Book Review

Book Review: 'The Multivalence of an Epic' retells the many Ramayanas of South India and Southeast Asia

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and the golden deer. Virupaksha, Pattadakal, c. 740 CE. Photo: Parul Pandya Dhar

Recitation of Kakawin Ramayana by the late Ida Pedanda Ketut Sidemen of Geriya Taman Sari, Sanur. Photo: Thomas M. Hunter

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia performing ‘Remakirti’, the Khmer version of Ramayana. Photo: Sao Manut

Portrayal of Shurpanakha in Yakshagana of coastal Karnataka. Photo: P. Bilimale

The book perceptively brings out the plurality and inclusiveness that mark the diverse Ramayana traditions traversing over two millennia and across wide geographical locations.

Much as politics around Rambhakti has fallen to its nadir, scholarly endeavour to study the vast traditions of Rama stories is reaching the pinnacle of excellence. Some of the finest historians and scholars of literary traditions, visual cultures and performing arts have come together to showcase the results of their outstanding scholarship on the Ramayana’s myriad traditions. Parul Pandya Dhar, a distinguished editor and leading art historian, has perceptively organised and contextualised the stupendous range of fascinating material on retelling the epic, encompassing several centuries and geographical boundaries across South and Southeast Asia—the long-standing connections between the two regions are determined by historical processes of epic proportions. The splendid product on offer—19 chapters each with an introduction—is a veritable treat for anyone with a heart for appreciating diverse tellings of the extraordinary credentials of Maryada Purushottam Sri Ram of Ayodhya. The equally fascinating character of Lanka’s Ravana—the powerful anti-hero (and in some cases, a hero in his own right)—also comes alive in parts of the book spread over 370 pages.

The editor and publisher deserve praise for bringing together this marvellous collection of essays, placed in three distinct yet interrelated mediums of artistic expressions—spectacular visual representations, powerful literary compositions and tantalising performance traditions.

The book emerges out of an international conference on the multivalence of the epic, which was organised by Professor D.S. Achuta Rao Endowment in Bengaluru in 2017. The contributors include accomplished scholars of repute and erudite young researchers located across the world. The meticulously produced volume with over a hundred exquisite images will also be a collector’s delight.

Visual cultures

The first section on visual cultures—sculptures, paintings and inscriptions—comprises as many as eight articles, beginning with Parul Pandya Dhar’s rigorous study of inscriptions and sculptures retelling the Ramayana in pre-Vijayanagara Karnataka. From around the 5th century onwards, dynastic eulogies compare rulers with Rama as an ideal king, who is also represented in early inscriptions as a divine incarnation, avatara. These regional references to Rama and to Ravana reveal departures from the Valmiki Ramayana (c. 500 BCE to 200 CE).

The next contribution by John Brockington emphasises the significance of visual and inscriptional sources predating textual evidence of the Rama story in Southeast Asia. Yet visual imagery and inscriptions are also found side by side with texts since the late 9th century in Java, but much later in large parts of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, with possible connections with Bengal.

Also read: An epic tale in many forms

Valerie Gillet highlights the presence of Rama as an incarnation of Vishnu in the Pallava royal iconography, both in inscriptions and temple reliefs from Kancheepuram, in a milieu which sought to project the superiority of Siva over Vishnu and Rama. The latter’s presence in the royal discourse was subsequently asserted by the Cholas, who accorded significant space to the Ramayana in their visual repertoire.

Further, Rachel Loizeau offers a fine reading of the Ramayana in the rich Khmer sculptures with reference to the Yuddhakanda in Angkorian Cambodia, 10th-12th centuries, in a context in which there is a dearth of texts. The sculptures reveal complex adaptations, with new motifs inspired by local concerns on the pediments and lintels of Hindu temples and Buddhist monuments—especially exalting chivalry and valour, besides serving an apotropaic function, that is, depicting power to avert evil influences or bad luck.

Bronzes and sculptures

Back in southern India, under the Cholas, bronzes and sculptures of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman were deployed as important processional icons. A scientific-technical analysis of some of the key bronze icons by Sharada Srinivasan suggests that archaeo-metallurgical finger-printing of Chola period bronzes are distinct from the later Vijayanagara ones, even as the possibility of melting and recasting as well as fresh stylisation indicates the need for understanding interesting complexities, both in terms of historical chronology and iconographic features.

In continuation with the editor’s approach of a back-and-forth movement to highlight intertextual cross-referencing between South and Southeast Asian traditions, though within a broad chronology, the next chapter by Gauri Parimoo Krishnan draws our attention to the adaptation, localisation and transformations in the character of Hanuman in Southeast Asia, in particular in Javanese, Khmer and Siamese portrayals. Styled variously as half human-half ape, puppet and dancer, with motifs drawn from visual and performance arts of varied cultural zones of Southeast Asia, Hanuman is presented as an intelligent being, artful lover and playful magician in the service of Rama.

Further, in the centuries to come (16th-17th), the Nayaka rulers brought the idea of Rama rajya from their homeland in Vijayanagara to the Tamil-speaking region of southern India. The dual project of popularisation and regionalisation of the epic has been studied by R.K.K. Rajarajan with reference to the Ramayana paintings in the haloed precincts of the historic Maliruncolai temple, connecting them with traditions relating to Tamil Alvar hymns of 7th-9th centuries and with Kampan’s 12th century Iramavataram. It thus becomes part of the larger subcontinental devotional tradition, a process intelligently mediated by the Nayakas.

In line with understanding the multivalent contours of Ramayana traditions, transcending time and space, the last essay on visual cultures by Cheryl Thiruchelvam examines the continually evolving traditions of the Ramayana epic as expressed in different contemporary art forms in Malaysia. They range from traditional shadow puppets to digitised characters and narrate episodes from the epic relevant to the specific socio-political and religious contexts of present-day Malaysia.

Literary practices

The second section of the volume on literary practices explores a huge archive of texts, examining narrative accent and recitation, and showcasing associated imagery. Malini Saran highlights the significance of the discourse on governance and ethics as a leitmotif in the Old Javanese Ramayana, or the Ramayana Kakawin (9th century), the oldest extant Ramayana text from Southeast Asia, which has followed a 7th century Indian retelling of the Ramayana, poet Bhatti’s Ravanavadha or Bhattikavya. As a Javanese text on ideal kingship, it goes on to have a life of its own greatly impacting later Islamic courts of Java, and as a text meant for performance it also fused boundaries between textual and performative traditions.

The next chapter by Chirapat Prapandvidya looks at the close links of Thai Ramakien (Sanskrit: Ramakirti) with south India, through connections with older traditions of Ramayana in Cambodia. In doing so, it digresses from the Valmiki Ramayana, which too was known in Thailand between the 11th and 13th centuries. Surviving political violence, the current version of Thai Ramakien is attributed to the first ruler of the Chakri dynasty, who assumed the names of both Buddha and Rama—King Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulalok or King Rama I—and ruled from Bangkok between 1782 and 1809.

The Southeast Asian Ramayana tradition also includes the enigmatic character of the “floating maiden”, a rakhsasi known as Benjakai or Srijeti, who is presented not only as counterfeiting a dead Sita to deceive Rama but is also portrayed as being in a romantic liaison with Hanuman.

Also read: Ramayanas of South and South-east Asia

Mary Brockington deploys wide-ranging material to analyse the complex web of sharing and innovation of narrative elements and motifs from within Southeast Asian regions and across the ocean, which produced a colourful character of the rakhsasi, including a possible connection with the 10th century Sanskrit drama, Rajashekhara’s Balaramayana.

The next two chapters (12-13) in the section on literary cultures look at Ramayana traditions in Malayalam. A.J. Thomas studies Tunchat Ezhuttaccan’s Adhyatma Ramayanam Kilippattu, a 16th-17th century Malayalam bhakti text aimed at offering spiritual solace to a people suffering from entrenched social exclusion and injustice, with no access to Sanskrit scriptures. Thomas offers a translation of excerpts from the text, in which Rama figures as the supreme deity, besides analysing its larger significance in Kerala society, which is reflected in its popularity down to modern times.

Translation being an act of retelling, Sudha Gopalakrishnan presents a fine rendering in English of the critical Malayalam poetic composition, Chintavishtayaya Sita (Sita in Deep Contemplation) of Kumaran Asan (1873-1924), one of the Malayalam literary stalwarts. In exile with her two sons and Valmiki, Kumaran Asan’s Sita experiences her own agency, embracing truths about herself and Rama with grace and dignity, reconciling the agony of her exile with the warm comfort in the solitude of Valmiki’s ashrama (hermitage), and considering the forest as a happier place. In Sudha Gopalakrishnan’s moving translation, Sita’s transformative self-realisation meant a detached engagement, bordering on compassion, and withdrawal from the world:

“‘Do not worry, daughter!’ With the sage’s soothing words, gazing only at his feet,

She walked on, her face bent downwards, and reached the royal assembly;

Wordlessly, she went to him, saw her husband deeply drowned in remorse,

Amidst the royal gathering, and in this manner, she relinquished the world.”

The last chapter by Thomas Hunter highlights the deep connection between text and recitation with reference to the art of reading and interpreting the Kakawin Ramayana in Bali to an audience gathered in club-like community groups, called Sekaha Mabasan. The stories recorded in textual sources are brought to life in masked dramas such as the Wayang Wong, devoted to the magically powerful characters of Rama and Sita. The narrations and performance in Mabasan clubs have led to a cultural reawakening and negotiation of Balinese identity in the context of tradition and modernity intersecting each other.

Performance cultures

The representations of Ramayana stories in theatre, puppetry and folk practices are dealt with in great depth in the third section of the book on performance cultures. Paula Richman, the veteran scholar of Ramayana studies, offers an interesting discussion of a couple of early modern and modern plays, which present Ravana in a sympathetic light, illuminating aspects seldom emphasised in Rama-centric narratives: a late 18th-century Kathakali play in mixed Malayalam and Sanskrit, Ravanodhbhavam (The Origins of Ravana) by Kallaikulangara Raghava Pisharoty (1725-1799), and a mid-20th century Tamil mythological drama, Ilankesawaram (King of Lanka), performed to perfection for nearly 50 years by Lakshmi Narasimha “Manohar” (1925-2006). Together, the plays offer an alternative political lens, commending Ravana’s rule as centralised, but egalitarian, Ravanarajya, and departing from the conventional Ramarajya, without demeaning varna- and dharma-bound Rama.

Further departures are to be seen in Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof’s discussion of the Malay Shadow play, Wayang Kulit Kelantan, said to be based on an oral version of the Ramayana from the north-eastern state of Kelantan on the Malay Peninsula, named Hikayat Maharaja [Ra]Wana (Story of King Ravana). These may be read in conjunction with the Malay-Indonesian Hikayat Seri Rama (Story of Sri Ram), among other Southeast Asian versions of the Ramayana stories—which in turn were informed by imports of several versions of episodes from the Rama saga, not only from Valmiki’s Ramayana, but also Krttivasa’s Ramayana (15th century) and Tulsidas’ Ramacharitmanas (16th century). An interesting strand of the story analysed by Yousof narrates Ravana’s misconduct in the Sky kingdom, which led to his banishment to earth and landing in Lanka, where he spent his time in penance. The Prophet Adam, who is sent down to Lanka by Allah, happens to meet Ravana. Adam intercedes on Ravana’s behalf for his forgiveness and permission to become the ruler of three parts of the world, with the fourth reserved for Adam’s own descendants. The story thus acquires a form relevant to popular Islam in the Malaysian archipelago.

The next two chapters look at the versions of the epic in Kannada. Krishna Murthy Hanuru examines how different folk performatives, which popularised the Ramayana tradition by bringing it from palace to streets and bylanes, departed from the classic Sanskrit epic to suit the ideals of the folk world. This meant varying emphasis in the processes of idealisation and demonisation. Revealing complex relationships between classical traditions and the beliefs and aspirations of the common people, some folk performances tended to contradict widely held views on virtues associated with Rama and Sita, and yet others idealised the character of Hanuman.

In the next chapter, Purushottama Bilimale, a distinguished scholar of Kannada folk and literary traditions, highlights the creative processes and improvisations by composers, musicians actors and audience in the staging of the Yakshagana of coastal Karnataka. In Bilimale’s words, together they continually recreate, redefine, communicate and appropriate episodes from the Ramayana.

The last chapter by Sirang Leng takes us across the ocean again for a discussion of the adoption of the Ramayana in Reamker performances, meant for both ritual invocations and entertainment in Cambodian Khmer society, where sculptures and inscriptions relating to the Ramayana are observed from as early as the 6th/7th century.

Also read: ‘Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism’

The history of Reamker performance dates back to the 16th century, with its popularity ranging from the high elite to ordinary folks—catering to the spiritual and social needs of the people, besides their entertainment quotients. The chapters on wide reception of performance cultures also reminded this reviewer of the excellent work of Philip Lutgendorf in the field and his translation and edition of Tulsidas’ Ramacharitmanas as well as the more recent work of Molly Kaushal, documenting local and tribal Ramlilas.

The Indian Sufi appreciation of versions of narratives around the ethical figure of Sri Ram of Ayodhya, from the 15th-16th century, also add interesting dimensions to the common pool of literary and devotional resources around the cult of Rama. The devotional compositions of Sufi-Sant Kabir and of Malik Muhammad Jaisi of Padmavat fame come to mind immediately as examples of Sufi adaptations of Sita-Rama narratives. The same is true for the older Jaina traditions.

In conclusion, plurality and inclusiveness mark the enduring feature of the history of diverse Ramayana traditions traversing over two millennia and across wide geographical locations. The remarkable contributions to this significant volume have brought together many of the multifaceted features of the epic in South India and Southeast Asia. A sequel volume focussing on northern parts of the subcontinent, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, will bring forth several other dimensions of the Rama stories. As Parul Pandya Dhar writes in her introduction:

“Categories of intrinsic and extrinsic, change and continuity, classical and vernacular, and parts and whole offer useful perspectives to unravel the epic’s multivalence. As it flows and adapts in varied contexts, its unique identity as a mahakavya (great poem) sustains even as it merges in a stream of continuous change. This assimilative power, with its diverse and plural renderings, is also its soul and strength.

“This reminds us of the heated debate on the value of the outstanding work of scholars such as A.K. Ramanujan and Paula Richman on many traditions of Ramayana. As the annual Dussehra celebrations and current research illustrate, imaginative and powerful new tellings continue to be created, and the ways of perceiving them are many as well. Thus, to privilege any monolithic or exclusive reading of the vast traditions of the Ramayana is antithetical to its very essence. Let a thousand and one Ramayanas flourish!”

Raziuddin Aquil is Professor of History in the University of Delhi.

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