A tomboy’s retelling of the epic

A tomboy’s retelling of the epic

Writer-dancer Anuja Chandramouli opens up on the deep-rooted fears that shaped her latest digital series on the Mahabharata

Anuja Chandramouli

A uthor Anuja Chandramouli, when asked to describe herself, makes no bones about stating that she’s a “proper geek, introvert, a tomboy” who doesn’t care too much about dressing up and stepping out of her safe haven (home). Her idea of an ideal weekend plan is to pick which book to read next.

When the specialist in mythological novels was approached to headline a YouTube series on Mahabharata, some of her deep-rooted fears rung true. “I was worried if I would be judged about how I looked, what I wore. Everyone in the digital space is so well-groomed with blow-dried hair, professional makeup and weeks of looks’ coordination. I didn’t do any of it. However, once I caught up with the epic, every other fear vanished,” Anuja talks about her digital stint, the 20-episode Mahabharata series that turned out to be a feast for epic-lovers during the lockdown.

A welcome break

The visual aspect aside, it needs no affirmation that the author is an established name in the mythological/historical space. She is a regular at schools, hosting storytelling sessions, workshops and piquing a child’s interest to read. “It’s a welcome break from writing and a part of my life that I truly cherish,” the Sivakasi-based artiste says. Anuja got the opportunity to do this series at one such session at a badminton academy, where she had narrated the story of Dronacharya and Arjuna and the equation between Brihannala and Uttara to the students. It convinced the founders of the academy to come up with a digital series aimed at children, who may not have had the chance or the time to listen to such stories from their grandparents.

“This was also a time I was working on a book, which got delayed because of the lockdown. It was the right time to get my research done for the Mahabharata project too. We wanted to do 20 episodes, cover as much information about the epic as we could, without cramming it in the minds of the viewers,” Anuja states. She was pleasantly surprised to know that social media wasn’t unkind to her looks. It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Many viewers came to her to discuss why she was team-Arjuna and not team-Karna. “I think it all boils down to the abiding love for the Mahabharata.  Audiences, I guess, know well that if they want groomed looks, they have the liberty to watch a Shilpa Shetty on Instagram,” she says, bursting into peals of laughter.

It’s fair to say that this retelling of Mahabharata comes with a firm narrator’s voice. She has called a spade a spade when it matters and has openly discussed patriarchy, misogyny as well as the epic’s casteist undertones wherever apparent. Be it Bhishma’s role in the injustice meted out to Amba or the Nishadas sacrificing their lives for the Pandavas, she makes her stance rather clear. Anuja notes, “Every character in the Mahabharata has endearing and unappealing traits. It is important to take a stance, because everything boils down to interpretation in epics/puranic literature. Yet, it’s disturbing when it gets twisted out of context and a false narrative is forced down people’s throats. I am never an advocator of ‘one size fits all’ logic.” Being sensible and balanced is what she bats for, given that the viewers may sometimes be too attached to look at the vices of their favourite mythological characters.

Gender sensitisation

What’s a Mahabharata series without its illustrations after all? Anuja’s meticulousness was at work here too. She coordinated with the illustrator on the phone, explaining the highlights in every episode, sharing reference images and made a few important statements through them as well. “The process was fun. I find it ironic when Krishna and Draupadi are depicted in this white/sky-blue skin-tone when they are described in the texts as dark-skinned and beautiful. We have tried to address such issues, went back and forth on illustrations where I have sent my corrections and stayed true to the descriptions in the epics. It’s unfortunate that we still equate white skin to beauty in the 21st century.”

Some of her previous book-writing experiences came into use in the series, especially the ones on Arjuna and Ganga. From talking gender-sensitisation in Shikhandi’s episode to the supposed sisterhood between Ganga and Amba, the many refreshing perspectives make a myth-enthusiast look at the epic in a new light. Not many know that the latent emotions and perspectives of the author find a different outlet through her Bharatanatyam stint too. She’s not sure if she could call herself a Bharatanatyam dancer yet, “I am a student more or less,” Anuja clears the air.

Just like in her storytelling stint, she’s happy to be have had an opportunity to explore different sides to her personality (through dance) in her shows. “Taking to the stage, performing in front of an audience, the idea of abhinaya — it’s a lovely experience. It’s equally challenging and demanding and you explore the mythological material differently because of the change in vocabulary. Art in any form enriches your life,” she says.

Living in Sivakasi has occasionally made her feel left out in terms of the contact access that the metro-dweller writers may have, but she’s made peace with it over the years. “When life around you moves slowly, it’s more calming. Small-town sensibilities offer you a different experience. It’s good to remind people that there’s more to India than its metros. It’s interesting that people in these times of corona, talk of organic food and the significance of farming — it’s a natural part of our lives anyways. This contributes to the charm of India —there’s one side of it wherein we are rooted in nature and agricultural practices and the other side where there’s cutting-edge technology.”