many widows as its prey. They are compelled to immolate themselves in their husbands’ pyre. Even now it is prevalent in interior parts of India. In an effort to put a ban on such appalling situations that run a chill down the spine, Mallika Sarabhai reconsidered Savitri’s long-accepted rendering. Sarabhai made her Savitri enunciate the authentic and unprejudiced interpretation and its relevance in the contemporary era. In the text Savitri asserts:
I am a Sati not because I was willing to die. I am a Sati because I took death
on, because I refused to let him win. Because I refused to let Satyavan die.
And I am a sati because I won. (6)
An underlying strain of the characteristic of modern women is found in Sarabhai’s Savitri. Her tone throughout is not as submissive and accepting, like the one in the Mahabharata. In her dramatic monologues she challenges Yama with arrows of questions. An essence of essentialism is registered in Sarabhai’s Savitri, when she says:
I am a woman. I can create. And I can destroy....
And if I can both create and destroy, am I not greater than you? (5)
By bringing to fore the essentialist image in a representative women-figure, Sarabhai aims to instill this feeling in every women. Each woman should cherish the preciousness of being a woman, which is highly devalued in the present patriarchal society. Once they develop the sense of uniqueness for oneself and for their folk, many atrocities would be at bay. Sarabhai’s aim of recasting is to empower the women and to make them able to put up a strong impediment against the application of blind social norms whimsically to chain their feet, under the guise of religion, tradition or mythology.
To emphasize her motif further she refuted the long-accepted traditional story of Brahma’s creation and placed instead the Goddess at the centre with her creation. It was a humanised story of creation because unlike Brahma, the Goddess created humans. Sarabhai was never emphasizing on a matriarchal culture, rather she intends to unearth the ‘feminist matristic’ (Orestein, xvi) tradition. Again, at a second instance regarding Goddess, Sarabhai mentioned that people were creating goddesses to suit their necessity. Thus people could find solace in the Goddess and comes to her for refuge; letting her control all the strings of their life. Sarabhai employed documentary illustrations, like Mena Gurjari of Gujarat and Kannagi of Madurai. Inadvertently people (especially men) have allotted her the centre of their livelihood and underneath they carry out their inflictions on women. Hypocrisy is shouting aloud.
Satya yuga was held as the flawless age, with no sinners. To denounce such patriarchal version of belief, Sarabhai cited an instance from the Satya yuga itself, where a woman ascetic was dishonoured by God Indra. Her Brahmin husband solicited the higher Gods for justice. At Vishnu’s instruction, a horse was sacrificed to make Indra sin-free, to appease the Brahmin’s ego, but a woman was ruined. All the processes undertaken for justice seemed futile for the woman because that yielded no result for her. It simply played with the woman’s belief, her self-dignity, her integrity.
The devoted feminist, Mallika Sarabhai’s counsel for the wronged women for ages is to entreat Durga, the female Shakti, the destroyer of all evils, for their earnestly yearned justice. Every woman is the proud possessor of this power of the Shakti; just that she remains unaware of it, or even made to remain so in this male world. The author hinted at this inner dormant power to be nurtured. Women should nurture this power of Shakti within themselves to counter this dominant androcentric surrounding, thereby creating some free-space for themselves.
Deviating from the conventional tracks of stereotyping and generalizing the image of women, feminist movement projected the women with their very own consciousness. The Indian feminists never aimed at a gender-free nation, but certainly intended to eradicate the age-old binaries of superior-inferior, man-woman, etc. Their effort to deconstruct the patriarchal metaphysics recently "has accumulated a vast new mass of testimony, of new comprehensions as to what it is to be female. Inequities, restrictions ... have been documented; damaging differences in circumstances and treatment ... and limitations..., a sense of wrong, voiced." (Tillie Olsen, 23)
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