Rescripting the 'Ramayana': an old habit

September 2005 -

The Ramayana

To summarize the epic story crudely (although no one version of this epic must be considered authoritative), Rama is exiled by his father, the king, so that Rama’s half-brother can take the throne instead.
During that exile, Rama’s wife Sita is kidnapped by king Ravana and is eventually rescued by Rama and his army. But Rama is torn apart by suspicion about Sita’s relationship with Ravana, and Sita offers to undergo an agnipariksha or trial by fire to prove that her fidelity to him has not been compromised.
The characterization of Sita is regarded by many as ideal, while Rama’s rule after his exile has come to represent a utopian vision of a state run by an ideal king.

sanctuary cover

Hema Ramakrishna’s recently published English play Sanctuary! is her interpretation of scenes from the Indian epic Ramayana. Plurality and the constant questioning of previous characterizations are central to the Ramayana tradition. There are literally hundreds of Ramayanas. In these numerous versions, characterizations and endings differ radically, reflecting the social positions and ideologies of their narrators.

For example, there are many Ramayanas all over India that portray stronger roles for Sita, and in fact even benign roles for the ‘enemy’ king Ravana. In one Ramayana, Sita slays Ravana because Rama is unable to do so! Continuing this tradition, Hema Ramakrishna’s Sanctuary! dwells with critique on the brutal actions of the male characters in the epic. In her version of the play, Ravana mutilates Sita, and Rama rejects her because she has lost her beauty. The playwright also changes the ending: Sita kills herself and leaves Rama to live with his guilt. Ramakrishna considers this to be a feminist retelling of the epic. Whatever the legitimacy of that claim, the playwright’s act of recasting the characters to convey her personal point of view is of significance in a larger cultural context.

Since the 1990s, some political groups in India have asserted one hegemonic version of the epic and displayed their intolerance of other versions of the story (and other world views). This is contrary to the very spirit of the epic these groups claim to know so well. With Sanctuary!, Ramakrishna reminds her audience that the story is meant to be retold to express myriad viewpoints, and no single authorial position can claim ascendancy over the others.

Hema Ramakrishna, 'Sanctuary! A play in six scenes', Vijitha Yapa Publications, January 2005.