Draupadi’s fame preceded her. It was told that she was talented, had a beautiful voice and could reduce spectators to tears with her emoting. The musical was not to be missed.
A chatty middle-aged housemaid reported this in a hushed manner to my cousin Sujata and me, when we were spending a long, humid summer at our grand parents’ house. Our curiosity was aroused; we threw tantrums and demanded permission to see the musical.
This musical or ‘jatra’, as it is known in Odisha, was a whole-night affair and there was no way anyone would allow two little girls – ten and twelve – to attend it alone. Then the impossible happened. Our grandfather, a fair and just man with a major weakness for music, decided that maybe we, along with our two nine year old male cousins, could be allowed to watch just the first one hour of the jatra. After all, the venue was a temple right across from the house. An uncle would make sure that we were seated in the front row and he would again bring us home at ten, when the first act ended.
This was not to our satisfaction, because the thrill of staying awake whole night was snatched away, but it was better than nothing. We ate an early dinner and, by nine p.m., we were seated in the best possible seats.
The jatra started. The first few scenes were all about Draupadi, who indeed was dazzling in all her finery and costume jewellery. Her voice was, however, a little disappointing for us.
Sujata and I had begun music lessons in earnest a couple of years ago and, though we were yet to reach our peak, we realized that Draupadi’s voice was somewhat fake and nasal. Her rendition was soulful, but it lacked a certain something. However, the lyrics by a famous ancient poet and the plagiarized melody from a popular Bollywood composer made up for the deficiency.
All too soon, the first act ended and it was time for us to return home. We reluctantly walked out of the suffocatingly warm room to the temple courtyard and waited for our uncle to pick us up. We felt cheated because the next part, after the brief comical interlude, would be the scene where Draupadi and the five Pandavas were to roam the forests, sans all finery and escape the fire tragedy. The housemaid had told us that Draupadi’s acting in this scene was superb and heart wrenching.
Our uncle was late and the male cousins were getting restless. They forgot their assigned duty as our Praetorian guards and ventured out to the veranda to look for our uncle. I was tempted to join them, but Sujata held me back. She felt that it was not safe for her to be outside at ten in the night. I did not see her point, but could not abandon her. Curbing my impatience, I sat on a stone bench next to her in the temple courtyard.
Suddenly the door of the green room opened and Draupadi stepped out with an assistant. Clearly it was the stifling heat that had pushed the Queen out of the tiny green room. We watched as the assistant carefully removed the jewellery piece by piece from Draupadi. Then he proceeded to take back the box inside. As he was leaving, Draupadi said something to him and, to our shock, a beedi was produced and lit for her.
Draupadi stood against a pillar and smoked contently. The assistant returned soon with a simple sari, which would be Draupadi’s attire for the next scene. ‘Hurry up and change,’ he said and rushed inside for his next errand.
Draupadi threw the beedi aside and disrobed almost to the underclothes right there in the temple courtyard. As she expertly tied the simple sari and finally put one end on her head demurely, her wig gave way. She cursed aloud and tried to reattach the piece. Draupadi, sans her gaudy jewellery, bright clothes, and now the elaborate hairpiece, did not look elegant. The theatrical makeup, still in place, now looked distasteful to us. Moreover, the flat chest, short hair and coarse demeanour had their own story to tell.
Draupadi caught us staring as she veered into the Green room for help with the wig. She stopped for a second and winked lasciviously at us. Sujata and I realized with a start that this Draupadi was no dazzling queen. She, rather he, was a man.