Nationalism in Colonial and Post-colonial India

Nationalism in Colonial and Post-colonial India through the narrative framing of the Metaphorical representation of ‘Female Bodies’.

The piece of my writing will be addressing the issues that concern the narrative that was woven through the metaphoric representation of female body, which was derived from the episodes of mythological drama in colonial and post-colonial India. These issues point out the representation of female body in the episode from Mahabharata where Draupadi was staked in the court by the Yudhishthir while playing the game of dice with Duryodhana and Shakuni.

                                                               "Kichaka - Sairandhri"
                                                    (after 1890 oil painting by Raja Ravi Varma)
                                                              Photography: Clay Kelton
                                                        Cast: Cop Shiva and Pushpmala N
                                                                 Archival inkjet print
                                                                   Bangalore, 2013 

The episode has a theatrical approach in the representation of the issues like; Draupadi’s resistance to the public disrobing, questions about having five husbands, her character as a woman and the agency that she derives through her own courage. The list does not end here. The theatricality comes here from the gesture that functions as a part of the bigger performance in the assembly in context of Draupadi and in the palace with curtains in context of Sairandhri. Even though it seems as if the female bodies have the agency and voices, they are marginalized in the greater canopy of male dominated politics.

Draupadi is the metaphorical representation of the nation, that was also going through all the issues that Draupadi had to face in the court once she was staked and lost to Duryodhana in the game of dice. In my opinion the role that was played by the political leaders of India and the colonial rulers of India in order to claim the reformation of the nation was as shallow as the dialogue among themselves and this dialogue reflected a futile attempt to solve the riddle of that question between the courtly figures in the assembly of Duryodhana. I would conclude my argument with the idea of the nationalism as propounded by Tagore and open it out for the debate on the representation of women body all through the Nationalist discourse in colonial and post-colonial India.

It was an image of ‘Keechak – Sairandhri’ up for public display at a recently held Exhibition on Pushpmala’s work titled:- ‘The Body Politic’ in the capital city of New Delhi, Which incited me to engage with the episode of the game of dice and see it through the lens of post-colonial/nationalism debate. In this image, Pushpmala N. portrays herself as Sairandhi in the original setting of 1890 oil painting by Ravi Varma. This idea of performing the mythological personality through one’s own body urges a line of inquiry about how the idea of politics around the female body has evolved through recent history, tracing it directly to a certain episode from Hindu mythology. Pushpmala brings in this new perspective and vision because of her idea of experimenting with the original art work and creating several subjective realities and narratives regarding one particular event from the history. This analysis is further substantiated by the seminal work of Gurcharan Das on understanding Draupadi in ‘Draupadi’s Courage; Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?’ This article derives from the structure and presentation from the episode from the Mahabharata in a theatrical setting of the court scene along with the central protagonists of the epic involved in an intense and heated engagement.

The very first revelation that this episode brought was- from Draupadi’s courageous question to Yudhishthir ‘Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?’ - How does such a seemingly simple question managed to challenge the male ego and in turn asserts her agency as well in the larger sociopolitical realm? Draupadi jolts the consciousness of the men in the assembly and makes them not only answer her question but also to answer the inner turbulence that they felt in that moment. The question posed by Draupadi in the assembly to Yudhishthir carries within several nuances and issues. She raises pertinent questions of her own existence, her own agency and what gave anyone the right to bet someone’s life in the game of gamble? Can someone’s life be anyone’s material possession to be staked? How can one stake one’s conscience and soul for the sake of a game? All these issues and nuances provoke me to see the thread of engagement in context of nationalism through the metaphoric representation of a female body. In this case Draupadi’s, Sairandhri, or Pushpmala’s engagement with the image certainly become the voice that challenges the male ego and makes them introspect that realm of Body politic. This realm of Body politic is explored from the engagement of woman body and voice in the domain of male dominated sociopolitical space. All these challenges and questions try to break away from the power dynamics and the hegemonic idea of representing ‘Female body’ in the colonial discourse and narrative becomes consciously visible. Das writes in the article that when Draupadi poses the question ‘Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?’ to the assembly, Bhishma, the grandfather of the warring cousins, rises to speak and looks upon Draupadi’s question as a legal challenge. This vision of seeing the question and its issues through such lens consolidates the agency and space of participation of Female body in the sociopolitical horizon not merely as a puppet but as an independent being. Contextualizing this idea in the frame of metaphoric representation of woman’s body in the nationalist discourse of colonial and post-colonial India, I see, they are imposed with the identity of ‘Mother Nation’ but without taking into consideration the opinion they carried regarding this representation of themselves.

                                                                   "Bharat Bhiksha"
                                         (after 1878-1880 calendar print by Calcutta Art Studio)
                                                                 Archival inkjet print
                                                          (Photography: Clay Kelton)
                              Cast: Shreelata Rao Seshadri, Ranna Nandesha and Pushpmala N
                                                                   Banglore 2013

Draupadi’s question towards Yudhishthir first and the assembly later shows the consciousness that a nation gains against the vested purpose of the nationalist leaders before and after Independence. The marginalization happens at various levels in subtle forms. In theater, their position vis-a-vis the position of the male protagonist on the stage was already determined. They were instructed to play these characters in a meek and submissive way. When Draupadi challenges the idea of being a slave through her well composed question, we see a voice of courage and determination. We see a voice with agency, that, challenges several generations of patriarchy and inferior position of women in the gender hierarchy. This voice of courage challenged that hegemony laden with certain ‘rationality’ that is not dependent upon the male body only to play the exploitative functioning of the hierarchy. Why I am saying that this ‘rationality’ is not dependent upon the male body only because there are certain incidents that clearly depict the hegemony of that rationality being visible in opposite gender as well. The incidents show the hegemony carried through woman’s body against male body and female body against female body as well.

The incident that happens when Karna was rejected by Draupadi even when he had won her fairly at her swayamvara in a difficult test that she had posed to all her suitors. She rejects Karna, saying, ‘I do not chose a charioteer!’ Instead she had chosen the handsome Pandava, Arjuna. This incident helps me to look at the issue of ‘rationality’ that becomes a political paradigm for the exploitation of body irrespective of the male body or the female body in the narrative. Draupadi here is not the victim female body unlike the incident where Yudhishthir had staked her but what she becomes here is to fall in the place of Duryodhana or Yudhishthir and become a carrier of that hegemonic ‘rationality’ that carries biased perspective and derogatory approaches towards the body that belongs to different caste, social status and class. I am stressing on this argument because it clarifies the resembling nature of narrative weaving of the nationalist discourse through ‘female body’ and the ‘female body’ is not only biologically a female body but is embodied through a cultural, socio-political gendered discourse, a body which has to live through the societal atrocities and biased politics of certain hegemonic ‘rationality’. So if at one point in the epic of Mahabharata, Draupadi becomes that victimized ‘female body’ at a lower position in the gender hierarchy.

At another point in another situation from the tale, I see that Karna certainly falls in the domain of that position in the caste hierarchy. Violence is done here as well by Draupdi upon Karna when she rejects him by saying the mean and insulting things about Karna’s caste and societal status. It can be argued here that Karna certainly does not have any role in determining the place and socially assigned status to his natural born caste. It shows the same patterned violence that is inflicted upon the body always. What it does is to make the ‘female body’ feel voiceless or without any agency because of the already given title to that body. ‘Does the low status of a body in the society gives the dominant and hegemonic group of the society a right to inflict violence and exploit that body for the sake of their selfish and tyrannical wills? This form of ‘rationality’ encourages the repetition of violence upon a body and consolidation of the hierarchy in different social circles. These social circles may be the assembly of Kurus or the Swayamwar held at Draupadi’s maternal place or the scene where Kunti tells her son Arjun to share Draupadi among his brothers equally without seeing what/whom he has brought home.

Does not Draupadi’s opinion regarding Karna’s status and caste show the prevalent but subtle interplay of attitude of the people when it comes to entertain and execute the power and whimsical authority. At one point it may seem to be a progressive thinking characters from the mythology but on the contrary in some specific situations these characters reduce their agency to be a slave of their own prejudices and masculinity of thought. What really happens here is that the hegemony becomes the primary/driving rationale, which when comes into play in the sociopolitical realms, always tries to ensure that the status quo remains, the power dynamics and the structure of control remains so that this ‘mentality’ does not feel vulnerable and ‘fallible’. The hegemony becomes a tool for the people to weave in the application of ‘female body’ in their version of nationalist narrative. Nationalistic discourses and narratives woven with the use of Female body in a politically and selfishly motivated way becomes a subject matter for mythological female character like Draupadi to look at and re-evaluate the status and values asserted to these bodies in that time frame.

Another instance that I think also reflects the identical issue is the event where Arjuna had brought Draupadi home in the company of his brothers. At the door, they had shouted to Kunti, ‘See what we have brought, mother.’ Without looking up, Kunti had replied, ‘Well, I hope you will share it equally.’ And they did, and this is how she had to be married tothe five husbands. At initial phase it appears as if she did nothing wrong from her side. But, what Draupadi had to live with all through her life was a matter of great difficulty for her. She is humiliated in the assembly by Karna on the ground of her having five husbands. When the event is analyzed it can be argued that Draupadi was living the decisions and fate assigned by Kunti without even trying to know what Arjuna had brought at home. It is the incident which points out the injustice done by that ‘Mentality’ towards a ‘Female body’. This injustice also became possible because of the lack of agency with Draupadi. These specific situations show how anyone can become the perpetrator and make the person- on the lower pedestal of the hierarchy- a victimized body.

Das writes in his article that ‘Draupadi will not leave it there. ………..Knowing that Dharma can mean both what is ‘lawful’ and what is ‘right’, the real question that she is leading to: Is it right or fair that a woman, let alone a queen, become a slave because her husband staked her in a gambling game? Her assumption is that the law, too often, reflects the will of the powerful in society and diverges from the right thing to do. It is especially true for those who are vulnerable and powerless- the poor, the low castes, slaves and women- and historically it has been the role of the Left to fight to change that. In the context of nationalism we see how the idea of right and wrong morality is entertained through the representation of ‘Female Body’. When Das writes that law reflects the will of the powerful, then the powerful are those people that carry the hegemonic ‘rationality’ with themselves. The idea of right and wrong can be a matter of subjective approach and so the issues become a debatable issue in every society where such a shallow representation is assigned to the ‘female body’. It is from this vantage point possible to see a mythological incident in the realm of political spectrum because here mythology meets the contemporary political understanding of the subtle form of vested politics of that patriarchy upon ‘Female body’. When Draupadi is being disrobed of her clothes, something miraculous happens. An inexhaustible stream of garment appear from nowhere to protect her. This miraculous act is shown to have happened -in many bhakti redactions – because Krishna came to her rescue. Das says his own opinion regarding the miraculous act that takes plsce with Draupadi. He refers back to Franklin Edgerton’s book named Sabhaparvan where Edgerton and his colleagues rely upon the version without Krishna. Edgerton argued that it was ‘cosmic justice’ that protected her. Das writes I tend to agree with Edgerton. I believe the narrative is stronger without Krishna…...It heips build Draupadi’s character- it is her own agency, her own dharma, which is responsible for the miracle rather than God’s intervention. It vindicates her courage as she stands up to the political ans social order, reminding the rulers about the dharma of the king. The public disrobing of Draupadi, Public humiliation of Karna after Swayamwar, Kunti’s order to Arjuna to share Draupadi among the five brothers and Draupadi’s humiliation by Karna in the assembly show the consistent pattern of the hegemonic ‘rationality’ with the moral paradigm of patriarchy played upon ‘female body’. The representation of ‘female body’ was also suffering through the stigma assigned by that patriarchy. All these incidents reflect the agency that these ‘female bodies’ gain through their own courage and wit. They become assertive towards their rights and position in the society.

Iravati Karve writes about Draupadi that she was only a young bride of the house and yet spoke in the assembly of men, something she must have known she must not do……….which is why her husband called her “a lady pundit” hardly a complimentary epithet.’ I think Karve is only focusing upon the societal liabilities and engagement of Draupadi with Pandavas as a woman and not as a free being. She is reducing the spirit and courage of Draupadi and her question to be the troublemaker for her plight. She is not culling out the factors of her knowledge and courage and wit, from the narrative that were able to save Pandavas from becoming the slaves of Kurus and asserted her own right and agency as well. The ‘Female bodies’ in these incidents certainly depart from the domesticity and passivity of their lives. Their insistent questions have troubled and baffled the patriarchal mentality which is consistently present in bodies irrespective of gender, class, caste and social status. These questions show the shallowness of the laws and values that are just a whimsical representation of the dominant groups’ idea about the representation of ‘Female bodies’.

The rape of the body certainly happens there in the frame. Going through The Kreutzer Sonata we can understand what is happening with Draupadi when her character is humiliated. Das writes in the article that All cultures, I suspect, contain the seeds of violence when it comes to female sexuality. The Kauravas’ wish to humiliate Draupadi and turn her into slave may well be related to the disgust that many men feel towards the sexual act. The attempted disrobing of Draupadi is a clear insult to womanhood. The reason why her body becomes a character of mockery is because of her sharing five husbands. What Das is saying here is certainly contributing in the greater debate that is happening over the issue of the representation of ‘Female body’ in the public domain. The patriarchal mentality at the same time looks at this representation as a threat to their set norms and values of the society.

The idea of uni dimensional existence of ‘Female bodies’ is always visible in this attitude. This one dimensional existence is channelized to the mechanical notion of their bodies. Uni dimensionality comes into play through the reduced and channelized performance of the body in bigger narrative. They become a meek body or just a puppet, which can function depending upon the will of the puppeteer. Looking at the pattern of their presence in the nationalist narrative we find a huge gap between the ‘female body’ as a complete individual entity as distinct from the function of the individual entity by representing the community symbolically. The gap is seen in terms of the shallowness of the assigned function in the sociopolitical domain without these bodies and communities getting any visible and meaningful participation. The participation happens but that participation is completely controlled and predictable. Because of these authorities the ‘Female bodies’ turn out to be a marginalized community in the mainstream narrative of society. The marginalized community of these ‘Female bodies’ are in a larger sense given the functional value with representation in the anti-colonialist narrative but it mainly served the exploitative will of the hegemonic ‘Mentality’. In Nationalism in India Tagore writes There are habits that are not merely passive but aggressively arrogant………………….Europe has been cultivating these hedges of habits for long years, till they have grown round her dense and strong and high. The pride of her traditions has sent its roots deep into her heart. I do not wish to contend that it is unreasonable. But pride in every form breeds blindness at the end. Like all artificial stimulants its first effect is a heightening of consciousness, and then with the increasing dose it muddles it and brings an exultation that is misleading. Looking at Tagore’s idea here from the essay I see a similar situation in the episode of Draupadi cheer-haran where the pride of the Kurus make them feel as if they are having a heightened consciousness but that consciousness is a misguiding one because the source of their pride is coming from public humiliation and molestation of Draupadi. Tagore inclines towards a poetic approach that has the aura of generating a sensibility towards one’s own self. It criticizes the deep rooted arrogant and narcissistic approach that the anti colonial leaders had towards the nation building process through the shallow portrayal of ‘Feminine bodies’ in their approaches. These bodies were treated as a mere site of experimentation and pleasure. This shows us the manner in which Nationalism tends to become an infantile disease. Indeed, the representation becomes vapid, and shows the hypocritical attitude of the leaders who claimed to have such a shallow and banal pride in their act.

Coming back to the image of Pushpamala, it can be observed that the presence of her body in that image carries the weight of all the debates, histories, contested ideas of mythology that has been argued above but ultimately what remains is the bare presence of a female body, who is portrayed in a calm and composed manner with her hand raised meekly to stop the advancing Keechaka. Even though her body is almost merging into the wall with an intent to protect herself from the advancing move of Kichaka, her eyes meet the gaze of Kichaka directly, challenging his move, not in fear but with a stern ‘no’. In the assembly of Duryodhana where Draupadi executes her agency we see that the curtains falling and enwrapping her in a way recreates the image of the act of her getting disrobed in the court of Dhritrashtra. Her gaze, the posture of her body and the whole setting then seems to be questioning that how many times do I have to face this? Is this perpetration of my body ever going to end? These are the questions that come back to the human conscience and provokes us for an engagement with all the ‘Beings’.



  1. Das, Gurcharan. 2009. “The difficulty of being good; On the subtle art of Dharma” Draupadi’s courage; Whom did you lose first, Yourself or me? 33-50. Panchseel park, Penguin Books
  2. Tagore, Rabindranath. 1918. “Nationalism” 97-130. St. Martin’s street, London, Macmillan and co,.Limited.


  1. Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?’, the answer to this question is very impactful that change whole circumstances. if he told that I lose myself first then the whole circumstances seem to be quite different today...but you know people keep a point that if God and even intellectual people do that, then why not I am...

    1. I do agree with your opinion regarding the answer to the question(Whom did you lose first?) that demands an agency over the structure, but finally it is not about losing oneself or winning over the other. It is about the co-existence of the 'beings' and engaging in a meaningful and life enriching paths.

  2. this is seriously mind boggling

  3. I liked your argument that critiques the notion of gendered perspective independent of male or female body..

  4. I liked your argument that critiques the notion of gendered perspective independent of male or female body..


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