Reimagining epics is an important way to question the inequalities often embedded in them. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have evolved constantly, with changes being made to them throughout history. There have been different versions not just over time but also across geographies. With colonization, there was an effort to standardise ancient texts into definitve versions of each. But none of this has stopped writers and artists from fresh in various mediums, in fiction, in cinema, and in theatre.

One such reimagination is Bhisham Sahni’s play Madhavi, which was performed for the first time in 1982 and later published as a book. The play actually focuses on a micro-narrative in the Mahabharata, from the Udogya Parva – the story of Madhavi and Galava.

The original narrative

Galava is a student of the sage Vishwamitra’s, and has been insisting on offering a “Gurudakshina”. An irked Vishwamitra asks him to get eight hundred moon-white horses with a black ear each. Now this was impossible because only 600 of these horses were available.

Galava went to the kind King Yayati for help, who gave him his daughter Madhavi as a gift. Madhavi is endowed with a boon that enables her to have children with great kings and regain her virginity and youthful beauty after each childbirth.

Yayati asks Galava to get Madhavi married to a great king and, in exchange, obtain the horses he needs. But since no one king has so many horses of the required specifications, Galava makes Madhavi bear children for three different kings without sons – Haryasva, Divodasa and Aushirana. She gives them a son each, named Vasumas, Pratardana and Shibi, respectively, regaining her virginity after every birth.

In this Galava gets 200 horses from each of the kings, after which he is informed that from only 600 of the 1,000 white horses with black ears remain, which means he has obtained all of them. So, he now offers Madhavi to Vishwamitra so that she can bear him a son in lieu of the shortfall of 200 horses. Vishwamitra agrees, and has a son named Astaka with Madhavi.

A swayamvar is organised for Madhavi after she returns from Vishwamitra and regains her virginity. She chooses the forest as her husband and goes on to live as a dove.

Sahni’s play frames this entire episode for the stage, interpreting it through Madhavi’s perspective. The question, though, is whether he challenges the inequality and creates an alternative narrative, or whether he only questions it.

A reading of the play, translated into English by Alok Bhalla, along with the Sanskrit text, translated by JAB van Buitenen, yields some answers.

Does the woman have agency?

The two key aspects of agency here are of Madhavi’s control over her life and over her body. In the original, Yayati, in his desire to be a generous king, gives his daughter as a gift. He is also very pleased that he is the one chosen by Galava. “bypassing all the other kings of the dynasty of the Sun”.

In fact, Garuda asks Galava to approach a king who would be generous enough to give something precious without making his subjects suffer. Therefore Yayati’s gift seems appropriate. But we don’t know what Madhavi thinks, her voice is missing. The Mahabharata doesn’t even mention the emotions she may have experienced.

Most commentaries of this episode state that Madhavi was obedient and followed her father’s order to go with Galava without protesting. Sahni questions this, however.

In his play, Madhavi is clearly shocked to be asked to go with a stranger. She doesn’t protest directly, but is devastated nevertheless. Yet, ultimately, she obeys.

Madhavi is denied a voice in the Mahabharata not only about whether she would like to go with Galava and marry a king of his choice, but also about what she thinks about this. Sahni’s retelling does not give her the agency to choose the course of her own life – perhaps the idea was not to deviate from the storyline – though it does give her a voice to express how she feels about it all.

The other aspect of agency is concerned with Madhavi’s ability to regain her virginity and her youthful beauty. The Mahabharata states that she will give birth to four sons, going back to being a virgin in each case. In fact, Madhavi states this herself when Galava is negotiating with the King Haryasva over the horses. But while Galava uses this to negotiate his own requirements, Madhavi has no say in who the fathers of her sons will be.

In Sahni’s retelling, though, it is Madhavi who has the power to decide when she will regain her virginity and beauty. Though she follows Galava’s orders to bear sons to the three kings and his guru, she doesn’t do it purely out of duty, but partly because she has fallen in love with him – an unexpected outcome.

After bearing Vishwaamitra a son, Madhavi doesn’t regain her virginity immediately as she believes that when she picks Galava at her swayamvar, he will accept her as she is. But Galava rejects her non-virginal body – though he is responsible for this situation. Madhavi reclaims her beauty, but leaves her father’s ashram to go back to the forest. Here, it seems, Sahni, in addition to a voice, gives her some agency over her body even though she survives in a deeply unequal society.

Desire and love

In the Mahabharata, the idea of desire, especially that of female desire, is not explored with nuance, although there are references to temporary occurrences of what might be called lust. Galava’s tale is narrated to show his stubbornness, but his desire for greatness though the giving of an impossible gift to his teacher is not highlighted.

Desire plays a role in Yayati’s life – for instance, his desire not to turn Galava down, which is also pinned down to his duty as a king. As for Madhavi, she is doing her duty towards her father and, presumably, fulfilling her fate.

Sahni’s retelling, however, foregrounds the idea of desire to some extent. For instance, Galava’s desire to be successful and famous, and his resultant pursuit of the 800 horses demanded by Viswamitra, drives the narrative.

Madhavi does present him with the option of pleading with his guru, but he rejects it. The reason that Madhavi doesn’t protest further against being used as a tool in Galava’s mission is her love and desire for him. As Sahni gives her a voice, he also gives her a way to express her desire, which the original Mahabharata does not.

She is adamant about negotiating her freedom after the son is born, and her desire to be with Galava is pronounced. And yet, this desire is only of value when it works to fulfil the needs of the men, Yayati and Galava. When they are for herself, they are rejected: for instance, when she wants to see her first-born son one more time, but is denied by Galava, and when she wants to marry Galava without regaining her virginity, and is he rejected by him.

And so, Sahni’s Madhavi only goes thus far, but no further, in righting the wrongs of the original episode in the Mahabharata.