Vrindavan – A Review

September 28, 2015     /

Mukta Banerji

To start with, I listened to the entire KQED interview broadcast about Vrindavan a couple of weeks ago, and winced at some of the questions at least, if not most. Sincere congratulations on handling a potentially tricky interview with amazing clarity, conviction and confidence The subject of Vrindavan is something that perhaps a lot of the world outside of India would not understand, be it the concept of Krishna’s multiple wives, his escapades with the village belles, or the plight of widows in general in India, and the fate of the Vrindavan widows as well… these are extremely controversial topics, open to interpretation and difficult for many to understand. To be able to handle questions on such matters precisely and further make the other person ‘get’ the context in a live interview that’s too short for such a pandora’s box of alien ideas takes wisdom, conviction and equanimity – and additionally so if you are from the indian male side of this whole picture.

The differential treatment bestowed on a widow right around the time she loses her husband is the product of a mindset that has been sculpted into the collective indian psyche over centuries, and it manifests itself at various levels in various forms.When a man dies leaving behind his wife, it is almost inevitable that life as she knew it will change – in fact that’s true during any human demise. What’s different in this case is that the change is not just due to her husband’s demise, but also because of the way the loss is compounded upon by the people he left her behind with.
This is specially true for the women who are minimally educated and married young, with no skills to become financially self-sustained – cast away from their maiden family and at the mercy of the marital clan. From a tender age, a girl – specially from this layer of indian society – is brought up honing not many other skills except being a good little housewife to her future husband and his family, and a good mother to their children. She rarely steps out of the periphery of this ‘world’, sometimes literally spending almost all of her time at home doing her womanly duties, except for the occasional visit to the temple or during a festival or a family occasion. All her sense of security and future revolves tightly around her husband, and all her other ties slip away fast. While the couple forges a relation together, in some subconscious corner of her mind, there is probably this fear of knowing that her life and her voice remain alive, strong and happy only as long as her husband does. She quickly moulds herself along the lines of the marital family so as to blend into their midst as smoothly as possible, in an attempt to belong to this family that now defines her.

This is the first situation where Mirabai chose to be different. Daughter of an orthodox royal Rajput family of Krishna worshippers, she was an ardent devotee of the deity from a tender age. Upon getting married into a Devi – goddess – worshipping Rajput clan, instead of listening to her mind and switching her faith to the marital family goddess, she chose to follow her heart and remain a Krishna devotee. Such non-conformity to tradition is frowned upon in a large part of indian society even today, so it would have taken an iron will for Mirabai to keep her faith intact back in 16th century India, surrounded by those who believed differently.

NAATAK’s depiction of the pre-widowhood lives of the Vrindavan dasis occurs in the form of references to their past, and how they got to Vrindavan. The three sisters Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati – at one time lovingly so named by their parents after the triveni or three sister rivers – were married to three brothers, who tragically passed away in a single incident. The sisters were returned to their parental home, from where they were then dispatched off to Vrindavan. Pinki dasi is educated though mute, and dropped off at Vrindavan upon her widowhood. Lata dasi’s happy memories seem frozen in times past when she used to watch movies at the theatre and lead a normal life. Some of these widows talk about the children that they left behind when they were exiled off into the widow-ashrams of Vrindavan. Through the 12 dasis, we get a kaleidoscopic view of the mostly normal lives these women had lived up until the time they lost their husbands, and everything else.

Coming back to the plight of the other girl, now imagine if her husband passes away in her circumstances. Her only financier and protector is now no more, no one else is responsible for her, her maiden family has drifted away into their own realm, and she is with no means of supporting herself – in other words, she is left completely out in the cold, with no anchor to depend on whatsoever, and at the mercy of the unknown. Who will provide for her, what is her position, do they care for her or is she an unwanted burden, do they want her around to stake a claim to the family assets or even her husband’s property, and what is the position and future of her children?

At the time of her loss, she could be a newly wed without children, a mother with dependent children, or a woman with adult children. Along with the all-pervading question regarding who will shoulder her burden financially, each situation comes with its own reasons for her to be further fearful and insecure. As a young woman, will she have physical security and retain her honor as a family member? Will her children be given a life similar to the one that their father had provided while alive, or at least will they get a fair shot at life and good guidance? Will she be able to stake her fair claim to her husband’s property and share of the family assets? If she has grown-up children, will they protect and provide for her, or will they shrug her all the way out of their list of responsibilities? In either station in life, will she be allowed at least a minimal existence where her husband left her, or will they silence her through Sati in some form – by actually forcing her into the lap of death, or by making her life a living hell, or perhaps by packing her out of their lives and off to some type of Vrindavan, to live out an uncertain hand-to-mouth existence based on alms and favors, never to return to the security of any family fold ever again.

Again, Mirabai chose to rebel against this fate. She broke this norm of resigned subjugation, stuck to her convictions, and stepped out of the family threshold to pursue what she believed in. Furthermore, she struck out onto this path alone, against the wishes of her in-laws, and without any protection from her blood….. and became one of the pillars of the Bhakti movement, with a limitless throng of followers who believed in her inner strength and the fortitude that fueled her faith. She not only dared to live her life on her own terms instead of perishing away into widowhood and oblivion, she went one step further and provided guidance and direction to a whole movement.

NAATAK’s depiction of the post-widowhood life of the 12 dasis paints an untainted, severely truthful picture of the raw helplessness, poverty and insecurity of these abandoned women. Dumped into an unknown city with no money, property, skills and means of livelihood, or even the confidence to strike out on their own and try to stand on their feet, these women try to keep going by telling themselves they are strong and pure like Mirabai, and that they are related to Krishna as Mirabai was. Through the words of these women, we realize that with absolutely nothing or nobody else to call their own, these women huddle together tightly as a protective safeguard against the perils at large, and give themselves some sense of a sanctuary under Krishna’s refuge. In this make-believe shelter, NAATAK shows the joy, the sorrow, the hope, and the heart-break that these women face everyday in their miserable lives. We see Protima dasi’s calm and collected efforts to try maintain some semblance of discipline, accountability and respect for her sister widows in her role as their default spokesperson on the one hand, and Putul dasi’s desperate struggle for rightful treatment and fair play on the other. Beyond the pretense of an almost cheery front that the 12 dasis put out on display, we encounter the terrible despair that lurks close behind, compounded by the likes of Mishra who try to cheat them of the bare minimum, people like Murari who try to exploit them, and politicians like Beena Kumari who take hasty decisions without understanding the terrible import of their policies on these women.

It is to NAATAK’s credit to have drawn out the thorny and often overlooked or perhaps even deliberately disregarded plight of widows in India. It is an eye-opener to the dark fate of these victims of social persecution, and the saga of these women in their fight for survival and basic human existence. As legacy-bearers to these ailments suffered by our fellows beings we need to accept their existence, and our children need to be aware of this heinous and unforgivable malady. At the least, perhaps it’ll keep us all grounded – and dreaming big – perhaps someday not in the too-distant future, it might help do away with this disease altogether.

Kudos to you all yet again for bringing Vrindavan to life – now I understand what kind of talent, devotion and knowledge makes NAATAK tick, and am proud that my daughter is a part of it this time – you just made at least one lifelong fan and well-wisher with this production.