I just finished reading about Draupadi’s Swayamvaram. I am still reeling from it and trying to process my thoughts. Writing it down may help me clarify the whirling streams I am trying to channel into some sort of understanding.
The version of Draupadi Swayamvaram in Venmurasu’s Prayagai is nothing like the ones I am used to. Not the ones in the Amar Chitra Kathas (a staple while growing up) or various other books I read, not the ones in the various TV serials, or movies, nor do they bear any sort of affinity to the different versions of Mahabharatha I have read. This was something else altogether. The tension started building right at the beginning of the part dedicated to the epic wedding. The events that precede the wedding, or rather mark the start of the wedding ‘festivities’ set the tone of the things to follow. It begins in the fields and woods surrounding the Ugra Chamundi temple in the outskirts of the city and the first pieces of dialogue are from the slinking foxes waiting in the darkness, with an eerie foreknowledge of the upcoming feast of fresh blood and flesh. The blood spilling begins right there. The rituals throughout the section are intense, dark, and chilling. Violence pulses barely beneath the surface, waiting to erupt even during the rituals and the sanctity of worship. Blood itself becomes a sanctified offering and blessing.
And then we meet the bride. The pages are interspersed with the description of Draupadi’s beauty non-pareil, where even a casual movement of her hand, an innocuous glance, a glimpse of a toenail, everything brims with powerful sensuality. And here we are talking about just the involuntary and unplanned moves. Her conscious attempts to draw attention or bestow attention are at a whole other level of intellectual brilliance and seductive charm. We see the effect she has on those around her. Not just the men who are about to play major roles in her life, but women too – including her helpless mother (the demons she battles are a whole other chapter-worth) and long suffering maid. She knows who she is, what she is and there is no helping it. We also see her mind, her razor sharp mind, the boundless depths of her heart, and the unfathomable murmurs of her crystal clear soul. She is everything and nothing. And just like the multiple layers and dimensions to her, her needs and wants and desires are multifaceted too. She desires the virgin Karna and the womanizing Arjuna; the intellectual Dharma and the mountain of muscles Bhima. It would take all of them to be a match for the WOMAN she is. She is profound and profane at once – spiritual and carnal. And so are her yearnings.
The bloodbath at the cleverly ‘automated’ pre-wedding ceremony where the princes try to prove their worth for winning her hand stunned me. Why would one write out the start of a marriage like this? That too, one of the most important unions in all of Indian mythology. A marriage/wedding etched into the psyche of every Indian whatever their religious persuasion might be. It was punctuated with blood-war-death. The bride sits calmly amid the chaos around her, seemingly unaffected, unmoving, expressionless. She garland the winner amidst piles of bodies, hacked to bits or broken, a shattered wedding hall coming down around her, blood and bits of brain and flesh strewn around like confetti, and the bride herself, adorned with sprayed blood that is beginning to clot on her face and clothes because she did not care to wipe it away. What an inauspicious image it created. I shuddered at the images my brain was busy creating. I was disturbed and even angry. Why would Jemo write out this wedding in this manner? Granted, the contests leading to a swayamvaram did cause some minor battles breaking out and some amount of bloodshed. But this was a bloodbath!!
And then it hit me. How else could it have happened? Wasn’t this the perfect setting for Draupadi’s marriage? She who might have been born to rule as empress at the side of mighty men, but in fact, was created for pure annihilation. She whose life was nothing but one eventful day after another each one testing her, wounding her, ripping her soul apart, but never breaking her as she swept towards that horrifying climax, sweeping along everyone and everything in her wake. How else would you set up the scene for her wedding? Her wedding was but a curtain raiser to the things to come, the deep destruction to follow and the heartbreaking ennui that was its aftermath – before peace eventually made its way into a torn society. A peace that had to be paid for with a price so heavy, even the shoulders of demigods could not bear it.
The tension just keeps mounting and mounting, never letting up till it finally comes full circle to its fiery finale, once again in the Ugra Chamundi temple. It’s a slow ascension for Draupadi, the momentum gathering force and vitality as she sweeps towards an epic (for want of a better word) vertex. Or is it a vortex sweeping her towards utter annihilation? That is a question not even she, the precocious, scholarly, wise beyond her years princess of Panchalam could answer. Perhaps the Younger Yadhava is the only one who has an answer to that. But then he would probably merely answer it with his enigmatic smile, leaving us to make of it what we will.