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906 When Women Retell the Ramayan

906 When Women Retell the Ramayan

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Published by Arpit Bharat Gupta

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Published by: Arpit Bharat Gupta on Nov 13, 2011
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When Women Retell the Ramayan
Nabaneeta Dev Sen
pic poets the world over aremen singing the glory of othermen—armed men, to beprecise. In a study I did a couple of years ago, I noticed that out of thethirty-eight basic things upon whichmost epic narratives of the world arebased, only nine are associated withwomen. The ideals of the epic worldobviously do not have much to sharewith women, nor do the women enjoythe heroic values. There is little theycan do there—other than getabducted or rescued, or pawned, ormolested, or humiliated in some wayor other. So, what happpens whenwomen choose to retell an epic? Thereare many alternatives.1. You could tell it like it is, byborrowing the traditional eyesof the male epic poet, as Molladoes in her 16th centuryTelugu
.2. You could tell it like it is,looking at it with your ownwomen’s eyes, as Chandrabatidoes in her 16th centuryBengali
.3. You could tell it like it isby borrowing an ideologicalviewpoint as Ranganaya-kamma does in
, rewriting theRam tale from the Marxistpoint of view.4. You could tell your ownstory through the story of Sita,as the village women of Indiahave been doing for hundredsof years.For me it all started in 1989 with anaccidental re-reading of the text of Chandrabati
. That is whereI discovered that a women’s
tells a different story. Since then, Ihave been fascinated by women’sretellings of the Ram tale. My studieson Chandrabati’s, Molla’s andRanganayakamma’s
havebeen published.Chandrabati and Molla are the veryfirst women to retell the
intheir regional language, and they haveamazing similarities. Both remainedunmarried out of choice in order tobecome professional poets, bothworshipped Shiva, yet wrote a
. But here they took differentroutes. Molla, a woman and Shudra,threw a challenge to the Brahmin courtpoets by writing a perfect classical
. Chandrabati, on the otherhand, composed a
whichtold only the story of Sita andcritiqued Ram from a woman’s pointof view. The Brahmins did not allowMolla’s work to be read in the royalcourt. And critics have rejectedChandrabati’s as a weak andincomplete text. Ranganayakammasuffered a great deal of socialostracisation for her attack on the‘Holy Book’.The village women care neither forthe court nor for the critic—and theyare not out to change the world. Theycontinue to sing for themselves. I amgrateful to the late A. K. Ramanujanfor his encouragement of thiswork. He was vastly enthusi-astic after reading my paperon Chandrabati
inFebruary 1991, and told meabout Professor NarayanaRao’s unpublished work onTelugu women’s
.Ramanujan felt that a lot of Chandrabati’s perceptionswere shared by these Teluguwomen. Chandrabati also sup-ported Ramanujan’s view thatwomen’s traditions held an al-ternative perception of Indiancivilisation. Thus, the connec-tion was made in my mind.With references from Profes-sor Rao, I went to AndhraPradesh looking for more ma-terial. Then to Bangladesh and
Illustrations : BADRI NARAYAN,
The Ramayana 
No. 10819flourishes only on the periphery. Themale Sita myth, where she is a
(deity), continues in the mainstream.In the women’s retelling, Sita is norebel; she is still the yielding, sufferingwife, but she speaks of her sufferings,of injustice, of loneliness and sorrow.In the women’s folk tradition inIndia, never mind where you are,which century you belong to or whatlanguage you speak, you are allsisters in sorrow. Though the singersmay live in different parts of thesubcontinent, wear different clothes,cook very different food and vote fortotally different political parties, whenthey sing the story of Ram, they areastonishingly close to one another.In their feelings, their perceptions,their expressions, their choices of events and their responses, they echoeach other. So much so that it took agood deal of careful screening andcategorising of the songs to keep theiridentities clearly separated in my mind.These work songs and ritual songshave opened up a rich world of women’s
. While weedingor sowing in the field or husking orgrinding in the courtyard, or preparingfor religious ceremonies, the womenall across the country sing thesesongs. These are connected withdifferent moments of a woman’s life,and here Sita is the name of thewoman who attains puberty, getsmarried, gets pregnant, is abandonedand gives birth. They call it the
but it is of Sita that theysing.In their retellings of the
for women naturally to pick andchoose their episodes; they are notinterested in the heroic epic cycle,which has no relevance to their lives.If what they create is fragmentary, itis because their lives are fragmentary.For them, it is the whole story. Itreflects a woman’s world in its entirety.These are the four language of mypresent area of interest: Bengali in theeast (Bangladesh), Marathi in thewest, Telugu in the south and Maithiliin the northern Hindi belt.The favourite episodes of thewomen singers seem to come mostlyfrom the
and the
, the two so-calledspurious books, excluded by strictlyclassical
scholars. The
deals with the birth andmarriage of Sita and what happenedbefore Ram’s coronation plans weremade. And the
tells uswhat happened after the war, afterRam-Sita’s return to Ayodhya.
is not a flattering book for Ram. The topics that interest mendo not seem to interest the women.They leave out the details of war,Ram’s glory, Brahminical rituals, andso on. The women seem to singmostly of abandonment and injustice,and of romance, weddings,pregnancy and childbirth. Naturally,the songs centre around Sita, ratherthan Ram. The areas where Ramusually shines brilliantly, those of moral strength (like fatherworshipping) and of physicalprowess (like demon killing), do notseem to interest the women at all. Onearea of Ram’s moral judgement doesbother them though—his wife-testing(
) and abandoning of Sita. Incidentally, the man who seemsto appear most in the songs isLakshman, the brother-in-law andforest companion of Sita (the otherslave of Ram). He appears to be theonly man whom the rural women of India and Bangladesh care for, withwhom Sita can communicate.The six major themes in thesesongs are: Sita’s birth, her wedding(with a touch of pre-marital romance),her abduction, pregnancy, abandon-ment, and childbearing.The rural women in India andBangladesh have shared the samehistorical experience, the same socio-economic situations, and theirresponse to an elitist patriarchal textnaturally shows a great deal of to Chandrabati’s village. Gradually myinterest spread its wings wider. Here Ifocus on contemporary rural women’s
songs in Bengali, Marathi,Maithili and Telugu.Just as the Ram myth has beenexploited by the patriarchalBrahminical system to construct anideal Hindu male, Sita too has beenbuilt up as an ideal Hindu female, tohelp serve the system. The impact isfar-reaching. Several years ago, SallySutherland showed that for 90 percent of the Indians she interviewed,Sita was their favourite (mythical)woman. No one blesses a bride bysaying, “Be like Draupadi”. It isalways Sita and Savitri. They are thesaviours. Savitri saved her husbandfrom death, Sita saved him fromdisgrace. Although Sita’s life canhardly be called a happy one, sheremains the ideal woman throughwhom the patriarchal values may bespread far and wide and throughwhom women may be taught to bearall injustice silently.But there are always alternativeways of using a myth. If patriarchyhas used the Sita myth to silencewomen, the village women havepicked up the Sita myth to givethemselves a voice. They have founda suitable mask in the myth of Sita, apersona through which they canexpress themselves, speak of theirday-to-day problems, and critiquepatriarchy in their own fashion.In the women’s retellings, theBrahminical Ram myth is blastedautomatically though, probably,unwittingly. Here, Ram comes throughas a harsh, uncaring and weak-willedhusband, a far cry from the ideal man.The women do not mind calling himnames such as
or directly attacking him by saying,
 Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash
(Ram, you’ve lost your mind). This ispossible because the women’s songsare outside the canon. Women’s Sitamyth, where Sita is a woman,
20MANUSHIcommonality. Their values are notvery different from each other’s, butare very different from those of theirruling males, which are the concernsof an epic. Hence, the
sungby the mainstream bards have little incommon with the women’s songs.Women sing for themselves, the malebard sings for the public. Theirapproaches to the epic and to the actof singing are totally different. Theprofessional bard sings of Ram. Thevillage woman sings of Sita.Ten common sub-themes may bederived from these songs which arehighly relevant to women’s lives inIndia today, especially rural women:1.Sita, the foundling. The girl childas the essential orphan.2.The worry of the parents overgetting their daughter married.3.Child marriage and its concerns.4.The giving-away songs.5.The in-laws and the bride, thenature of domestic abuse.6.The golden deer. Blaming thevictim. The ‘she asked for it’mentality.7.The woman’s desperate need tobear a son to keep her place inpatriarchal society and the valueof male life.8.Pregnancy—the cravings, thedesire to be spoilt a bit.9.Childbirth under dire conditions.10.Abandonment. Facing rejectionand dispossession of one’s socialidentity.It is not hard to see what purposethe Sita myth serves in the life of ruralwomen. It offers them a persona anda voice.These themes, obviously, have noreligious significance, and do notconcern men very much. These aresongs that deal with the most difficultor dangerous areas of a woman’s life,the intense moments of insecurity orphysical risk. They do not complainabout hard work or poverty; all thesongs complain about neglect anddenial of their rights. The songs showus that a woman has no social identityof her own, her husband lends her hisidentity and defines hers by it. TheSita songs are the songs throughwhich we can hear the voice of thesilent majority, whereas the epics singthe glory of the powerful few. Let ussee how these songs deal with thetopics we have just indicated.Each language seems to have itsown special touch while dealing withSita’s travails. For example, Marathiseems to be the only one of thesefour languages which has the detailedaccounts of Sita’s sufferings at thehands of the in-laws and the uselesshusband who plays into their hands.And songs depicting Janak’sdesperation for finding a husband forSita recur the most in Maithili. Thesupport that Sita receives from all thewomen of the household when sheis being sent off to the forest is to befound only in Telugu songs. TheBengali songs probably use the mostharsh words about Ram, althoughpractically every woman worth hersalt in the other languages criticiseshim too. In Bengali, he is portrayedas not only jealous and suspicious,but termed ‘stone-hearted’ and a‘sinner’. Chandrabati calls Ram aderanged wimp, and to make thepicture clearer, describes him in a waythat makes him appear closer to adragon than a king. She also holdshim responsible for the fall of Ayodhya. Ironically, this did cometrue 400 years later in 1992, with thedestruction of the Babri Masjid byRam-worshipping fanatics. Acrossthe country, village women haveincredible identification with Sita, andthough they have affection for Ramthe child, or Ram the lover, they dosee him as a tyrant and an unjusthusband. Never mind that Ram is agod and is presently on a comeback trail to save the world. In thesewomen’s folk songs, he will alwaysbe less than a perfect man, and a farcry from a hero.
Sita the Foundling
Now to consider some songs. Webegin with the theme of Sita as theessential orphan. There is a Marathiwork song—Sita, in forest exile, istalking to the birds and trees as shehas no one else to talk to:“Sitabai says,
‘What kind of a woman am I? I was given away to Ram when I was five years old.What sort of mother’s love have I got?...Dear Plum tree, dear Babul tree,Sita is telling you the story of her life.Please listen... I was found at the tipof a plough How can I have parents? I was found in a box, in the open field.
One can feel the eagerness of anisolated woman to communicate. Thisfeeling of being utterly alone andunloved is echoed in other languages.I quote from Chandrabati’s Bengalipoem, where Sita tells Lakshman:
“I have no father, no mother  I was found at the tip of a plough I don’t know who my parents areOr who my brother is Like moss in a stream I float from shore to shore...”
In a contemporary Marathi work song, Sita echoes her 400-year-oldBengali self:
“I have no father, no mother  I have lived my life in forests, eatingwild fruits I have no sister, no brother  My soul has become an exile Living in the wilderness.”
And now as we consider thisMunda tribal song from Chhota-nagpur (very close to Mithila), we hearSita’s sigh again:
“On the grassy uplands, the ploughmen found meThey took me to the King’s palace... I grew up like an edible fruit 

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