The Ramayana, retold through Sita's eyes
An alternative take on the epic makes it to the NYTs bestsellers list.books Updated: Nov 05, 2011 17:43 IST
Moyna Chitrakar, 38, grew up hearing her neighbours scream and sob in their mud homes as their husbands returned home drunk, angry and abusive.
The girls in her Nirbhoypur village in West Bengal were always the first to drop out of school when finances became scarce; most were married by age 15. Chitrakar, who grew up in a mud home, one of five children of impoverished traditional Patua artists, was married at 14 and dropped out of school after Class 5.
But through those years, she found inspiration in a story her grandmother would tell her as she painted Patua scrolls - the story of the grand epic Ramayana, through Sita's eyes.
"The story is part of our oral history and does not glorify Rama as a brave warrior king but speaks of Sita's oppression as a banished, humiliated queen, and of the quiet strength of a single mother," says Chitrakar. "It is a retelling that the women of Nirbhoypur can relate to, so we have passed it on it to our daughters and our sisters through the generations."
In 2000, Chitrakar and her husband, a Patua artist too, decided to spread the story in neighbouring villages with a performance of traditional songs about the banished queen, accompanied by an exhibition of paintings depicting her struggle.
Nine years on, Tara Books, a Chennai-based independent publishing house that scours villages across India for traditional artists, invited Patua artists from Nirbhoypur village to Chennai and were told of Chitrakar's work.
Tara invited her to create a graphic novel - Sita's Ramayan - that was launched on July 30 and made its way to the New York Times bestseller list on October 16 in the Hardcover Graphic Books category, based on its sales in the US.
The sleek, fast-paced book begins just after Rama's triumphant return from Lanka. But rather than telling of the celebrations, it follows Sita as she walks away from Ayodhya, alone, pregnant, banished into the forest by her doubting husband.
The strong female voice, however, is not Chitrakar's alone. A year into the two-year project, Tara invited author Samhita Arni, 27, to frame the text for the graphic novel.
Like Chitrakar, Arni's work was deeply influenced by her childhood experience of hostility and violence.
The daughter of an Indian diplomat, Arni moved to Karachi, Pakistan, with her family at age four. School was a gated complex where guards with AK-47s trailed the children.
"Kalashnikov was already a part of my vocabulary," Arni says.
Amid kidnappings and embassy bombings, she says she learnt early that there are no winners in war.
With playtime guarded, Arni spent hours in the embassy library, reading and rereading the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
At age eight, a year before the Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent communal riots, Arni returned to India with her family and says she saw the story of the Mahabharata mirrored in the hostility between India and Pakistan.
"These two countries, like the Kauravas and Pandavas, were brothers, divided, fighting over territory," she says.
So, at age nine, she sketched her own line drawings and wrote her own retelling of that epic. Released by Tara as Mahabharatha - A Child's View, in 1999, the book was translated into seven languages and won awards in Germany, Italy and Spain.
The same tone - a female perspective of the futility of war - now complements Bangalore-based Chitrakar's visual narrative in Sita's Ramayana.
Rama's victory in Lanka, for instance, is not celebrated. Instead, Sita says: "I heard the women of the palace, shrieking, I saw Ravana's queens running to the battlefield, tears streaming down their faces. Their screams rent the air. Even I, enclosed in this garden, could hear their grief."
War, in some ways, is merciful to men, Sita adds later. "It makes them heroes if they are the victors. If they are vanquished, they do not live to see their homes taken, their wives widowed. But if you are a woman, you must live through defeat..."
(Sita's Ramayana [151 Pages, Rs 550] is available on tarabooks.com and flipkart.com)