In the process of creating a text to accompany Moyna’s artwork, I explored the folk traditions, where women, singing in Sita’s voice, expressed their own problems while describing her suffering. In her voice, they express their own lives.
The Ramayana has been re-told, recast many, many times. This polymorphous tradition is precisely what AK Ramanujan’s essay explores. Here is Ramanujan’s account of my favorite anecdote:
“To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, 16th C.), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile, and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him.”
What emerges from Ramanujan’s essay is not just that the Ramayana is a polymorphous tradition. It’s also a many-sided conversation, that spans cultures, languages, centuries and religions. There are Buddhist and Jain versions of the Ramayana. (The Patuas, the itinerant storytelling tribe to which Moyna belongs, are a mixture of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, who all retell the Ramayana.)
Retelling the Ramayana has been a subversive act, a political act. Molla, a Telegu poetess and a potter’s daughter, retold the Ramayana in simple language (in contrast to the ornate, difficult language that Brahmins used) and thus made it accessible to everyone. The Kannada writer Kuvempu, a Ram bhakt, struggled with the treatment of Shambukha (the shudra who Ram beheads in the Uttara Kanda for performing tapasya, which causes the death of a Brahmin’s son) and wrote Shudra Tapasvi, which inverts the episode. Michael Madusudhan Dutt pioneered the use of blank verse in Bengali literature in the Meghnad Badh Kabya, a poem on Ravana’s son Meghnad (aka Indrajit).
I’ve been to shadow puppet performances, and watched audiences laugh uproariously at shows that interpolate references to contemporary events (and characters from the Arabian Nights). Scholars speculate that the story of Hanuman, traveling on the Silk Route centuries ago, inspired the tales of the Monkey God, Sun Wukong, the hero of the 16th century Chinese epic Journey to the West.
If we cease to acknowledge these retellings, we will forget the many reasons why the Ramayana is important, and forget how the story has travelled and the new forms it has taken. We will also discourage further retellings — and for the epic to remain alive and relevant to every generation, it must be re-told in a way that reflects the anxieties and issues of that society.
When our society finds the idea of multiple retellings offensive and preserves only one version, we silence inquiry into the epic, we put it on a pedestal. We cease to engage with it, its characters and their dilemmas.
It’s in this polymorphous tradition that Ramanujan describes, in the many voices and languages of so many Ramayanas, that I find the best of India — a place of many voices, opinions, cultures, faiths and languages.
Samhita Arni is a Bangalore-based author
This article first appeared in the Indian Express, October 24, 2011