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Girish Karnad speaks with Ramanujan

Vijetha S.N
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The storyteller:Eminent film-maker, actor and playwright Girish Karnad delivering the first A. K. Ramanujan Lecture at Delhi University's Ramjas College in the Capital.- Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
The storyteller:Eminent film-maker, actor and playwright Girish Karnad delivering the first A. K. Ramanujan Lecture at Delhi University's Ramjas College in the Capital.- Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

“There was once a woman who had a song and a story in her head but she refused to tell the story or sing the song. One day she slept with her mouth open and the story and the song both flew out, with the song becoming a turban and the tale becoming slippers. Her husband returned and on seeing the turban and the slippers asked his wife to whom it belonged, when she was unable to answer, he beat her up and went to spend the night at the village temple. Now, all the flames in the village, when blown out from their lamps at night usually gathered at this temple to talk. One flame belonging to the estranged husband and wife came late and explained the episode of the fight, the song and the story. The husband on hearing the entire conversation hurried home and asked his wife to narrate the tale and sing the song but the wife did not remember anything….the story lives within the story-teller and if he does not tell the story, he will suffer…” said eminent film-maker and playwright Girish Karnad addressing a captivated audience at Delhi University's Ramjas College.

“Speaking with Ramanujan” by Girish Karnad was the first talk in the A. K. Ramanujan Lecture Series instituted by the History Society of Ramjas College in conjunction with the history departments of other colleges from DU and other universities to appreciate the range and depth of Ramanujan's contribution in the world of history, culture and literature.

Girish Karnad explained the work that went behind the poet's extraordinary accomplishments and the finesse of his translations that ensured that the true meaning of an original work was never lost. “Only a poet can translate another poet,” he said explaining Ramanujan's fascination with the stories that he heard from the villages in Karnataka.

The lecture series was also organised in the wake of his essay, “Three hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations”, being purged from DU history syllabus ostensibly because of hurt religious sentiments.

“We use the epics to make our ethics,” said Girish Karnad, trying to explain that in the world of story-telling and mythology, there could never be one version and termed the university's banning of the essay as ridiculous. “There is a story in the Mahabharata where King Yayati is cursed with old age because of some sexual transgression, he asks all of his sons to exchange their youth for his old age and his youngest Puru agrees. Yayati then enjoys his youth for 1,000 years, realises his folly and returns Puru's youth. I, as a playwright faced a dilemma with this story…how could I portray the passage of 1,000 years on a stage? That is when I introduced Puru's wife Chitralekha who, as a newly-wed is stunned on her husband's transformation into an old man. She goes up to Yayati and asks him to take her as a lover since his son is too old, Yayati refuses and Chitraleka commits suicide…the play was a big hit and nobody's religious sentiments were “hurt” and nobody was offended at my tweaking of the Mahabharata.”

Another example of the myths not conforming to one structure is of the Kannada drama form of “Yakshagana”. In the section called “ Thala Madalae”, characters from the Mahabharata argue and the character coming up with the best argument is always right. “It could be Duryodhana who is right.”

Girish also said the Indian aesthetics of storytelling was vastly different from the Western. “In Western tales, the audience benefits from the story but according to Indian aesthetics, it is the storyteller.”

Like the tale of the untold song and story, he quoted an old saying in the villages: “You cannot keep food, a daughter or a story at home.” He also said that folklores were unlike the classical texts which depicted women as chaste and pious all the time. “Women in these tales were adventurous, took lovers and used foul language.”

The talk was followed by a discussion by Professors Kumkum Roy and Udaya Kumar and a Dastangoi - “Dastan Jai Ram Ji Ki' , by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain. The day ended with mystic poems being sung by singers Bindhumalini and Vedanth.

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