Body of Work

People, power and prophecy in the writing of Mahasweta Devi

01 September 2016

SOMETIME IN 2000, I watched the actor Sabitri Heisnam play the eponymous protagonist in a stage adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s 1976 story ‘Draupadi.’ Set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ‘Draupadi’ tells of a woman Adivasi insurgent in the fictitious but recognisable forested belt of “Jharkhani” on the Bengal-Bihar border, working in tandem with a group of communist guerrillas from the city. Draupadi gets caught by the military, and is serially raped as part of a ritual chastisement session. Then, in a throwback to the public shaming of Draupadi from the Mahabharata, to which Mahasweta adds a defiant twist, the woman casts off her sari, refusing to cover up the wounds inflicted on her by the state.

The audience gasped in disbelief as Heisnam stood completely naked on stage, her slight frame suddenly grown bigger against the dark backdrop. Then, like a predatory bird, she unfurled her arms, taking slow, measured steps towards her uniformed attackers. The soldiers recoiled in horror as Draupadi thrust her mangled body towards them, wearing her scars like weapons more powerful than their bayoneted guns.

The play attracted its share of controversy for showing a woman actor nude on stage. Four years later, in July 2004, members of a women’s social movement group in Manipur stripped down to their bare skin to protest the custodial rape and death of the 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama. A few days earlier, on the night of 10 July, Manorama had been picked up by the Assam Rifles, a state paramilitary unit, from her Imphal home, for her supposed links to the banned People’s Liberation Army. Around forty women demonstrated in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters, naked, holding up banners saying “Indian Army Rape Us.” The radical protest made media headlines, but probably not that much difference to the lives of women in Manipur, where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which allowed the Assam Rifles to act with such impunity, still prevails.

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    Chitralekha Basu 's short fiction, literary essays and translations have been published most recently in Asia Literary ReviewOpen Road Review and The Missing Slate. She is an arts writer with China Daily in Hong Kong.

    Keywords: Bengali Draupadi Mahasweta Devi Indian Theatre Indian Literature