(Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 24 – 27 August 2023)
Review by Bashabi Fraser
I was not sure what to expect. The publicity leaflet for What Draupadi Said to Penelope shows the silhouettes of two women seated on the ground, exchanging confidences. They are on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, its Greek folly flanking the right corner, suggestive of the two women speaking in present day Edinburgh.
Performed at the end of August 2023 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this production was advertised as combining music, dance and storytelling. The circular theatre, with some of the audience sitting on cushions in front, did indeed create the perfect ambience for storytelling in an atmosphere of inclusive intimacy.
The performance brought quintessentially Indian stories, relevant for women and societies globally, from the East to the West. Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, confides in Penelope, the wife of Ulysses in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Both mythological women concede they are restless souls whose need to tell their stories remains urgent as the tensions, injustices and violence they have experienced continue, needing to be told again in their own voices to correct the narratives.
The narrator and scriptwriter, Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra, a Senior Lecturer in Bioethics and Global Health Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, also plays Penelope, to whom Draupadi narrates her own story and that of other women in the Mahabharata. The telling is graceful and mesmerising. Feminine angst and resistance are powerfully conveyed by dancers trained in Indian classical dance – in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, contemporary dance and belly dance. There is a captivating dialogue between the dancers and the musicians who use Indian classical ragas and talas, blending these with Western classical and jazz, as well as tunes from the films of director Satyajit Ray.
One of the characters, Gandhari, who is married without her prior knowledge to a blind king, chooses to blindfold herself, yet sees everything. Draupadi, who was married to the five Pandava brothers without being consulted, was betrayed by them in a game of chess with their opponents, where they lost her person to the enemy. Hidimbi serves her husband’s family selflessly, but is abandoned with child after a year. Kunti is raped by a god, gives birth to a son she has to give away, and witnesses her first born and five other sons pitted against each other in a mighty battle. Chitrangada, a warrior princess, has to resort to her feminine beauty to win the man she loves.
The wrongs suffered by these women give rise to a solidarity and sisterhood with Penelope in challenging patriarchal power. The modern resonances are apparent. Chitrangada, training to be a warrior, also practises wearing high-heels, raising pointed questions – why? for whom? Kunti considers an abortion – the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US leaves many women furious and in despair. The parallels to society today are clear, though there are no immediate resolutions offered to the patriarchy, which continues to constrain women today.
In this performance, Eastern women speak for themselves to a sympathetic Western woman, bridging the gap between East and West. This production of What Draupadi Said to Penelope is sponsored by networks at the University of Edinburgh. South Asian women are an integral part of the British community; their stories, brought to mainstream audiences, confirm the universality of women’s experience in a riveting performance that Theiya Arts would like to take across the UK to diverse audiences.