Feet of clay

Print edition : August 04, 2001

A Tamil play staged by a theatre group in Chennai exposes the inherent social biases of and caste oppression by epic heroes.

IT is common knowledge that majority communalism and casteism, the twin challenges that contemporary Indian society faces, draw strength and sustenance from the epics, the puranas and mythology. The correlation between the serialised screening of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana on the national television in the 1980s and the marked growth in the number of people who were swayed by communal and casteist organisations, and the consequent impact of this development on the Indian polity, is often cited to highlight this point.

Scenes from ''Upakathai''.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In recent times, the fast-track efforts of the Hindutva forces to saffronise education has compounded the seriousness of the communal threat. This has demonstrated that the fight against communalism and casteism cannot be restricted to the political plane and that new strategies have to be evolved on the cultural front also. The time has come for a battle in the minds of the people, against the communal demons in them, through a re-reading and re-interpretation of the dogmas and ideologies of the Hindu religion, inherited uncritically over the centuries.

Chennai has already woken up to this need. A Tamil play, ''Upakathai'', staged in the city on July 20 by the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, an amateur theatre group, made a bold attempt to re-interpret certain episodes in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and some puranas. In the process it exposed the biased rules, discriminatory practices and meaningless rituals that justify and protect the caste-based and gender-based oppression of the weaker sections of society.

Formed in 1984, the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu is a Chennai-based group comprising individuals committed to the cause of a people's cultural movement. The group is headed by Pralayan, an enterprising playwright and poet. In its repertoire of over 30 plays, the group has touched upon almost every socio-political issue that has come up in the last two decades.

One of the countless stories in the Mahabharata is that of Ekalavya. Ekalavya was the son of Hiranyadhanus, the king of Nishadas, a community of hunters, which came at the bottom of the social ladder. A passion for archery takes "the dark young boy" to Drona, the Brahmin trainer of the five Pandava princes. Drona declines to accept him as his pupil because he is not a Kshatriya. Ekalayva returns to the forest and makes an image of Drona in mud. In its presence, he practises archery on his own, and becomes an expert. Later, when the Pandava princes are on a hunting expedition in the forest, their dog strays into Ekalavya's territory. Ekalavya seals the dog's mouth with arrows. Angry and astonished and envious of Ekalavya's skill, Arjuna, one of the princes, goes to Drona and reminds him of his promise to make him the greatest archer in the world. Drona, accompanied by Arjuna, meets Ekalavya and demands his right thumb as gurudakshina. Ekalavya readily cuts off his thumb and presents it to Drona. A happy Arjuna returns to the Pandava capital with Drona.

One of the sub-stories in the Ramayana (the story of Rama) is about Shambuka, a Shudra (the lowest of the four Hindu castes). He practises severe penance, which is forbidden for his caste. This act of sacrilege prompts an old Brahmin to complain to King Rama of Ayodhya that Shambuka caused the death of his 14-year-old son. The Brahmin holds Rama responsible for this and threatens that he and his wife will kill themselves in the king's presence if justice is not done to him. Rama finds the complaint valid and cuts off Shambuka's head.

Some of the puranas relating to Vishnu contains a story regarding Parasurama, one of Vishnu's avatars and the son of Sage Jamadagni. Suspecting the fidelity of his wife Renuka, Jamadagni asks Parasurama to kill her. As a "devoted and obedient" son, Parasurama beheads his mother. However, he asks for and gets a boon from his father - that his mother be brought back to life. But Parasurama fails to trace the trunk of Renuka, and so he fixes his mother's head to another headless body. The body, however, is that of a shudra woman. Renuka, upon regaining life, chides Parasurama "for killing her a second time" by giving her the body of a Shudra.

"UPAKATHAI'' seeks to re-interpret the three stories - all from the victims' angle. In Pralayan's play, Ekalavya does not present his thumb as dakshina to Drona, but he is forced to part with it. The very base of the story as presented in the epic explodes when Ekalavya asks: "Why, as one born into a family of hunters, should I go to Drona for learn archery?" "For a hunter like me," he says, "bow and arrow are but extended fingers." "Perhaps Drona might have learnt archery from some of my ancestors," he quips.

The other two stories also are retold in a technique that modern theatre permits, again from the losers' angle. The Shambuka story questions the fairness of Rama in succumbing to the pressure of the biased rules of a caste-based social order in order to uphold the claim that it is the state's responsibility to protect the privileged Brahmins; the Shudras in Rama's kingdom have no right to learn the Vedas or do penance and their function is only to serve as slaves of those belonging to the three upper castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vysya).

As for the Parasurama story, ''Upakathai'' does not show Renuka to be meekly surrendering to Jamadagni. As a liberated woman, she pleads innocence and faults her husband for knowingly committing two crimes - first ordering her to be killed and second, by ordering her own son to do the act. Renuka later chides her son for having given her the body of a Shudra. When Parasurama apologises for the act, she comforts herself by saying: "After all, what your father needs in me is a woman's body. What if it is a Shudra's body?" The play then shows Renuka being worshipped as Renukadevi, though only in the form of a "trunkless head". Only the "upper-caste head" becomes an object of worship, not the "low-caste body". The re-interpretation is also to establish that the fight against gender bias cannot be separated from the struggle against casteist oppression.

Giving a contemporary touch to the play is a scene depicting a school of the modern times. It is a bitter attack on the educational system, which instead of attempting to kindle the desire to learn only kills the quest for knowledge in children, particularly those from the deprived sections. What Rama does to Shambuka, the modern educational system does to people at the bottom of the social ladder, Ekalavya explains to the audience.

The play also depicts a scene or two from the story of Anarkali in order to show that even a Mughal ruler like Akbar, who takes a Hindu wife and is credited to have liberal ideas, could not think of allowing his son Salim to marry the girl of his choice who belonged to a community of slaves. Akbar had to abide by the rules that were meant to protect caste rigidities and had been conditioning the minds of the people for centuries.

The play ends with a melodious song in the air, and Ekalavya's spirited call to build an egalitarian society shorn of disparities. "As one at the bottom-most point of society, I am the most fitting person to make this call," he declares.

Pralayan has scripted the play and also directed it. Rajarajeswari's music and the sets provided by Natesh were great assets. Pralayan told Frontline that his principal purpose in staging the play was to expose the hollowness of the tall claims made by believers, about the morals of epic heroes and puranic celebrities and show how they promoted a social value system that legitimised inequality in the hierarchical Indian society. Only a broad-based assault on discrimination of all sorts could help build an egalitarian social order, he said.

If one goes by the enthusiastic response of the audience (which comprised a cross-section of society) to the gripping, well-enacted play, Pralayan's message seems to have gone well with them.

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