In an introduction to this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Devdutt Pattanaik aptly summed up the dillemma facing authors who want to write about the Ramayan and its principal character - Shri Ram.
"When in India, if you write about Ram, you will invariably be gagged by someone. If you say something positive about him, the left wing will get all upset and call you patriarchal. If you say he was a good husband, the feminists will jump in to say that he was definitely not a good husband. If you say anything negative about him, the entire right wing gets upset and says that he is a God, how can you say anything against him?"
This anthology however, is a collection of stories on Sita. The Sita, who Ram is the husband of, not Sita - the wife of Ram. There are different themes within this anthology, but the common thread running through them all is the attempt to envision the tale of Sita from a perspective different from her supporting role in the popularly known Valmiki Ramayan/Tulsi Ramayan(Ramcharitmanas)/Ramanand Sagar televised versions.
The ideal of Sita who is held up as a role model for Indian wives (aadarsh patni) is that of a woman who followed her husbands directives unquestioningly, who got into trouble when she dared cross the line (Lakshman Rekha). A woman on the sidelines, silently suffering and enduring, helpless and unable to control anything that happened around her. Absolute submission.
However in the many regional variations of the Ramayan that abound across India and abroad, there are other aspects of Sita's personality that shine through.
There are 33 different essays in this anthology, broadly divided into four sections. The first deals with commentaries on Sita - vs other women in the epics, as Gauri/Kali, as Janaki. My favourite from this section is: Reba Som's essay on Gandhi's vision of the Indian woman as Sita vs Nehru's ideal of Chitrangadha for the Indian woman to emulate.
The second section, is dialogues with personalities who have explored Sita through different media. Sonal Mansingh(dancer), Indira Goswami (Jnanpith awardee, Ramayan researcher), Madhu Kishwar (founder editor of a woman's journal), Nilimma Devi (Kuchipudi dancer), Madhureeta Anand (documentary filmmaker), Nina Paley (animator and producer - Sita sings the Blues)
The third section deals with different versions of the Ramayan from Himachal to Assamese, Bengali to Telugu. Interesting variations crop up based on regions. For eg. in the Mahasuvi Ramain, Sita's culinary skills are supposed to be at the root of her abduction. Superior culinary skills being equated with superior home-making skills - highly prized in the Pahari culture.
The final section deals with Creative Interpretations, including paintings and speculative fiction. Kumudini's "Letters from the Palace" is brilliant in its narrative and thought. Here the story is told in letters from Sita to her mother, just by describing the saris that she wants from Mithila.
The importance of a collection like this, is that as Namita Gokhale says "Mythology in India is not just an academic or historical subject, it is a vital and living topic of contemporary relevance"
Extremely engrossing, not at all a stuffy academic treatise that it might be mistaken for, its extremely readable. This collection has defintiely created a strong desire in me to read as many versions of the Ramayan as possible. Not just as a story or mythology but as an insight into local customs, mores, social structure and fabric. My only constraint is that I will have to look for versions that have been translated into English. Kamban (Tamil), Kandali (Assamese), Krttivasa (Bengali), Vilanka (Oriya) are just where I hope to start. I'm open to recommendations for any other versions too. Drop a comment.
Also published on desicritics.org