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The Foundling Princess of Mithila: KR Srinivasa Iyengar’s Sitayana

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Ahana Lakshmi talks about her grandfather, K R Srinivasa Iyengar’s wonderful book Sitayana…

Sitayah Charitham Mahat. The Glorious Tale of Sita.

The story of Sita and Rama has been told and retold many times by many people in many forms since it was created. Over the centuries, creative writers have struggled to project Sita in all her purity and nobility and maternal love. The more they write, the more there is to be said. She is one of us, contemporaneous because her story is our story too.

The outline of the story is simple. Sita, a babe discovered by a childless king while wielding a plough as part of a ritual, was eventually married to the god-like prince Rama. The prince was exiled and she followed him into the forest where she was kidnapped by a rakshasa and taken away to his country. She was imprisoned there and finally set free by her husband and his army, but had to undergo an ordeal through fire before she was accepted by her husband. They returned victorious to their country and were crowned king and queen. That, unfortunately, was not the end of the story. Pregnant now, she was exiled by her husband, the king, on the strength of mere rumours, thus facing a second terrible rejection, and finally withdrew to Mother Earth from whence she had emerged.  While there are points of jubilation, the sojourn as a captive and her days at Valmiki’s ashrama after the final rejection are times for introspection.

There are many versions of the Ramayana in India and elsewhere too. There is the original Valmiki and then, Tulsidas and Kamban who came later. There are modern versions, retellings based on the original. Then, there are a few who have written the life of Sita. It is not an easy story to write, so full of trials and tribulations it is. It has to be pointed out that not all writers have accepted the trials and rejections.  There is no reference to any ‘trial by fire’ in the works of the Tamil Bhakti Movement (3rd to 9th century A.D.) The great Tamil poet Kamban deals with the ‘trial by fire’ in the Yuddha Kanda but turns away from the later rejections.  However, Sita has come to be associated with the three ‘rejections’ in popular mythology.    Nonetheless, it is a glorious life and a glorious tale, as pointed out by C. Rajagopalachari who says:

“If, even after the fire-ordeal in the Yuddhakanda, it is said in the Uttarakanda that Seeta was sent to the forest, we may take it that it mirrors the voiceless and endless suffering of our womenfolk…The tenderness and purity and the untold sufferings of women took shape as the Uttara Ramayana.  Like an unflickering lamp, it throws light on the quality of their hearts.”  (Ramayana 33rd edition, 2000, pp. 475-6)

K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar’s Sitayana is the re-telling of the Ramayana as Sita’s story in verse. Professor Iyengar, doyen of Indian Writing in English and the official biographer of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother of Pondicherry, first translated the Sundara Kanda of Valmiki in verse form. It was published by the Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, as ‘The Epic Beautiful’ in 1983. While translating the Sundara Kanda, he was held increasingly captive by the Ramayana action as Sita’s story. It was Sita everywhere for him and he also referred to the Sundara Kanda as Sitayana in his introduction to The Epic Beautiful. He began writing the Sitayana on 1st January 1983 with the prologue:

“Of womanhood I write, of the travail

and glory of motherhood;

of Prakriti and her infinite modes

and unceasing variety;

of the primordial Shakti’s myriad

manifestations on earth;

of the lure and leap of transcendences

of the ruby feminine”.

He writes in his introduction: “Sitayana is ‘Sita’s saga sublime’, the story of her birth, childhood and girlhood, her marriage to Rama, their life as exiles in Dandaka for 13 years, their-year-long separation and reunion, their Coronation at Ayodhya, her second sundering from Rama, her crown of motherhood, and the last scene of her self-transcendence and return to her Earth-Mother. But she isn’t really separated from Rama; she is also enshrined in the hearts of Lakshmana, Hanuman and Trijata. And in our hearts too. This is the quintessential story: the rest is the needed ballast and scaffolding”.

Sitayana is in seven books that correspond to the seven Kandas or Books in Valmiki’s epic (Bala, Ayodhya, Aranya, Kishkinda, Sundara, Yuddha and Uttara). Here the major events of Sita’s life are retold in Mithila, Ayodhya, Aranya, Asoka, Yuddha, Rajya and Ashrama. Containing 5995 stanzas (with the Prologue and Epilogue each contributing another 12) Sitayana was written in the 10-7-10-7 syllabia unrhymed quatrain measure. The seven Books are further divided into seventy seven cantos, each Book comprising eleven cantos. It is a full length recital in English verse of the original story but with Sita as the heroine.

The narration draws primarily on Valmiki’s Ramayana but there is also the influence of Tulsidas and Kamban apart from the extensive influence of the times, especially when Sitayana was being written (in the early nineteen eighties). Thus, while there is a good deal of direct translation from Valmiki, there is also plenty of impro­visation, though there is never a deviation in the personality of the characters from the original. The book is not only about Sita, but also on all the other women who appear in the story, elaborating on their thoughts and thought-processes, making it obviously woman-centric. While providing the ‘necessary ballast and scaffolding’, Iyengar weaves into his narration, events and actions that one does not commonly hear and viewpoints that are not highlighted in most narratives, and in a manner that is contemporaneous as well.

The narration opens with the arrival of Narada in Janaka’s kingdom:

The famed philosopher-king Janaka,

paid obeisance to the Bard

of the Worlds, Narada, as he floated

into Mithila’s domain.                                                (1:1)

Seated in the audience hall, they have a conversation where Janaka asks why the world continues to enact a “wearisome agenda” where “might, courage and cunning have been mastered by like but enhanced powers.” How do the unprivileged manage to endure and even thrive? They do so because of the presence of Love, says Narada:

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