Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, June 10, 2001

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Entertainment | Previous

Epic interpretations


IN my very first column I had expressed the hope that this series of personal meditations might become "an extended and amicable conversation, informed and sometimes impassioned but never insipid, about things that matter both to me and to the reflective readers of this distinguished newspaper". Some of my early forays have already brought in a stimulating range of reactions from readers, and I hope from time to time to address them in this space.

A couple of columns ago, apropos of the way in which some authors have retold the works of others, I remarked that a Ramayana from Ravana's perspective "would bring the Bajrang Dal on to the streets". To this suggestion, the erudite Indian High Commissioner in Cyprus, Shyamala Cowsik, has written to me to say that what I imagined has already been done, apparently before the Dal was even a gleam in its founders' eyes. More than 35 years ago, as my Tamil readers undoubtedly know, the Ramayana was indeed retold from Ravana's point of view in a play called "Lankeswaran", by noted Tamil playwright and actor Manohar. I am informed that Manohar played the hero, Ravana, himself, and "Lankeswaran" was staged literally hundreds of times in Tamil Nadu, to great applause, so much so that he was from then on known only as "Lankeswaran Manohar".

Ambassador Cowsik goes on to add: "Ravana, as you know, was the son of the Rishi Visravas and a great scholar, a much greater one than Rama, besides being a tremendous Shiva bhakta. In 'Lankeswaran', Sita was Ravana's daughter. Due to some curse that I do not now remember, having seen the play when I was just a little girl, she had to be put into a box and buried in a field in Janaka's kingdom, where of course she was found when the king was indulging in a spot of ceremonial ploughing. Ravana actually carries his infant daughter Sita, in that little box, underwater, all the way from Lanka to Mithila, and leaves her underground in the field where she is eventually found. The whole subsequent Rama-Ravana battle was interpreted by Manohar as an attempt by Ravana to get his beloved daughter back." Interestingly, Ravana was portrayed in "Lankeswaran" as a tragic hero, rather like the protagonists in Greek drama, which is of course more interesting than simply re-writing the Ramayana from the point of view of the traditional villainous Ravana.

Ambassador Cowsik's second point concerns the idea of the Ramayana as seen from Sita's perspective, which, I had warily suggested in my column, "might tremble on the brink of sacrilege to some". When she was Ambassador to the Philippines from 1992- 95, she tells me, she was "astounded to find that in this ultra- Catholic corner of South-East Asia, there was a local Tagalog (the main Filipino dialect) version of the Ramayana, the Radiya Mangandari. This version had travelled northwards up from Indonesia, where of course it is very familiar, through the Muslim south of the Philippines to the main island of Luzon. In the process, it acquired various undertones and overtones, besides the very interesting concept of Rama's alter ego. Now this alter ego was stoppered up in a bottle, something like the djinn in the Arabic fairy tales. Deprived of his alter ego, Rama degenerates from a noble philosopher king to a rapacious, common or garden variety of conqueror. He stays so till the end of the play which I sat through for 3-1/2 hours while the playwright translated it for me line by line into English when he finally regains his alter ego and becomes once more the noble Rama. However, Sita remained unchanged throughout the play, and was a strong, self-reliant, highly principled and fairly aggressive woman, who does not indulge in any of the traditional husband- worship. The group that had staged the play wanted to take it to India and perform it at various small places besides the metros. I had to warn them that public reaction in the smaller towns (these days possibly also in the metros) might not be entirely favourable to such an interpretation of Rama's character, and so the idea was dropped".

As a footnote to this episode, Ambassador Cowsik tells me that she got hold of a detailed account of the Radiya Mangandari in English and sent it to Vinod C. Khanna, who was then our Ambassador to Indonesia. He used it for a book on various versions of the Ramayana that he was writing, which has since been published. (What an outstanding example, if I might be permitted the digression, this pair is of the remarkable intellectual quality of our senior officialdom. Whatever unkind thoughts many of us may nurture about the Indian bureaucracy, ours is, clearly, a mandarinate of merit.)

I recount these stories at length because they remind us of how far we have travelled from the questing spirit of Indian epic tradition to the uncritical worship of today. When the Indo- British writer Aubrey Menen wrote a rationalist version of the Ramayana in 1956, Rama Retold, the book was promptly banned in India, and - deprived of its natural audience in our country - it has faded away without enriching our collective consciousness of the possibilities of the great epic. The Sahmat exhibition a few years ago of various depictions of Rama and Sita in art from around our country was attacked by intolerant Hindu fanatics outraged that some of the versions shown did not conform to their orthodoxy.

The Hindu tradition has always been a heterodox one: we have always believed there are versions of divinity for every taste, and uncountable ways of reaching out our hands to the Unknowable. What a shame that the Hindu banner is now so visibly and volubly being waved by those who have shrunk the grandeur of the Hindu spiritual and philosophical heritage to the intolerant bigotry of their slogans. Our epics were constantly retold and reinvented for centuries; the Hindu imagination was not fettered by fear of experiment. Today, sadly, that is no longer the case. Writing about "Lankeswaran", Ambassador Cowsik remarks that Manohar "faced absolutely no protest those days. Of course I cannot say what would happen if this were to be tried out in North India these days". I am sure she would not recommend it.

* * *

SHASHI THAROOR is the author of The Great Indian Novel and of India: From Midnight to the Millennium. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

Send this article to Friends by E-Mail


Section  : Entertainment
Previous : A match for Brando

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Copyrights © 2001 The Hindu

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu