Sita's Ramayana does away with the all-pervasive male voice and lets the women do the talking, in a bid to offer a fresh perspective to the age-old mythological tale. Then again, author Samhita Arni has been doing precisely that since the age of 12, when she published a re-telling of the Mahabharata
We know the story by heart. We have read, heard and watched the Ramayana all our lives. Yet, how often have we taken a step back to think about the heroine of the epic: What did she feel about being abducted and imprisoned? Was she angry when Ram questioned her purity after rescuing her? Did she feel humiliated when she was asked to prove her chastity in public?
Samhita Arni at her Bengaluru residence. The tapestry that hangs on a
wall behind her offers an Indonesian version of the Ramayana.
Tara Books' latest graphic novel, Sita's Ramayana, tries to give us some answers, and proffering them is Samhita Arni, a Bengaluru-based writer, who had published a re-telling of the Mahabharata when she was just 12, nearly 15 years ago. Titled The Mahabharata: A Child's View, Arni played both, writer and illustrator then.
This time, the illustrations have been done by Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar, based in Nirbhaypur village in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal. Patua is a style of art native to West Bengal, where handmade paper pasted on cloth, is painted with vegetable and mineral dyes in scroll form, depicting stories from epics as well as mythology. Patua artists are known to travel from village to village with their scrolls, singing out the stories.
Above and right: Panels from the book Sita's Ramayana depicting the
women characters in the Ramayana, including Sita
Arni's concise words lend a voice to Sita, and even a conscience -- a voice in her head makes Sita question the events unfolding around her. A double major in Religion and Film from Mount Holyoke College in the United States, Arni has lived in Pakistan, Thailand and Italy among other countries. She is currently working on a thriller called Searching for Sita. In an interview with Sunday MiD DAY, Arni tells us why the women of Ramayana deserve to come into their own, why she empathises with Ram (despite his flaws) and why she's obsessed with mythology.
How did Sita's Ramayana come about?
The genesis of this graphic novel lies in a thriller that I am working on. While researching, I came across a whole lot of interesting perspectives on the Ramayana. At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, I met the publishers from Tara Books, and they mentioned that a Patua artist named Moyna Chitrakar was already working on a narrative based on the Ramayana. The Patua version of the Ramayana looks at the epic from a feminist perspective. I decided to stay true to the artists' vision, when I collaborated with her and interwove my words around Moyna's narrative.
Why did you decide to tell the story from Sita's perspective?
As mentioned, I had come across a lot of versions of the Ramayana in the course of my research. For example, a Telugu marriage folk song says, 'Don't marry your daughter to the men of Ayodhya'. Similarly, Chandravati, considered to be the first Bengali woman poet, wrote a version of the Ramayana from Sita's perspective in 1550, questioning Ram's actions. Besides, while growing up, I had problems with the idea of Sita vis-a-vis the epic. The latter portion of the epic, where Ram questions her chastity and finally puts her to test, is often glossed over in most versions. Sometimes, this ending is edited, with Rama and Sita happily uniting forever. I wanted to tell a story that would unravel events as seen through Sita's eyes.
What was your experience of working with Moyna?
In this book images are primary, words come later. Moyna's images are strong. You could get lost looking into them. The entire book is image-driven. I had to weave words to suit these images.
In the graphic novel, Surpanakaha, Trijatha and Tara ask existential questions, in the same vein as Sita.
You know, war makes heroes out of men. But, it is the women who have to suffer defeat in every way. They are left behind childless, widowed and fatherless. They are the ones who have to bear the brunt of war. Tara, once the wife of Sugriva, who married his brother Vali, is aghast when Sugriva kills her husband because she is genuinely in love with Vali. She refuses to return to Sugriva. Similarly, Trijatha, a Rakshashi and Sita's constant companion, muses about war and the destruction it would cause. Trijatha's dream about Sita uniting with Ram is beautifully composed. She even chooses to stay behind with her people in Lanka rather than desert them.
When Ram reunites with Sita after he takes over Lanka, he doubts her chastity. How does the graphic novel present that?
Well, I actually empathise with Ram in some way. The whole business of a bloody war with so many deaths, leaves Ram frustrated when he meets his wife. Not only has he suffered for her, he has also had to deal with her being kept in imprisonment by another man. It becomes important for him to know about Sita's purity. After reuniting, when he doubts Sita, she decides she has had enough. She won't prove her chastity in public. These moments of conflict are very important to the narrative.
What is it about mythology that interests you?
I started reading books, starting with mythology, when I was four. I was growing up in Pakistan during the late 1980s, where my dad was posted as a Foreign Services officer. I was particularly drawn to the Mahabharata. I would draw parallels between the warring brothers and India and Pakistan. I think mythology loves escapism. The beauty of the epic is that every time you read it, you discover new aspects that you might not overlooked the last time around. Once I returned to Delhi -- just before the Babri Masjid demolition -- I started keeping a diary. These were notes I would make on the Mahabharata. My mother, Kanchana Arni, secretly collected my writings and sent them to Tara Books, who published them.
Sita's Ramayana published by Tara Books. Rs 550. Log on to http://www.tarabooks.com/ to buy a copy.