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As performers from South-East Asia reveal the diverse Ramayan narratives, it is time for India to embrace its former self and celebrate the nuanced richness of its traditions. Photo: HT
As performers from South-East Asia reveal the diverse Ramayan narratives, it is time for India to embrace its former self and celebrate the nuanced richness of its traditions. Photo: HT

Embracing the many Ramayans

As the epic travelled from India to South-East Asia, the stories underwent nuanced changes, making the plots radically different in some cases

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warmly welcomed a five-day festival of Ramayan performances in Delhi. These are not ordinary performances; the festival celebrates India’s friendship with the 10 countries that form the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

The Ramayan has been popular in South-East Asia for centuries; its spread and popularity highlight the enduring appeal of India’s soft power. Modi pointed out how the festival reveals India’s “deep civilizational and historic relations" with Asean, and said that it is “a fitting prelude" to the Asean-India commemorative summit beginning on Thursday. The festival then travels to five Indian cities, including Ayodhya, considered to be Ram’s birthplace.

Indian audiences unfamiliar with South-East Asian interpretations of the Ramayan may be in for some surprise, though. As the epic travelled from India to those countries, the stories underwent nuanced changes, making the plots radically different in some cases.

During the eight years I lived in Singapore as a foreign correspondent, I saw several versions and manifestations of the Ramayan in the region. The temples of Prambanan in Yogyakarta and in Bangkok’s temple of the emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew, offer scenes from the epic that vary from the grand narrative known in India. There is the Kakawin in Java, Ramakerti in Cambodia, Ramakien in Thailand, Phra Lak Phra Ram in Laos, and Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia. In the wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) version in Malay, Ravan is shown in a sympathetic light; Ram appears vain. Ram and Ravan are cousins in the Laotian version. In the Javanese wayang kulit retelling, artists often make allusions about contemporary politics—recall the 1982 film, The Year Of Living Dangerously. One moonlit night in Seam Reap with the Angkor Wat in the distance, I saw the Cambodian version where Hanuman falls in love with mermaids, and is not quite the bachelor devotee of Ram. Art historian Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, who had curated a path-breaking exhibition on the many Ramayans in Singapore in the 1990s, pointed out the variety of these readings which indicated a pluralist discourse, in Ramayana: A Living Tradition. “Valmiki’s Ramayana has been wrongly ascribed canonical status, giving rise to a sort of patriarchal, literate, pan-Indian elitism which in recent times has been scorned."

In the two decades since Parimoo Krishnan wrote that, such pan-Indian elitism is becoming the norm. In fact, in February 2008, students representing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, stormed the history department of the Delhi University to protest students being asked to read an essay about the Ramayan. Their anger was targeted at the late A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas", which celebrated the sheer exuberance and range of interpretations of the Ramayan. Those interpretations varied from the majoritarian narratives associated with Valmiki or Tulsidas.

Alternative interpretations have existed in India too, as Paula Richman wrote in her book, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity Of A Narrative Tradition In South Asia. In the Jain Ramayan, Ram and Ravan are Jains, and it is Lakshman who kills Ravan. In another retelling, Sita is Ravan’s daughter. A Jataka version shows Ram and Sita as siblings. Certain tribal versions present a bolder, feminist Sita. Indeed, Nabanita Deb Sen and Madhu Kishwar have looked at the Ramayan from Sita’s perspective, and Arshia Sattar has shown a gentler, loving, more human Ram in her essay on Sita.

A Ram who’s not a strong and martial lord interferes with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s project of a more muscular Hinduism. As Martha Nussbaum astutely observed in The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence And India’s Future, “Hindu traditions emphasize tolerance and pluralism…. But the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions… with their own weakness. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to be seen as the best way out…"

Linked with it is the deeper purpose, of remaking Hinduism. In a conversation I had with the former prime minister Morarji Desai, he had said that the idea of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the site of the Babri Masjid was aimed at remaking Hinduism; from being a faith with many gods and many ways of seeking spiritual salvation, towards monotheism (Ram), with a single book (Ramayan), and a single place of worship given pre-eminent position (Ayodhya), making Hinduism more like the Abrahamic religions.

Attacking Ramanujan’s essay had political benefits. The then head of the department of history at Delhi University—Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri—and the professor who recommended the text—Upinder Singh—were both from religious minorities, and Singh happened to be the daughter of Manmohan Singh, then India’s prime minister.

In 2011, the university withdrew the essay from its syllabus. Oxford University Press had discontinued publishing and selling the essay, but it reprinted it following protests from academics and free speech advocates.

As performers from South-East Asia reveal the diverse Ramayan narratives, it is time for India to embrace its former self and celebrate the nuanced richness of its traditions, so much a part of cultures abroad, so vilified at home at present.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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