Changing Ramayana Characters and/in Changing Contexts

Deborah de Koning

Oral-Written-Performed: The Rāmāyaṇa Narratives in Indian Literature and Arts is an edited volume of eleven articles and a brief introduction on a diversity of Ramayanas. The quality of the articles varies greatly: some articles are extremely explorative (for example, John Brockington’s “Stories in Stone”); some lack a clear focus or a proper introduction; whereas other articles provide high-quality, in-depth analyses of features and characters of a diversity of Indian Ramayanas. Most interesting are the articles that situate the specific representations of heroes and villains from Ramayana retellings, dramas, ritual performances, poems, and digital media within their particular socio-political contexts. These articles on changing representations of Rama, Ravana and his rakshas, and women (especially Sita and Ravana’s sister Surpanakha) make a valuable addition to existing Ramayana anthologies. The book could have benefited from a more extensive introduction or conclusion with some comments on coherence between the articles and a meta-level analysis of the topics discussed in the book.

Changing representations of Rama, Ravana, and Rakshas in Ramayanas

Stefania Cavaliere provides a detailed discussion of the polysemic character of Rama in the Rāmcandracandrikā (1601) and Vijñāngītā (1610) of Keśavdās (1555-1617). The Rāmcandracandrikā concentrates on the Uttarakanda episodes of Rama’s life and thus focuses on Rama’s kingdom and Rama as a dharmic king. However, in a dialogue with the sages in the final chapter, Rama does not want to get back to his royal duties and wants to continue his life as a hermit. According to Cavaliere, this section elaborates on Rama as the Absolute one. With reference to the Vijñāngītā, Cavaliere further shows how Keśavdās relates his work to the political context of his time. The section of Sita's fire ordeal constitutes the real apotheosis of the queen. Her annihilation and devotion to her husband corresponds to the political agenda of the seventeenth century Hindu courts. Keśavdās addresses king Vīr Siṃh in the Vijñāngītā by presenting Rama as supreme deity who nevertheless fulfilled his royal duties. 

In “Showing What is Not: The Use of Illusion in Classical Sanskrit Rāma Plays,” Mary Brockington also focuses on the figure of Rama. She argues that the specific feature of dramas (visual illusions) affect the representations of key characters of the story. In classic Sanskrit dramas (nātyas), Rama becomes subject to illusions and delusions, which makes him gullible. Brockington concludes that the redrawing of characters in the plays did not enter the tradition because they were not aimed at devotees but staged as entertainment for the elite court circles. The article lacks a proper introduction to the plays that are mentioned throughout the article, which leaves the reader with the question of how the discussed dramas are selected. 

Bożena Śliwczyńska concentrates on the Rama drama performed in the temple Kūṭiyāṭṭam theatre tradition by Cākyārs (actors) and Nampyār-Naṅṅyārs (musicians and actresses). The Cākyār Kūttu is the specific stage form of the Cākyārs that includes Ramayana stories based on the Rāmāyaṇaprabandha. It is still annually performed at the Vaṭakkunātha temple at Trichur. The actual performance of the Rāmāyaṇaprabandha is preceded by the Rākṣasotpati, a presentation of 94 passages that explains how the evil ones came to be. This element of the drama portrays Ravana as a full-bodied character with softness of character and as a devotee to Brahma and Siva, with a great responsibility for Lanka, and love for his wife Mandodari. Despite this interesting focus on the positive portrayal of Ravana, it is according to Śliwczyńska still Rama who is praised throughout the drama. 

Paula Richman also discusses the representation of Ravana, traditionally considered the villain of the Ramayana, as a full-bodied character with positive character traits in the innovative Malayalam theatrical production Laṅkālakṣmi (Lakshmi of Lanka, 1976). She analyses the connection of this theatrical production of C.N. Sreekantan Nair (1928-1976) to his leftist political ideas. In Laṅkālakṣmi, Nair demythologizes rakshas and devas and presents them as separate groups with their own distinctive beliefs, ideals, values, and practices. He also refrains from essentializing the rakshas: they have distinctive characters and articulate diverse views on matters. The older rakshasbelieve in the military system including heroic warriors and weapons, whereas the younger rakshas ask for new battle strategies. In the play Ravana’s son Indrajith shares views with Kerala’s leftist youth who challenged the outmoded views of the elderly. Richman argues that the most radical transformation in Laṅkālakṣmi is the portrayal of Ravana as someone with self-doubt. Mandodari has a central role in encouraging her husband, summoning him to perform a homa (ritual) to win the war. The performance shows similarities to Nair’s earlier production Kali (1967) that criticizes ritual practices – a topic that reflects the dissatisfaction of youth with traditional rituals – and presents Ravana as having gained power through conquest but also as someone virtuous.  

Some of the authors mentioned above also discuss the changing representation of Sita. In Brockington’s article Sita is similar to Rama, subject to illusion and delusion. In Cavaliere’s article, it is discussed how Sita is portrayed as shakti to complement the supreme nature of Rama in Keśavdās work. Another selection of articles in Oral-Written-Performed takes changing representations of women in Ramayanas as the main focus and relates these changes to their specific contexts.

Changing representations of women in Ramayanas

Alexander Dubyanskiy offers an exploration of specific features of the Tamil Ballad Kucalavaṉ katai (the Story of Kusalavan), which was published twice by an unknown author. It is mainly a retelling of the last part of the epic story of Rama, with several adaptations. In the Kucalavaṉ katai, Rama wants to find out about what people think of him and overhears a discussion of a washerman with his wife about him and Sita. The washerman accuses Sita of infidelity. Kaikeyi also suspects Sita of infidelity and asks her to draw a picture of Ravana. When a drop of Rama’s sweat falls on the drawing, Ravana comes back to life and Rama has to fight him again. Out of anger, Rama banishes Sita to the forests. Dubyanskiy argues that the problem of family interrelations is central to Tamil folk creations. Feminine conjugal chastity (kaṟpu) is a frequently discussed topic. According to Dubyanskiy, we have to understand the Tamil Ballad Kucalavaṉ katai in this light: Sita is portrayed throughout the ballad as the “germ of chastity,” and Rama is blamed for his disbelief in her.

In “Rivers of rasa and Hearts of Stone,” Danielle Feller discusses the female voices in the drama Uttararāmacarita. The drama stages 11 women who play (except for the doorkeeper) key roles and are considered authorities. According to Feller, the banishment of Sita in the Uttararāmacarita happens in the absence of the queen mothers, and Rama is blamed throughout the play for it. The banishment of Sita was, according to Feller, a matter of debate among the womenfolk in Bhavabhūti’s time (seventh century), and it was probably to attract a female public that he has given a voice to them. A second reason to give pre-eminence to female characters is that the pathetic sentiment is dominant in the play. Feller provides multiple examples of how pathos (karuṇa) is present in several fragments of the drama. She gives very detailed analyses into how, throughout the play, rivers are personified as female goddesses who are mellifluous and soothing in their caring gentleness related to this pathos. 

The article of Sohini Sarah Pillai is very refreshing because it includes a discussion of representations of Śūrpaṇakhā in digital media and places them in the light of India’s recent rape cases. Pillai first introduces well-known and authoritative representations of Śūrpaṇakhā as an evil raksha in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Kampaṉ’s 12th-centuryIrāmāvatāram, and Tulsīdās’ 16th-century Rāmcaritmānas. The second part of the article offers an interesting discussion of the representation of Śūrpaṇakhā as the victim in several modern media (for instance, Zee TV’s Rāvaṇ,2006-2008, and Lanka’s Princess, 2017). Pillai discusses in detail a very disturbing depiction of Śūrpaṇakhā from the Tamil film Rāvaṇaṉ (2010). This film stands in the tradition of the Dravidian cultural movement – founded by Ramasami in the early 20th century – in which Ravana and the rakshas were representations of the great South Indian people. In Rāvaṇaṉ, Śūrpaṇakhā is brutally gang-raped by police officers (with Lakshmana among them) and commits suicide after explaining to Ravana what happened. Pillai offers more examples of Śūrpaṇakhā as the modest and innocent Other. These representations of Śūrpaṇakhā have become common in modern India in the light of awareness of rape incidents (especially the Delhi gang rape of 2012). 

Adrian Plau provides an extensive introduction to Jain Ramayanas and discusses the Satī-Kathās (stories of devout Jain women) variety in detail. Plau provides examples of how through simple modifications in Jain Ramayanas, for instance by telling the birth story of Sita instead of Rama, the focus shifts to sati figure(s). The focus on Sita as sati is very central to the 17th-century Sītācarit. It portrays Sita’s banishment by Rama to the forest (and Sita following this command) as exemplary of how a good sati never blames someone else. Sita herself even asks for a fire ordeal instead of Rama. After the Sītācarit, there was a wave of Jain Ramayanas that focussed exclusively on Sita’s forest exile and fire ordeal. 

Danuta Stasik discusses the Agni-parīkṣā (written in 1960), the Jain telling of the Ramayana of Ācārya Tulsī (1914-1997). In this poem, Sita is the main character. The story recounts that after the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, the co-wives of Rama become jealous of Sita and ask her to draw Ravana’s feet. This drawing leads to her abandonment to the forest. Sita, despite her anxiety in the forest, sends good wishes to Rama and Lakshman, and Rama realizes that he has made a mistake by abandoning Sita. Sita continues her life as a Jain nun in the forest and refuses to return, but then asks for the agni pariksa. When she enters the fire, it is turned into water, and the water floods everything around. People realize that they made a mistake, and Sita is praised as Mahasati. In 1970, the poem caused riots in Raipur because several (Sanatani) Hindus considered it blasphemous that Rama was portrayed as a Siddha Punish instead of an incarnation of Vishnu, and Sita as Maha Sati instead of an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. Stasik discusses the original sections that were marked as problematic by the State of Madhya Pradesh, and the rewritings of the sections in the 1972 version of the Agni-parīkṣā. The article provides not only a detailed discussion of this Jain version of the Ramayana, but also explores themes of reinterpretation and the political sensitivity of myths.

In short, Oral-Written-Performed contains in-depth articles on (shifting) representations of Ramayana characters (heroes, villains, and women) placed within India’s (changing) socio-political contexts.