By Harshala Gupte
Chitrangada is the heroine of the one-act-play by Rabindranath Tagore, a woman revived from the Mahabharata as more than merely a lover of Arjuna.
My first taste of fiction was the longest lyrical poem ever written. My grandmother fed me Mahabharata in snackable oral tales, followed by Ramayana. I saw my grandmother’s words eventually getting translated as TV shows with record-making runs, and reruns. “The streets would be empty like a ghost town”, my mother told me, “and everybody would gather religiously at home to watch Mahabharata on Sunday morning prime-time.” So I savoured the two most popular Hindu epics as they were served. And as theatrical they were for appeasing my palette, after a certain age, these stories started leaving a bitter aftertaste.
The thousands of verses and hundreds of episodes were about and for the actions of men. As I fetched a woman’s voice, I only heard through a man being her writer and mouthpiece.
To add credibility to my thoughts, I have added evidence below. I ask you to read the following scenes. Regardless of which part of the country you are from, I trust you will validate my thoughts.
His lusty laughter mocks her shaky screams as he kidnaps her. The audience gasps. Their eyes are angry but silence falls upon them. They know this woman- who is fair, but not fierce. As forever they have worshipped her at the altar but never solely her. She has stood in the shadow of her Lord/husband in posters and photographs, carved in rock and metal like her divinity is a small slice derived from his. Thus when Ravana yanks Sita in his barbaric arms and the flowers in her coiffured hair unwound on the ground as she kicks up only eddies of dust with the fight she puts up; the audience knows one thing - she needs her saviour.
And so is Sita Haran (abduction of Sita) enacted on the stage of Ramleela. Be it Ayodhya, Almora, Vrindavan, Varanasi, Madhubani or Satna, Sita is helpless everywhere.
She is dragged by the clump of her hair in the middle of a full-court. There is as much of a bleak retort about what's happening. Most in the court are her relatives. Five, her husbands. The man who holds her hair like the reins of her fate with an evil sense of entitlement is Dushasana, her (step) brother-in-law. And then, he is stripping Draupadi in full-court.
The men bear witness to the infamy of every yard unfolding. In the act of being publically disrobed, Draupadi prays to Lord Krishna as a last resort, who saves her dignity by miraculously extending her robes until Dushasana gives up out of exhaustion. She is violated by all means, but we are taught to assume the glory in her staying chaste in the end. God to the rescue, another woman saved!
The story of Draupadi's Cheer Haran (disrobing of Draupadi) is one that we have heard and watched a great many times. However, later in Mahabharata, there is another story less heard of- when Dushasana is killed in the war of Kurukshetra, Draupadi washes her hair with his blood. But, I digress.
Sita and Draupadi exist in explicit obscurity, imagined as dutiful, chaste wives first, and then (if at all) anything else. This naturally makes us question- Is this the model of womanhood in the canon of Hinduism?
We might want to hold that thought.
The feminine spectroscopy in the astronomical Hindu texts to date remains largely unexplored. The German philosopher Hegel, in this case, would account it to the historians, "to rescue from the past those ideas that are most needed to compensate for the blind spots of the present." So who is to rescue the exemplary women hidden in a hundred thousand verses of the longest poem ever written to save our modern-day women from grave disappointment?
Rabindranath Tagore rescued one- Chitrangada.
In 1913, Tagore published the one-act play Chitra, where he set the stage for a woman as the lead. This is his lyrical adaptation of the love story of Chitrangada and Arjuna from the Mahabharata.
It’s fascinating how various feminist themes unfold along with the courses of the story.
Once upon a time in defiance of gender roles
Chitrangada is the daughter of dust. The princess of Manipur, raised by her father, King Chitravahana, to be a warrior and future ruler. She possesses all the properties, but her gender creates conflict with the patrilineal system of ascending the throne. As the system goes- the son of the king wears the crown, the daughter mostly pawned in royal intermarriages.
A practice that has been pervasive in world history, where ruling families have tossed their daughters into reigning dynasties as a part of strategic diplomacy for the national interest. Popular memory of such a kinship gone amiss would be 'the most hated woman in France' in the 18th century- Marie Antoinette. How the callow Austrian princess was thrown in loveless wedlock with a timid monarch Louis XVI. How she sought pleasure in material extravagance to the extent of squandering an entire nation's wealth. Twenty years of this royally dysfunctional marriage went as far as making the bedrock for the French Revolution and finally, masses gathered outside her palace gates, screaming for the queen's blood. Maybe, just maybe, she wouldn't have been the 'Mad Queen' if she were simply a daughter with a choice.
In that matter, a little choice was allowed to the Indian princesses in a thrilling fashion of Swayamvara where suitors would be invited from neighbouring and faraway lands to compete for the princess's hand in marriage. Yes, ancient Indians invented the trophy wife. Literally. But Chitrangada's life has been sketched eccentricity, not just for the time her story is set in, but for many decades ahead of her.
A woman pursuing a man without inhibitions
The story opens with her confession to the God of love-the Madana Kama and the God of seasons- Vasanta that she is madly in love with Arjuna (the Arjuna) after her accidental encounter with him in the woods. Such headlong is the jolt of attraction that teases out the femininity dormant in her. She had been successfully brought up as a boy till now, but for the first time, she feels like a woman. Courageous in all her ways, she proposes to Arjuna for marriage the very next day. He declines respectfully, stating that he has sworn celibacy whilst on his 12-year long exile. For the first time, she feels the vain pride of her manly valour.
We can still consider Chitrangada bolder than 70% of the Indian women today who shy away from making the first move in matters of love when she implores to the Gods,
"I am not the woman who nourishes her despair in lonely silence, feeding it with nightly tears and covering it with the daily patient smile, a widow from her birth. The flower of my desire shall never drop into the dust before it has ripened to fruit."
Chitrangada follows her passion with pursuit. She is convinced that to win Arjuna over would take much longer than the fleeting duration of his exile in the woods. Here, she makes a tricky choice to rather ensnare him into falling in love with her. She entreats the Gods Madana Kama and Vasanta to bless her with a day of perfect beauty. They grant her a year. She goes to Arjuna dressed in her boon.
This time around, when she catches Arjuna's gaze, he sees an apparition of beauty in the perfect form of a woman. The vow of celibacy is dissolved instantly. The Pandava declares himself to be a 'love-hungered guest at her door'!
Now although her aspiration is fulfilled, Arjuna's instant enchantment with her physical appeal incites a sudden realisation and a sharp disgust in Chitrangada. He has fallen for her dark eyes and milky-white arms. She asserts, "Surely this cannot be love, this is not man's highest homage to a woman!"
Beauty by the standards of Satyam Shivam Sundaram
And what is body but a frail disguise to hold beauty that lies in the eternal spirit of humans? This is Chitrangada's inquiry. The Hindu maxim of Satyam Shivam Sundaram (Truth Godliness Beauty) tells us that truth and good are formless but make a tangible form of beauty when manifested. The order of the words is also an instruction of their significance. Chitrangada's illusion of beauty does not hold either ground and hence, is not beauty in principle.
But hasn’t the conversation about feminine beauty and its evolution been fraught with only the woman's body under the lens? If the ancient Greeks honed facial symmetry to be the grade of excellence, the middle ages in Christian faith loved pale slim silhouettes, and then the Renaissance revived voluptuous curves with 'The Birth of Venus'. Enter the tight waist, big breasts, tiny hands, delicate feet, long legs, short hair, fuller lips, bright eyes, bony figure, zero figure, fair and lovely, dark and beautiful, plain jane, bootylicious, #nomakeup.
I can string these words on the timeline as per their advent. But do we have such a descriptive vocabulary for qualities of mind and spirit of the woman?
Hindu mythology on many occasions does endorse beautiful women to be chaste, pure and shy. But when Chitrangada speaks of her chance at Arjuna's companionship, none of these qualities is reflected in her speech-
"I would stand by his side as a comrade, drive the fierce horses of his war-chariot, attend him in the pleasures of the chase, keep guard at night at the entrance of his tent, and help him in all the great duties of a Kshatriya, rescuing the weak, and meting out justice where it is due."
Her words exonerate inner beauty through love, bravery, equality and support. And well, I like her set of standards better. She stands for mind over matter, spirit over the body. Chitrangada's story is about finding her truth in this dilemma.
Compatibility, commitment, limerence and other hard truths of romance.
But even after rejecting Arjuna the first time around, she gives in to her throes of passion when he approaches her again. Tagore describes their union through Chitra's dialogue with poetic artistry that leaves one nothing short of ecstatic. However, the very next morning when reality dawns upon her, she shrinks away from the scene in haste.
Chitrangada's romantic relationship with Arjuna stirs up an intense and constant conflict that she conveys in her conversations with Vasanta and Madana. It tortures her to deck her borrowed beauty every day and let it be caressed by Arjuna like her body is of someone complete else. With devastating guilt, she also beseeches the gods to take back her boon. Nobler would be, to come off as she truly is. And even if Arjuna spurns her, there shall be dignity in bearing the grief in silence. But Vasanta dissuades her. This cloying infatuation is only a season of love that shall fade in time and Arjuna would come to love her. Would it be too unintelligent to say here that Vasanta suggests that the honeymoon phase too shall pass?
To put it more constructively, we today identify this as limerance- the first stage of love marked by physical symptoms (flushing, trembling, palpitations), excitement, intrusive thinking, obsession, fantasy, sexual excitement, and the fear of rejection. Our initial impulses of attraction based on physical traits or conduct of a person does not mean our judgement is morally bent! Love is a transformative process of discovering the other, deeper with time. So many couples have found truelove on dating sites today. Do you think their Tinder profiles have been the windows to their soul?
"Listen to my advice. When with the advent of autumn the flowering season is over then comes the triumph of fruitage. A time will come of itself when the heat-cloyed bloom of the body will droop and Arjuna will gladly accept the abiding fruitful truth in thee."
-Vasanta, Chitra- a Play in One Act
Thus, Chitrangada returns to her mad festival of love. Arjuna has by now fallen so deeply in her love that he fancies making her his crowned queen when he returns to his kingdom. The reply is a no.
"This love is not for a home!" she asserts. Their love is impassioned and free like the wilderness in which it has been discovered, not to mention seasonal. Chitrangada sees the name and home and parentage as some of the many possibilities in the equation of love, but none fit her case. There sure is pain, but she tells Arjuna to not hold any regret." Take it and keep it as long as it lasts."
And let's call it 'the nerve' to reject the proposal of the most popular figure of not just the Pandava but the whole of Kuru pantheon. In the era when girls were primed and prepped to be married off since childhood, Chitranganda drew her boundaries and loved without boundaries too, while protecting her identity. And her lover respectfully obliged.
Love that only demands coming as you are
We also later see Arjuna at a juncture where their love matures and he professes to see Chitrangada beyond her goddess-like golden image. He considers his love incomplete until he explores the various facets of her personality, ultimately embracing her bare simplicity of truth. Parallelly, his curiosity starts speaking about the much-discussed tales of valour of the princess of Manipur. He credits the calibre of the princess in front of Chitrangada as well, not knowing that apparently, she is the princess incarnate. Chitra shuns Arjuna that his vision of the princess is only a fanatic one. Come eye-to-eye, he shall be repelled by her boorish 'manly' demeanour.
In hindsight, Chitra's boon is about to be washed away in days, at the close of the year's end.
The climax of the story outstretches to the moment of truth. When Chitra is to reveal her true self, the situation seems so delicate like the anticipation of the pop of a bubble so huge that could consume a whole body, whole. Its walls are made of Chitra’s vulnerability and in between swirls of shame. At burst, it would collapse on her like microdroplets of acid truth. And what would happen to our part honest, part dishonest, purely mythical but radically human heroine then? 
She comes clean with her identity, inhibitions, her love and her deceit. And even in her request of forgiveness and acceptance, she holds her integrity
"I am Chitra. No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside like a moth with indifference. If you deign to keep me by your side in the path of danger and daring, if you allow me to share the great duties of your life, then you will know my true self."
Arjuna's reply is terse but sufficient, "Beloved, my life is full."
Chitrangada strikes a chord with me. Her image can be said to be that of an ancient day tom-boy struggling with beauty standards on an internal and societal level. Moreover, she is much closer to modern sensibilities in terms of female sexuality, marriage as a choice and pre-marital sex. If dating and relationships are infamies to Indian culture, why does the religious text that we swear by hold the evidence of lovers courting each other for a year without marriage? We need many more stories like her’s so that we can counter the fundamentalistic narratives that pronounce these concepts anti-cultural, keep women in a subordinate position through and define gender roles through selective readings of the Hindu scriptures.
Shall it disquiet the fundamentalists that the front man of dharma in Mahabharata admired a perfectly independent woman to the extent of marrying her? He did not deny the longings of flesh to himself nor her and put consent first at every step. The people who claim to be the custodians of tradition may not have even read the Mahabharata, Bhagavad-Gita or Ramayana. But their ideas are the stories that were orally passed on to them as children, interpreted and punctuated a little by little in the mouth of every transmitter. My friend teases his mother as 'Sita maiya' for when she acts overly submissive and toils herself in the kitchen at the behest of a family member's unreasonable demands. His idea of Sita as the obedient wife comes from perhaps television, or an animated movie he watched as a child.
The point is that we need to understand how tightly religious and cultural norms are interwoven in the Indian strata. There couldn't be amore affirmative time to be saying this as the re-run of Ramayana in the times of COVID-19 crosses Game of Thrones to become the most viewed TV show in the world. And sadly, the women in the show, like 'Sita maiya', are one dimensional. Kaikeyi is only jealous, Surpanakha is the only ogress. It would be a shame to conclude so without considering Ulupi, Shakti and Mandodari of the Kashmiri Ramayana.
Why don't we start confronting our history? There are dark spaces in Hindu scriptures where women have been portrayed as inferior. If ignoring these themes is bad, putting a euphemistic spin and making them appetizing for the masses, is worse. Do we choose to look at the aforementioned Surpanakha as violently after considering that she fairly confesses her affection for Laxmana and has her nose chopped as it's the price? Women like Chitrangada shall never find a place amidst these popular tales.
In a way, I am glad.