This Word For That Literary Review

Remembering 'Mappila Ramakatha' in Ramayana month

Mappila Ramayanavum Nadan Pattukalum by T.H. Kunhiraman Nambiar.  

Spoken, sung, mimed and taught — by pundits, illiterate singers, all-night performers and school teachers — the story of Rama is, like Kamban said, “many and one at once”. In the main an oral tradition, the Ramayana is literary therapy for poets, religious anchor for believers and a part of the cosmogony of the subcontinent. It is also, unlike epics from other cultures, the property of women poets. Imagine the spirit of Chandrabati, an East Bengal villager who opened her version of Ramayana with the birth of Sita and not with the mysterious, heavenly process that made Dasaratha a father. She gives us Sita’s story under the traditional cover of a Rama-tale.

Something significant happened in Delhi in the16th century. Emperor Akbar, who admired Hindu literature and decided that his nobles needed to understand their predominantly Hindu subjects better, set up a translation bureau to render Valmiki Ramayana into Persian. He hired scholar Abdul-Qadir Badauni who began, most reluctantly and fearful of royal displeasure, to complete what was for him, a haram project (1587). A later abridged version (by Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan) in more flexible Persian is now in a museum in Washington D.C. It has beautiful illustrations, the subjects of which were selected by the Emperor himself. Akbar also issued gold coins depicting Rama and Sita going to the forest, samples of which are in museums in Lucknow, Varanasi and London.

Meanwhile, on the tip of the subcontinent (and pre-dating Akbar), in the mists of that portion of the Western Ghats where even the monsoon winds falter, tellings of the same Ramayana were undergoing continuous adjustments. In versions inspired by the contours of the land, we have Adivasi stories around the pool that sprang from the earth where Sita’s tears fell; the rock on which Sita sat and meditated; and the spot where Sita returned to her mother, Bhoomidevi. Here, where the Arabs arrived to trade peacefully and to mingle with the local population, there evolved a unique culture fusing Islamic faith with Hindu culture. The Malabari Muslims, the Mappilas, had no difficulty singing the songs of their fellow Malayalis, the Hindus of Keralam, with whom they shared a common past.

About 80 years ago, T.H. Kunhiraman Nambiar, as a teenager, followed a wandering mendicant and memorised some 148 lines now available to us as Mappila Ramayanavum Nadan Pattukalum. Sadly, this is only a fifth of what had made the rounds for many years as a ballad and good-humoured parody. M.N. Karassery, who was researching Mappilapattu (Mappila folk songs), met Nambiar in 1976 and recorded the lines, mentioning them in his book Kurimaanam (1987). Till discussions reached the non-Malayalam media, no one outside Kerala had even heard of this Mappila Ramakatha.

Scholars have written about the droll pronunciation where the consonant ‘l’ is used instead of ‘r’. So the emotional opening of Adhyatma Ramayana chant becomes “Sreelama! Lama! Lama-Lama, Sree Lamachandra jayaaa…” Indeed, to avoid any hint of disrespect, the singer was self-deprecatory about his own linguistic competence.

Just as Indonesia, Japan and Thailand have their own versions of the epic, the social context of the Mappilas informs this particular account. ‘ The song that the bearded saint sang long ago’ has the Arabic “aulia” in the original, the word for a holy man derived from Arabic. The reference to Kaikeyi, Lama’s aunt, is “elemma” (ilayamma being the Malayalam kinship term). Hanuman is Anuman reflecting the Mappila dialect. The katha shows “Sultan” Lavana struggling to shave all ten beards simultaneously. A tremendously satirical portion describes Shurpanakha (whose friend is Fathima) getting ready to approach Lama. She is referred to as a matron and “the jewelled darling of the Sultan of great, golden Paatalam.”

Her age since birth came to fifty-six

But with effort she could seem less than forty.

On each white hair of her greying head

She put charcoal and honey, to blacken them.

Then summoning Fatima from the house nearby she settled on a fee and got her hair braided.

She plucked out the long hair growing from her chin,

And for her disorderly teeth, she hammered her gums…

(trs John Richardson Freeman)

Most interestingly, when Shurpanakha tries to win Rama’s interest, he cites Muslim law to refuse her advances.

There are no written records about the precise origin of this magnificent epic frameworked by Muslim norms and rich traditions but in the ‘Ramayana month’, let us remember the fine tradition of religious and communal harmony that once made possible verse such as this:

The song that the bearded saint sang long ago,

The narrative song seen as this, our Lamayana.

Mini Krishnan is Consultant, Publishing, Oxford University Press, India.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 10:52:22 AM |

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