ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Questioning Frames, Breaking Moulds

Situating Women in Tamil Mahabharatas

Epics and oral narratives have long been a part of the cultural ethos of the Indian subcontinent. Given the long years of their existence and expression in oral, performance and written traditions, several characters which might be part of one narrative may not be part of another. A critical examination of Tamil Mahabharatas reveals the existence of several women characters, whose stories can be read simultaneously as resisting as well as conforming to the dominant patriarchal order. This reveals the ambiguous attitudes towards non-conforming women, and how even the dissemination of their narratives are seen as a threat to the dominant patriarchal social order.

 

This exploration of Tamil Maha­bharatas is an attempt to contextualise the processes of transmission and transmutation of narrative fragments from the great epic that might have had their birth in the non-Sanskritic, and perhaps, to some extent, matrilocal, early Tamil society. Warrior queens like Alli Arasani bring to mind the presence of the all-women army in the Sangam period known as mudin magalir1 (valorous women). The myths of warrior queens like Alli, Pavazhakkodi and the Siva devotee Minnoliyal and their marriage to Arjuna, a leading protagonist of the Mahabharata, break the mega narrative of a great epic, bringing to centre stage figures who are wholly absent in the mainstream version. Through ballads like Ponnaruvi MasakkaiKarna Moksham and Karnamaharajan Chandai, this critical study draws attention to the narrative of Karna’s wife Ponnaruvi, whose hatred of her so-called “low-caste” husband and unw­anted pregnancy, brings into sharp focus the issues of gender, caste and class. These fragmented narratives can be said to constitute significant regional variants of a grand epic narrative, irrespective of whether they truly constitute counter narratives or eventually get ­appropriated by the patriarchal mainstream.

A good example is the regional retelling of the Mahabharata, such as the cele­brated Tamil text Panchali Shapatam by S Subramanya Bharatiyar, which narrates the role of DraupadiIt is noteworthy that the deification of Draupadi by Tamil communities has evolved over the course of a few centuries into the Draupadi cult, exemplified by the proli­feration of temples and shrines dedicated to Draupadi Amman. Similarly, Gandhari is also worshipped as a goddess by many Tamil castes. It has been opined that it is the Draupadi cult which is ­responsible for the rapid spread of the Mahabharata, especially in the narrative mode and the performative mode (Srinivasan 2009: 8).

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Updated On : 31st Jan, 2021

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