Among the Ramayanas, Sita’s ascent

“While many question the attempts to historicise the Ramayana, for others the dangers lie in removing the many versions where Sita is a single woman, a single mother, and comfortable in her own skin.” Picture shows a wall painting depicting the story of the Ramayana along the Godavari in Nashik, Maharashtra. Photo: T.K.Rohit  

Call it an anti-intellectual antidote to the one Ramayana that is being foisted by the cultural watchdogs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as they go about in earnest setting dates around which the epic’s main hero was born. And this based on a study of the constellations in an attempt to provide a standardised text for all.

Anuradha Raman

However, in Kannada poet Du. Saraswathi’s telling of the epic, in which Sita speaks, there is little room for the man extolled and venerated as the most virtuous one. Seen through her eyes, he appears diminished. Saraswathi, also a feisty woman’s rights activist, who represents one of the many small traditions that India is, points out that in every village there is an account of the epic. In every village there is a marker, a spring, a rock, or a tree around which the timeless story of the king of Ayodhya is woven. And these are far removed from the tele-version that was aired on Doordarshan in the 1980s and that has since spawned several imitations as kitschy as the original. In these attempts, the epic has been standardised, overlooking the layered interpretations that go beyond what the eye can see on television.

Representing unseen women

There is something deeply paradoxical in the retelling of the Ramayana, a satire by Sannthimmi, the character created by Saraswathi, who represents little, unknown and unseen Indian women, who are comfortable without the heroes in their lives. This is a Sita who goes about her everyday work, cooking for all those dear to her. Saraswathi has not brought her one-woman act to Delhi, but she has travelled around the villages and towns of Karnataka; the telling of the epic has evolved with her. As she puts it, her attempt is to show that the rural folk of India have their knowledge systems and philosophies in place, which cannot be dislodged by an attempt to push through a linear, homogenous narrative. “I fear that is what is being attempted right now; it is an attempt to force down a narrative which is compatible to us all,” she says.

Nearly five years ago, poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, prescribed as study material for history undergraduates in Delhi University, was removed from the curriculum. This was following pressure from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student body affiliated to the BJP, and claiming to be among the torch-bearers of Indian tradition. It had found the essay objectionable. The vice chancellor who made the decision to expunge the essay, said that there was nothing intellectual about it, implying that it lacked the heft necessary for its inclusion in the curriculum. Yet, as more attempts are being made to standardise the epic, questions must be asked about what do we do with the many Ramayanas in the countryside. As the Culture Ministry blesses an exhibition which seeks to authenticate the Ramayana among other epics by raising it to a historical fact, there are many Ramayanas in the countryside that the government is oblivious to.

In every village there is a rock or a tree around which the timeless story of the king of Ayodhya is woven. These are far removed from the version that was aired on Doordarshan.

Saraswathi’s fears are not unfounded when placed in the context of Union Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma’s praise for a foundation researching on the Ramayana, mirroring the attempts being made by the Indian Council of Historical Research to fix a date to the epic. While many question the attempts to historicise the Ramayana, for Saraswathi the dangers lie in removing the many Ramayanas where Sita is a single woman, a single mother, and comfortable in her own skin. It is also a feminist interpretation of Sita from a Dalit perspective. As Saraswathi grapples with her central character, a leading television channel has decided to take the plunge again, delving into the epic in an attempt to see it from a woman’s perspective.

Branding exercise

“Siya Ke Ram”, being marketed and advertised as the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, is as glossy as its previous electronic media avatars. And though the general manager of Star Plus, Gaurav Banerjee, says his telling of the epic is Sita’s narrative, there is no escaping the Ramayana branding exercise under way. Using the official Twitter handle of the channel, you can retweet if you like an episode in the serial, which is aired six times a week on prime time. The Twitter handle, ‘@StarPlus’, raises questions about questions that Sita asks in the epic. An example: “Is Sita right in asking questions?” The answers are a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Mr. Banerjee promises that all the characters will spring a surprise. Kaikeyi, Rama’s stepmother, is depicted as a woman who is extraordinarily intelligent and forced to extract a promise from King Dasharatha only to safeguard her son’s future. “We can understand her dilemma,” he says.

The programme has spawned Twitter handles from fans, and there is no escaping the fact that this is a telling that conforms to the grand vision of the BJP. Lost in the hyper-marketing branding exercise is the voice of Saraswathi.

“I am happy with my life,” says Saraswathi’s Sita. “I say this not with sadness or anger. One day the throne you sit on will pierce you and to Mother Earth you will also return.” Saraswathi cooks on stage for an audience as she tells her story. She doesn’t have the time to do a stand-up number. Like other women, she too has to juggle various responsibilities that life has thrown at her. These include being a single mother to two sons.

As the academic Velcheru Narayana Rao reminds us in A Ramayana of their Own, “The Ramayana in India is not a story with a variety of retellings; it is a language with which a host of statements may be made.” It is a reminder for anyone who wishes to engage with the epic.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 12:19:22 PM |

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