“Sing his love, sing his praise, Rama set his wife ablaze. Got her home, kicked her out, to allay his people’s doubt. Rama’s wise, Rama’s just, Rama does what Rama must. Duty first, Sita last, Rama’s reign is unsurpassed,” - Luv & Kush, an excerpt of lyrics from Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues.
The Ramayana is one of the two epic poems in the country that most of us have grown up around, in some form or the other. Whether it was the Indo-Japanese collaboration animated series, Amar Chitra Katha versions or Ramanand Sagar’s rather moralistic series that was widely popular in the 80’s and 90’s, its many-mirrored perspectives have found a way to seep into the nation’s collective consciousness.
Suffice to say, the tale of Rama has come a long way since the wandering sage Narada inspired Valmiki into reciting what is widely accepted as the oldest Sanskrit rendition of the saga, dating back variously from 500 BC to 100 BC. Handed down by word of mouth, it was rewritten and interpreted in countless ways, naturally embellished and glorified as the story travelled with the storyteller.
What’s really fascinating however, is how little we know about how the Ramayana has been interpreted not only in the various parts of the country (which have largely varied versions of the same events) but all over Asia – the literature having carved its own niche in countries Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, and China.
In fact, a two-day conference held in Singapore in 2010 was dedicated entirely to exploring the various adaptations of the tale. ‘Ramayana: Reinterpretation in Asia,’ an initiative of the Asian Civilisations Museum, hosted a gathering of twenty-one scholars from ten countries with the launch of an anthology of articles, ‘Ramayana in Focus: Visual and Performing Arts of Asia,’ by reputed international scholars, preceding the event. Replete with a speech by Robert Goldman, Professor of Sanskrit, and an interpretive dance performance by renowned Indonesian choreographer and dancer, Sardono Kusomo, the conference suffused mythology with interesting contemporary interpretations.
The Ramayana isn’t dead literature; it’s a thriving, transcendent organism, a story terribly susceptible to a myriad forms of art.Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing ways in which The Ramayana still manifests its tale:
I. Ashok Banker’s Fantasy Series
Fans of fantasy fiction, if you haven’t already – Ashok Banker’s modern fantasy fiction 8-part series is not to be missed. He regales the reader with fast-paced action and a riveting narrative. Although it deviates from the original Ramayana on some accounts, you are so drawn into the story – the way it is with most good fantasy novels – that it ceases to matter. This retelling, possibly one of the best known on this list, will hold you hostage right from the introduction – get ready for some extremely well-sketched characters, ferocious rakshasas and bloody war and pillage.
II. Sanjay Patel
Medium: Graphic Art
Growing up in San Bernardino, Sanjay Patel spent many a morning watching his dad perform his morning puja, bathing idols of Hindu gods and goddesses reverently and counting malas while chanting mantras; religious references to which he had no real context. Besides the practices and rituals that his family was involved in, the whole thing seemed quite bizarre to him and clashed with his heartfelt desire to watch cartoons at the time.
25 years later, he found himself gaining interest in Hindu deities from an artistic point of view, and went on to publish ‘The Little Book of Hindu Deities’ – an illustrated book that, much to his surprise, people received very well.
Having created something that ‘little kids growing up in between Indian and American cultures could relate to and feel proud of when they showed their friends,’ he started brainstorming for ideas for a second book.‘I tossed around a lot of ideas, but once I picked up on the Ramayana, all other potential book proposals hit the back burner,’ he writes. ‘I was hooked on this epic Indian tale.’
Inspired greatly by Ashok K. Banker’s fantasy retelling of the saga, snippets of the tales from the Ramayana began to take shape in the form of graphic art, his own rendition of the stories that had stayed with him over the years. ‘Ramayana: Divine Loophole’ is a quaint and vivid illustration of scenes that have particularly stuck with him. Ultimately, it is his contribution towards helping ‘some Indian American kids out there find a 21st century bridge to the ancient stories their parent made them learn.’
III. Sita Sings the Blues
Medium: Animated Film
Ancient mythology, a modern biographical sub-plot and 1920s American Blues congregate onscreen to unravel this unique narrative. American artist Nina Paley, using primarily 2D computer graphics and Flash Animation, practically single-handedly wrote, directed, produced and animated the whole film, set to the backdrop of Annette Hanshaw’s blues tunes.
She confesses that it was the songs through which she really made the connection with the ancient Indian epic – a means with which to tie together the ends of a story that are intrinsically in the same vein.
‘Sita’s is a story so primal,’ says Paley, ‘so basic to human experience, it has been told by people who never heard of the Ramayana.’
Paley’s ‘feminist adaptation’ caused waves all over the world with conservative, traditionalist Hindus filing a petition for a ban on the film, deeming it ‘derogatory’.
By making Sita the main character, interspersing a biographical account of her own break-up and telling of Rama’s treatment of Sita in a point-blank manner, Paley really broke new ground, casting the expanding schism between Rama’s public and private life into a new light. The whole thing is orchestrated in a very light-hearted manner, the switch in animation techniques sometimes making it seem vaguely manic in the backdrop of the sweet, sweet blues. Her cheeky nuances – such as when she makes Sita’s twin sons, Luv and Kush, sing, “Sing his love, sing his praise, Rama set his wife ablaze. Got her home, kicked her out, to allay his people’s doubt. Rama’s wise, Rama’s just, Rama does what Rama must. Duty first, Sita last, Rama’s reign is unsurpassed,” are not lost on the discerning audience.
Nina Paley has revoked all copyrights pertaining to the film to the United States in the interest of free culture and you can watch the movie on her website.
IV. Kiski Kahani
This project really hits the nail on its head with its rhetorical question – whose is the story of Ramayana? It is a celebration of a tale, in all its numerous variations, that has weathered the vicissitudes of time to capture our imagination after all this time. It begins its enquiry by exploring what it is that has made it such a massive feat of storytelling for thousands of years, and revels in the array of Ramayana traditions that branch out of the epic.
The Centre for Communication and Developmental Studies (CCDS) creative lab, Open Space, aims to facilitate dialogue on culture and engagement on issues of social importance and the Kiski Kahani Project is their initiative. Program co-ordinator Imran Ali Khan, advised by then colleagues, esteemed writer Arshia Sattar and journalist Ujwala Samarth, has successfully created a treasure trove of essays and articles from 43 contributors on the website in addition to photo essays, videos of visual and performance-based interpretations and lectures. ‘Kiski Kahani: An Anthology of Personal Journeys with the Ramayana,’ edited by Imran Ali Khan, was released in June last year with readings by poet, writer and translator Priya Sarukkai Chhabria, writer Waylon D’mello.
V. Chengam Murals
This animated interpretation of the Ramayana is an effort by MV Bhaskar to document and reconstruct the Ramayana mural paintings found in the Venugopala Parthasarathy temple at Chengam, Tamil Nadu, for digital posterity. The project began in 2011, funded by the India Foundation for the Arts and Sir Ratan Tata Trust.
Located in a city nestled in the foothills of the western slopes of the Eastern Ghats, the temple dates back to the 17th century. The choice of temple and location was dictated by their ‘ability to do justice to it’ and because of the canvas’ concise 17’ x 17’ size. MV Bhaskar and his team photographed the frescoes with digital cameras, and then physically pieced together each strip (filling in missing pieces from similar murals in other temples in the area from the Nayak era) in its original size. The painstaking and incredibly intricate work is a digital preservation effort and is no mean feat.
VI. Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana
Medium: Illustrated Art
This illustrated retelling of the Ramayana is by mythologist, management guru and author, Devdutt Pattanaik. Like Paley’s retelling, his version of the story departs from portraying Sita as a mere prop and elaborates on her strength of character, over the course of the epic. Buy it here.
VII. Indonesian Ramayana Game on Google
Medium: Digital Animated Game
Google just never fails to delight us. In this ‘Chrome Experiment’ - an interactive visualization to showcase its Chrome web browser – it depicts the tale of the Ramayana in the Indonesian language. This is like digital, animated theatre with gorgeous visuals and is highly interactive. This can be found at Ramayana – you have to check it out for yourself. Take a leap of faith and turn up the bass.
VIII. Pluralism and Performance: The Many Voices in The Ramayana: from 2008 to 2011
Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research’s initiative supported by the Ford Foundation is a 3-year project focused on the Ramayana. Performers, historians, cultural psychologists, sociologists and experts from various fields congregate to allow the various voices in the epic to find expression in different ways, to depart from the image of a ‘vexed text in our times’. Their attendant aim is to allow the discoveries from the project to ‘rescue an old cultural symbol from being suffocated by “purism”’.