kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

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Will the real Vyasa please stand up? A review

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Date(s) - 15 Jul 2012
12:00 AM - 12:00 AM


Rafadi Hakim talks about the Lawrence Liang’s lecture on copyright and the epics held recently.

Lawrence Liang, legal researcher and lawyer at the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, delivered a lecture, Will the Real Vyasa Please Stand Up? What Copyrights can Learn From the Epics at the Sumant Moolgaokar Hall, Pune, on July 15. The talk, which is the third and final part of the Kiski Kahani project’s Unraveling the Divine lecture series, emphasizes the fluid notion of authorship and originality in the retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Liang, who has done extensive work on the field of intellectual property, argues against the binaries of “the original” and “the copy” in explaining how the epics have found their way through countless folk and contemporary retellings.

During the lecture, Liang juxtaposes the popular image of the starving artist against the frequently counter-creative impact of copyright laws. While the stories of the epics are not attributed to a single author, it is often the artistic framing of their retellings that often collide with copyright issues. Writers and artists, therefore, are both beneficiaries and victims of copyright laws, and they do not always side with more stringent enforcements of intellectual property rights. In one of the Ramayana’s recent appearances as an animation, Sita Sings the Blues (2008), American artist Nina Paley anticipated a fee of over US$ 200,000 for a permission to use Annette Hanshaw’s songs as a soundtrack to her movie, in spite of spending no more than US$ 220 for the production. In India, Ismail Darbar’s  Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), for instance, drew criticism from Ghazi Khan and several Manganiyar folk musicians in Rajasthan. The film’s producers were criticized for not attributing the Manganiyar artists for an adaptation of the song Nimbuda Nimbuda, which has been used to accompany the Manganiyar  musical performances of the Ramayana.  Instead of converging to a single version of the two epics, such individual retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata seem to have lives of their own.

The epics, and their contributions the Indian cultural landscape, have something to tell about the interchangeability of an idea and a reproduction. Liang quotes A K Ramanujan’s concept of the epics as a “common pool of culture” to explain that the retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are unique, personalized crystallizations of different stories. A retelling of the epics is not a mere duplicate of pre-existing, authoritative versions. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, therefore, becomes part of culture from their constant circulation and change, rather than from their existence as a timeless, unchanging work of literature.

In fact, it is perhaps those who are listeners of the epics who demand that the stories should always be creatively reimagined. During the lecture, Liang showcases the documentary Kelai Draupadi (2010) to the audience who were keen enough to listen to the Mahabharata on a Sunday morning. The documentary features a Terukuttu performance of Tamil Nadu, during which villagers insist that the story of Ponnuruvi, Karna’s wife, should be included. The storyteller smiled and politely refused, saying that the “original” epic doesn’t include this story. In a more urban India, perhaps we have added the story of our own struggles with ownership and artistic creativity to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

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Rafadi Hakim is an undergraduate student at Carleton College, Minnesota, USA, majoring in sociology and anthropology and concentrating in South Asian Studies. He is now interning for Open Space’s Kiski Kahani Project after listening to different Ramayanas and the Mahabharatas in Indonesia, India, and the United States. In his spare time he enjoys classical music, reading the news, and more coffee.