Interview with director Sridhar Mirajkar
Characters from Indian mythology have long held a special place of interest in the hearts of audiences around the globe. Whether it be their motivations, their dilemmas or temperaments, millions of people have questioned and discussed at length about the interesting layers of these characters, whom despite their superhuman qualities, ultimately represent questions and aspirations all human beings have. One such character was Draupadi, the central female character in the epic Mahabharat.
Washington DC area audiences will be treated this July to a new play, Draupadi’ S Arranged Marriage, written by Dr. Nishi Chawla, which promises to be a modern theatrical take on Draupadi and her relationship with each of her five husbands, the Pandava brothers, and the complexities she faced while trying to be a dutiful wife to each. The first performance will be this Sunday, July 8th at 3:30 PM at the Bender JCC Auditorium in Rockville, followed by five performances at the prestigious DC Capital Fringe Theater Festival on July 17, 19, 21, 28 and 29th.
The American Bazaar sat down with the director of the play, Sridhar Mirajkar, to talk more about it and find out what is in store for audiences. Here are excerpts from that chat. Later, we will also present an interview with the writer, Dr. Nishi Chawla.
Before we get into the play, please tell our readers a little bit about your theatrical background
I have always been fascinated by the transformation that takes place as soon as a person steps in front of bright lights and onto the stage to become an actor. As a teenager, I always enjoyed performing in amateur theater productions and delighted in the feeling of being able to step into a different set of shoes and ‘become’ that person.
Growing up in New Delhi, India, I was exposed to all forms of art, however, the stage intrigued me the most. I couldn’t get enough of watching performances at art centers like Kamani auditorium, Sapru house and Mandi house. I used to dream of performing at these centers sometime in my life. High school days were spent dreaming of joining the National School of Drama, the foremost theatre training institute in the world.
I arrived in the US in my early twenties and kept the passion for stage alive by performing at my college and with various local theatrical productions over the past 22 years.
Over the past few years, my acting interests have also afforded me new opportunities to star in a few short films, feature films, a nationally broadcasted TV episode and regional web series. I have also written and directed my first short film and will be making my theatrical directorial debut with this play, Draupadi’s Arranged Marriage.
Can you tell us a little bit about the play?
This stage play reworks a myth from the well-known Indian epic, The Mahabharata, into contemporary language, context and situations.
Draupadi, the female protagonist in The Mahabharata, was doomed to marry five brothers, and in this dramatic exchange between Draupadi and her five husbands, the play hopes to explore the dynamics of marriage as an economic and social barter system where the role of romantic love is either diminished or interrogated.
The play uses one of the well-known women figures’ lives in the epic, to examine the institution of arranged marriage. Draupadi has been considered a rather unfortunate but fascinating character in the Indian epic. Several different versions and interpretations concerning her character and her personality have been associated with her.
The playwright brilliantly takes excerpts from the mythology as known to everybody and adds imaginative sequences that bring out the real essence of the association between Draupadi and modern women.
I have used this re-interpretation of Draupadi’s life as a basis to raise questions about if and how much progress women have really made over the centuries vis-à-vis crucial topics such as sexual self-expression, educational equality, women’s abuse, objectification, fidelity and self-expression.
Has the social status of women truly elevated in modern society, stayed stagnant, glorified, or has it merely been disguised to pacify women of their so-called feministic progress from ancient times to the present? These are some of the central questions I hope the play will raise.
How did you get involved as director? Have you directed before? What is your theatrical/artistic background?
As you know, I have been a stage and film actor in the Washington Metro area for the past 20+ years and the playwright, Dr. Nishi Chawla, has seen me as an actor in several plays. She approached me initially to offer me a role in this play, which I happily agreed to. After a few discussions between us, she felt that my stage experience and passion for theatre would be a good combination to bring out the director in me also. After considerable thought, deliberation and getting a good understanding of the playwright’s vision for the play, I agreed to be the director of this play. I have not directed a full-length stage play before, however, it has certainly given expression to my creativity and artistic ability to experiment and present a story with live actors on stage.
What attracted you to the subject?
I have grown up with stories from The Mahabharata and Indian mythology. Draupadi is a central character in all these stories. After discussing this topic with Dr. Chawla, I realized that as a society, we are accepting of a king or of men having multiple wives but the same is not true for women. Polygamy is not a new concept but Polyandry, which is a form of Polygamy in which one woman takes two or more husbands, is still a rare phenomenon.
I particularly liked Dr. Chawla’s treatment of this topic and her approach to write about this mythological character in both a traditional and modern setting. It was fascinating to examine what Draupadi’s life must have been like, being married to five brothers at the same time. Dr. Chawla’s interpretation and avant-garde experimentation with this character is provocative, imaginative and warrants attention and discussion.
How did you find the cast? Can you talk a little bit about them?
While the theme of the play is extracted from The Mahabharata and is an interpretation of Draupadi’s life, I felt that it goes much beyond just her life as a mythological character. She represents the position of women at large and the plight of women with regards to women’s rights, sex abuse, women’s objectification and other gender-based inequalities so the subject matter can be opened up to a multi-ethnic cast.
The subject and what transpires with the main character in the play is not limited to a race, community or culture. After much thought, I decided to invite non-Indian stage artists to audition for all the roles, including the lead role of Draupadi. I also felt that the current political and social environment calls for diversification and inclusion, not exclusion and isolation.
My cast consists of South-Asian, Middle-Eastern, Caucasian and African American artists. It is also very interesting to discuss their interpretations of this Indian mythological character and their reactions to how I want them to present and play these characters, whom are little known to them.
What has the rehearsal process been like? What methods have you found to be effective for a director?
Rehearsals to me are the testing ground for a script and the director’s vision for what becomes the final play on stage. I believe in an organic approach to how the script goes from paper-to-stage. An actor’s understanding and internalization of a character is extremely important and for that to happen an actor must meditate on the role and what it takes to ‘get under the skin’ of the role. Rehearsals are where this magic happens and unless an artist is able to feel the character and what is required of him or her on stage, he will not be able to emote, which becomes the most important part of conveying the character and for the audience to relate to the story that is to unfold on stage. As a director, I believe it is my primary job to provide a background on the character, to explain the role, the entire play and how an actor’s part fits into the bigger story. I also go through multiple one-on-one sessions with actors and sometimes act out their part to provide a point of reference. However, I have also provided my cast with full freedom to collaboratively bring the characters to life and change and modify the script as needed to give them room to bring their own creativity to the entire process.
As director, any challenges you have faced with the play?
There are always challenges in every play that has to be brought to life and as a director I have to be cognizant of the direction in which the entire play is flowing. The biggest challenge a director faces is to be as truthful to the playwright’s vision of the play as possible, which is not always an easy task to fulfill. There are always creative differences between a director and a playwright, and even with the cast, that must be managed.
I am also acting and directing this play, which presents a challenge in itself. Given the sensitivity of this topic and the play in general, I felt it important to get involved in all aspects of the play. I am also deeply involved in the production of this play from a behind the scenes perspective for music, lighting, costumes and overall presentation.
Where will the play be performed and when?
This play will be staged 6 times in the Washington Metro area.
Bender Auditorium, Jewish Community Center, Rockville, MD
July 8, 3:30pm
5 additional performances:
Capital Fringe Festival, Westminster Church, SW DC
July 17th, 6:15 PM: 19th 5:45 PM; 21st 11:00 AM; 28th 6:15 PM; 29th 1:30 PM
How can people get tickets?
July 17, 19, 21, 28 and 29 at Capital Fringe: https://www.capitalfringe.org/events/1262-draupadi-s-arranged-marriage
Any takeaways the audience should have? Is this play for a universal audience?
I would like to state that the play is bold in its theme and parental discretion is advised.
I also wish to state that it is not mine, nor the playwright’s, nor our teams’ desire to denigrate any mythological characters from The Mahabharata, or to offend anybody’s religious beliefs. As artists, we wish to engage in topics that question current social ills and challenge current status quo for attention, change and improvement.