Epic Win

Weighing contemporary English retellings of myths against other narrative traditions

Kathakali exponent Kottakkal Shivaraman playing Sita. The classical arts have always brought fluidity and playfulness to the epics. HERVE BRUHAT / GAMMA-RAPHO / GETTY IMAGES
01 May, 2013

BEING THE BHAKT OF A HINDU GOD is a little like being the fan of a Bollywood actor. It does not matter if he or she ever sees you; the fervour of your love brings into existence the version of the god that you carry around in your heart. The convenient thing about celebrities and deities is that you, and not they, get to define the authentic narrative of their lives.

Coming across a tacky retelling of your cherished god’s story, then, is like seeing a particularly tawdry picture of a beloved actor decorating the interior of an autorickshaw.

That was my reaction to reading Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana, in which author after author attempts to put Sita in fancy-dress costumes and parades her in a literary beauty pageant as a suitably decorous example of a feminist retelling. Sita as giant “intelligent nanite cloud” choosing voluntary exile; Sita as an alien testing humanity to deem it unworthy of her species’ largesse; Sita as time-travelling feminist seeking to fix the ur-Ramayan; Sita as drug-addicted NRI housewife. Well-crafted writing lifted some of these stories above mediocrity, but as characters, the Ramas and Sitas fell flat—vacuous hollow-hearted puppets jerking around only to fulfill the polemics of their authors. (Actual shadow puppetry Ramayanas, on the other hand, have a far more moving grandeur.)

An increasing number of derivative Indian English works are marketed and championed as though they have just invented the genre of reinterpreting and critiquing the epics. But this buzz overlooks an already existing tradition of reinterpreting epic texts in other, less exposed narrative forms. Both the vernacular literary landscape and the traditional performing arts reveal a storytelling heritage that more successfully negotiates the tension between respectful submission and questioning critique.

In his famous essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, unreasonably struck off a University of Delhi syllabus in 2011, AK Ramanujan observes: “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.” In other words, the myths are good at containing multitudes. The political schemer of ‘Bharat’ (the ur-Mahabharata supposedly written by Vyasa), the philosophiser of the Bhagavad Gita, the rakshasa-killer and mountain-lifter of the Puranas, and the amorous lover of the Bhakti poetry tradition coalesce a thousand years of narrative into a figure called ‘Krishna’. There is a long and illustrious tradition of vernacular retellings intertwining with each other and acknowledging the existence of these multiple realities, but many contemporary Indian English writers are producing work that is lightweight—unmoored to traditions that celebrate and interrogate epic texts at the same time.

The narrative tradition these writers seem to be borrowing from is the retold Western fairy tale and fantasy formula, in which Hansel and Gretel become witch hunters and Percy Jackson cavorts with Greek gods. This results in neatly packaged novels with diminished characters that become, like Paanchali in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, the banal girl-next-door. They argue for the same hackneyed forms of feminism, and ignore both caste and complications of gender and sexuality. Their alternate-universe conceits—for example, high fantasy in Ashok Banker’s The Krishna Coriolis series, political scandal in Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen and mafia dons in Sandipan Deb’s The Last War—add nothing by way of characterisations or plot. One glorious exception to the current crop is Amruta Patil’s graphic novel Adi Parva, which is full of unanswered questions and contradictory narrators that give the story the depth and messy complexity of real life.

A set of storytellers doing far more complex and subtle commentaries within their prescribed narrative formats can be found in the performing arts. The combination of poetry, music and movement gives choreographers and directors multiple elements to play with, and so many traditions to reference and react to—a 4th-century Sankrit text can be juxtaposed with 13th-century iconography and 21st-century costume. Because performers, through training and spectatorship, are steeped in epic storytelling traditions, they bring a sense of living sanctity to the characters.

In December last year, several of these highly sophisticated artists came together at the Epic Women festival in Chennai. The simplest and most overtly traditional of their works was Kapila Venu’s Sita Parithyagam (The Abandonment of Sita) in Nangiar Koothu, a female-only dance-theatre form from Kerala. Like most kudiyattam performances, this was oriented towards an informed audience familiar with the hasta (gestural) vocabulary. Entire minutes went by with the performer sitting still on a stool, the vilakku flickering in front of her, three musicians flanking her upstage, her eyebrows and eyelids the only parts of her in motion. But the visceral energy she invested in her role made the performance crackle with tension. The peacocks ceased their dance to mourn with Sita; Rama swooned in sorrow after witnessing his wife exile herself into the earth; and, through it all, the audience remained suspended in urgent empathy with a Sita who, because of the dancer’s rigorous submersion in her character, came fiercely alive, demanding empathy instead of pity.

Another persuasive performance was a narration of the Amba–Shikhandi story from the Mahabaharata, by two bharatanatyam dancers who used the therukoothu Tamil folk theatre traditions to present a poignant treatise on gender policing. Because both Priya Murle and Srikanth Natarajan were in cross-dressed costumes, they were able to comment, without lecturing, on the extent to which gender is performative. The classical arts have always lent themselves to gender fluidity. When the late odissi maestro Kelucharan Mahapatra melted into the delicate grace of Radha, or when a bharatanatyam doyenne such as Alarmel Valli portrays the regal masculinity of Shiva, a tradition that relies on the codification of gendered gestures transforms gender identities into what you choose to do, rather than who you are. Few writers in English have yet to mine this rich vein of playfulness with gender and sexuality that runs through the epics, though Devdutt Pattanaik’s novel The Pregnant King, as well as his contribution to the Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica, shows that one can.

It is not that the performative arts are superior because of some presumed zealous championing of a putative One True Narrative. In fact, one of the worst betrayals of the current crop of print retellings is how meekly they toe the Hindutva-approved line. At the recent Comic Con held in Delhi this February, there were multiple publishers with Ravana-based titles, but none of them deviated from the rakshasa-dark / Rama-blue colourist bigotry that has been commonplace since Amar Chitra Katha. Nor did they dare to present existing variants, such as the Ramayana sung by Karnataka’s tamburi dasayyas (traditional bards), in which Ravana gets pregnant and gives birth to Sita before abandoning her in a field. Even the over-erudite novella Sita’s Ascent by Vayu Naidu is less transgressive in its portrayal of Sita’s final days in exile than, say, the Telugu writer Volga’s Samagamam (2003), in which Sita and Soorpanakha befriend each other, or Ambai’s Tamil story ‘Adavi’ (2000), which ends with Sita learning the rudraveena from Ravana.

In most cases, these books are served up to satisfy the nostalgia for a false history in which Hindus were bow-wielding warriors who fearlessly killed the ‘rakshasas’, but never went bare-breasted or ate cow. (We know whom those dark-skinned, monstrous, lustful and crude raskhasas are stand-ins for, right?) As Campfire Publishing has proved with its gorgeously illustrated graphic novels, turn Krishna and Rama into dreamy loverboys and superhero studs, or illustrate Sita Disney-princess-style, as Sanjay Patel did in his Pixar-animation-style Ramayana: Divine Loophole, and you’re raking in the dough from the dada-dadi-approved-children’s-book market.

For the adult crowd that prefers its epics Anglo-fantasy flavoured—with swords, heroic quests and unambiguously evil orcs—there are the Shiva-Purana-crossed-with-MBA-manual books of Amish Tripathi, and self-proclaimed ‘post-racial post-religious’ Indian Ashok Banker, whose Prince of Ayodhya series has the moral complexity of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. (Instead of Ravana’s conflict with Rama being instigated by Lakshmana’s mutilation of Soorpanakha, his book opens with Manthara as a baby-killing, devil-worshipping secret agent of the Narak-dwelling Ravana.)

There are three stories in Breaking the Bow that feature Soorpanakha. One is a magical tale in which she is a metal worker who builds a cyborg to go woo Rama. In another, she is the star of an American reality television show. In the third, she is a cos-playing sex worker in a dystopian bar. But when I think about Soorpanakha as an archetype, the story I see unfolding in front of me is that choreographed by odissi dancer Sharmila Biswas, performed by the young soloist Ayona Bhaduri. This Soorpanakha steps out in the bloom of love to greet Rama, but hesitates, catching sight of her reflection in a pool. Her face crumples in self-loathing, because she knows enough about society to know what it thinks of rakshasi-looks. She then paints a portrait of the most beautiful woman she can imagine and, breathing life into it, embodies that vision. She then approaches Rama confidently, joyously, but not threateningly. When he rejects her, nevertheless, wounded sorrow trembles on her lips. In the final moments, she is just a sitting girl, hand held heartbreakingly over the space where her nose used to be. In the dignity and vulnerability bestowed on her by the dancer, Soorpanakha’s story might resemble that of any girl who has been punished by a society for stating her desires.

A good retelling does not have to be sexy, to boldly go into a setting where no version has gone before. The epics contain enough depth to support the most complex investigations into human nature. A good retelling will find its way upstream to the source and show us how to do that.