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We are all involved

A cultural epic like the Ramayana can’t be a captive source of power for some. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 03:11 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

An inconvenient truth has been dropped from Delhi University’s syllabus — the illuminating 1987 essay on the Ramayana by the academic, poet and translator AK Ramanujan (1929-1993). A watershed in Ramayana studies, it has influenced work on epics and oral literatures everywhere. Taught at Delhi University since 2006, it has now been dropped for hurting Hindu sentiments.

It’s a ridiculous takedown since Raman-ujan’s essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, does not denigrate the epic. He celebrates it as the most powerful text of our region, drawing attention to its irresistible spread across half of Asia and into languages like Laotian, Thai, Tibetan and Khotanese via Tamil and the Prakrits.

Ironically, that is precisely what offended campus fundamentalists. In exploring the vast cultural footprint of the epic, Ramanujan draws attention to Dravidian, tribal, Shudra, Jaina and Southeast Asian Ramayanas which fall outside the north Indian canon of Valmiki and Tulsidas. They use the same sets and dramatis personae, but they enact altogether different stories, with different accents introduced by the cultural groups which composed them.

Some subvert the north Indian canon which, Periyar famously railed, denigrates Dravidians and lower castes. Some ascribe human frailties to the gods, who suffer embarrassing consequences. Some are actually anti-texts — Ravanayanas or Sitayanas. Some are plain complicated. A lower caste Kannada Ramayana depicts Ravana as Sita’s father. And her mother, too, in gross violation of biology.

Since Ramanujan’s time, more Ramayanas have been documented by archivists like GN Devy. And epic scholars have evolved new ways of seeing. For instance, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who had earlier researched the Chandrabati Ramayana, a medieval Bengali woman’s anti-text, expanded her study to include other subversive women’s Ramayanas, medieval and modern.

This epic diversity is tough on the nerves of Hindu fundamentalists, who are ironically Semitic in their craving for a single, uncluttered Book. Or a simple, uncomplicated TV serial. Whatever goes down easily and allows the political priesthood to sequester Rama’s story and sell their version as the original.

But in the realm of myth, a mass-created, mass-consumed art form, there is no original. There are no versions either. Ramanujan spoke of the myriad forms of the Ramayana as ‘retellings’ rather than versions. They are independent instances of a story in a stream of creation without beginning or end. As Ramanujan wrote, no one in our region ever reads the Ramayana for the first time. We have always known it already in some form. We own it and fashion it according to our needs.

Ramanujan is dangerous for the Hindutva project, which wants to use Rama’s story as a captive generator. A publicly owned holy text cannot be a source of power. For that, it must be closely held by a cabal or priesthood. The controversy over Ramanujan is not an obscure academic issue. It is about the ownership of the Ramayana.

Ramajunan’s essay is readily available from the University of California Press, as Chapter 2 in Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (1991), at ‘http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3j49n8h7/’. I think it is now recommended reading for everyone, not just scholars. Since we all own the Ramayana as a cultural text, all of us are involved.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

pratik@littlemag.com

The views expressed by the author are personal