All images by Nirmallo Chakravarty  

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships in Homer’s Illiad, the insult brought upon Draupadi in Vyasa’s Mahabharata was the catalyst that brought death to thousands.

The Mahabharata, one of greatest epics in the world, originates from India and has been retold in various times over hundreds of generations through poetry, literature, dance, art, films and even comics.

However, the focus has largely been on the legendary Pandavas, instead of their shared queen, Draupadi.  Now, Neha Mondal Chakravarty seeks to shine the spotlight on this pre-feminist icon, to bring the character to life for Malaysian audiences through India’s oldest dance form, the Bharatanatyam.

The Unheard Plea, is a powerful dance piece that first premiered at the The Drive East Festival, New York to a standing ovation.

Neha began her orientation in Bharatanatyam in the abode of her own home in Delhi, India, since the tender age of five.

She trained under several Bharatanatyam greats; Guru Jayshankar Menon, Guru Jayalakshmi Eshwar and Archita Mehta, who taught her to refine nuances of the Kalakshetra style.

Possessing a Post Diploma in Bharatanatyam from Rukmini Devi College Of Fine Arts, Chennai, Neha also has a bachelors degree in Bharatanatyam.

Naturally, we just had to hear from Neha herself on why she chose Draupadi as the subject of her dance piece.

Hey there, Neha! How old were you when you were first introduced to the Mahabharata and why does the epic resonate so much with you even until today?

In India, these epics are almost everyday household stories where examples are quoted from the characters. One of the most quoted example from the Mahabharata is the discourse by Lord Krishna prior to the great war. Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers has cold feet, and Krishna’s words serve as a balm to his soul.

In fact, the entire discourse is compiled into a book known as the Bhagavad Gita  – it is one of the holiest books for practising Hindus. So the relevance of the age old epic is clearly evident even in present times.

I was first introduced to the Mahabharatha at the young age of six-years-old. Watching the Mahabharata as a television series during the weekend was one of my family’s favourite get together time. The whole family would sit in front of the television, to watch the epic every Sundays.

At the end of the show, curiosity would always set in and my family would have a post discussion where us kids would pose innocent questions. Why are the Kauravas not fair to the Pandavas? Why did the blind king not protest when Draupadi was humiliated? Why is Krishna always in favour of the Pandavas? Even until today, the curiosity still remains.

The only difference now is that I am able to rationalise and relate to the different characters. Ultimately, these characters are representative to current times.

Draupadi is among the most complex characters not only emotionally, but mentally as well. How will you be channeling her in your dance?

Draupadi remains to be one of the most controversial heroines from our Indian epics. Emotionally complex but this is partly due to the typical patriarchal thought process of the society back then who assumed her as emotionally complex.
She had to pay her price for expressing herself freely especially during a time when there were taboos for women to express themselves in a society governed by men.
She was treated as a prized possession after Arjuna won her in an archery contest. When she was brought home, she learned that she was to be the wife of not one but five men – all of whom were Arjuna’s brothers.

Krishna comes to the rescue during the disrobing of Draupadi by the Kauravas. Image credit: Pinterest

Yet, she became a queen, a proud mother who never withheld her emotions and often was the first to raise her voice when it came to injustice. Because of this, she was also an easy target to be easily blamed, thus, over the years, she has been misunderstood.
This production will attempt to provide a voice to her plea as I will be touching various instances of her life’s story – catalysts that had paved the way to one of the greatest wars ever.
Is your portrayal of Draupadi from the feminist angle?

She is certainly considered an icon of early feminism till date. My portrayal, however, is not necessarily feminist as I believe if you stand up against injustice or fight for your own rights, THIS IS YOUR RIGHT and does not necessarily make you a feminist.

Draupadi, however, was a woman who boldly acknowledged her sexuality. She was fearless and outspoken, dared to question the ordains of a patriarchal society. Her intelligence and knowledge of state affairs was considered no less than that of any man at that time. So yes, she deserved to be treated no less than any man in that era.

In your opinion, what would have happened to the Pandavas had Draupadi never been in the picture?

Disagreements and internal clashes among the Pandavas would have led to their decline and the Kauravas would have reigned the kingdom. However, I would have to add here, that Krishna, could perhaps be the only game changer in such a situation.
Gambling away their kingdom and Draupadi in a game of dice serves as one of the biggest shortcomings for the Pandavas. How do you feel the brothers could have treated Draupadi better? 
Hypothetically, a situation like this today will be ridiculed and debated. How a husband can bait a wife as his property, or a slave? They could have surrendered or accepted defeat in the game of dice, to honour their wife and  save face as well.
How do you feel performing this piece, that too solo, in front of hundreds of Malaysians? 

I am looking forward to presenting this work in Kuala Lumpur, the audience here are very receptive to new thoughts, ideas and creativity and they do so without being judgmental. I am constantly attempting to  reach out to audiences across the globe, who appreciate South Asian Classical Art forms and want it to be accessible. I just wish to do some meaningful work that can inspire, so that the real purpose of Arts can be served.

Follow Neha Mondal Chakravarty on Facebook. The Unheard Plea will be performed atThe Temple of Fine Arts Kuala Lumpuron May 10, 2019. More info on the show can be obtained here. Purchase tickets, over here. Want us to cover similar events? Give us a holler at editors@eksentrika.com!