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Updated: December 14, 2010 17:09 IST

Placing the epic in contemporary context

Prema Nandakumar
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Searching for hidden significances in Valmiki's epic has been a continuing adventure for centuries. If one does not find what one wants, then the literary adventurer fills the gaps with the help of his creative imagination. The process enriches the tradition as a poetic record of Indian history. With Veerappa Moily, it is generally the treatment of the untouchables by the kshatriyas and the oppression of the commoner by the ruling class.

Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam keeps to the traditional series of events. We watch the hunter's arrow kill the male ‘krauncha' bird; we conclude with the coronation of Rama as king of Ayodhya. Wisely, Moily does not subscribe to any Aryan-Dravidian divide. There are good and bad people in the ruling class and in all cultures. All we have to do is to get the best out of the good people and, through them, help the downtrodden.

Lakshmana-centric

The opening movement indicates that Moily wanted the retelling should be Lakshmana-centric. Service has been his life's motto and Lakshmana is the personification of service. But Moily's longing to create a ‘Lakshmanayana' has not been put through, though Saumitri occasionally comes to the fore as, for instance, when he teaches the denizens of Chitrakoota to fight for their rights. Often the storyline is placed in contemporary context and a message is flashed: “Let the glorification of criminals be stopped.” The Ahalya episode is neatly used to explain the replacement of Indra by Vishnu as the Lord of the Vedas.

The Partition holocaust, in which the desecrated women were denied re-entry by Hindu orthodoxy, is noted in the Siddhashrama episode:

Will these unfortunate

women be given

The soothing acceptance

of being a housewife?

Will the partisan society

be generous towards

them?

The author, being an achiever in several fields and a man of high standing in public life, whatever he has to say on our social and political culture must come as lung-strengthening oxygen. Thus Viradha on Ravana's anarchic authority:

In the absence of proper

Governance, even a law-

abiding citizen would

Turn into a ruffian; and

the weak people

Would be their victims.

Illuminating

The “Kaschid Sarga” of Valmiki generates plenty of illumination to clear murky areas in present-day India: “The work of the ministers should be examined carefully”, says Rama to Bharata:

Transparent governance

is the duty of a ruler;

In earning money, there

should be no immorality;

You should know the

value of time and work

with care;

Atheism, lying, anger,

lack of concentration,

Delay in work, lack of

good company, laziness,

Sensual desire, deciding

without consultation …

All these must be

abandoned.”

When breezing through the Sharabhanga episode, Moily also takes a strong stand against encouraging the drink habit. This is also the time when the metaphoric veils are drawn aside for the nonce. We learn about the vanara, rakshasa, nishada and shabara clans working as labourers in Dandaka mines, and of vicious proprietors like Agnimitra:

The demons are not

staying far away

From us; they are right

amidst us, in the form

Of the mine-owners.

They are with the yakshas

And Aryas, as there is no

distinction among

The people of wealth.”

If an idealist forms an association of the workers and calls the ‘King of Heaven' to come and give guidance, Devendra couldn't care less. Why, he does not even show respect to the local leader! And so the cantos roll on for the excited reader. Mandodari's advice to Ravana is wasted, and the megalomaniac declares to Sita: “I am the most exemplary person in the whole of creation!” The symbolic significance of the Sethu Project of Nala is noted rightly as the “bridge of emotional unity and culture.” And Karnataka is hailed as “the laboratory for a variety of architecture”.

Certainly, beginning with Vimala Suri's Paumacharya (3rd century), Karnataka has given us innumerable structures of Rama's story. Moily's Shree Ramayana Mahanveshanam in Kannada has been rendered into easily readable English by a team of scholars. The Chief Editor has also written an ardent introduction with the focus on Moily's vision of “a nation of many voices, many cultures and many peoples.”

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