Retellings of Ramayana are ceaseless activity in the Indian cultural context. These appear in diverse forms such as books, sculptures, films and art. Every Ramayana is different, as it is relayed from a different perspective. The many Ramayanas shift the gaze to altered positions and facilitate a new look. The Buddhist Ramayana is different from a Kannada or a Telugu Ramayana. Amongst the classical texts, Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas is divergent from the Valmiki Ramayana. The former is a patriarchal take where Rama is God, the ultimate 'maryada purshottam', whereas the latter views Rama as an erring human being and provides space for Sita to be a questioning intelligent wife.
Arshia Sattar, the writer/scholar in Indian classical literature from the University of Chicago, is an academic voice who translated the Sanskrit text (Valmiki Ramayana) into English 20 years back. She has persisted with her endeavours with books such as 'Lost Loves: Exploring Rama's Anguish', 'Uttara' and 'Adventures with Hanuman'. Her latest work is 'Ramayana for Children'. She says that whenever there is talk of Ramayana, everyone professes to know the story from sources like translations, media, comics, theatre; but no one has read the Sanskrit texts, essentially the Valmiki Ramayana which was written circa 300BC.
'Valmiki Ramayana' is an extant text, a reference point from where all translations originated. Every subjective retelling adapted it to a different context and imbued it with variations. Popular episodes in the story like 'Shabari ke ber' and 'Lakshaman Rekha' are recreations, which are not part of the 'Valmiki Ramayana.' These sub-plots were woven in with contextual hierarchical societal changes and the position of women in it. The original text in fact portrays Sita as intelligent, argumentative and wise woman who, in her own dignified way, refuses to tide by every dictum thrown at her. Pushing the argument further, Arshia says that Rama's character is questionable due to his sly act of killing Vali and his banishment of Sita without any substantial evidence against her.
"If there is one thing I would like to change about the story is the banishment of Sita", said a ten-year-old boy to Arshia during one of her readings of 'Ramayana for Children'. There are both fun uncomfortable parts in the book. But Arshia has handled the tricky parts well and skilfully told the story straight with her pared-down vocabulary. No lies, she says emphatically. She is well aware that children can record, analyse and work out the binaries of good/evil and light/dark in their own precocious manner.
Another brilliant factor on which the 'Ramayan for Children' rides high is the evocative illustration in the book. Fine arts and photography artist Sonali Zohra (who goes by the alias, Dangercat) has rendered beautiful and eloquent graphics. The colour palette and line drawings deliver figures and designs of each frame vividly. The artist's inimitable style stands apart from previous illustrations in print/visual media. Arshia credits the editors of Juggernaut for facilitating the process between the writer and artist and producing excellent results.
Arshia's unflagging work on the Ramayana indicates that she regards it as a literary text which can be questioned, judged and reinterpreted in numerous ways. She embraces the many Ramayanas and welcomes continuous endeavours to unravel the text in different ways. She has traced queries to texts like the Jain Ramayana, which frowns upon the existence of flying monkeys and ten-headed monsters. She draws our attention to other writings, which raise eyebrows at the hegemony of the State and the role of the Kshatriya kings, at the expense of their households. She highlights comparative studies that make us choose between Lakshmana and Rama. The controversial episodes of the insult of Surpanakha and the humiliating defeat of mighty Ravana, the great honourable King in many parts of the subcontinent, are an endless source of debates and discussions.
Besides being a scholar and writer, Arshia is also an activist. Sangam House Residency for Indian writers provides access to regional writers in India. Arshia says: "Literatures in many languages flourish in the subcontinent and literary cultures are strong, but it's impossible for writers to access quiet and supportive spaces in which they can do their work, particularly if they are working in languages other than English." Therefore, an idea of residency for Indian writers was born. Taking her activist avatar further, 'Mixed Bag of Books' a book-club led by her and Samhita Arni discussed and debated on Perumal Murugan's 'One Part Woman' when the book was being torched and banished in India.
Her abridged translations of the epic Sanskrit text, 'Kathasaritasagara', are heterogeneous collections of Indian folk tales compiled by Somdeva in the 11th century. Arshia says that she had great fun translating the playful text. The stories live on the Zarathustra concept of an indulgent life, a bawdy and earthly existence lived and recounted by Sufis, Jains and Buddhists in Kashmir. "Here the universe is not weighed down by karma and dharma, and as a result, the text is playful and pokes fun at everyone. I loved translating this," she reminisces. Another exciting foray was 'Adventures with Hanuman,' an original playpen for children with the monkey-god.
'Lost Loves' by Arshia explores Rama's anguish thus: "I always thought I was human, that I was Rama, the son of Dasaratha. Tell me who I am. Where did I come from? Why am I here? He ceased and Brahma replied, 'O' caste the idle thought aside. Thou art the Lord Narayan, thou the God to whom all creatures bow.'" In her essays, she explores the delicate relation between Rama and Sita, and the trials and tribulations of their separation. The writing is contemporary and constructs the argument in present times by delineating the colliding public and private spheres of a legendary couple.
Arshia's cool slang and unassumed disposition endears her to readers quickly. Her easy manner against scholarly bedrock becomes a potent combination few can resist. We look forward to her presence at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival from December 8 to December 11, 2016.