Of goddesses and cursed princesses: podcast ‘I Am’ delivers a fresh take on Indian mythology

Narrated in the first person, each episode is between 10 and 15 minutes long

July 07, 2023 11:30 am | Updated 01:30 pm IST

Mythological retellings are a crowded market in Indian pop culture. Across literature, TV and cinema, this has been a dominant genre over the last decade or so. There have been many excellent books by the likes of Sarah Joseph (The Vigil), Amruta Patil (Adi Parva), Vivek Narayanan (After), Karthika Nair (Until the Lions), et al. In the Hindi-language TV world, there have been several successful daytime soap operas based on various Hindu deities such as Shiva and Krishna. And most recently of course, there was Om Raut’s big-budget, VFX-heavy Bollywood film Adipurush, starring Prabhas as Rama and Kriti Sanon as Sita. 

When you have a near-saturated market, it becomes all the more difficult for new entrants (especially those not backed by big studios) to make an impression or even differentiate their products adequately. This is why I was impressed with Rainshine Entertainment’s podcast I Am, hosted on Audible India. In it, every episode tells us a story from mythological texts — only here, each story is told in the first person. Take the three episodes (each between 10 and 15 minutes long) ‘I Am Saraswati’, ‘I Am Sukanya’ and ‘I Am Urmila’ — the treatment is fresh and the podcast utilises its first-person USP rather well.

I Am is careful to underline its own status as fiction, which is understandable since we all know that mythological retelling is a highly litigious realm in recent times. 

Universe conspires

The Saraswati episode, though covering a well-known story, maintains just enough novelty in the retelling. The episode about Urmila gives us a peripheral view of the Ramayana, through the viewpoint of Lakshmana’s wife Urmila, who, in line with the ‘wonder tale’ aspect of these texts, sleeps for 14 years while her husband accompanies Rama in the forest. 

The episode ‘I Am Sukanya’ has been written by Medha Venkat and narrated by Deepika Arwind. Towards the beginning of the episode, we get the laconic line, “Someday the universe will give back to you,” which is actually a far more pessimistic sentiment than you’d think. Fittingly, the story itself is about a princess who runs into a spot of terrible luck at the beginning of the story. But through her wits and presence of mind, she turns a dilemma into a gift and her fortunes turn around.

According to mythological texts, Sukanya was the daughter of the king Sharyati. One day, while out near a lake in the forest with her friends, Sukanya pokes what she thinks are glowing orbs at the centre of a large anthill. Turns out, the ‘anthill’ was sage Chyavana, over whose meditating body termites had made their home. The ‘glowing orbs’ were his eyes which Sukanya managed to damage irreparably. Angered, the sage damages the eyes of King Sharyati’s entire court, until Sukanya agrees to marry him, at which point the sage reverses his curse. 

Classic ‘wonder tale’

As you can see, this is a classic ‘wonder tale’, which leaps from one exceptional event to the next. In the story’s denouement, the Ashwini Kumars, celestial twins and physicians to the gods, offer Sukanya the chance to reverse her husband’s blindness and old age. But, as the beleaguered Sukanya notes, life has always been a steep learning curve for her. Here, too, she is presented with a puzzle with extremely high stakes.

“Things weren’t going to be that easy,” says Sukanya. “As with all of life’s great challenges, this tempting proposal came with a catch. The Ashwini twins would take a dip in the river alongside my husband, sage Chyavana. And all three would emerge from the waters looking identical. Now I had to identify my husband among the three men. If I succeeded in doing so, my husband’s vision and youth would be restored. But if I failed, Chyavana would go back to being blind and even more frail.”

I won’t spoil the ending but let’s just say that it is a deeply satisfactory one, both at plot and symbological levels. I Am delivers concise, well-written mythological stories that understand the rhythm and formal constraints of the podcast medium quite well — ideal for easy listening over the weekend, as I found out recently.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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