Recreate queer Mahabharat characters using drag
When I was a child, I dreamed of dressing up as gods and mythological characters. Being born into a Hindu family, I have always thought about the idea of religion. As I grew older, my belief shifted from agnosticism to pantheism. Let me tell you a bit more about how I ended up recreating four queer characters from the Mahabharat.
Pantheism has helped me see the belief world as a specter, not a stagnant structure found in a rulebook. This reflection also helped me to rethink and draw inspiration from mythologies from different cultures, religions and tribes.
Being a queer person, we are always told that homosexuality is anti-religion. Time and time again, governments, institutions and organizations play the “religion” card not to accept people from LGBTQIA + communities.
These religion maps come from a surface understanding and heteronormative notions about their texts. They hardly intend to study it, but just assault a few lines and use them to silence the strange voices.
“I refuse to accept a heterosexual God”
These are the cases that made me renounce the idea of the religion I was born with. I refused to accept a heterosexual god. I wanted a god who looked like me, strange and powerful.
When I was in an intermittent relationship with my belief, I came across a book, “Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You,” wonderfully written by Devdutt Patnaik. It helped me investigate some references to the so-called queer gods in the Hindu mythological pantheon.
When I first started exploring my gender and my sexuality through drag, it was something that I wanted my art to reflect and present my creative perspective. In 2014, I worked on a dance production called “Pancha Pandhakas”, ie based on five queer characters from Hindu mythology.
I have toured with the production in several national and international cinemas. I really loved the welcome it got and therefore the concept of integrating mythology made me present a different take. Over time, my take on dating has changed.
I chose queer characters from the Mahabharat
The next time I thought about creating concept art, I had Pancha Pandhakas in mind. However, I thought it was important to take a closer look. I wanted it to be specific to the “Mahabharat”, a story that has been told many times.
The Mahabharat has several queer histories. They were traditional, celebrated, and pivotal queer characters to the entire epic. While I was wondering how to go about it, I met Alekhya Grace, photographer and friend, who has been watching my performances for quite some time now.
When we struck up a conversation about the possibility of doing a photoshoot on the same theme, we rethought why we’re doing it in the first place. We couldn’t find a strong enough pattern.
It was around the same time that a marriage equality court hearing was taking place. The government in power opposed it on the grounds that same-sex marriage was contrary to “the ethics of Hinduism or Hindu culture”.
It was then that we understood why our work needed to be highlighted, to show how ancient India was more inclusive for LGBTQIA + people. With that in mind, we worked with queer characters from the Mahabharata and recreated them, one by one.
The title of our work “Chaturabhanga” translates as the “four unbreakable”. All four characters are gender nonconforming, sometimes included under the trans umbrella, with varying sexualities, throughout the epic. Alekhya captured the emotion of the story through her photography and we recreated the following images.
Shikhandi was born as a girl named Shikhandini, to Drupada, the king of Panchala. In a previous life, Shikandini was a woman named Amba, who was made impossible to marry by the hero, Bhishma.
Humiliated, Amba undertook great austerities, and the gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death. Amba is reborn under the name of Shikhandini. A divine voice told Drupada to raise Shikhandini as a son, so Drupada raised her as a man, trained her in war, and arranged for her to marry a woman.
On the wedding night, Shikhandini’s wife realizes that her “husband” is a woman and insults her. Shikhandini runs away, but encounters a yaksha (spirit of nature) who “exchanges” his sex with her. Shikhandini returns as a man under the name Shikhandi and leads a happy married life, with his wife and children.
During Kurukshetra’s war, Bhishma recognizes him as a reborn Amba and refuses to fight a “woman”. Thus, Arjuna hides behind Shikhandi to defeat the almost invincible Bhishma. After his death, Shikhandi’s masculinity is transferred back to the yaksha.
When Arjuna refuses the amorous advances of the nymph Urvashi, she curses him, saying that he will become a “kliba“, or a trans woman. Krishna assures Arjuna that this curse would serve as a perfect disguise for him during the last year of the Pandavas’ exile.
Arjuna takes the name Brihannala and dresses in women’s clothing, causing the effect of the curse. Thus, Brihannala enters the city ruled by King Virata, where she teaches the art of music, song and dance to Princess Uttara and her participants.
In the “Padma Purana”, Arjuna physically transforms into a woman, when he asks permission to participate in Krishna’s mystical dance, which only women can attend.
Ali was a female warrior who was brought up as a man, her name was also Ali Rani. Arjuna was so enamored of her beauty that he wanted to marry her. She, being self-sufficient, refused to marry him. Arjuna asked for Krishna’s help.
Legend has it that Krishna turned him into a serpent, and he slipped into Ali’s bed at night and frightened her into becoming his wife. Some say he forced her to be his wife, because he managed to spend the night in bed with her in the form of a snake.
Ali has fallen in love with the way Arjuna spent the night with her and agrees to take him as her husband, losing his masculine features and accepting femininity. This clandestinely erotic folk tale alludes to the pisacha vivah (marriage by way of ghosts), which is condemned in the “Puranas”.
According to the Tamil versions of the Mahabharata, the god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, took the form of Mohini and married Aravan. This was to give Aravan the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed in the Kurukshetra War.
Krishna mourned as Mohini for some time after Aravan’s death. Aravan’s marriage and death are commemorated annually in a rite known as thali, during which hijra the women play the role of Mohini and “marry” Aravan, in a mass wedding, followed by an 18-day festival.
The festival ends with a ritual burial of Aravan, while the hijra women cry while beating their breasts in ritual dances, breaking their bracelets and putting on white mourning clothes.
I wanted to name this room Aravani. However, since it is a word of many hijra community with which I identify, I thought that I, as a non-hijra nobody, to use it would be to ignore the feelings of the community.
I also thought of calling him Amohini, because this image is more about pain and sympathy. Mohini, meaning the enchantress, is described here as a non-enchantress because she is not “mangale“(auspicious). It is filled with regret. I decided not to use it because it discriminates against the idea of widowhood and considers it to be unfavorable.
These images definitely helped me rethink homosexuality and religion. They restored the idea that religion does not need to be viewed as something submissive or seeking.
It is high time to rethink religion and let its art reflect progressive thinking about religion as a holistic system. It is important to read between the lines because no religion discriminates and this project has allowed me to tap into the same.