She was an ‘asura’ (demon) and sister of the ten-headed demon, Ravana in the Ramayana; he was the brother of Gandhari, a woman who blindfolded herself for the love of her blind husband, Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata.
Shoorpanakha and Shakuni are two characters who went down in history as distasteful memories, as the cause behind war, mass destruction and death in the Indian epics.
For us, they epitomised ‘evil’: Shoorpanakha, an ‘ugly’ vamp and Shakuni, the shrewd, conspiring and manipulative uncle. However, beneath their ‘villainous’ cloaks resided a brother, who felt betrayed, and a sister, whose love was answered by a violent thrash from two ‘godly’ brothers respectively, we hardly cared to know.
‘Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, So Said Shakuni’, a play, written by Poile Sengupta and performed recently on stage by Divya Chandra and Oroon Das at the India Islamic Cultural Centre (IICC), New Delhi, made a sincere effort to understand the plight of these two mythological beings whose stories and references have evoked scorn, resentment and condemnation as legitimate responses from readers.
The plot, theme and setting: The backdrop is that of an airport bustling with passengers amid which we meet two travellers killing time in wait for their delayed flight. Light projections and sound mixing accessorised the stage setting well. A dialogue between the two actors begins and slowly descends into an unseen historical time and space. The knitting of dialogues and through it a seamless travel into the past opens the door for us to enter the inner-self of the much-criticised individuals.
Shoorpanakha and her desire for love: In this illusionary world, Shoorpanakha is the Goddess of desire who upon first seeing Lord Rama in the lush green forest during his exile years wanted to surrender her all at his feet. Sadly, she was repulsed by the married man. She laments, “The brothers teased me, tossed me like a plaything.” Seething with rage, she opposes the classification of a woman as either a ‘grotesque’ vamp or the ‘luminous’ wife. A woman who speaks her mind and demands space is looked down upon over a submissive, chaste and obedient wife, feels Shoorpanakha who detested being a ‘cooing pigeon’. When Laxmana cut her nose and hacked off her breasts, Shoorpanakha bled tears of emotional pain no one acknowledged. “Even my brother, King of demons came back lovesick,” grieves a dejected Shoorpanakha.
Shakuni and his desire for revenge: As the play progressed, we observe a platform of understanding develop between the two characters with their respective tales of pathos on stage. Now, the man steps into this temporal space and narrates how and why he became the master player who pushed the brothers (Pandavas and Kauravas) into a fatal war. Once we glimpse into the heart of a brother who found himself helpless after his sister blot the sun out of her life in her service to a blind husband, anger subsides and sympathy takes over. He recounts his simple lifestyle with his siblings in the hills until Gandhari’s ‘royal’ marriage spelled doom. Later, his brothers and father too were imprisoned and starved to death by the Kauravas that triggered Shakuni to unfold a devious plot. Creator of the game of dice, his transition from a simple man to someone who personified wickedness achieves meaning in the play. An intent listener in Shoorpanakha responds, “At least you turned out to be a better brother than mine.”
Some light moments on stage: There are instances when the audience is reminded of their journey into a historical time not seen or read about. When Shoorpanakha uncovers her bruised nose to Shakuni, the latter candidly inquires, “Can’t you go for a nose job or something?” this leaves the audience in splits. The woman, also the ‘fallen’ Shoorpanakha equates the Ramayana to a Mills and Boon novel, a comparison hilariously thought-provoking to the spectators.
Not epic heroes, nor villains either: The camaraderie shared between the two forlorn characters from two different epics represented one essential fact that no one is born ‘evil’, only irreconcilable circumstances and conditions force one to change. A Shakuni was born as a result of breach of trust and a Shoorpanakha, when violation and ruthlessness mutilated her innocent love.
Besides addressing gender dynamics, challenging historical truth and deconstructing theory of ‘good vs bad’, Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, So Said Shakuni delved into the soul of a victim inside the body of a ‘villain’.
Cast and crew:
Woman: Divya Chandra
Man: Oroon Das
Photography: Priyanka Nagpal, Divya Chandra
Playwright: Poile Sengupta
Production: Divya Chandra, Priyanka Nagpal, Rahul Giri