For lady-oriented themes that put fantasy above life, or rather present women as they truly are, the Censor Board needn’t look far. The feisty women in Lipstick Under My Burkha, who are not afraid to express their desire, are in great company, particularly when it comes to our women in mythology.
In Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada, a Manipuri warrior princess falls in love with Arjuna and secures his love after faking feminine graces. In the end, however, Mahabharata’s invincible warrior embraces her as an equal partner. There are other mythological references to spunky women, too, like Rati, the goddess of love, lust and passion, who is also Kamadeva’s consort. Then there was Radha, whose name is synonymous with Lord Krishna, their relationship defying cultural norms. In today’s times, these women’s stories would perhaps not pass the censor board’s scissors, especially Surpanakha, whose nose being cut off by Lakshmana in Ramayana, started the epic war.
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Let’s talk about Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, who has been much maligned for being sexually upfront with the princes of Ayodhya. In the book Lanka’s Princess, Kavita Kane writes about her tempestuous affair with Vidyujiva, who she marries later, but not before being caught in the act by her brothers, who are against their match. When she feels the force of her attraction for the princes, she is reminded of her grandmother’s words, “Is that not what her Nani had taught her: that there was no shame in desiring a man, that a self-assured woman be comfortable with her flowing urges and desires?” Her story unravels as a tragedy, which Kane believes should not be mistaken as the story of a “fallen woman”, but “a repentant woman who inflicted blood and gore and war to her country for her personal revenge”.
She remarks, “To desire is sin, to want is avaricious and to translate this into action is an act to be punished. Her grandmother helps free her from the shackles of such thoughts, but she becomes a victim of her own desires. She is bold, she is upfront, a free-thinking woman in other matters, but it is when it comes to her vocalising her desires she is duly punished.”
Kane, who is also the author of Menaka’s Choice, says, “I consciously took up the question of sexual liberation through two hugely different women characters in mythology. Women and sexuality are not just running themes but characters personified by Menaka (who seduced the sage Vishwamitra), an apsara and Surpanakha, the reviled vamp of the Ramayana. Both are bold and sexually aggressive women, thus immediately hued more black than white. In a society where we have been taught in overt and subtle ways that women’s bodies are seductive, dangerous and embarrassing, these two women are perceived as promiscuous. Menaka is seen as more kindly, more as a symbol of female sexual power, but Surpanakha is actually a symbol of this very victimhood. She is a bold, sexually confident woman who remained vastly misunderstood for her actions.”
On the censor board refusing to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha, she remarks, “There unfortunately is still a tremendous amount of taboo around female sexual desire. And it is shocking how pervasive this taboo has become.” She adds, “There are so many other sexually liberated women in our mythology. Though Draupadi seems to be a more visible figure, Devyani and Satyavati, both queens in the Mahabharata, clawed their way to get their man. Then there is Tara, who desired Chandra, the Moon god and refused to go back to her husband Rishi Brihaspati and had a child from her lover. Shakuntala falls in love with a stranger, a king and does not hesitate to enjoy the man she loves. Mohini, the only female avatar of Vishnu, is portrayed as a femme fatale, besotting anyone who looks at her, leading them to their doom or death but thereby saving the world. And then there are Renuka and Ahilya, who were punished for their sexual transgressions or even thinking about it. But through them, another facet of how sexuality clashed with patriarchy is revealed.”
Interestingly, it’s all about perception and Surpanakha, who is seen to walk on the dark side here, is revered as a feminist icon in Sri Lanka, as discovered by UK-born author Patrick Jered, who spent time in the country while researching his book Finding the Demon’s Fiddle: On the Trail of the Ravanhatta. He says, “I was surprised to discover that Surpanakha was often viewed in Sri Lanka as a positive role model who had been literally ‘demonised’ in the Ramayana because she was an assertive, independent woman.”
He relates his encounter with a female Shaman, named Ganga, in Colombo, “She believed herself to be the reincarnation of Surpanakha and was the centre of what appeared to be a growing cult of people. Her followers were men as well as women. She was a very strong character, and was consulted for advice by prominent people in Sri Lankan society. I met some of them. I asked Ganga about Surpanahka (herself) in the Ramayana and she was very dismissive about the regressive role of women in the epic. She believed that Surpanakha had as much right to be sexually assertive as any man did.”
He expresses, “For me, in the Ramayana, Surpanakha challenged the illusion that women have to be subservient to men. When women speak out, become visible, and take control of situations, that illusion of male power is challenged. The attempt to silence Lipstick Under My Burkha, a film made by a female filmmaker, about strong women, obviously challenges the illusion. The director, Alankrita Shrivastava, should be congratulated, not silenced.”
It’s high time we reclaimed our legacy of strong feminist icons in mythology, around since time immemorial, and stopped pretending they never existed.