Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

‘Panchali Sapatham’: An Epyllion

Dr. Prema Nandakumar

Subramania Bharati was primarily a lyricist. Whether it was because he had no leisure to write a sustained long poem or because he lacked the necessary calm of mind that alone can structure an epic, he wrote no epic although he managed to turn out hundreds of lyrics. He was especially fond of short lyrical jets, and he even created a new genre in Kannan Pallu. We have a unique device here, for we see the poet approaching the Lord as love, friend, king, servant, teacher, pupil and so on. However, during those difficult days in 1912 when Bharati’s political journalism had ceased to have any publishing avenue due to governmental pressure, he had indeed plenty of leisure. Bharati could at once afford to be ambitious and calm, and attempt a major poem. While every poet dreams of becoming the author of at least one epic, few actually manage to achieve their ambition. Bharati was one such, and great was his achievement. Wisely he borrowed the story from the Mahabharata. In fact, he described Panchali Sapatham as no more than a translation of the corresponding episodes in the Mahabharata. But this is true only up to a point, for all the moves in Panchali Sapatham are indeed derived from Vyasa: the game of dice, the righteous stand of Vikarna, the outrage on Droupadi, Bhima’s explosive anger, and Arjuna’s mollifying reply. With a sure sense of the dynamics of epic action, Bharati chose this sequence of events culminating in the vow of Droupadi as the proper theme of a poem of epic magnitude in modern Tamil. Acknowledging his attempt to scale the heights of an epic poem in the day-to-day rhythms of contemporary Tamil speech, Bharathi wrote in the preface to the first edition:

“Simple phrases, simple style, easily understood prosody, the rhythms liked by the common man – he who creates an epic with these attributes gives our mother-tongue in Tamil a new lease of life. It should be written in such a way that all the Tamils with even a smattering of literary knowledge should understand the meaning and at the same time the writing should never degenerate from the nature of poesy.

It is a mighty job; my capabilities are few. I publish this because of my ‘love’. Not as an example, but as a pathfinder.”

Despite this modesty, two things are clear in the preface. Panchali Sapatham was conceived as an epic; and it was written in the language of the common man. Necessarily, Panchali Sapatham belongs to the genre of the modern literary epic. At the same time, Panchali Sapatham is also very much like the ancient epics, because it springs to life only when it is recited or sung. Since Bharati used folk tunes like nondi-chindu, the epic has a rare lilt and freshness. It has remained popular for more than half a century, and has even been dramatised on the stage with resounding success.

How far are we right in describing Panchali Sapatham as an epic? Subramania Bharati called it a “kaviyam.” Obviously he meant that it was more than mere lyrical or narrative poetry. On the contrary, the poem does not immediately qualify for the name of epic. An epic strikes us by its sheer bulk. The subject-matter should be of cosmic significance (including human, sub-human and super-human action), and also have an arresting contemporaneity. The poem should be able to touch the nation’s heart-strings. A modern literary epic cannot be expected to do all this; it can hardly hope to seep into the inner reaches of a national soul. Partly to offset this grave disability, an epic poet like Sri Aurobindo chose the theme of Savitri for his poem; and Savitri has an immediate appeal to the Indian heart. Bharati, by choosing the theme of Droupadi, did likewise. Had he come to know from Sri Aurobindo of the latter’s epic in progress? Anyhow, Bharati chose the other great heroine of the Mahabharata, Droupadi. In the result, the readers of Subramania Bharati’s poem Panchali Sapatham approach it with Vyasa’s Mahabharata close to their consciousness. Bharati was indeed consciously imitating the poet of the Mahabharata to produce his own small-scale epic.

Yet the poem does not wholly conform to the broad definition of an epic given by C. M. Gayley:

“The epic in general, ancient and modern, may be described as a dispassionate recital in dignified rhythmic narrative of a momentous theme of action fulfilled by heroic characters and supernatural agencies under the control of a sovereign destiny. The theme involves the political or religious interests of a people or of mankind; it commands the respect due to popular tradition and to traditional ideals. The poem awakens the sense of the mysterious, the awful and the sublime; through perilous crises it uplifts and calms the strife of frail humanity.”

Bharati’s poem is certainly not dispassionate, nor is it a large mass comprising crises of varying intensity to present the complete life-story of a whole tribe. But it has the quintessential epic attribute of being built round a perilous central crisis, and it projects the vision of sublime grandeur in the climactic scene. It even provides for a supernatural agency that lends its decisive grace to save the heroine at the most critical moment in her life. On the other hand, the metrical scheme used in the poem is not uniform. In fact, there is such a variety of metre and rhythm that the poem sways often with a balladic spontaneity. And, indeed, a string of ballads it is, in certain respects. The folk tunes largely influence the poetic structure. As in a ballad, the story moves quickly. Incidents are swiftly related, and they form a cascade of ballad poetry. Subramania Bharati himself says that these quick rhythms helped him to introduce the epic dialogue with effective ease. On the other hand, Panchali Sapatham is no mere ballad. Here is a conscious projection of an epic structure, with attendant attributes like the conference of the gods, the conference of the heroes, and the conference of the anti-heroes. And the language too hasn’t always the cloying sweetness of simple lyricism. Words flash and thunder in response to the appropriate moods, give an epic dignity to modern Tamil speech, and build new epic similes all along the narrative. Under the circumstances, therefore, Panchali Sapatham has to be placed midway between the two forms of creative writing–ballad and epic. It may be called, perhaps, a long narrative poem, for it deals extensively with an important episode from the Mahabharata, an episode that we consider to be part of our ancient history: and this episode is rendered in terms of dramatic action, and the narration is related to the wider ground of politics, society and religion. So we could safely call it an epical narrative poem, if not a full-blown epic. Better still, we may simply describe it as an epyllion, for here is both “amplitude of feeling and action” and a “formal stretch of the narrative” in the telling of the tale. Panchali Sapatham has five Sargas with certain inner divisions, and there are in all seventy-three lyric clustres, which together form a united whole. It makes impressive and moving reading from the beginning to the end. It is a good example of creative art that touches the inner chords of life, and it even effects a catharsis in us towards the end of the narrative when Droupadi takes her terrible vow.

Although Bharati has chosen but a single crisis from Vyasa’s epic, this is also the pivot of the Mahabharata. This particular episode is crucial to the whole epic, and plunges us in medias res. The episode of the Game of Dice had been preceded by the accumulated injuries perpetrated by Duryodhana and his henchmen. Nemesis is sure to follow after the uncompromising stand taken by Droupadi, Bhima and Arjuna. There is to be no more coming together, no more room for charity. Duryodhana is shown as perpetrating quite a few evil things to annoy Yudhishtira. With the treacherous dice-game he overreaches himself. All the earlier events and irritations lead to the terrible moment when Duhshasana rises to disrobe Droupadi. The reader holds his breach for a timeless moment. Theft the miracle occurs, and life returns to normalcy. The clock has, however, ticked away imperturbably. There is no escape for Duryodhana now; nor is there any further trial for Droupadi. It is true that she has to face future calamities and yet her real moment of trial really took place in the Kuru Court. Victorious then, she goes through life undaunted. Alone, unarmed with only her flaming aspiration to help her, she still wins her fight in the Hall of Assembly. It is then that Duryodhana had to hang down his head in shame. Great artist that Bharati was, he has pin-pointed this particular moment in the Mahabharata as the vital centre of his epyllion. By relating this moment to the earlier motivations of Duryodhana, and linking it to the series of vows that aim to destroy him, Bharati has created an architecturally perfect poem that has the majestic sweep of an epic, and the emotional intensity of a tragedy.

The cardinal centre of action in this epyllion is the conflict between Light and Darkness. It might also be described as Dharma (Righteousness) versus Adharma (Unrighteousness). Droupadi and Duryodhana are the protagonists of this poem. The others–Sakuni and the Kurus behind Duryodhana, Vikarna and the Pandavas behind Droupadi–are little more than painted figures. Bharati’s sure sense of art crystallises the epic struggle between Duryodhana and Droupadi. Any attempt to draw closer to this struggle would involve a brief inspection of Bharati’s characterisation of these two figures; Duryodhana born of Darkness symbolised by the blindness of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, and Droupadi born of Light symbolised by the fire-sacrifice performed by King Drupada. It is interesting to note that there is a visible growth and integration in Droupadi’s personality and a corresponding decadence and disintegration in the personality of Duryodhana. Duryodhana’s supreme sin is envy. That green-eyed monster makes Duryodhana disregard his tremendous wealth, chariot-power, his vast earth-shaking army, and all the joys of life attainable only by the gods, and reduces him into a state of utter collapse. And all because the pandavas live and thrive:

In the gaze of manly Arjuna
Who wields the Gandiva bow:
And on giant Bhima’s shoulders too,
My shame is seen: O woe is me!

This is a mild beginning. Soon, fed by its own venom of weird imagination, Duryodhana’s envy reaches gigantic proportions. Subramania Bharati masterfully uses an apt simile to describe the mental state of Duryodhana:

As when fire from earth’s deep centre
Boils and makes way to the crust
And its great heat melts the rocky hill
And the Java streams away:

The volcanic envy in his heart
Erupted in his mind and soul,
All strength and manliness melted,
Valour and honour were lost.

And like a weak ill-treated woman,
Or a lost whimpering child,
He became nought by feeding
On the poison of envious thoughts.

Though Duryodhana is envious of the Pandavas, his fiercest anger is directed against Droupadi. She is his enemy number one! Hadn’t she laughed when he fell down in a swoon in Yudhishtira’s Hall of Sacrifice? She had dared to laugh at him; he would therefore reduce her to beggary. While Dhritarashtra sees no harm in the child-like laughter of a close cousin, Duryodhana’s mind is made up; his envious heart makes him rave like a maniac. It is but one step from the cursing of one’s cousins to the cursing of one’s father. We shudder at the poisoned darts flung by the prince towards the king his father. Nor will Duryodhana take the path of an open contest of heroism; he prefers the treachery of a false game, and Dhritarashtra has to acquiesce in it. Even the habits of respect, devotion and obedience to one’s father take leave of the evil Duryodhana in Panchali Sapatham.

Immediately after the Duryodhana-Dhritarashtra dialogue, we see Droupadi for the first time. She is demure and quiet, shy and humble, as she bows at the feet of Vidura with her face “as lovely as the moon at early night.” It is significant that she doesn’t take part in the discussions between Vidura and the Pandavas about accepting Duryodhana’s invitation to the game of dice, which seems to be a treacherous one. After this brief moment we do not hear of her at all: the game in the Kuru court proceeds along expected lines. Suddenly Yudhishtira finds that he has lost everything including himself and his four brothers. Egged on by incarnate evil, Sakuni, Yudhishtira accepts Panchali as a pawn to try a final skirmish with Luck. The fourth canto opens vividly:

Would one kill a dear child
For leather to make sandals?
For the dicing between inimical princes
Should Panchali be the pawn?
The stakes agreed upon,
The evil uncle called
For necessary dicing counts:
The false dice rolled as wished.

There is now a further deterioration in Duryodhana’s character. Envious, petty and weak in private, he waxes evil, and becomes insulting and cruel in public during his moment of self-defeating triumph in the court. He orders the forced dragging of the Panchala Princess to the court. The two protagonists are now face to face at last. From now on there is a decisive change in their behaviour. Duryodhana speaks no more, and becomes wholly silent. It is as though he were shrinking before Droupadi’s personality, as though he were darkness being eaten up by the blaze of her glory and disintegrating into oblivion. On the other hand, Droupadi, silent hitherto, now slowly rises in stature, until at the supreme moment she seems to fill the entire space of the Hall of Assembly; and as the curtain rings down, she is before us, a veritable emanation of Adi Parashakti, dishevelled and dust-spotted no doubt, but luminous as a cone of uprising spiritual fire.

Duryodhana is vituperatively eloquent in the fourth canto when he repeatedly chides the charioteer for failing to bring Droupadi to the court. In the fifth canto Duhshasana does the deed and drags the golden princess by her tresses towards the assembled courtiers. Bharati describes her entry into the hall in moving terms:

She saw the Pandavas
With fire darting from her lightning eyes;
And Duhshasana saw them inactive, speechless
And slavish as before, wildly he jeered:
‘You too a slave-girl now’. And cursed her.
Karna sniggered, and Sakuni praised him, and
The courtiers sat immobile.

There is no reference to Duryodhana at all here, nor is there any word from him when Droupadi abandons the idle attempt to preach Dharma to an Adharmic court, and becomes sharp tongued in anger:

Finely, bravely spoken Sir!
When treacherous Ravana, having carried away
And lodged Sita in his garden,
Called his ministers and law-givers
And told them the deed he had done,
These same wise old advisers declared:
‘Thou hast done the proper thing:
‘Twill square with Dharma’s claims!’
When the demonking rules the land
Needs must the Shastras feed on filth!
Was it done well to trick my guileless king
To play at dice? Wasn’t it deceit,
A pre-determined act of fraud
Meant to deprive us of our land?
O ye that have sisters and wives,
Isn’t this a crime on Woman?

Bhima, Duhshasana, Sahadeva, Arjuna, Vikarna, Bhishma–these and a few more register their reactions. But there is no reference to Duryodhana. When Vikarna rises to defend Droupadi, it is Karna who chides him; and it is Kama who orders Duhshasana to disrobe Droupadi. What happened tothe source of all this infernal tragedy, that evil engine of envious fury? Duhshasana fatefully responds to Karna’s words and we pass on to the next scene. All arguments, all attempts at persuasion have failed Droupadi to have her angry ejaculations against Adharma. In this moment of complete helplessness and despair, she makes the supreme gesture of complete surrender to God. The tamasicbelief in the goodness of others and the rajasicattempt at self-defence give way toa sattwicmode of supreme Bhakti. Her faith in the Divine’s Grace is absolute, her rejection of all ordinary supports is final; and she lifts both her hands from the portion of the robe still covering her so as to unite them in an act of obeisance; and so her surrender toKrishna is nothing less than the ultimate act of Prapatti. High above the fog of evil surrounding her, Droupadi’s voice rises in a mighty crescendo of soulful prayer. She becomes the one Reality in the court, and dominates the scene with her own Viswaroopa as she makes her tremendous appeal to Lord Krishna, her sole refuge now:

“Thou sky within sky, thou element
Of the elements, earth, air, water, fire;
Thou who lightest the hearts
Of sages in deep meditation;
Thou that fondly holdst the hand
Of your consort Lakshmi
Whose dwelling is in the lotus
That blooms in the forest pond!

Thou the first of all beginnings,
Thou the shore and centre of all knowledge,
Thou light of all lights,
Thou that ridest on Garuda
Who soars high in the sky,
Krishna, thou flame of truth,
Thou rich immaculate grace,
Hear me, save me!”

The prayer is heard by Krishna, and she is saved. It is a miracle, but nothing is impossible for the true Bhakta, and God is a reality whose grace is the well of living waters sustaining the Hindu way of life. Grace abounding saves Droupadi, and shames the Kauravas, and as the epic nears conclusion, a solitary reference lights up a dark corner in the Kuru court:

Only the snake-bannered Kuru
Hung down his head in shame.

The change from vituperation to silence on Duryodhana’s part and from silence to eloquence on Droupadi’s, meet at the point when Droupadi enters the Hall of Assembly. Thus the whole epyllion is really structured on the hour-glass pattern with two protagonists. There is Duryodhana, synonymous with Darkness and Adharma; when he is reduced to oblivion, there rises Droupadi, symbolising Light and Dharma. Whereas Duryodhana throws his weight about only to be made a cipher half-way through the epyllion, there is a steady extension in Droupadi’s personality. She is the Light that defeats Darkness, the symbol of Dharma that slays Adharma, the image of Bhakti and grace that reduces to nothing the image of hatred and envy and ungodly power. She is undoubtedly the epic heroine of Panchali Sapatham. Two spirits strive; the vessel of divine grace wins the struggle, and victoriously pronounces the dreadful vow or sapatham. Again, by virtue of this sapatham, she becomes the main protagonist of this epyllion.

Apart from this main symbol of Light and Truth defeating Darkness and Falsity, Subramania Bharati also invests the image of the main protagonist with a four-fold significance. The most obvious one is that the epic heroine is descended from the pages of Vyasa’s Mahabharata. She is the suffering wife and sorrowing mother born to destroy Kuru hordes. She was born in hatred, out of the sacrificial fire tended by King Drupada. He had fed this fire with thoughts of vengeance, and hence she and her brother Dhrishtadyumna are the direct causes of the Kurukshetra war; they had been nurtured in hatred even while in the womb! Droupadi herself grew up to be a great-souled and fearless girl, but she also became the cause of the Pandava-Kaurava feud. Born in hatred, she seems to have become the cause of hatred as well. This was unfair to her innately noble and generous nature, but became inevitable in the given circumstances of the story.

Again, Bharati seems to have made Droupadi a symbol of Indian womanhood to highlight the outrages committed upon Indian women in the name of traditional Hinduism which could really be thoughtless obscurantism. There are many references to women’s emancipation in the course of the epic. Often Droupadi’s wrongs are projected as wrongs being done to women in general. The Bhishma-Vikarna dialogue underlines this problem effectively. According to Vikarna “the Queen of women is here on behalf of womanhood”, thus emphasising this aspect of Droupadi’s personality. In Droupadi’s lone fight and survival, Bharati was no doubt predicting the remaking of Indian women in the shape of Mother Might, Woman as Power.

Conceived by the patriot-poet Bharati, Droupadi is also a projection of India’s political consciousness. Droupadi is thus Mother India, while Duryodhana and his allies are the foreign forces of exploitation, and Bhishma is the mouthpiece of the Moderates. One could carry this parallelism further and find in Bhima a symbol of Indian extremism and in Arjuna the contained power of the true fighter. Certainly Droupadi is the image of the symbol of an oppressed country in shackles but still defiant even in the most critical moment of her ageless life. Perhaps, Subramania Bharati came to the conclusion that the politics of the earlier decades will be of no use. Only when Droupadi desists from her wrathful questionings and agonising self-pity that Grace is vouchsafed to her. Even so, only when the Extremists and the Moderates are silenced and made to fuse into purposeful action can the miracle of political emancipation happen to India. Seen from the point of view, Bharati’s poem was a prophecy regarding the revolutionary political movement which ultimately led to 15 August, 1947 and national independence.

Finally, Droupadi is also Mahashakti, symbolising Bharati’s personal mysticism. If Sri Aurobindo symbolised Savitri as the Divine Mother born on earth as an Avatar, Bharati described Droupadi as Adi Parashakti who is manifested upon the earth. There are moments in the history of the earth, when the resources and efforts of man are doomed to failure. Suddenly mankind finds itself in a hopeless situation. At that moment Adi Parashakti becomes an active divine worker upon the earth, and rehabilitates mankind. Bharati describes the immaculate power of Droupadi that saves the Pandavas and successfully fights the battle of Dharma, as if she were Shakti herself. Hence Droupadi’s real nature as Shakti is emphasised throughout the epyllion. When Droupadi is pawned, there is a shock in the Heavens, and only Shakti receives a new lease of life:

Youthful Uma, Kali Herself the strong,
The original Shakti with the terrible bow,
The Mahamaya that destroys illusion,
Who is thrilled by ghosts, murder and corpses,
Who saves all through smiles while riding her lion
Who has an array of servants
In disease, death and dejections many,
The Queen of all who is served
By the Rider of the dark Buffalo,
Who is surrounded by the guards Prosperity,
Riches, Longevity, Fame and Knowledge;
Herself the work; she the Destruction;
The novelty of the past and the present,
Through the ages of change and re-change
And inner change; she the Custom–  
Adi Parashakti.....

This Shakti descends into Droupadi; now victory is certain for the heroine.

Though Bharati himself viewed Panchali Sapatham as an experiment in epic form, there are some scholars like M. Ramaswamy and P. Mahadevan who consider it as a poetic drama. To a certain extent this is true, because of the dramatic effectiveness of the subject that spreads out in the five cantos as in a five-act scheme. One could even categorise it as an epic-drama that deals with many-symboled characters as in Bertolt Brecht’s plays. But perhaps it would be wiser not to be categorical on these matters, Dramatic epic or epic drama, an enlarged ballad or a condensed epic or epyllion, the poetry and symbol of Panchali Sapatham are the Reality. As we read it, we are made aware of our whole epic ground, for this epyllion has descended from the immortal Mahabharata, which in Rajaji’s words is the “living fountain of the ethics and culture of our Motherland”; and hence Panchali Sapatham universally claims our love and reverence.

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