“Storytelling is an integral part of Indian culture. The Mahabharata is one such story in Indian mythology that remains fascinating, no matter how many times it has been narrated or depicted,” writes Annushka Hardikar, graduate from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.
But what bothered her about this story she grew up with was the portrayal of women characters as ‘submissive’ and ‘one-dimensional’.
So when the opportunity came to reinterpret these characters for a college project, Mahabharata’s Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari were natural choices for Annushka.
The result was a zine which took Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari out of epic, and placed them into a modern-day scenario. Called Oh Nari, So Sanskari! the zine takes on gender stereotypes and misogyny in a humorous and sarcastic manner.
The protagonists – Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari – do not follow a linear narrative, but take on regressive concepts like the undue emphasis on virginity, repression of women’s sexuality, unrealistic standards of beauty and so on.
Annushka says that she gave them distinct personalities and a dynamic which brought out their hot and cold relationship with each other. “Gandhari is the outspoken and forthright one, while Kunti is a bit more careful. She will gauge the situation and then respond. Draupadi meanwhile, is kind of caught in between the two worlds. She represents a younger generation, so is a bit more diplomatic, but snarky,” Annushka tells TNM.
The three women characters take on stereotypes and sexism in with sarcasm and spunky appearances.
For instance, Gandhari has ditched her blindfold for tinted black glasses. A bespectacled Kunti likes her updo in a messy bun, accessorized with a bow. And Draupadi wears her hair open and makes no attempt to hide the brown in her skin.
Take a look at this page for instance, where Draupadi takes on the undue emphasis on physical appearance when it comes to ‘selecting’ brides for marriage.
This one talks about how the woman’s worth is judged based on her ‘home-maker’ skills, even if she has a career and a job. In other words, she must be ‘aadarsh’.
And this one takes on the hype around virginity by prescribing a ‘Hymenum Restorum mantra.
And of course, a sanskaari woman must not have sexual desires. Hence, the ‘Panchapills’ and ‘Draup & delete brush’. The fictional products draw on myths about how Draupadi would become a virgin before she had sex with each of the five Pandava brothers.
In the time leading up to the zine, Annushka surveyed urban educated women aged between 18 and 30 years to understand how they consume content, and also read up on alternative interpretations of the Mahabharata. These included Palace of Illusions by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni and Jaya by Devdutt Patnaik.
Annushka revisited Mahabharata after that, and says that while re-reading, she felt the women characters’ rebellion was not portrayed accurately.
“Take the example of Gandhari. She came from a well-to-do educated family, was married off to a blind man who would never become the king. The act of blindfolding herself is shown as her duty in the story, but I felt it was more of an act of rebellion,” Annushka says.
Annushka also realised that while she started the project as a part of something her college required her to do, it became the entry point for her inquiry on gender. “I realised how important literature is for shaping society, and the coming generations. And because I had also grown up reading these stories, I accepted these women in their meek roles,” she says.
With Oh Nari, So Sanskari! Annushka hopes to contribute to more varied and authentic representation of women in literature.
Now, she is looking to self-publish the zine and is in the process of figuring out the costs and other logistics. “I’d also like to continue exploring gender through my work in the future,” the 22-year-old says.
(All illustrations by Annushka Hardikar)