In October 2011, Delhi University turned into a melting pot of debate over one of the most celebrated essays of A.K. Ramanujan ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’ (1991). These debates were sparked off by the controversial decision of the Academic Council of the University to scrap the aforesaid essay on the ground that it hurts the religious sentiments of certain sections of society. It was seen by many as an attempt to curb the freedom of thought and sacrificing academic integrity under the majoritarian pressure.
Ramanujan in his essay shows that how with changing contexts, the story of Ramayana changes by keeping basic plots, actors and incidents relatively unaltered. In this regard, he draws difference between ‘iconic’ and ‘symbolic’ translation of a text. According to him, iconic translation is a mechanical one, found mostly in the West. In this, the text which has been translated and the text which comes up after translation shares geometrical resemblance to each other, just like one triangle to another (despite the variation in angles, sizes, or colours of the line). On the other hand, in the case of symbolic translation actors, plots, central incidents, etc. remain the same but the way of narration changes radically as per the context and sometimes even gets reversed.
In other words, in the latter case of symbolic translation the text acquires ‘indexical character’ (viz. the text remains embedded in a particular locale and context and would not make much sense without referring to it) as is the case with Ramayana. That is why we see tremendous variations in the way Ramayana story has been narrativised by Valmiki; Kampan; the Jainas; and in South-East Asia and in oral tribal traditions; as in each of these cases Ramayana story is deeply rooted in the locale or the context in which it has been narrativised. As for illustration, in South-East Asia, particularly in Thai Ramakirti, the emphasis on war (‘Yuddhakanda’) is significant probably because early Thai history was full of wars. Also in Thai Ramakirti Hanuman is not a celibate, rather he has been portrayed as ladies’ man probably because brahmanical idealisation of celibacy held little ground in Thai society. Similarly, in the case of oral tribal traditions, the matrilineal norms generated huge emphasis on Sita. The teller in Kannada folktale tends to return to Sita in each and every section and devotes equal space to her vis-à-vis Rama.
Incidentally, while the essay of Ramanujan generated much furore in 2011, one can witness yet another illustration of his proposition regarding Ramayana in the recent on air television serial Ram Siya ke Luv Kush on Colors TV. The liberal feminist lens of this serial is quite evident. The ordeal of Sita and her subsequent banishment as described in the ‘Uttar Kand’ of Ramayana has often been seen as a manifestation of patriarchal overtones of Ram’s character who is otherwise ‘maryada purushottam’ (i.e. peerless among men in propriety). However, the recent serial on it depicts Sita’s banishment to forest as a kind of mutual understanding reached between Ram and Sita to change the mindset of the patriarchal society outside the palace. This in a way provides sanctity to the whole act of Ram banishing Sita under the influence of gossip by the inhabitants of Ayodhya that a good man would not take a wife back who had lived in the house of another man.
Not only this, as the episodes of the serial unfold, Sita emerges as the iconic liberal feminist figure offering shelter to women subjected to domestic violence and advocating equal rights for women and their economic independence. In fact, Shivya Pathania, the actress who has played the central character of Sita in the serial, herself claims that they have treated her character with a ‘modern’ outlook and she has not been portrayed as meek victim of patriarchy. It seems that the effort here is to justify the problematic ‘Uttar Kand’ of Ramayana in the eyes of young generation who despite being brought up in patriarchal surroundings are fed with notions of liberal feminism.
The liberal feminist discourse of equality of women is quite prevalent in the entire narration of Ram Siya ke Luv Kush. It can easily be discerned through dialogue between the common folks of Ayodhya and Luv and Kush while they recite the story of Ram and Sita to them. Not only this, the whole paraphernalia of changing the mindset of people through self-realisation is in itself an essential trait of liberal feminist discourse.
As a matter of fact, the serial on its own does not offer any radical solution to tackle gender inequality and presents only ‘politically correct’ gender discourse which may suit its audience. Here it should be noted that this serial has been produced for mass consumption thereby reaping profit out of it. Hence, unlike an academic work, it is bound to take care of the sensibilities of its audience. After all, in order to become a commercial success it has to conform to the existing social norms and not to depart from it in any radical manner.
Thus, the aforesaid televised version of Ramayana is yet another version of the epic tale which is evidently a product of its modern context. The liberal feminist touch of it is explicable if we take Ramanujan’s proposition as an analytical tool. In fact, not only the liberal feminist touch, this serial also tries to placate the sensibilities of the lower castes of the society by deeming Valmiki, who wrote the dominant North Indian narrative of Ramayana, as ‘Bhagwan’ (or Lord) and invoking him incessantly as possessing supreme knowledge. Incidentally, Valmiki community constitutes a politically volatile community in North India particularly in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
So, the context of rendition of the epic like Ramayana is as significant as the narrative part of it in understanding its nitty-gritty. In a similar vein, the minute analysis of a narrative tells us many things about the context in which it unfolds. Actually as Ramanujan argues in his another article ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay’ (1989) that ‘no Indian text comes without a context, a frame, till the 19th century…texts may be historically dateless, anonymous, but their contexts, uses, efficacies, are explicit.’ In other words, with the change in context the rendition of a tale changes fundamentally acquiring the characteristic traits of that particular context. The serial Ram Siya ke Luv Kush is the product of the present context which has dramatically altered the so-called ‘standard’ version of Ramayana, if only any such version actually exists.