Free Press Journal

Mahabharata reloaded: Gandhari, Draupadi and Kunti get contemporary avatar


Pune-based visual artist Annushka Hardikar’s zine Oh Nari, So Sanskari! re-imagines the women from Mahabharata and remodels them as millennial feminists, writes Ketaki Latkar

Ask the effervescent 22-year-old Annushka Hardikar about what got her to pick the female characters from the mythology of Mahabharata for her quirky zine Oh Nari, So Sanskari! and she quickly gets chatty, “Despite being dynamic and capable, Draupadi, Gandhari and Kunti were always portrayed as dependent on the men in their lives. For today’s generation to identify with them I felt there was a need to retell the stories from Mahabharata in a way that would highlight how strong, capable and opinion-driven these women actually were. That’s exactly what I have tried to accomplish in this zine.”

A former student of Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Annushka started mulling over the theme of ‘unburdening mythology’ as part of her coursework, and that’s what navigated her thoughts to finally create the feminist zine. The four-month journey, which started with brainstorming on the given theme, to engaging in extensive reading and research and finally, zeroing in on a topic under the theme, and deciding on its treatment was “an enormous learning experience” for the innovative visual artist.

“I began with reading up a series of books on mythology, modern-day takes on them and also feminist literature,” explains Annushka, naming anthropologist Irawati Karve’s Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, Iranian contemporary graphic novelist and illustrator Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries, Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, as some of the greatest points of reference.

“Despite being dynamic and capable, Draupadi, Gandhari and Kunti were always portrayed as dependent on the men in their lives. For today’s generation to identify with them, I felt there was a need to retell the stories…in a way that would highlight how strong… these women actually were.”

However, the most stellar read, says Annushka, was Yuganta,”The book’s mission is of rational enquiry of the usually venerated characters of Mahabharata. Yuganta, which I read in both English and Marathi, completely changed my perception about the epic, and the fact that it objectively analysed every character, and also spoke about their flaws, self-interests and shortcomings made the reading experience very relatable, believable and multi-dimensional.”

Annushka’s 60-page digital zine is a satire in its most natural element; nonetheless, she has also utilised it as a podium to address a bundle of inter-twined issues, such as gender stereotypes, gender roles, and sexual harassment, to name a few. And the zine’s illustrations are not a sheer product of Annushka’s creativity and imagination; they have also been shaped by a survey of 100-odd women that she conducted in order to check what her target audience (urban, educated women in the age bracket of 18-30) had to share.

The survey was directed towards examining three factors: women’s issues, how familiar women were to the most well known epics and the media platforms they used the most. The findings showed that most women were reasonably aware of Indian mythologies, especially Mahabharata. Also, they were equally comfortable with digital and print media.

“For me, it was a great determinant in weaving the content of the zine. I needed the reassurance that the target readers had a certain basic level of understanding about what the zine was going to talk about, and that I wouldn’t have to explain them everything from the basics,” elucidates Annushka.

References from feminist history, pop culture and media have shaped the zine’s commentary on conformist behaviour and gender clichés that have surrounded Indian women since time immemorial. “Even today, so much is determined by the way women dress. Short dresses, often termed as “revealing” outfits, tattoos and also, the visibility of bra straps are typically labelled as indecent and inviting,” says Annushka, adding vehemently, “or the taboos surrounding virginity, a woman’s desirability and her value in the “marriage market” determined by factors like her skin colour, culinary skills, and religious interests are the talking points of the zine.”

Quiz her about what shaped the style of the zine, she adds, “Amar Chitra Katha and Panchatantra have been the sources of inspiration. Also, since I don’t have a distinct style of work, I am open to experimentation, and I also look at the work and styles of a number of artists on Instagram. Communicating with others from the fraternity is always insightful.”

In the pipeline, informs Annushka, is the plan to publish the zine and make it available in print. At the moment, she is busy warming up to the publicity and an increasing base of Instagram followers, given how well her work has been received, “Publicity never hurts,” she smirks, “It is opening up a range of opportunities for me. While some social media followers simply appreciate my work, the others enquire if I can customise artworks for them. A few are also ready to buy the existing work. It can’t get better.”


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