Notes on Draupadi – a performance by Kalakshetra (Manipur)

It has been a while since I’ve been wanting to watch Draupadi by Kalakshetra Manipur and glad that finally could manage to watch it at India Habitat Centre. Based on a short story by Mahashweta Devi, Draupadi went on to become a major performance in the discourse of political theatre in India. Mahashweta Devi had based her story in the context of naxalite revolution in Bengal while theatre director H. Kanhailal contextualises the same story within the political scenario of Manipur. The common thread in both, story and performance, is the protagonist’s fight against the oppressive state that wants to suppress insurgent movement by locals. The play ends on a high note where Draupadi, after being repeatedly raped by army officials, disrobes herself as an act of protest.

Talking about the performance, I didn’t find it engaging enough and that feeling has very less to do with my inability to understand language. Apart from H. Savitri, who is a brilliant stage actress and surely amongst the best that I have seen, the performers lacked coherence in their share of being on stage. Kanhailal is known for his skills to make actors speak through their bodies but this performance was put at risk with being textually dominating in nature. Also, the technicalities of sound projection and background music were major hindrances in receiving the performance. Performing such an intense play in an open air setting too might have been responsible to have diluted the impact of the performance.

But a play like Draupadi should not be dismissed under the pretext of poor performance because its significance to political theatre in India is undisputable. After Pebet, where Kanhailal cleverly transforms a Meitei folk tale into a performance that makes a strong political comment against the cultural and social indoctrination of Manipur by the Indian state, Draupadi too gives an insight into the larger political debate around Manipur that Kanhailal wants to trigger within his audience. Manipur has been one of the centre of insurgency against Indian state to free itself and form a sovereign nation and thus has been put under the barbaric and inhuman rule of Armed Force Special Powers Act or better known as AFSPA.  Kanhailal, through this play, attempts to touch upon various topics that concern his surrounding, the most striking one being the brutal torture of locals by the Indian army, especially rapes of local women, thanks to the callous AFSPA.

The climax scene where Savitri disrobes herself as an act of protest also triggers many questions about nudity and body on stage and in public life. When the performance first premiered in 2000, it was heavily criticised for having shown nudity on stage. But when a group of Meitei women staged a naked protest in Imphal against the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by Indian Army in 2004, the performance got a revived meaning. It is in all these contexts that Draupadi becomes a performance with a great significance in the broader narrative of political theatre in India.

Reads old newspapers and researches on Goan History.

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