The Ramayana never goes out of fashion. This past week, Singapore saw eminent scholars from the U.S, the U.K, Canada, France, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and India assemble for an international conference on ‘Ramayana: Re-interpretation in Asia’. Held at the Asian Civilisations Museum, the keynote address was by Robert Goldman from the University of California, Berkeley, a true blue Sanskrit pundit, who is widely respected for his translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. Quoting in fluent Sanskrit, the American warmed the hearts of the many Indians present, while impressing his co-speakers with his deep involvement and knowledge of the epic. Indeed, to many of the speakers, the Ramayana represented their life's work, such is its influence.
Sardono Kusumo from Java presented ‘Ramayana Ku’ (My Ramayana), along with a female dancer from Pondicherry, portraying Sita. Her stylised rendition could well have been dispensed with, especially as her muscular build in no way matched the genteel and divinely feminine Sita. When Sardono got into his stride as Hanuman and Ravanan, he was truly mesmeric. As Hanuman, he entered from the back of the auditorium, stopping to make menacing monkey noises into the mike placed in the passage, leaving the audience wondering about the sound. He then capered down the aisle, leaping on to seats to startle a viewer here and there, snatching another's bag, scratching himself in true simian fashion, and lolling on the ground on stage, in an assumed lordly manner. The way he handed Rama's ring to Sita was quite masterly in innovation, teasing her with it, while at the same time according the Divine Mother his respects. A novel pan-Asian portrayal, indeed. Sardono's sinuous and agile movements were extraordinary, quite unbelievable for a man of 65! He has been often described as Indonesia's most famous, as also most rebellious dancer and choreographer.
The second day saw two good speeches with visuals by Dr. Gauri Krishnan, senior curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum, and Vidyut Aklujkar from the Canadian University of British Columbia.
Dr. Gauri spoke of the women in the epic, starting with Dasaratha's queens. Kaikeyi, the selfish woman who had a strange naïveté to her, and a definite love for Rama, Manthra who represented the archetypal scheming old hag, and Surpanakha's aggression and deceit were all well brought out through visuals from different styles of art. A clip from Ramanand Sagar's TV serial ‘Ramayan’ too was part of the presentation, as also a dance clip. Ahalya's spirituality, Sabari's devotional surrender, Sita and Mandodari's wifely devotion… they all typified the Ramayana women, with their superlative qualities, said Dr. Gauri. She mentioned how even today, the native women of Mithila sing the old songs, ‘Oh mother, do not get me married to anyone west of Mithila, for I don’t want to endure what Sita endured.’
Vidyut Aklujkar spoke of Sita Swayamvar in poetry and images, quoting from various versions of the epic, and showing some rare images. She spoke of the great bow broken by Rama to win Sita’s hand. The deafening noise when it was broken is said to have made the seven horses of the Sun's chariot scatter hither and thither, and thousands of serpents deaf. The divine bow was rejoicing in its release, roaring in joy. Sita had compared the hardness of the bow to the hard back of a tortoise, wondering how Rama would break it, said the speaker, pointing out that this was the same bow that Sita had played horsey with as a child, bringing out the divinity of this girl child. ‘No bride like Sita, no groom like Rama,’ wrote Tulsidas, while the Gita Ramayana compares Sita to Prakriti (Nature), and Rama to the ultimate Purusha, expounded Vidyut.
Dr. Goldman made a relevant point at the end -- there never was a Swayamvara for Sita. She had no choice in the matter of choosing her husband. She had to marry whoever strung Siva's bow… that was Janaka's stipulation, he said. Of course, Rama was destined to do the needful, and the divine couple was meant to be the most perfect match ever, a marriage truly made in heaven.