//The Ramayaana is a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions

The Ramayaana is a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions

24 oct 2011

The Many True Kandas

Samhita Arni

The Ramayaana is a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions. By scrapping AK Ramanujan’s essay from its syllabus, can Delhi University ignore that exchange?

Last fortnight, Delhi University decided to remove AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation from its history syllabus, perhaps in response to earlier protests in 2008 over the inclusion of this essay. The decision scares me for many reasons, partly because it suggests that a viewpoint is beginning to prevail which perpetuates the notion of the Ramayana as exclusive, Hindu property, and ignores the fact that the Ramayana has been re-told — and is still being re-told — by Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and people of other faiths.

My own life bears this out. As a child who accompanied a diplomat father on various overseas postings — Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand — the one constant in all the cultures I spent my childhood in was the Ramayana. In Indonesia, a largely Muslim country, we watched Wayang Kulit, the shadow puppet theatre which has plays on stories from the Ramayana. In Pakistan, I was told as a five-year-old that “Lahore” came from Lavapuri, from a legend that Lahore was founded by Ram’s son Lava. In Chennai, my birthplace and the city my mother comes from, stories are still told of the founder of the Dravidian movement, EV Ramasamy Naicker, Periyar, who wrote a banned version of the Ramayana casting Ravana as a tragic hero, and, in an inversion of what happens at Dussehra, gathered hordes on the beach to burn images of Ram. In Thailand, one finds the Ramayana in many places, in the names of its kings, in Ayutthaya city (from Ayodhya), and in a beautiful poem inscribed on the walls of a wat (monastery), in which Ravana declares his undying love for Sita. Further afield, traces of the Ramayana linger in Angkor Wat in Buddhist Cambodia and Laos (like Lahore, also supposedly named after Lava.)

And yet, the Ramayana that is in ascendance in the popular imagination —the one repeated to me by my Hindu family — was stripped of all these delightful cadences and associations. From a story inhabited with magic, sorcerers, demons, talking animals and flying monkeys, it shrunk to a hagiography, a story about an ideal man/God, and his ideal wife. It was a story that prescribed roles for men and women, and was told in such a way that it failed to grasp my imagination as a child.

What could a girl — encouraged to think and question, to want and aspire for more than her mother and grandmother had ever had — admire in the silent, suffering, self-sacrificing Sita of popular imagination?

Five years ago, I rediscovered the Ramayana. I returned to India after almost a decade abroad, and I found a country where the Ramayana is still frequently referred to. (The references still amaze me. Recently, the Supreme Court mentioned the Lakshman rekha in the 2G case. In a school debate which I recently judged, the term Ram Rajya made a frequent appearance. A reality show on a Kannada channel named a line that participants could not cross the Lakshman rekha.) Moreover, the Ramayana was, and still is, a part of discussions about Indian identity and the state.

When I delved into the Ramayana as an adult, I was surprised by what I found.

I was astonished to discover in one version that Janaka found Sita, as a child, playing with Shiva’s bow, and watched her lift it. Hence, he devised the test for her Swayamvara: for if Sita could lift the bow as a child, the man who would marry her, must, at least, be able to string the bow. This Sita was physically strong.

Reading Arshia Sattar’s masterful translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, I discovered that Valmiki’s Sita is one who says that dharma is sukusma — subtle and intangible. This Sita advises Ram, in the forest, to give up his weapons for the duration of exile and live a life in keeping with the peaceful, non-material dharma of the forest and Vanaprastha. This Sita was wise.

I became fascinated by the Ramayana and it’s multiplicity of retelling. (This fascination has led to two books — a speculative fiction thriller that’s due out next year, and a graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana with Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar.)

In the process of creating a text to accompany Moyna’s artwork, I explored the folk traditions, where women, singing in Sita’s voice, expressed their own problems while describing her suffering. In her voice, they express their own lives.

The Ramayana has been re-told, recast many, many times. This polymorphous tradition is precisely what AK Ramanujan’s essay explores. Here is Ramanujan’s account of my favorite anecdote:

“To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, 16th C.), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile, and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him.”

What emerges from Ramanujan’s essay is not just that the Ramayana is a polymorphous tradition. It’s also a many-sided conversation, that spans cultures, languages, centuries and religions. There are Buddhist and Jain versions of the Ramayana. (The Patuas, the itinerant storytelling tribe to which Moyna belongs, are a mixture of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, who all retell the Ramayana.)

Retelling the Ramayana has been a subversive act, a political act. Molla, a Telegu poetess and a potter’s daughter, retold the Ramayana in simple language (in contrast to the ornate, difficult language that Brahmins used) and thus made it accessible to everyone. The Kannada writer Kuvempu, a Ram bhakt, struggled with the treatment of Shambukha (the shudra who Ram beheads in the Uttara Kanda for performing tapasya, which causes the death of a Brahmin’s son) and wrote Shudra Tapasvi, which inverts the episode. Michael Madusudhan Dutt pioneered the use of blank verse in Bengali literature in the Meghnad Badh Kabya, a poem on Ravana’s son Meghnad (aka Indrajit).

I’ve been to shadow puppet performances, and watched audiences laugh uproariously at shows that interpolate references to contemporary events (and characters from the Arabian Nights). Scholars speculate that the story of Hanuman, traveling on the Silk Route centuries ago, inspired the tales of the Monkey God, Sun Wukong, the hero of the 16th century Chinese epic Journey to the West.

If we cease to acknowledge these retellings, we will forget the many reasons why the Ramayana is important, and forget how the story has travelled and the new forms it has taken. We will also discourage further retellings — and for the epic to remain alive and relevant to every generation, it must be re-told in a way that reflects the anxieties and issues of that society.

When our society finds the idea of multiple retellings offensive and preserves only one version, we silence inquiry into the epic, we put it on a pedestal. We cease to engage with it, its characters and their dilemmas.

It’s in this polymorphous tradition that Ramanujan describes, in the many voices and languages of so many Ramayanas, that I find the best of India — a place of many voices, opinions, cultures, faiths and languages.

(Samhita Arni is a Bangalore-based author)
Oct 23 2011, 03:
30 hrs New Delhi: From: The Indian Express