A Play About Gandhari – and About Gendered Roles Across Eras

Suman Keshari's new book highlights the life and moral dilemmas of a Mahabharata character who has seldom seen the spotlight.

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Suman Keshari is already known for her work in poetry and storytelling; Gandhari is her debut as a playwright, her first step into the world of theatre.

Keshari’s has been a gentle yet firm voice against the centre-margin binary, where the centre is the hegemonic and authoritarian voices of the patriarchy, the fortunate elitist, the power holders arising out of their superiority of gender, caste, race, religion, economic or political status in the society, vis-à-vis the less seen, and even less heard, sections of society forming the frayed margins or periphery.

Gandhari, her latest offering, is a play based on the prominent character Gandhari in the epic Mahabharata, the princess of Gandhara, the wife of Dhritarashtra (the blind king of Hastinapur) and the mother of 100 sons and a daughter. Even though the play revolves around Gandhari, it would be extremely unjust to call it a mythological play. Under the guise of Gandhari’s story, Keshari unravels and exposes the gendered subalternity and marginalised invisibility of women in all eras and times, and their commodification and objectification specially when it came to empire dynamics, political and diplomatic manoeuvres and power conspiracies.

She also speaks of how this marginalisation has been further embraced and perpetuated by women themselves, by choosing to silence their own voices, their rationality, their sense of right and wrong, by blindfolding their own vision and toeing the line to buy peace and so-called love.

Suman Keshari
Bodhi Prakashan, Jaipur, 2022

As the play opens, we see that Gandhari has been been specifically chosen by the patriarch Bhishma to appease Dhritarashtra, manipulate him and iron out his resentment and bitterness about his blindness, his grouse against fate, life, his brother Pandu and all the advantages that are Pandu’s because of his sight. As Bhishma tells his stepmother Satyavati, “Mother, I had enquired about daughter-in-law Gandhari from Brahmins-Scholars, maidservants-maidgardeners … I learnt that after arduous fasting, penance and prayers she was able to please Lord Shiva and get herself the boon of inviolate fortune and motherhood of numerous sons. …You are not aware how much patience and perseverance she has. Even though Dhritarashtra is powerful and strong, you know how easily he becomes furious and bitter over small things. Therefore Gandhari would be an appropriate wife for Dhritarashtra.”

In his quest for finding the perfect mate for Dhritarashtra, not once did Bhishma think about the needs, desires, aspirations or future of Gandhari or even the repercussion of such a mismatched alliance for her. She was the voiceless, faceless object to be procured by fair or foul means to suit the empire’s end. As is obvious in the play, Bhishma by wielding his power made sure that the King of Gandhar not only agrees to this match willingly, but also sends his only son Shakuni to Hastinapur to avoid any future warfare as a result of this coercion.

Of all the female characters in the Mahabharata, Gandhari has surprisingly been the most overlooked one despite her prominent presence throughout. It could be because hers are the most subtle emotions, her deprivation and anguish most underplayed, except when she is confronted with the death of her sons and the massacre in the battlefield. Much hasn’t therefore been written about her so far. Keshari however, with her innate sensitivity, her deep sense of poetry, her empathetic outlook, dares to tread on this untraversed path.

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She views Gandhari for the person she is – a richly endowed woman, a princess of great beauty, grace, wisdom, tolerance, piety, noble thoughts, strong willpower, resolute yet quintessentially feminine. For a woman like her to be married off (by devious methods) to a man who is resentful, insecure, bitter, deeply jealous, short tempered, mistrustful, greedy and crafty, was snuffing the very life out of her slowly. Yet she intensely wants to be a dutiful, dedicated, devoted wife to her husband,  not to be superior to him in any way, even if it means depriving herself of her sight, even if it means silencing her wisdom and falling in line with him on all counts regardless of their merits.

As we see in the play, Dhritarashtra (knowing that Gandhari was admired by one and all for her beauty and qualities) often felt deeply jealous, insecure and resentful of the fact that others found her attractive. He would retaliate by taunting her, censuring her, making hurtful gibes at her, causing her immense anguish. Like when he lashes out at Gandhari: “Oh yes, I should keep calm and quiet knowing fully well how Pandu gazes at you with lustful eyes. I am right…aren’t I? Even today he must have relished the very sight of you. Well, eventually you too have got weary of a blind man. Haven’t you?”

We also see how Gandhari confides in Kamini, her best friend: “Now he feels that I am miserable because of his blindness… Time and again he taunts me about Pandu… Oh, what should I do?”

Suman Keshari.

When she tries to share this pain and confusion with Dhritarashtra, he concedes, “You know my blindness has made me piteous and wretched forever. When you love me I feel that you are showing pity… Do you have any remedy for my suffering? Do you have any cure for this?”

Gandhari tries to tell him that she loves him with her heart and soul, that she is completely, absolutely his, that they both are one except for the difference that he is blessed with an inner vision and she can see externally.

Dhritarashtra promptly retorts, “Isn’t that a huge difference? Wouldn’t you want someone who could gaze at your beauty? …Some man who could admire your looks …Someone who could speak about the magic of your eyes…or what shade your hair is…which colours flatter you the most… I’ve read in poetry…heard in stories that women feel elated and excited by such appreciation. I can only speak about smell and touch…not appreciate your beauty in its entirety…so I agonise, my darling.”

Dhritarashtra’s constant bitterness, resentment, insecurities, taunts, gibes followed by his helplessness, piteousness and declarations of love put together culminate in provoking Gandhari to bring herself on an evenness with her husband, and voluntarily blindfold herself for the rest of her life.

When dominance is imposed abundantly, it casts dark shadows on the dominated. Individuality is lost and personality becomes a sign of subversion. The impact of this subversion is felt not only by the subject but all those connected to them. In Gandhari’s case, her blindfolding herself (symbolically too, wherein she made the choice to become a voiceless, sightless follower of her husband) impacted her role as a wife, as a mother, as a sister and as a woman who could have raised her voice against the evil, viciousness and destruction around her.

Gandhari in her soliloquy (after witnessing Draupadi’s wrath and fury caused by the disrobing in the Kaurava’s court) laments,“Do not thus deceive yourself Gandhari …You had seen, even with your shut eyes, your sons turning into barbaric animals …You watched your sons feeding Bheem poisoned food …Drowning his unconscious body in the river …Watched six human beings being burnt alive in the house of lacquer …You had watched your husband and your brother sowing greed in your children…turning them wicked and vicious…but you kept believing that everything was normal, because that was what you wanted to believe in… You had yourself closed your eyes and strangulated your conscience with your own hands …You wanted that the kingdom should be in control of your husband and sons! Why do you lie to yourself  …Crying now is a such a lie…an absolute lie!”

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For me, herein lies the essence of the entire play. This heart-wrenching soliloquy unveils her agony, anguish and torment, her absolute sense of failure arising out of her own mistaken choices, her confession of her own previous deluded understanding of what a good woman, wife or marriage should be.

To trample one’s own consciousness, sagacity, shut one’s eyes to all transgressions, unfairness, injustice in order to conform, to appease leads to disaster and destruction. We have been given the faculties of thought and discernment, the conscience to sift out the right from the wrong, which places us in a privileged position relative to other species. What use is that if we suspend all judgement and shirk responsibility of standing by that which is right and fair?

Although this is Keshari’s first effort as a playwright, she comes across as thoroughly natural and seasoned, someone who understands the fine nuances of this medium. The play has immense possibilities both as a stage and radio drama. It reminds us that writing a drama is a prelude to a wider aesthetic landscape that includes many arts and requires understanding of spaces, music, costumes, stage, settings, acting, direction, lighting, sound and so many other things.

In India, there has been a dearth of good playwrights – although one cannot deny that there have been some very prominent ones like Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Badal Sircar, Habib Tanvir, Mohan Rakesh, Javed Siddiqui, Mahesh Elkunchwar, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, M. Mukundan, Asgar Wajahat and Mahesh Dattani (to name just a few) who have made remarkable contributions in this field. Most of their works have also been translated into English for larger reach.

I sincerely hope Keshari goes on to explore this medium more deeply and breathes new life into Indian theatre, which of late has shown a paucity of good original scripts.

Archna Pant is an ex media and advertising professional. She is the author of a book of short stories, Rainbows in the Desert, co-author of the anthology Dattani’s Plays – Staging the Invisibles.