From left, Ayu Utami, Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Feby Indirani during a discussion of Seno's new book, 'Drupadi,' at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Wednesday (08/02). (JG Photo/Dhania Putri Sarahtika)

Unraveling the Morally Complicated, Not-So-Feminist 'Drupadi'


FEBRUARY 10, 2017

Jakarta. Wayang, or traditional puppet theater, is an integral part of Indonesians born before the 1980s, so it was not surprising to find literary legends Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Ayu Utami in the same room at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Wednesday (08/02) to discuss Seno's rendition of a major female character from the Mahabharata epic poem.

Seno officially launched "Drupadi," despite copies of the book having been available in bookstores since January.

Previously scattered as periodical stories in Zaman magazine, "Drupadi" is now bound in a colorful cover. Seno started writing "Drupadi" stories back in 1983, when wayang stories were still in their heyday. His aim as a young man was simply to write good stories – there was no literary snobbery whatsoever.

As a wayang fanboy, he also wanted to write something that could be illustrated by his favorite wayang painter, Danarto, who also happened to work for the same magazine back then.

"Danarto's sketches of wayang characters struck me as a different portrayal than what was in my head. The hairstyles resembled Japanese cartoon characters. The postures were similar to those of Roman soldiers. Even horses looked like dragons. They're just amazing," said Seno, who admitted that he became well acquainted with wayang due to spending his childhood in Yogyakarta.

Danarto also inspired Seno to not necessarily follow the traditional guidelines when adapting ancient works. Thus began the tale of the Hindu goddess, Drupadi, filled with arguments against repression and interplay of choice versus destiny.

Not the Epitome of Feminism

Seno's "Drupadi" comes with "Perempuan Poliandris" ("A Polyandrous Woman") as its subtitle, revealing her best-known role as the wife of the five Pandawas: Arjuna, Yudhistira, Bima, Nakula and Sadewa.

Drupadi never wanted to marry five men in the first place, because she was only in love with Arjuna. But as a woman, she could not use free will and had to comply when she was asked by Kunti (the mother of Arjuna, Yudhistira, and Bima) to marry all the Pandawas.

"Polygamy and polyandry are not that simple. Just because polygamy gives more authority to men, it doesn't mean polyandry does the same for women," said Ayu, whose childhood days were also filled with wayang stories.

Even after she got married, Drupadi never had the upper hand. A major turning point in the story even proves how she was only an object that could be used as a bet and passed on.

Yudhistira, the Pandawa known for wisdom, succumbed to his gambling addiction that lost him their kingdoms, including their ever-faithful wife, resulting in Drupadi being raped by the 100 Kurawas.

"If we want to regard Drupadi as a strong woman, don't look at the polyandry, but look at how she uses her position to be vocal. She's among the few women whose voice is heard," Ayu said, referring to Drupadi's attempts to demand her rights, including a successful one near the end where she was allowed to bathe in Dursasana's blood out of revenge.

If "Drupadi" is about going against female repression, is the book feminist by nature?

"Feminist values are not fully embodied in the book. It's a Western ideology, and a latter-day concept to the ancient Mahabharata epic. But even in a patriarchal society, women can get involved in the politics," Seno said.

Ayu, who is one of the pioneers of "fragrant literature," or female authors tackling taboo issues such as politics and sexuality, agreed with Seno's statement because Drupadi advocated for her rights while at the same time submitting to manmade rules instead of trying to change them.

In other words, no matter how far Drupadi tried to make her voice heard, she still played by the rules of patriarchy.

Moral Dilemma

Instead of feminism, Ayu was more interested in the moral dilemma that the book proposes. She said a modern-day audience should not approach the book with the same set of moral principles they abide by now.

"You can't read Mahabharata, including Drupadi's story, with a moralistic paradigm. It will always fall into a dilemma. There are many issues that just can't be solved by our current moral values," Ayu said.

An example of issues considered taboo is when Yudhistira put Drupadi's life at stake in a game of dice. As "immoral" as that might seem, the law allowed that.

The swayamvara, or contest to find a husband among a group of contenders, resembled animalistic behavior to choose a mate. It is similar with cats for example, where the males fight for the right to mate with a female.

Another taboo is the practice of polyandry itself and acceptance of one's destiny. Drupadi's failure to reach Nirvana due to her concealed greater love for Arjuna, despite the unwavering faithfulness to all her husbands, shows that the story itself is morally ambiguous.

Without challenging the book's morality, it already challenges itself and readers only have to observe without being judgmental. That is why, according to Ayu, readers need to distance themselves when it comes to "Drupadi."

However, ideas of right and wrong still affected Seno's "intervention" in the ancient Hindu classic. He wanted to challenge the perception that a woman loses her honor after she is raped.

In Seno's rendition, instead of having endless layers of clothing to stop herself from being raped, Drupadi's sari was easily ripped off by the Kurawas.

"The endless sari [in the original epic] seemed to protect the readers from thinking Drupadi had lost her honor. It doesn't sound fair to me. I still think she is chaste, even after the rape," Seno said.