kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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The Many True Kandas

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The Ramayana is a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions. By scrapping AK Ramanujan’s essay from its syllabus, can Delhi University ignore that exchange? Samita Arni tells us how.

Last fortnight, Delhi University decided to remove AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation from its history syllabus, perhaps in response to earlier protests in 2008 over the inclusion of this essay. The decision scares me for many reasons, partly because it suggests that a viewpoint is beginning to prevail which perpetuates the notion of the Ramayana as exclusive, Hindu property, and ignores the fact that the Ramayana has been re-told — and is still being re-told — by Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and people of other faiths.

My own life bears this out. As a child who accompanied a diplomat father on various overseas postings — Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand — the one constant in all the cultures I spent my childhood in was the Ramayana. In Indonesia, a largely Muslim country, we watched Wayang Kulit, the shadow puppet theatre which has plays on stories from the Ramayana. In Pakistan, I was told as a five-year-old that “Lahore” came from Lavapuri, from a legend that Lahore was founded by Ram’s son Lava. In Chennai, my birthplace and the city my mother comes from, stories are still told of the founder of the Dravidian movement, EV Ramasamy Naicker, Periyar, who wrote a banned version of the Ramayana casting Ravana as a tragic hero, and, in an inversion of what happens at Dussehra, gathered hordes on the beach to burn images of Ram. In Thailand, one finds the Ramayana in many places, in the names of its kings, in Ayutthaya city (from Ayodhya), and in a beautiful poem inscribed on the walls of a wat (monastery), in which Ravana declares his undying love for Sita. Further afield, traces of the Ramayana linger in Angkor Wat in Buddhist Cambodia and Laos (like Lahore, also supposedly named after Lava.)

And yet, the Ramayana that is in ascendance in the popular imagination —the one repeated to me by my Hindu family — was stripped of all these delightful cadences and associations. From a story inhabited with magic, sorcerers, demons, talking animals and flying monkeys, it shrunk to a hagiography, a story about an ideal man/God, and his ideal wife. It was a story that prescribed roles for men and women, and was told in such a way that it failed to grasp my imagination as a child.

What could a girl — encouraged to think and question, to want and aspire for more than her mother and grandmother had ever had — admire in the silent, suffering, self-sacrificing Sita of popular imagination?

Five years ago, I rediscovered the Ramayana. I returned to India after almost a decade abroad, and I found a country where the Ramayana is still frequently referred to. (The references still amaze me. Recently, the Supreme Court mentioned the Lakshman rekha in the 2G case. In a school debate which I recently judged, the term Ram Rajya made a frequent appearance. A reality show on a Kannada channel named a line that participants could not cross the Lakshman rekha.) Moreover, the Ramayana was, and still is, a part of discussions about Indian identity and the state.

When I delved into the Ramayana as an adult, I was surprised by what I found.

I was astonished to discover in one version that Janaka found Sita, as a child, playing with Shiva’s bow, and watched her lift it. Hence, he devised the test for her Swayamvara: for if Sita could lift the bow as a child, the man who would marry her, must, at least, be able to string the bow. This Sita was physically strong.

Reading Arshia Sattar’s masterful translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, I discovered that Valmiki’s Sita is one who says that dharma is sukusma — subtle and intangible. This Sita advises Ram, in the forest, to give up his weapons for the duration of exile and live a life in keeping with the peaceful, non-material dharma of the forest and Vanaprastha. This Sita was wise.

I became fascinated by the Ramayana and it’s multiplicity of retelling. (This fascination has led to two books — a speculative fiction thriller that’s due out next year, and a graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana with Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar.)

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