Sunday, November 20, 2005

At her palace in Ayodhya, Sita draws a portrait of Ravana: a portrait that comes to life in her bedroom. Upon discovering this, Rama seized by jealous rage orders Sita killed. If this bit isn't sufficient to create a safforn riot on blogosphere, here's more.

Sita jumps into Ravana's funeral pyre. Says she before being consumed by the flames:
"You, Rama, rejected me because you fear that my body was defiled by his touch, though you know my heart was pure. This anti-god wanted my heart, even though he knew my body was taken by you. Some day, intelligent people will know who was a nobler lover."

Unbelievable, yet true. These are excerpts from the different forms of ramayana- variously called ramakathas, ramakirtis, ramakiens or ramajatakas- or the story of Rama. From India to South East Asia, the ramayana has taken on countless forms: forms which reflect the religious, linguistic and social traditions of the region. It has been recited and sung in various forms of art and dance and its performances have graced royal courts and lowly huts. From north India to southern Thailand, its stories and events have been extensively rewritten and refashioned. As renowned historian Romila Thapar says of the plurality of the ramayana "The Ramayan does not belong to any one moment in history for it lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places."

Many Ramayanas ed. Paula Richman (Univ. of California Press, 1991) is a collection of writings that explores the diversity of this tradition. This epic composed by the poet and sage Valmiki around 600-800 BC is the story of the trials and tribulations of Prince Rama of Ayodhya, his banishment into a forest for fourteen years, the capture of his wife Sita by demons and his war to win her back. Valmiki's narrative has undergone numerous changes and its strong religious overtones altered, depending on the group that appropriated the narrative. From India to Sri Lanka and Thailand, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain variations of Valmiki's story show that apart from the regional variations, there were different versions within each language and region. My favorite is the divergence of the women's oral versions from Valmiki's text.

In women's oral traditions, the ramayana theme, would, unlike Valmiki's text, include domestic matters, games played by Rama and Sita and descriptions of life in a joint family. There is little to no mention of wars and battles. In "A Ramayana of their own" Velcheru Narayan Rao describes the various Telugu versions of the ramayana songs recited by women. It is interesting how these versions extensively incorporate the traditions and lifestyle of these women besides adhering to caste and hierarchical structures. So that while Brahmin women's songs would describe Kaushalya's labor, Rama's birth, his wedding festivites, Sita's wedding gifts, warding of the evil eye etc. the ramayana of non Brahmin women or women of lower castes who often performed menial jobs and worked in the fields was more rooted to the land and nature. The themes here were the life in the forest of Rama and Sita where Sita tended to the animals, cleaned the home and courtyard and cooked. Clothes, ornaments, rituals were almost absent in this version, as were hidden sexuality and description of feminine modesty. This perhaps afforded the space in an hierarchical society for women or lower castes to subvert the authority of patriarchy and tell their own story.

Many ramayanas is divided into three sections: the first section deals with the major refashionings that occurred due to Buddhist and Jain influence while the second section describes the more recent versions such as those composed during the 12-19th century. The last section is devoted to the ramayana of the different Hindu darshanas or philosophical schools.

With the rise of Buddhism from 300 BC and its strong influence on Hindu traditions the ramayana was not left untouched. The compassion and ahimsa of the Buddha could not be reconciled with the blood and gore of battles of Hindu gods and kings. Buddhist jatakas therefore had to deviate from Valmiki's text. The enemy was no longer personified and war and victory became spiritual aspects. A strong Buddhist element in terms of a secular non casteist orientation was also incorporated. The Jain versions, too, avoid descriptions of wars and blood baths and miraculous events. Also Jain monks considered themselves as thinkers, hence these versions also devote equal sections to Sita, Lakshman and Ravana. In short, an effort was made to correct the errors of Valmiki's texts.

This continued with the later versions such as Kampan's Iramavataram composed in Chola courts in the 12th century. Retellings had hitherto experimented with the characterization of the male protagonists. Here for the first time Kampan altered the Surpanakha story. Unlike the traditional Valmiki text where Sita and Surpanakha embody the two extreme forms of womanhood-the former pure, chaste and subordinate and the latter evil, impure and insubordinate-Kampan chose to portray Surpanakha as an exquisitely beautiful and chaste woman. Perhaps her beauty did entice Rama and Lakshman and rejecting their advances could have aroused their anger.

With the advent of the British came the enthusiasm for English and western classics among the educated elite. Milton's Paradise Lost and Homer's Iliad would provide a young Anglicised Bengali, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a new perpective for a literary refashioning of the ramayana. Dutt's epic poem Meghnadvadha Kavya is a retelling of that episode of the ramayana where Ravana's son Meghnad is killed by Rama's brother Lakshman. Dutt's sympathies clearly lay with Ravana-Ravana and his clan were glorified while Rama and Lakshman by opposing him were shown in a poor light. Clinton Seely's "The Raja's New Clothes: Redressing Ravana in Meghanadavadha Kavya" shows how Dutt affects the reader's response by repeated juxtaposition of Krishna's and Meghnad's tales. His comparison of the deceitful slaying of the sons of the Pandavas with Lakshman's killing of Meghnad in cold blood is intended to win more support for the Ravana camp. Says Seely of Dutt's magnificent work "The master poet has slyly woven his central Ramayana episode so as to suggest heroic raiment for Ravana rather than Rama."

The vast diversity in the narrative of the ramayana is indicative of the cultural complexity and historical variations across regions that have had an Indian influence. These retellings and refashionings probably convey the local political and social views of the times in which they were composed. Religious and social reformers have often retold these stories with emphasis on a more egalitarian ideology. It is indeed unfortunate, that this epic is often presented as a monolithic tradition as the version of the ramayana. Serials on Indian television and other media often advance this one form of ramayana. By doing so we negate the complexity and diversity of the ramayana tradition.


Blogger Southern Minstrel said...

Is there a version of Ramayana retold from the point of view of Kaikeyi or Manthara?

7:59 AM  
Blogger shampa said...

well there is amreeta syam's poem Kaikeyi and then there is N.R.Navlekar's work. Both these protray Kaikeyi as a flesh and blood woman and highlight the fact that raja Kaikeya her father had given her hand in marriage to Dasaratha under the same conditions as Satyavati's father had in the Mahabharata. That his grandson be made king.

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