Sunday, March 11, 2007
Rama: The literary avatars
The New Indian Express
Sunday March 11 2007
In the Milky Way of literature, planets and stars have a way of connecting. They collide, merge and submerge. Big stars consume smaller ones and a new planet may absorb an older star, forging an entirely new identity. It is indeed a promiscuous cosmic panorama where the reader has to travel miles of darkness to reach the light.
As for a writer navigating this vast outer space, it is virtually impossible to remain neutral and unimpressed, and to keep his hands to himself. The bright light of a star may lure, and the mystery of a distant planet may fascinate him into recreating just such a world for himself. Inspiration is a heady source for new ideas! It is also easier on the reader who gets a reference point. For instance, if I am inspired by RK Narayan, my reader is blessed with a double-entry system when he visits my world. Besides deriving inspiration, a writer can also use an archetypal work as a canvas on which to paint his own impression of contemporary society. The danger remains, however, that a writer may draw from a previous work - say an epic— and create a new world that could impinge on the reputation of the original work. Here’s the problem: Readers who aren’t too familiar with the epic may read the new work and imagine that they now know the epic.
I came upon such an instance recently. Invited to interact with the audience after watching a play based on a great epic, I found them deeply affected by the portrayals. A few of them obviously found no difference between the play’s puny protagonist and the epic’s mighty hero. This is a burden that literature must often bear. In fact, it’s a cross that any mythological hero has to carry. Having triumphed over (or succumbed to) the tricks and trysts of destiny all through the currents of an ancient story, he or she then falls prey to the plots and politics of every subsequent writer who needs an archetypal scenario to fit his theories in. Listen to this: “You are inventing a new interpretation for statecraft, you are putting it to test and making it practically usable … But I fear that this statecraft which breaks and smashes relationships of the soul is an eternal curse to this earth. Please allow me to depart … I do not wish to stay here any more…” And a little later: “Please permit me to leave…this is my last darshan of you … May the Lord who is all powerful bless you!” (Kanchana Sita, OUP, Eng. trans. Vasanthi Shankaranarayanan)
This is an excerpt from a dialogue in CN Sreekantan Nair’s Malayalam play based on the Uttara Kandam of the Ramayana. Surprisingly, the speaker is Hanuman, and this is part of his condemnation of Rama for abandoning Sita. That the eternal devotee Hanuman (generally visualised as being in deep meditation of Rama) should turn around and vent his bitterness on him accusing him of injustice and cruelty, and turn sarcastic to boot, obviously suggests the manipulation of a well-known story and its characters. The playwright was a pillar of Malayalam theatre (and established the modern theatre workshop, the Nataka Kalari). In his play Rama can do no right, there is virtually no other character who doesn’t revile or lampoon him, and he himself is shown as being regretful, stubborn, helpless, superstitious, under the yoke of Brahmin gurus, and not in clear control of any situation. It is a reversal of everything we have come to believe of the hero.
The Ramayana has undergone many forms and interpretations. Valmiki’s original version was literature, the poetic story of Raghuvamsam and its greatest hero. But there are two moments of inconsistency with its heroic depiction of Rama: when he kills Vali through subterfuge, and when he uses harsh words against Sita after reclaiming her from Ravana, prompting her to walk through fire to prove her chastity. These two incidents have puzzled ordinary readers through the centuries. Even Rajaji, reinterpreting the classic for children, expresses his dilemma; but they can probably be interpreted as a tragic flaw in the hero by those who enjoy the story as literature, or as the compulsions of a dispassionate ruler who cannot submit to a personal agenda by others. The story ends with his coronation. The Uttara Kandam, where Sita is banished to the forest, was added later. In subsequent versions, its literary character gave way to the spiritual, and Rama was deified. Tulasidas and Kamban, singing in the realm of pure bhakti, ironed out every wrinkle by seeing Rama as the incarnation of Vishnu come down to vanquish evil and protect mankind. Sita suffers no indignity, she is willing part and participator in the vast cosmic theatre being played out. The Adhyatma Ramayana (anonymous, but attributed to Vyasa, and part of the Brahmananda Purana), which is in the form of a doubt-ridding dialogue between Siva and Parvathi, is both intensely spiritual and high philosophy. Here Rama is a detached observer, he is witness-consciousness, able to transform without undergoing transformation himself. It is said that while Krishna all along realised his divinity, Rama was born and lived as Man and had to be educated by Brahma about his true divine identity. In the bhakti versions of the Ramayana, he is God himself and acts in the capacity of an omnipotent protector. There is no place for doubt or predicament in this persona. All this goes to show the hierarchy of interpretation that epics like the Ramayana enjoy.
And then at the tail end of the series comes Sreekantan Nair’s Rama. Praised in the earlier versions as Sita Rama, Raja Rama, Veera Raghava and Kosala Rama to highlight the perfection he achieved in every role he played, Rama is here reduced to playing Bourgeois Rama, a heartless king who exploits his position and who is in turn exploited by wily Brahmins. Sage Vasishta, an embodiment of love and compassion, is turned into a cunning advisor whose salacious purpose in life is to maintain the unfair ascendancy of the Brahmins.
There are two ways you can use the archetypal element in literature. You can tell a completely new story and hark back to elements in myth to point out parallels. Readers who are familiar with the old story can then relate easily to your story. This is what Madambu Kunjukkuttan does in his Malayalam novel Ashwathama. The reader, already familiar with the eternal angst of the legendary character, identifies immediately with the new protagonist. The second alternative is to retell an old story with all the original characters intact, presenting it in the light of a new authorial philosophy or insight. MT Vasudevan Nair did this with the Mahabharatha hero Bhima in his novel Randam Oozham. And it is what R. Manoharan did with Tamil theatre. You show up an aspect or angle that was neglected or irrelevant in the original text - that is, you proceed to stretch it to its natural conclusion, or investigate some interesting proposition, either character or plot potential, that remained unexplored in the original. The latent danger here is two-fold: one, you are altering the very fabric of an old story to accommodate your new theme; two, there is the possibility that the antiquity of your story may rob it of a contemporary impact and thus weaken the force of your message. Also, the strong, already ingrained image of the mythical characters in the reader’s mind may act as a deterrent to accepting fresh inputs.
Sreekantan Nair’s Rama is a personal Rama. In its own unique framework, his play works as a diatribe against the exploitation of women and the evil aspects of the caste system. But it needn’t be confused with the Ramayana.