In the 16th century, a Bengali poet reimagines the Ramayan. Far ahead of her time, she chooses to offer her rendition of the epic not in Sanskrit that was revered at the time, but in her mother tongue. Though she will be scorned for her attempt, her retelling will be revolutionary, for it will possibly be the first of its kind, written from a woman’s perspective: Sita’s.

It is 1575 and 25-year-old Chandrabati is sitting by the Phuleswari river in Patwari, a village near the town of Kishoreganj, now in Bangladesh. Chandrabati appears disturbed: Her father has set her an herculean task—she must rewrite the Ramayan.

Her retelling will languish in obscurity. Centuries later, in one of the last surviving tattered copies, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, an award winning academic and an authority on the 16th century poet, will meet Chandrabati in her epic’s introduction: “Chandra sings the Ramayana at the insistence of her father."

The poet will have no inkling that her Ramayan will be criticized by some of the respected literary authorities of the day, most of them men.

But let’s return to the day Chandrabati is sitting by the river, lost in thought. A few days earlier, she had learnt that Jayananda, whom she was promised to, had wedded another woman. Heartbroken, she will seek her father’s permission to stay unmarried and dedicate her life to Lord Shiva. And he will allow her to do so, on the condition that she writes the epic.

Chandrabati’s father, a poet, worshipped the snake goddess, Manasa. Referring to him as a “poor Brahmin", folklore historian Dineshchandra Sen, in his collection of The Bengali Ramayanas (1920), describes Bansi Das as “one of the best exponents of the poetical literature of the Manasa-cult". In her epic’s introduction, Chandrabati thanks her father, saying it is he “who has educated me in the Pauranic literature".

Historically, her version of the Ramayan is one of the early—possibly one of the first—examples of feminist literature. Historically though, it has been cast aside as a shoddy piece of writing, incomplete and structurally fragile. Though he appreciated Chandrabati’s attempt, Chandra Sen called it an “unfinished" piece: “She had brought (the epic) down to Sita’s exile, and there it ends," he wrote. Noted 20th century linguist Sukumar Sen “ripped the text apart, and (believed) it to be fake," writes Dev Sen in her paper, Rewriting The Ramayana: Chandrabati And Molla (India International Centre Quarterly, 1997). For Chandrabati takes a quintessential epic—known to be a Valmiki masterpiece that glorifies Ram in all his muscle, wit and grandeur—and upends it in the most (to his mind) inconceivable manner: She makes Sita the beating heart of the story.

Battle at Lanka, Udaipur (1649-53). Photo: Wikimedia commons/The British Library
Battle at Lanka, Udaipur (1649-53). Photo: Wikimedia commons/The British Library

An unlikely narrator

Chandrabati crafts an epic far from the heroic, far from the Bhakti tradition of absolute veneration. It undermines the extravagant and gallant battle fought between Ram and Ravan, and gives a detail-drenched perspective of Sita’s emotional turmoil. “As unconventional as ever, (Chandrabati) begins her Ramayan with the story of Sita’s miraculous birth," writes Dev Sen.

In fact, Chandrabati does something even more unthinkable. While Valmiki’s epic is grounded in the premise that Ram was born as the destroyer of Ravan, Chandrabati steers the spotlight away from him and introduces Sita as the one birthed to destroy the Lanka king.

In A Woman’s Ramayana: Candravati’s Bengali Epic, authors Mandakranta Bose and Sarika P. Bose describe a Mandodari (Ravan’s wife) distraught at Ravan’s affairs with the women he has abducted. In a moment of absolute helplessness, she “consumes the blood drawn by Ravana from the sages he torments, mistaking it for poison", they write. Mandodari conceives an egg, but is cautioned by a prophecy: “The child born from (the egg) would bring ruin upon Ravana." Fearing Ravan’s descent, she hurls it into the ocean. The egg, discovered by a fisherman, is gifted to king Janak’s queen, and Sita is born.

Chandrabati paints Ram as an ordinary, flawed man who abandons his pregnant wife. The poet is subversive, but this is a subversion driven by an urgency to give agency to the plight of women.

Chandrabati takes a quintessential epic—known to be a Valmiki masterpiece that glorifies Ram in all his muscle, wit and grandeur—and upends it: She makes Sita the beating heart of the story

“She made the Ramayan a kind of women’s unending tragedy," says T. Vijay Kumar over the phone, a professor of literature at Osmania University who has translated The Liberation Of Sita (2016), a book also written from Sita’s perspective by Telugu feminist writer Volga. “Chandrabati links Mandodari’s plight (a husband who lusts after other women) to Sita’s (whose husband banishes her). Also, Chandrabati took on the exercise of retelling the Ramayana when she was going through her personal trauma. Therefore, it is through that theme of rejection that she connects herself with these two mythological figures, making it a larger tale of women’s misery."

Chandrabati’s epic is rooted in the folk genre. “In the second part of her epic...she brings in Sita herself as the narrator," explains Dev Sen. “The war is over and Sita is back in Ayodhya, with her girlfriends in the palace. Chandrabati gives us the whole story through a Baromaasi." A Baromaasi, characteristic of the folk genre, is a song sung by women to describe their woes, and the poet uses this as a literary device for Ram’s wife. Sita’s lucid and layered narration of grief then, becomes the linchpin of the epic.

In the 16th century, at a time when women had a peripheral presence in literature and the public realm, Chandrabati flouted the norm. That was the beauty of her epic.

***

A more ‘feminine’ Sita

Molla’s Ramayana cover. Photo: Courtesy: T. Vijay Kumar
Molla’s Ramayana cover. Photo: Courtesy: T. Vijay Kumar

While Chandrabati was retelling the Ramayan in Bengali, another woman in Andhra Pradesh—unmarried, equally subversive in some ways and equally vocal—was choosing to write the epic in Telugu. Unlike Chandrabati though, she belonged to the potter caste. And while Chandrabati’s Ramayan was rubbished, hers was embraced.

So how did Atukuri Molla manage to have her voice heard? “Though it was a custom for poets to dedicate their poems to kings or other powerful persons, Molla…chose to dedicate her work directly to Rama," says the book Women Writing In India: 600 B.C. To The Early Twentieth Century (edited by historians Susie J. Tharu and K. Lalita).

Molla is unequivocally deferential towards Ram. Her epic does not have unfamiliar contours. In her literary offering, Ram retains his title as the hero, while Sita is elbowed to the periphery.

Not only does Molla exclude the part about Sita’s birth, she barely makes Sita’s presence felt in her swayamvara—a ceremony that revolves around the bride, notes Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the award winning academic. In addition, she doesn’t include the final chapter, “Uttarakanda", the aftermath of the battle, where Ram banishes his wife.

“Molla brings in her own style: She adds, deletes, imagines, interpolates, suffusing the text with metaphors and similes. She introduces songs in the epic where there were none, and brings in the native flavour," says Osmania University professor T. Vijay Kumar. In addition, Molla gives her readers (predominantly male at the time) two popular themes: sex and violence.

She weaves in the gut-wrenching battle scenes, the artillery, the dismembered bodies, and introduces salacious descriptions. “(Molla) portrays the strong urban nature of Ayodhya by telling us how everything is brimming with sexual energy," writes Dev Sen. “When Surpanakha describes Sita to her brother Ravana in order to incite his lust, she uses a sensual language that would make anyone lust after Sita."

Believed to be king Krishnadeva’s concubine, and a poet vying for respect in the royal court, Molla would embrace the structural and ideological conventions of the traditional epic. She would conform. In fact, Molla portrays her Sita as extremely feminine. “In her Ramayan, the feminine quality comes through very strongly, in terms of the songs she interpolates," says Prof. Vijay Kumar. “She makes Sita even more feminine than perhaps Valmiki’s Sita."

All this, perhaps, makes Molla’s rendition more “acceptable".

Molla is driven by a different agenda though: For her, the need to retell the Ramayan is more of a linguistic experiment. For although it was available in Telugu in the 16th century, it was written in a complex language. “So she puts herself in the place of the reader and asks, ‘What about people like me who don’t appreciate the Ramayan written in the highly literary, chaste Telugu? What is the point of such a wonderful story if it’s not understood by the common people?’" says Prof. Vijay Kumar. She takes the onus of making the epic more accessible to the common man.

Centuries later, Molla’s Ramayan has survived; its light vocabulary made it popular among readers. If you go looking, you might be able to unearth a copy or two of her epic in book stores in Andhra Pradesh even today. Chandrabati’s Ramayan, however, is harder to come by.

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