Literature responds to wider social phenomena in a strange way. Within a few weeks of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, writers in the Sahitya Akademi elected the Kannada novelist U.R. Anantha Murthy as the Akademi’s president. In order to reduce the gap between literature and society, he brought in a greater awareness of Dalit literature. He asked me if I would do a series of books on the oral literature of Adivasis. I agreed and set out looking for substantial literary works in languages spoken by Adivasis. One of the first that came to my notice was the Ramayana in the Kunkana language. Lest Kunkana is mistaken for Konkani, spoken in Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra, let me add that the Kunkana Adivasi community lives on the border between Maharashtra and Gujarat.
I first met the Kunkanas at Saputara—a really tiny hilltop stretch of houses—in the Dangs district of Gujarat. The Kunkana singers and musicians gathered there were led by Dahyabhai Vadhu, an extremely gifted culture-enthusiast and a bank employee. He told me that the Kunkana language has an entire Ramkatha, substantially different from the Valmiki Ramayana. When the singers accompanying him presented an episode, I realised that it was indeed different. The story was amazingly humane and far more sensitive to the women’s perspective. The orientation of the Kunkana audiences to their Ramkatha stands in sharp contrast with the use of the Sanskrit Ram towards political gains. It led me to ask Dahyabhai to publish the Kunkana Ramkatha.
In the Kunkana epic, Sita is depicted as Ravana’s daughter, though her progenitor is Siva. Ravana, born without arms or legs in a family of robbers, decides to go to Kailash and undertake a penance for pleasing Siva. After 12 months of penance, as Siva notices the formless child, Ravana expresses his desire to be a complete human. Just then, Siva has to go away to attend to his ‘worldly’ duties. He allows Ravana to stay in the Kailash palace, but forbids him from entering a certain room in which, as Siva warns him, a “black bee” may sting him to death. Unable to tolerate the delay in his wish fulfillment, Ravana decides to disobey Siva. It contains a pool of nectar. Inadvertently, he falls into the pool and starts drowning in the nectar. Nine sips of nectar enter his belly, and nine new heads sprout on his body, making him a 10-headed monster. On Siva’s return home, Ravana complains to him, and in order to repair the damage, Siva promises Ravana the kingdom of Lanka.
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As he is leaving Kailash, Ravana happens to see Parvati. He immediately returns and pleads with Siva to give away Parvati as his wife, as no girl may like to marry a 10-headed being. Siva, true to his generous nature, allows Parvati to go with Ravana. But this creates a panic among gods. Krishna is given the duty of rescuing Parvati from Ravana. So Krishna, dressed as a villager, waits on the path on which Ravana and Parvati are walking and tells Ravana, as they meet, that Siva had cheated him by handing over a maid working in Siva’s household and that the real Parvati was still at Kailash. Ravana returns to Kailash for settling accounts with Siva. Meanwhile, Krishna creates a Mohini, a woman who looks more charming than Parvati. Siva himself feels attracted to this one. When Ravana enters Kailash, he notices Siva and Mohini together. He takes her away, believing her to be Parvati, and leaves the real Parvati with Siva.
The worries of Krishna and other gods are not set to rest completely as yet. Since Ravana has drank the nectar at Kailash, there was no possibility of his death. Therefore, Krishna tricks him once again. He tells Ravana that just as Siva had given him some ordinary woman instead of Parvati, he had given him only the kingdom of Lanka instead of making him the king of the Kingdom of Death. So, once again Ravana returns to Siva, and asks for Death, this time in writing. Here is how the Kunkana poem narrates the episode: “‘O Elder one, you have once again made a fool of me. You are a great god, you have given me the throne of Lanka and its neighbouring regions and all the seven oceans. Do you wish me to be content with just that? I wish to possess the throne of Death.’ Quite exhausted by Ravana’s pestering, Siva writes (the Kunkana Adivasis believe Siva writes all his boons): ‘The king of Ayodhya will have a queen named Kaikeyi. She will give birth to Rama. At that moment Ravana will get pricked by a thorn, and the pain of the thorn-prick would shoot all the way up to his head. Ravana will then be seized by malarial fever. Eventually, Rama will kill Ravana.’”
A different Sita
Having lost the real Parvati, and having lost his immortality, Ravana starts his journey to Lanka together with the woman he believes to be Parvati. She is already pregnant, having spent some time with Siva. But she drops the foetus while bathing in a river as she gets terrified by the roaring voice of Ravana. The foetus floats down the river and lands where a gardner named Jambumali, described as a king, resides. Sita is born. The fame of her lustre and courage spreads far and wide. Later, from Jambumali’s home, King Janaka takes Sita to his palace. While on an expedition, Dasharatha visits Janaka’s palace. While he is resting there, Sita takes up Dasharatha’s mighty bow and turns it into a toy-horse for her to play with. Dasharatha is stunned by her power. Janaka, Dasharatha, and the entire kingdom of Janaka stare dumbstruck at the divine strength of Sita. Only a great and mighty warrior could possibly have lifted such a huge bow and a two-and-a-half-ton, sword-like arrow. Sita was just a child. As he departs from Janaka’s house, Dasharatha leaves the huge bow behind for Sita to play with. The Kunkana epic does not forget to mention that it weighs ‘two-and-a-half-tons.’ The soldiers of Janakapur guard the huge bow. Day after day passed by. Night after night passed by. The story continues with its many departures from the plot of the Valmiki Ramayana.
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The epic in Kunkana is narrated during the months following the long monsoon, which lasts for several months in the Dangs, by bards who engage in agricultural activities during the monsoon. They do not follow the text inscribed in their memory and learnt through oral tradition handed down by their ancestors. The members of the Kunkana community have a full familiarity with the storyline and the songs interspersed over the narrative. The Kunkanas believe that the Rama story indeed took place within the confines of the Dangs territory. The place names in the narrative tally with geographical locations within the district. Similarly, the narrative style works towards bringing the listeners and the narrative closer. All these factors help the Kunkanas fully internalise their Ram epic.
While the Valmiki poem belongs to the realm of myth for the present generation listeners, the Kunkana Ram epic is seen by the community as part of their immediate ethos. Scholars of Indian literature may like to describe the Kunkana Ram epic and similar epics elsewhere, such as the Bhartari epic in Chattisgarh and the Madeshwara epic in Karnataka, as “little traditions”. The fact, however, is that they have still not ossified into “traditions”. These enchanting poetic creations are even now “contemporary” literature for them. They are the real literature, in this side of India.
G.N. Devy is a cultural activist, and chairperson, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India.