28 Dina Mehta: Brides are Not for Burning; Shaonli Mitra: Nathabati Ananthabat

Dr. Shrabani Basu

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This chapter will look into two plays, rather a full length play and a narrative performance concentrating on feminist issues in India. Around 1980s and the early 1990s, several texts exploring the predicament of women in Indian society surfaced. They ranged from non-fictional researches of contemporary feminist issues (the immolation of Rup Kanwar in 1987 for example), through plays and literary texts blatant portraying the patriarchal evils (like Dina Mehta’s Brides are not for Burning) to retellings of Ramayana and Mahabharata from a feminist point of view (like Irawati Karve’s Yuganta and Shaonli Mitra’s “Nathabati Anathabat” and “Katha Amrita Saman”). In this module we would study two such texts—Shaonli Mitra’s narrative performance of “Nathabati Anathabat” and Dina Mehta’s Brides are not for Burning.


1. Nathabati Anathabat


1.1. Introduction


Nathabati Anathabat” (roughly translated as the orphaned wife or as Nabaneeta Deb Sen states in her translation “Five Lords Yet None a Protector”) is reputedly adapted from Irawati Karve’s interpretation of Mahabharata, Yuganta: the End of an Epoch and was first staged in 1983. For her performance, Shaonli was awarded the Critic Circle of Indian Award, the Shiromani Puraskar in 1985, and the Prafulla Kumar Smriti Ananda Puraskar in 1991. Shaonli Mitra was also awarded The Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 2003 for acting in Bengali Theatre and in 2012 she was honored with The Banga Bibhushan for lifetime achievement in the theatre. In an article named “The Stage Is Her Own”, published in Applause of July 22, 1991, Lekha J. Shankar said that Shaonli Mitra’s “Nathabati Anathabat” had already enjoyed two hundred and fifty five house-full shows in Calcutta for the past eight years.



  • Irawati Karve does not retell the Mahabharata story in her Yuganta: the End of an Epoch. She rather very dispassionately delves into the psychological aspect of some of the characters: Gandhari, Kunti, Vidura, Bhishma, Draupadi and others.
  • In “Nathabati Anathabat”, Shaonli Mitra chooses to highlight the portion about Draupadi, and puts in all her understanding and empathy as a woman to try retelling her story holding almost all the other major characters culpable for her predicament.
  • Mitra also mentions Karve several times during her narrative performance, referring her as “Irawati didi.” This almost sounds like that a group of sisters in this epoch looks at the empty life of another several millennia ago.

1.2. Life of Shaonli Mitra


Born to the famous theatre couple, Shombhu and Tripti Mitra, Shaonli Mitra got involved in the vibrant theatrical milieu of her parents at the age of four in “Dashachakra”, a Bohurupee play. The list continued with “Chenra Taar”, “Daakghar”, “Pagla Ghora”, “Kimbadanti”, “Ghare Baire”, “Raja”, etc. However, long spells of illness that sometimes extended for years at a stretch, ultimately made her decide to stay away from the theatre from 1978. Sohini Sen in her article named “The arc of a vaulting soul” published in The Telegraph of 18th August 1995, sheds light on the fact that Shaonli Mitra was unable to find any meaning in the works done in the contemporary theatre during the year 1978. However, Shaonli turned to translating Ionesco, scripting stories for radio plays, recitations and experimenting with audio plays for the next few years preparing to find something meaningful to be committed to.


Around this time, in 1982, Shaonli’s father Sombhu Mitra introduced her to the rich world of Mahabharata through Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Being inspired by the history of discrimination and systematic oppression of women from the mythical age to the contemporary one, she gifted the theatre world two outstanding ‘feminist’ interpretation of the Great Indian Epic – “Nathabati Anathabat” and “Katha Amrita Saman”.


1.3. The Setting of “Nathabati Anathabat”


Shaonli Mitra uses the Bengali indigenous folk form of story-telling tradition of kathakata for both “Nathabati Anathabat and “Katha Amrita Saman. However, Shaonli modernizes the genre by introducing several other features from different story telling traditions throughout the country. Shaonli defines the Kathak as a narrator, a story-teller in pre-modern Bengal who would narrate the major Hindu scriptural texts with verbal and musical embellishment. Such performers were mostly males paid to perform at annual rituals or family rites of passage. Shaonli reverses the hegemonic role of the male narrator by replacing it with the kathak-thakrun or Madam Storyteller. The kathak-thakrun, interestingly does not wear the traditional garbs of a Bengali woman. She, rather, pleats her sari differently and wears Orissi nose rings and ornaments.

Shaonli She is the conscious representation of contemporary times who looks back with empathy and speaks to the fellow members of the society.


Mitra realizes the flexibility of having a story-teller who can slip from one narrative to the other, from the past to the present and the perspectives of the characters through her oratory. She contemporizes the Epic and through certain characters of the Epic focuses on different issues and characters of her times. But instead of being the dispassionate male story-teller, kathak thakrun unabashedly empathizes with the characters with an easy grounding of the epic scholarship mentioning the names of Iravati Karve, Kashiram Das, Rajshekhar Basu and Kaliprasanna Singha in between her narration, admitting that the story of Mahabharata has been much discussed already, but dispassionately until now.


Many scholars have compared Mitra’s rendition of the epic with that of the celebrated Pandavani performer Teejan Bai. But Mitra denies having witnessed any of Teejan Bai’s performance before the first staging of “Nathabati Anathabat,” though she also admits that it would have enriched the narrative in more ways than one.



Pandavani (about the Pandavas) is a narrative ballad form of Chattisgarh, sung primarily by the Pardhan and Devar castes, which is based on the stories from the Mahabharata. Since the epic was read by and was accessible only to upper castes, a body of folk poetry developed around it that became popular in villages and among lower castes in forms that are a little different from one another – Kapalik literally, from the forehead, and Vedamati, based on the Vedas. The former uses the outline of the Mahabharata but has Bhim as its hero. It is highly improvisatory, freely bringing in local legends and myths stored in the head, which exist in the collective popular consciousness. The latter bases itself strictly on the epic. The Kapalik performer stands and moves around, incorporating song, dance, and acting to create a solo theatrical show. Vedamati consists of pure ballad- singing from a seated position. It features mostly a single performer who sings the couplets form the text, set to folk tunes. The singer uses a rural three- stringed tambura with bells tied at one end with castanets, symbols both as accompaniment and as props, the performer brings alive the characters, their traits, moods and situations while sitting on his knees. There are other instrumentalists also. The singer-actor brings also provides explanations of the couplets as he goes along. In some cases, there is the ragi, a companion who asks questions to facilitate relevance so that the audience can bond with the story. Pandavani is a mesmerising genre of storytelling in either of its varieties. Vedamati has its most famous exponents in Peenaram, Chetan Ram and their mentor Jhaduram Devangan. The Kapalik form is best represented by Teejan Bai – possibly its first woman practitioner and celebrity who has made it on her own without help from her community or family.

1.4. The Narrative of “Nathabati Anathabat”


In “Nathabati Anathabat”, Mitra starts with the slightly rustic accent of the Madam Storyteller as she greets her audience and introduces her chorus companions or jurir dal and the context of her story. She sings, weeps and laughs while telling the story with a passionate involvement, otherwise denied to the traditional male narrator. She announces that she would talk about the empty life of Draupadi, who was left unprotected in the oppressive society, in spite of having five husbands. She starts how Draupadi falls in love with Arjun in the swayamvara and chooses a life of poverty and suffering thinking him a poor Brahman. But instead, she is bartered to all the five brothers as their wife in order to preserve the familial harmony between the brothers, which might get disrupted as all of them lusted after Draupadi.


The story jumps to the gambling which ultimately leads to Draupadi’s forced public-disrobing. Madam story teller gleefully narrates the brief period of opulence and peace of Draupadi and the comic episode where Duryodhan is humiliated in the legendary palace of illusions. As the narrator sings of Draupadi’s brief prosperity, she also talks about the disastrous consequence of this harmless episode as Duryodhan decides to avenge his humiliation and ruin the Pandavas. He lets his uncle Shakuni arrange for a dice-gambling and invites Yudhisthir to participate. After losing everything, Yudhisthir also wagers the life of his brothers and his own and ultimately that of Draupadi. As she is ignominiously dragged in the public courthouse, Draupady tries to argue that having lost his own freedom in the game, Yudhisthir has also lost his ownership on her and cannot stake her anymore. But egged by the silence of the elderly politicians and the jeering of the younger ones, Dushwasan attempts to strip the meagerly clothed and menstruating Draupadi and force her to surrender her body to the Kauravas.


Mitra unequivocally reveals the hypocrisy of Yudhisthir and the entire glorified concept of unimpeachable honor and honesty associated with his honorific Dharmaraj, when he does not refuse to participate in a dice-game that the Hindu scriptures otherwise disapproves. Draupadi’s scream for help is stifled in a male dominated court. Mitra critically remarks that at times the wise and the learned keep silent while the weak are tortured to save the harmony of the nation state– “They too have been robbed of speech!” Draupadi when dragged to court appeals to Bheesma, critiquing the preposterousness of such a heinous act about to take place in his presence without any kind of protest from him. Karna’s unethical suggestiveness disturbs her further. Yet she chooses her dignity over prescribed norms of sexual sanctity and refuses to fall on her knees and beg for mercy. Draupadi infers that it is they and not her who “should be ashamed for shattering the bounds of decency.” She also hints that the alleged supernatural help from Krishna did not come at all. Instead, Dhritarashtra had returned their property fearing public outrage. She also mentions how only a younger brother of the Kauravas, Bikarna, had attempted to voice his moral outrage and how Bheem had announced his intention to burn Yudhisthir’s hands to punish him for Draupadi’s humiliation, but was stopped by Arjun with words echoing honor.


This starts Draupadi’s grievances as they embark on an epoch long exile which is often disturbed by Duryodhan’s assassins and conspiracies. The final year of disguised existence brings her more humiliation as Kichak, the general and brother-in-law of the King they were serving attempts to molest her. Feeling helpless from every quarter, Draupadi takes the help of Bheem, who with silent warmth assures her safety and kills Kichak cruelly to ensure it. After their exile, Draupadi eggs her husbands for a justice war, but is repeatedly thwarted until they decide to fight it in the name of their honor not hers. She declares that if her husbands will not avenge her honor, her five warrior sons would. Finally as the war starts, she is dejected to see the mass genocide, and loses her senses as her five sons are murdered in their sleep.


In the final stage of “Nathabati Anathabat”, the Pandavas decide to leave for their final journey along with Draupadi trusting their virtue to show them the path to heaven. As Draupadi falls due to exhaustion and suffering, Yudhisthir explains the reason of her fall. He says that in spite of being married to the five brothers, Draupadi unlawfully preferred Arjun over the other four. Overhearing his declaration, Draupadi feels sad for Yudhishtir as she realizes that most of his actions may be out of spite feeling neglected of Draupadi’s affection. As she lies dying, Draupadi recollects her life and looks for some vestige of happiness. She realizes that out of all the five brothers, it was only Bheem who loved her selflessly. It was he who had avenged her dishonor but could never express his affection in words. As she waits for her death praying to have Bheem back in her next life, he walks back to her and comforts her in her last moment.


Mitra ends her narration pointing out that Draupadi, being a princess by birth and a Queen by marriage did not have the privileged life of the royalty. Instead, she was oppressed and humiliated throughout her life, like most of the contemporary womenfolk. She also points out that this has been the fate of women throughout history.

2. Brides are not for Burning


Brides are Not for Burning by Dina Mehta is a theatrical presentation of the domestic violence against women perpetrated by the family or the in- laws. The inherent sexism and the patriarchal social setup marginalize women and force them to fit into the category of ‘subaltern’. A woman’s social position is determined by her relationship to men. The extent to which women believe in the precepts of sexist ideology is only a reflection of the powers of coercion and social control. The play reveals how women as the gendered subaltern passively bears social tyranny in the form of oppression exercised by her father and brother before marriage and the jibes and taunts of in-laws after it in demand for dowry or male offspring. The dramatist, with this sensitive issue of bride-burning, questions the different institutions of society which are held responsible for its smooth running.



The anti -dowry laws in India were enacted in 1961 but both parties to the dowry, the families of the husband and wife are criminalized. The laws have done nothing to halt dowry transactions and the violence that is often associated with them. Police and the courts are notorious for turning a blind eye to cases of violence against women and dowry associated deaths. It was not until 1983 that domestic violence became punishable by law. Some of the reasons for the under-reporting are obvious. As women are reluctant to report threats and abuse to the police for fear of retaliation against themselves and their families. In India there is an added hindrance. Any attempt to seek police involvement in disputes over dowry transactions may result in members of the woman’s own family being subject to criminal proceedings and potentially imprisoned. Moreover, police action is unlikely to stop the demands for dowry payments. Many of the victims are burnt to death; they are doused in kerosene and set light to. Routinely the in-laws claim that what happened was simply an accident.

2.1. Life of Dina Mehta


Dina Mehta is an Indian Persi writer. There are several short stories to her credit along with several plays and a novel titled, And Some Take a Lover. The play Bridesare not for Burning has been immensely popular with Mumbai audience. The novel And Some Take a Lover, centers on a proposed inter-caste marriage between a sophisticated Parsi girl by the name of Miss Roshni Wadia and the simple Gandhian boy Sudhir, for whom public duty is of greater importance than any other thing in life.


Her first full-length play The Myth Makers (1969) won the Sultan Padamsee Playwriting Competition and Tiger Tiger (1978) based on the life of Tipu Sultan won critical acclaim. Brides are not for Burning won the theatre competition organized by BBC. Her other significant play Getting away with Murder deals with childhood trauma, sexual abuse, infidelity and insecure relationships in the modern urban spaces. She also brings out the parochial narrow-mindedness in Mumbai and other metropolis.


2.2. Set Design and Stage Direction of the play


The play has a complicated set design and numerous stage directions strewn throughout. The setting needs five different acting areas: the Desai tenement room with its shabby and grim sparse furnishing; Sanjay’s living room with its rich and plush furnishing; Vinod’s office; Tarla’s kitchen and the in-law’s living-cum dining room with its rich but ugly furnishing. Mehta gives detailed description of each of the acting areas with its furnishing and positioning of the props. She also mentions that out of the three scenes of Act I, the first two will be acted in the Desai tenement room and the third one in Sanjay’s living room. In the second act, the first scene and the last are acted in the Desai tenement room, the second one in Vinod’s office, the third one in Tarla’s kitchen and the fourth in the in-law’s living cum dining room. Mehta gives precise directions for actions, lights, expressions and costume for each of the scenes as well. The final stage direction resolves the stalemate between Roy and Malini as she is shown to grow in stature as they confront each other.


2.3. Plot Overview of Brides are not for Burning


The plot revolves around the suspicious and premature death of the eldest daughter of the Desai family—Laxmi. Her siblings Anil and Malini try to get justice for her but are thwarted repeatedly due to corrupt judiciary and police.


Act I, Scene i, introduces Anil, Malini and their almost senile father, who discuss Laxmi’s death, which has recently been ruled as an accident. We learn that Anil is a gifted but poor school teacher and Malini is a college student who once aspired to study law. They discuss the gruesome death and mourn the fact that they cannot get justice for the victim. Malini spiritedly argues that she has learnt from Laxmi’s neighbor Tarla that Laxmi was systematically harassed for dowry and for not bearing any children even after five years of conjugal life. She also declares her suspicion of dowry death. Anil protests her jumping to conclusion. We also learn that following the early death of their mother Laxmi had to give up studies to care for her siblings and was married off early to a rich family. Anil announces that he will not give up his ideals and therefore, will not join Malini’s boyfriend Sanjay’s corrupt company. Roy, one of the so called political rebels comes to sexually harass Malini and to urge her to run away with him to aid his rebellion. He has a tiff with Anil who gets suspicious of Malini’s actions.


Scene ii opens with Anil entertaining his father by playing cards with him. Professor Palkar, Anil’s old teacher comes to extend his condolences and to warn Anil that Malini is consorting with political undesirables. Moreover, he mentions his friendship with the doctor who attended Laxmi after her death, and points out that the doctor was called three and a half hours after Laxmi’s death. He also expresses concern over Roy, who, in his opinion, is a trouble maker. Anil’s suspicion increases and he finally opens Malini’s old trunk, in which he finds revolutionary manifestos with firearms.


Scene iii shifts the stage to Sanjay’s living room, where he tries to seduce Malini but admits that he does not want to marry her. Malini argues her position but gives in Sanjay’s demands out of self-disgust and bitterness. She also finds out that Vinod, Laxmi’s husband had requested Sanjay to reinstate Tarla’s husband in his earlier job, and realizes Tarla’s unwillingness to testify truthfully.


Act II, scene i shifts back to the Desai tenement room, where father is seen complaining about everything to Malini, often mistaking her for Laxmi. Anil comes in and informs that Professor Palkar has been assaulted and had died in the hands of the political rebels. He also discusses with Malini about Laxmi’s death and realizes that it was orchestrated by Vinod and his family to get Laxmi’s life insurance money.


Scene ii is acted in Vinod’s office where Anil confronts him and reveals that he knows the truth about Laxmi’s death and will bring legal justice. Vinod aggressively denies all accusations and later tries to bribe Anil to forgo the legal suit and is uncomfortable when he refuses it.


Scene iii shifts in Tarla’s kitchen where Malini confronts her as she is frying sweets for her daughter’s birthday. She worms out half the truth from her and realizes that Laxmi tried to commit suicide after being repeatedly harassed and her in-laws did not try to break the door of the kitchen to save her. Laxmi’s mother-in-law overhears the conversation and threatens to ruin Tarla’s family for disclosing the secret to Malini.


Scene iv happens in Laxmi’s in-law’s place, where Malini bribes Vinod’s younger brother Arjun with sweets to tell her the truth. She learns from the servant Kallu and Arjun the entire truth—the day of the incident Laxmi was abused by her in-laws and had locked herself in the kitchen trying to self-immolate. Though her in-laws could have broken the door and save her, they decided not to do anything and to let her die.


The last scene comes back to the Desai tenement room, where Malini discloses the horrible truth to Anil. And together they realize that they would never be able to bring justice from the corrupt system. Malini prepares to leave with Roy, but reconsiders later realizing that no political change with affect this social evil, unless women themselves make a stand for their own. She declares, “I see now that if I follow you, I only exchange one servitude for another. The boot in the face for a place in the kitchen; Brides will not stop burning when you take over the world, Roy. All I can learn from you are new dishonesties, so GO” (Mehta 1993:94). She stands up to Roy as an equal who continues to abuse her. The play ends with the two of them confronting each other, with Malini gaining the highlight as the curtain closes.

2.4. Major Themes in Brides are not for Burning


Patriarchal Oppression: the play majorly addresses the innate sexism of our patriarchal society, where women are always treated as the downtrodden without any resources or means to make a life of their own. Their role as mother, wife, sister and daughter are often fraught with systematic oppression by their family and the society at large. They are subjected to sexual abuse, parental tyranny, sacrifices and humiliation occasionally. From the father’s senile declarations, we learn how he had abandoned his first wife when she could not present him with children. We also learn from his sleepy mumblings how his second wife was repeatedly subjected to marital rape. It becomes apparent that Laxmi had to stay home abandoning her studies to take care of her younger siblings. She was also married off to a rich family to preserve the honor and reputation of the Desais. Her systematic domestic abuse in her in-law’s house drove her to suicide. Malini is being sexually abused by her political compatriot Roy and her lover Sanjay. Even Anil tries to curb her political aspirations occasionally.


Corruption: Malini and Anil are repeatedly thwarted in their attempt to seek justice for Laxmi, as they realize that Laxmi’s rich in-laws have bribed the officials who will not investigate the death objectively. It is also hinted that Sanjay’s business has several shady dealings and that he had reinstated Tarla’s alcoholic husband as a favor to Vinod. Vinod, in turn, maneuvers Tarla’s gratitude trying to stop her from testifying truthfully about Laxmi’s death. He also bribes Kallu to stop him from being another witness to the heinous crime. In the play, Malini prophetically questions whether a Harijan, or an untouchable will ever be able to seek justice in our corrupt judiciary. She also declares her contempt for this system: “I spit on your law courts! Playthings in the hands of exploiters and reactionaries, they deal out one kind of justice to the rich, another to the poor” (Mehta 1993:18).

you can view video on Dina Mehta: Brides are Not for Burning; Shaonli Mitra: Nathabati Ananthabat


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