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The Ramayana Revisited$

Mandakranta Bose

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195168327

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2005

DOI: 10.1093/0195168321.001.0001

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(p.3) Introduction
The Ramayana Revisited

Mandakranta Bose (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins with a discussion of the Rāmāyana's adaptability to multiple genres, art forms, and social contexts as well as the reliance that countless South and Southeast Asians place on it as a guide to everyday conduct. It then describes variants of the Rāmāyana and its spread across regions beyond the borders of South Asia over the span of more than a millennium. An overview of the chapters included in this book is presented.

Keywords:   genres, South Asia, Southeast Asia, text, culture

As an ancient narrative that continues to influence the social, religious, cultural, and political life of modern South and Southeast Asia, the Rāmāyaṇa hardly needs to be justified as an object of serious study. But its adaptability to multiple genres, art forms, and social contexts does invite investigation, as does the reliance that countless South and Southeast Asians place on it as a guide to everyday conduct. Not a year passes that at least one of my students of South Asian origin does not tell me how she was exhorted by her mother to try to be like Sītā. Improbable as this reverence seems to me, and hard to reconcile with the dissipation of cultural heritage resulting from distance in space and time, it is a reality of South Asian life. To make such an impression, what forms does the Rāmāyaṇa assume as it appears to its countless admirers? In what ways and to what extent do these forms of representation construct the meaning of the epic for its audiences? The diversity of its retellings suggests that the Rāmāyaṇa holds different meanings for different audiences. If we are to discover what those varying meanings are and how they arise, then we must take stock not only of the literary text but also of non-literary forms, such as, dance dramas, oral narratives, stage plays, songs, films, and the visual and plastic arts.

The need to widen our investigative approaches is urgent in view of the pace at which recent Rāmāyaṇa scholarship is advancing. Even a cursory survey of recent publications shows the degree of sustained attention the Rāmāyaṇa is commanding today, from rigorously crafted editorial and translation projects to precisely researched interpretive readings that cover the whole range of public life, from politics to entertainment.1 Conferences on the Rāmāyaṇa are regular events, organized by major academic bodies such as the (p.4) Sahitya Akademi of India, and by community organizations such as the International Ramayana Institute of North America. Complementing this scholarly interest, there has been a resurgence of interest in the public domain in the form of stepped-up performances of the traditional Rāmlīlā celebrations of northern India and plays and films derived from the epic.2 A milestone in the dissemination of the epic in modern times is the television serial Rāmāyaṇa produced in 1987 for India's state-run broadcaster, Doordarshan, by Ramanand Sagar. This serial entranced vast audiences and brought public life to a halt during its weekly airing, and it continues to draw loyal viewers on video in India and within the huge Indian diaspora.3 Sanjay Khan, a major filmmaker, has announced plans for a blockbuster film with the telling title “Maryyada Purushottam” (“The honor of the lord of men”) based on the epic. A more somber but equally decisive sign of the grip that the Rāmāyaṇa has on the popular mind is its highly effective use as a political reference point in India from the late 1980s.4 The epic seems well on the way to emerging as an instrument of identity formation, particularly for Hindus within the Indian diaspora, among whom the public chanting of the Tulsīdāsi Rāmāyaṇa has spread substantially over the last twenty years.5 But interest in the Rāma tale is by no means confined to South or Southeast Asian populations and often crops up at unexpected places. For example, the distinctly off-the-track Salt Spring Island, situated off the western shore of Canada, has for many years hosted an annual Rāmāyaṇa performance entirely for the delectation of the local community. In the summer of 2002, Vancouver saw a multimedia dance drama on the Rāmāyaṇa that became something of a tourist attraction. That the epic has reached the global mass market is attested still better by the production of a technologically brilliant if determinedly Disneyfied cartoon version by a joint Japanese-Indian group, presented at international film festivals in the late 1980s and now making the rounds in a DVD reincarnation.6

The recharged social appeal of the Rāmāyaṇa has been responsible in large part for the current scholarly focus on its ideological meanings and functions. This interest has led to the recognition, first, that the literary tradition represented by Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa and its many literary descendants, most notably Tulasīdās's reworking of it in Hindi, Kampanṉ's Irāmāvatāram in Tamil, and Kṛttivāsa's Rāmāyaṇa in Bengali, has exercised a hegemonic authority in South Asian civil society, generating emulation in narratives and performances. Second, the argument has gained force that this authority is one that is contested by numerous nonhegemonic or counterhegemonic versions.7 Reading the literary versions as inscriptions of elitist, patriarchal, and generally regressive social and political values, recent scholarship has turned to oral, folk, and regional versions and performance forms as populist, subaltern, or feminist retellings of the epic. Not surprisingly, studies grounded in these perceptions rely upon the methods and theoretical frameworks of postcolonial criticism, subaltern history, and gender studies.8

This enlargement of the critical perspective is an increasingly important part of contemporary Rāmāyaṇa studies. Within the past three decades, scholarship has made a rapid advance in both volume and depth to engage with (p.5) retellings of the Rāmāyaṇa that have historically arisen out of regional, racial, caste, and gender sensibilities. Much of present-day Rāmāyaṇa scholarship aims at uncovering such sensibilities by tracing the resonance between the major versions of the epic and its local retellings, and subjecting them to intense rhetorical, structural, and ideological scrutiny. Studies in the choice of narrative structures and strategies of representation have revealed a dynamic relationship of subscription and resistance to the ethical and political formulas authorized by standard versions. Up to the middle of the twentieth century, Rāmāyaṇa scholarship was dominated by textual, philological, and philosophical commentary, and by research on its origins, literary parallels, historicity, and transmission.9 With that solid platform established, research since the 1970s has been able to turn toward searching assessments of the cultural and political instrumentality of the Rāmāyaṇa.

The existence of regional variants of the Rāma tale, including those from beyond the borders of India, is not, of course, a recent discovery, the diversity of Rāma tales having been noted by a number of early scholars.10 Some of the most enthusiastic and keenly observed reports come from the poet Rabindranath Tagore in the letters he wrote home during his visit to Java in 1927.11 But from mid-twentieth century onward, research in Rāmāyaṇa variants picked up pace, as attested by the proliferation of comparative studies in collections such as The Rāmāyaṇa Tradition in Asia, Rāmāyaṇa in South East Asia, and Variation in Rāmāyaṇa in Asia.12 By the late twentieth century, it became customary for scholars of South Asian languages and literatures to view the epic not only as a finished literary masterpiece by Vālmīki that had gained a new life at the hands of Tulsīdās, but also as part of the varied folk cultures of India and Southeast Asia. Local versions came increasingly under critical scrutiny and came to be situated in their particular social ethos and cultural idiom. However, until the 1960s the main approaches to the Rāmāyaṇa comprised efforts to establish texts, origins, and parallels; to examine philological characteristics, historicity, and moral themes; and occasionally to claim the pervasiveness of Hindu culture. In contrast, the past thirty years or so have seen an accelerating interest in the textual, narrative, and representational diversity of the Rāmāyaṇa, which marks it as a hegemonic social text on the one hand and, on the other, as a platform for resistance to that hegemony.

We may note in passing, though, that the notion of the Rāmāyaṇa as an oppositional text is not exclusive either to the present time or to folk traditions on the margin. One of the most powerful counter-Rāmāyaṇas to date is a self-consciously literate work in the Virgilian epic mode from the mid-ninteenth century in sonorous Bengali blank verse, the Meghanādavadha kāvya (1861) by Michael Madhusudan Datta, who mourns Rāvaṇa's defeat and his son Meghanāda's death at the hands of the treacherous “Rāma and his rabble.”13 But the decisive turn of scholarly interest toward counterhegemonic constructions and implications has to be understood as a recent phenomenon. Rāmāyaṇa scholarship today is systematically attempting to chart the scale of alternative constructions. In doing so it recognizes that the variety and number of such constructions is so vast as to put into question the authority of centrality (p.6) traditionally ascribed to such versions as the Vālmīki or Tulsīdāsi Rāmāyaṇa, and indeed the validity of electing any version as a master narrative. In regional versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, scholars continue to discover how social groups disempowered by caste, race, and gender have capitalized on the narrative lines of the epic to inscribe upon it their own understanding of the world that it celebrates, and sometimes to dispute it.14 As already noted, of equal social potency and immediate relevance to our own times is the scholarly perception of the political agency of the Rāmāyaṇa.

The complexity of the reception, retelling, and transmission of the Rāmāyaṇa is compounded by its spread across regions beyond the borders of South Asia over the span of more than a millennium. The peoples of Southeast Asia in particular have developed their own powerful traditions of the Rāma tale in their oral and literary narratives, their art and architecture, their music, dance, and drama.15 The uses of the Rāmāyaṇa have not left social and political practice unaffected, either. The legitimation of Thai monarchies by the dynastic adoption of the name Rāma and by centering dynastic power in a capital named Ayutthya is only one of many indications of the epic's social application. But it is not only by its political uses that the pervasiveness of the Rāmāyaṇa in Southeast Asia can be explained. Rather, it is possible that its generic patterns of heroism, justice, and human relations are flexible enough to accommodate and perhaps invite turns in the narrative, choices of episodes, manipulation of character and theme, and modes of representation that are embedded in the particulars of regional histories and thus rendered self-reflexive.

A worthwhile critical task, then, is to comprehend the Rāmāyaṇa at once as a foundational text and a cultural phenomenon of protean identities, and to do so across time and space. The present book originated in the conviction that critical approaches to the Rāmāyaṇa must look beyond its literary and religious identity to its capacity to serve as the meeting ground of many arts and social practices. Over the past four years, the contributors to this volume have examined this understanding of the epic at a number of scholarly gatherings. Through these exchanges it became apparent that a particularly effective way to capture the complexity of the Rāmāyaṇa would be to investigate the construction of meaning and the strategies of such construction across the artistic genres in which it has appeared before audiences in varying contexts. Precisely because contemporary scholarship is concerned with the use of the Rāmāyaṇa in molding public life, asserting particular ideological positions, and contesting received wisdom, it must pay particular attention to the forms in which it appears in the public arena. From oral narration to sculpture to film and street theater, the representation of the Rāmāyaṇa varies widely and demands careful inquiry.

With this need in view, the essays in this volume engage with and draw upon texts as well as other forms of transmission, such as oral, musical, and dramatic performances; and paintings, scrolls, murals, and sculptures of the Rāmāyaṇa. They are dealt with both descriptively and analytically with regard to themes, treatment, techniques, and impact. Both in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Rāmāyaṇa is known to vast audiences as much through the visual (p.7) and performing arts as through textual and oral forms. It forms the core narrative of classical dance and drama in several Southeast Asian cultural traditions, including those of Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Laos, and Vietnam, whose ancient, complex, and vibrant performance styles that feature puppetry, masked dances, and dance dramas remain at the center of their cultural life. In many parts of rural India, painted scrolls that depict highlights from the story are presented at village fairs by traveling artists who sing the narrative as they display the painting frame by frame.

The full range of Rāmāyaṇa performances is yet to be mapped, but many have been studied in considerable depth.16 A major temple festival of the Palghat region of Kerala is the tolapāvakuthu, a leather-puppet play annually celebrating the life of Rāma over a twenty-one day period.17 Local performances of this kind are popular with common folk as explications and affirmations of religious messages, on the one hand, and entertainment, on the other. In the more formal tradition of classical theater in India, we find at least one form of Rāmāyaṇa performance that is between seven and eight centuries old. This is the kuṭiyāṭṭam dance drama of Kerala, with a repertory of three Rāmāyaṇa plays. Not all performance styles are as sophisticated as these Keralan exemplars, but stories from the Rāmāyaṇa have been told and sung as part of village culture since the fifteenth century in India,18 while outside India the Rāmāyaṇa has been the platform of performance arts of vast complexity and popularity. What are these performance forms? Where and how are they produced? These questions have been addressed in Rāmāyaṇa scholarship for a long time, especially in relation to the arts of Southeast Asia. A more recent emphasis is on understanding how the process and the performance of the Rāmāyaṇa, their representational modes, and their contents resonate with public life and public concerns, and perhaps shape social and personal values. This critical interest is one that is strongly represented in the present volume.

The geographical areas covered here are South and Southeast Asia, especially India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia, where the Rāmāyaṇa in its various forms has become a part of the cultural idiom, with important implications for social and political life. Southeast Asian subjects of monarchical rule have drawn inspiration from the ancient legend to idealize Rāma as the model ruler, and by extension have reinforced obedience to the monarch, as in Thailand and Cambodia over the past two centuries. More interesting, elsewhere in Southeast Asia religious boundaries have been crossed to draw upon Rāmāyaṇa legends for identity formation or moral instruction. In Indonesia the story of Rāma has been fitted into the Islamic tradition, whereas in Thailand and Cambodia the Theravadins have not only identified Rāma and the Buddha as one and the same but have also brought a multitude of Hindu divinities from the Rāmāyaṇa into the Theravadin tradition.

Perhaps the surest proof of the “epic” quality of the Rāmāyaṇa is its adaptability to many artistic forms and many ethical and political positions, many of them equivocal and some mutually contradictory. Regional cultural imperatives have led to widely differing interpretations of the same episodes and characters, in addition to inventing altogether new ones. The Rāmāyaṇa has (p.8) developed into a text of cultural hegemony, affecting a wide array of modes of expression from academic articles to folk art, sculpture, music, and theater, and adapting in the industrial age to film, comic books, and television across the continents. Its versions across many arts and national domains provide rich material to study cultural transfer, especially where significant departures from the narrative of moral schemes of the central tradition are found, as in retellings of episodes from the epic from women's points of view in recent dance dramas.19

Not surprisingly, textual studies in the Rāmāyaṇa constitute a substantial scholarly corpus. Comparative studies in the epic's textual history show how significantly, sometimes widely, its contents have varied. But even in this area much work has to be done, particularly with regional Rāmāyaṇas, about many of which information is scarce and critical study uneven. For instance, the Bengali Rāmāyaṇa of Kṛttivāsa remains less examined than its phenomenal popularity and longevity among the Bengali-reading public would lead one to expect,20 and the powerful version by the woman poet Candrāvatī of sixteenth-century Bengal has only recently begun to draw sustained critical attention.21 This is not to disparage the studies that do exist in these areas, but to acknowledge the urgency of bringing under scholarly scrutiny the seemingly limitless adaptability of the Rāmāyaṇa to multiple imaginaries, including those dictated by class, race, gender, and geography. Pursuing this interest in the constant remaking of a cultural icon, the present volume expands its understanding of the “text” to include nonverbal renditions of the epic. Accordingly, one of its aims has been to reach across multiple disciplines to uncover the layering of “texts,” showing for instance how the requirements of a performing art such as Indonesian shadow puppetry, or of a plastic art such as sculpture, interact with the narrative materials of the epic.

To take the kathakali dance style as a ready example, we may see how its stylistic conventions dictate the formation of gender identities such that the same emotional state, say grief at separation, appears differently in masculine and feminine personae. How then will the style affect the narration of the reunion of Rāma and Sītā after the fall of Rāvaṇa? How will the audience's understanding of the human drama, its ethical content, be affected by the manner in which the dance presents the episode? Will the style lend itself to Vālmīki's representation of Sītā's vocal outrage at Rāma's coarse rejection of her, or will it alter the episode into a portrayal of a meek Sītā finding solace in compliance, as in Tulsīdās's version? The making of meaning here is clearly problematic because of the moral and political ambiguities inherent in styles of representation and one that will clearly benefit from the availability of both literary and performance analyses. To this purpose it is necessary to correlate the way we understand what we read and the way we understand what we hear or see. That is why we take the position that examining the Rāmāyaṇa across a spectrum of art forms affords opportunities for a critical comprehension both deep and wide. This broad view also brings to attention how a literary artifact has evolved as an entire and self-sustaining cultural system. Without claiming to be exhaustive in its disciplinary coverage, this volume has chosen to em (p.9) phasize approaches that support one another, in the editor's estimate, in uncovering multiple connections between the story, its retellers, and its audiences.

Unquestionably, there are other approaches that may lead to instructive insights in the Rāmāyaṇa. An obvious one is the sociological; for instance, the economics of the production of the Rāmāyaṇa is organically related to the politics of its dissemination. But not only is a compendium of methodologies impracticable (given the economics of publishing, for one thing!), it is also necessary to concede that the needs of a focused comprehension dictate selectivity. In this editor's judgment, explorations in performance, iconography, narrative design, and gender representation are approaches that dovetail effectively to create such a focus, because each demonstrates the process by which form and substance come together to construct meaning in relation to social, political, and cultural contexts.

Broadly speaking, the contributions to this volume address one or more of three areas of inquiry: the narrative structures of the Rāmāyaṇa; the types, techniques, and contents of performances; and the social content—particularly gender implications—of both narrative manipulations and representational forms. Although there are frequent crossovers between these areas, the essays aim at particular emphases. The collection begins with studies that focus on the literary text, first that of Vālmīki and then regional retellings. These are followed by essays that deal with revisions of commonly known narrative elements, whereby particular aesthetic or ethical values have been projected. That similar alterations also appear in performances is demonstrated by studies in dance dramas and musical performances from two regions of India, whereas two essays on the performing arts of Southeast Asia examine the political imperatives that underlie narrative choices and performance techniques. In order to keep in view the vast extent of renderings of the Rāmāyaṇa, three broad surveys of the visual and performance arts have been included.

Inevitably, there are overlaps between the studies presented here, because in choosing particular aspects of the Rāmāyaṇa the authors are keenly aware of the implications of their findings for other areas. Textual studies, for instance, are also studies in ideas of gender and power, and accounts of performances recognize the importance of narrative traditions. These crossovers are, in my judgment, the best argument for the principle on which this volume has been assembled, that is, the need for correlating separate areas of Rāmāyaṇa studies.

The first two articles of the volume are grounded in Vālmīki's Rāmāyana, the earliest text of the legend, and examine its relationship with the narrative and ideological tradition it initiated, especially in the context of the implications of its design. In his essay on resistance to the idolization of Rāma, Robert Goldman suggests that the undercutting of the ideological positions within Vālmīki's original narrative that modern studies in the Rāmāyaṇa identify as a powerful force in alternative Rāmāyaṇas is incipient in the original text itself. Noting the formative influence of the great epics of India on the construction of the South Asian ethos, especially on formulations of gender and power, (p.10) Goldman shows how the authority of Vālmīki's text is modulated by its rhetorical strategies. In his study of episodes from Vālmīki's original narrative that are built upon debates, and of the symbiosis of their rhetorical and conceptual texture, Goldman uncovers the narrative process by which ideologies of gender and power are formed. The “forensic encounters” between the major characters of the Rāmāyaṇa, Goldman argues, work toward enforcing adherence to the ethical and political ideals that emerge as dominant directives. However, since the narrative falters whenever the opposition embodied in these encounters becomes irreconcilable, Goldman views this as Vālmīki's own problematizing of women's subordination to the patriarchy, and raises the possibility that Vālmīki himself accommodates within his narrative a degree of resistance to hegemony.

The relationship between ideology and narrative design is also examined by Sally J. Sutherland Goldman in her study of the Sundarakāṇḍa of Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa, in which she correlates the representation of gender and space to show how they affect the narrative structure of the epic. Taking as examples Hanumān's heroic leap toward Laṅkā and his encounters with various figures, primarily Surasā and Śikhikā, on the way, Sutherland Goldman finds the episode an intentionally gendered narrative vital to the structural integrity of the kāṇḍa. In her view, the physical space in which the various episodes of the epic are set is systematically marked with gender attributes, and this marking is systematic, intentional, and necessary for the internal logic of the narrative.

These articles are followed by three studies, by William Smith, Mandakranta Bose, and Paula Richman, on regional versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, beginning with a broad review of eastern versions and continuing with explorations in aspects of particular revisions. William Smith's review of the forms and versions in which the Rāmāyaṇa appears in eastern India, specifically in Assam, Bengal, and Orissa since medieval times, shows that although these versions were derived from Vālmīki's Sanskrit poem, they are reflections of local religious and social influences. Tracing both bhakti and and śākta sources, such as the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, Tulsīdās's devotional Rāmāyaṇa, and the Adbhuta Rāmāyaṇa, in the eastern Rāmāyaṇas, Smith argues that the story of Rāma thereby became the major and most widely accessible repository of religious and social ideas for mass audiences in eastern India.

The eastern tradition is placed within a narrower scope by Mandakranta Bose, who examines the representation of the feminine in Rāma tales in the culture of Bengal. Noting that whole episodes are invented in Kṛttivāsa's fifteenth-century Bengali Rāmāyaṇa to ascribe self-defining roles to women, Bose relates these changes to the dominance of the bhakti doctrine sweeping through the region. An even more sustained celebration of the idea of the mystical power of the feminine appears in the Rāmāyaṇa of the father-and-son team Jagadram and Ramprasad, in which Sītā is revealed as the embodiment of devī and brings about the final conquest of evil by defeating the thousand-headed Rāvaṇa, whom Rāma is unable to subdue. Here, as in Kṛttivāsa, the spiritual stance is that of bhakti, which dominates the Bengali narrative tradition of the Rāmakathā. Yet even within this tradition of devotion, a radically (p.11) different voice is heard in the retelling of the epic in the eighteenth century by the woman poet Candrāvatī. A deeply religious woman herself, Candrāvatī nonetheless directs her sympathy toward Sītā, going so far as to turn the epic mainly into Sītā's story, but also that of Mandodarī's life and the poet's own as parallel legends of women's suffering. The evident subtext of Candrāvatī's writing is the miserable lot of women in general, which marks a distinctive trend in Bengali Rāmāyanas. Bose points out that the questioning of Rāma's actions, of Sītā's treatment in particular, is a common feature of Bengali Rāma tales. Even a retelling as devoted to celebrating Rāma's divinity as the early-nineteenth century bardic version by the renowned rural poet Dasharathi Ray indulges in occasional questioning of Rāma's justice. Later in the nineteenth century, Michael Madhusudan Datta revolutionzed the tradition of retelling the Rāmakathā in his Bengali epic inspired by Homer and Virgil, the Meghanādavadha Kāvya, which imported a secularized view into the tradition. His contempt for Rāma remains unmatched, but later Bengali writers have continued to undercut the conventional devotional stance in consistently satirical retellings. Putting to close scrutiny a short story and a farcical play for children, Bose shows how the Rāmāyana has been used in Bengal as both an instrument to question received tradition and a storehouse for narrative models.

Regional retellings also form the basis of Paula Richman's essay, in which she examines the interest found across south India in an episode originating in the Uttarakāṇḍa attributed to Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa. Among the actions for which Rāma has been most frequently criticized in south India, she notes, the story of the beheading of Śambūka, a low-caste ascetic, by Rāma stands out for the attention it has drawn. Three twentieth-century plays, one each in Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, deal with the episode, reflecting in their revaluation of the main characters, their interaction, and the ethical implications of Rāma's action the vigorous debate on caste in south India in the first half of the twentieth century. All three depart from the original story in responding to the killing of Śambūka with horror and clear him from the taint of adharma, although in one of them the ending is radically changed from the Vālmīki original, and Śambūka is not killed by Rāma, who is envisioned by the playwright as a wise and compassionate ruler who rises above brahminical prejudice. The other two plays are critical of Rāma, one for his refusal to admit the spiritual equality of men, and the other for what it views as his political use of Śambūka's transgression to shut out low-caste people from institutions of privilege. Different as they are in their stands regarding Rāma, all three plays attempt to explain the complex motivations behind the brahminical prohibition against the practice of asceticism by a low-caste person, and all are ranged against that prohibition. Their treatment of the episode thus implies a critical response to the authority of texts. Describing both the arguments and the stage-history of the plays in detail, Richman develops the idea that the reiteration of the same episode in the plays and their longevity in south India suggests the centrality of caste-bound power relations in the region. With equal force, she points out that these modern dramatizations of the episode reveal the persistence of oppositional strands within the Rāmāyaṇa tradition. Here again we may see how (p.12) the particular historical consciousness of a cultural region may crystallize in response to the Rāmāyaṇa, and how in the moral and narrative complexity of the Rāmāyaṇa, narrators can find matrices for organizing their own times and worlds, as indeed attested by contemporary authors.

One must, however, tread warily in entwining location and theme, and in identifying types of narrative alterations as distinctive regional characteristics, all the more because regional emphases are often easy to assume. For example, whereas the alternative Rāmāyaṇas from eastern India commonly emphasize the plight of women within the power relations authorized by the mainstream Rāma tales, the emphasis in the revisionist versions of south India seem to be on the racial oppression embedded in those relations. Do these regional patterns of emphasis reflect equally distinctive patterns of regional social experience? Are Bengali counternarratives mostly expressions of women's historical disempowerment and resistance, whereas Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada narratives are mostly reflections of the antibrahmanical sentiment of modern south India? Closer scrutiny urges caution, for contrary evidence often springs to mind—for instance, the existence of Telugu women's narrative songs. The fact is that not enough work has yet been done in historicizing regional Rāmāyaṇas to warrant a ready answer, and there are indeed crossovers in patterns of emphasis among regional versions that preclude quick theorizing. In Telugu women's versions, the focus is on Sītā's suffering, not on racial oppression. On the other hand, in the Bengali story that Bose discusses in her essay, the satire targets both male and Aryan self-valorization. Thus, instead of looking for dominant regional characteristics it is perhaps more useful to examine the crossovers of theme and character modeling and the undercurrents that flow across cultural boundaries.

With the next two essays we turn to examples of the correlation between alterations in the narrative and shifts in the interpretation of episodes. These essays, the first by Philip Lutgendorf and the next by Heidi Pauwels, deal with episodes and characters from the Rāmāyaṇa in the north Indian tradition, as they appear in textual as well as performance traditions. They also address the gender representation in classical, medieval, and contemporary practices. Philip Lutgendorf focuses on Hanumān and his influence on the devotees of Rāma both in South and Southeast Asia and in the diaspora. Heidi Pauwels discusses in detail the impact of the televised Rāmāyaṇa in India and in the diaspora, comparing one of its highlighted episodes with its originals in Vālmīki and Tulasīdās.

The role of the Rāmāyaṇa in mirroring and reinforcing dominant ethical ideals is examined by Philip Lutgendorf, who traces the idealization of Hanumān in South and Southeast Asian societies, in textual as well as performance formats such as wrestling. He notes that although Hanumān is idolized as the perfect devotee in view of his celibacy, the misogyny inherent in the ideal of celibacy is recognized in folk retellings. Lutgendorf further shows how this recognition is countered in Southeast Asian folklore by fitting Hanumān into a householder lifestyle in which the human and the simian norms meet, and Hanumān is endowed with a piscine female as wife and a son. In the devel (p.13) opment of the Hanumān figure, then, we may see a problematic correlation between ascetic, romantic, and misogynist ideals that calls into question assumptions about gender roles and identities.

The relationship between narrative design and gender roles is studied by Heidi Pauwels in her essay, in which she compares three versions of the wedding of Rāma and Sītā as they appear in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, in Tulsīdās's Rāmcaritmānas, and the TV version by Ramanand Sagar. She shows how the classical, medieval, and contemporary portrayals differ from each other, and speculates about what meanings the refocusing of the narrative may hold for the cultural authority of contemporary mass media. Pauwels concludes that through the different periods from which she has followed the episode, its focus has shifted from duty to devotion, and from devotion to entertainment, although the message of wifely devotion has, if anything, gained greater currency and has solidified conventional gender paradigms.

The issue of gender paradigms prompts Velcheru Narayana Rao to ask how fixed a fictional character's identity can be when the character is recreated through multiple versions of the narrative. Narayana Rao notes that in comparison to other legendary women of India, such as Draupadī of the Mahābhārata, the gopis of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and the women characters of the Kathā-sarit-sāgara, Sītā has emerged as the epitome of wifely devotion and self-sacrifice, especially in the twentieth century. Her emergence as a model depends on certain signifiers, a crucial one being her insistence on following Rāma into exile. But can her identity remain inviolate if some of these signifiers are omitted? Just as a change in phonemes in a word changes the word itself, could changes in the array of episodes that feature Sītā change the very idea of Sītā? Drawing upon several retellings of the Rāmāyṇa and the more recent tradition of “anti-Rāmāyaṇa” texts, Narayana Rao attempts to discover the boundaries that hold together the idea of Sītā even as they permit innovations in representing her.

Innovations in both plot construction and gender representation are examined by Bruce Sullivan with regard to the kuṭiyāṭṭam theater of Kerala, in which three classical Sanskrit plays feature prominently. He points out that all of them capitalize on departures from Vālmīki's text and are tailored to the unique features of the kuṭiyāṭṭam style of acting, which affect the representation of the story. In this performance idiom, which can be traced back to the tenth century, characters mimic the psychological states and actions of other characters across lines of gender and species (such as Rāvaṇa enacting Sītā's moods, or Hanumān enacting Rāma's), whereby gender identities in particular are loosened from those set by Vālmīki. In his study, Sullivan shows how the kuṭiyāṭṭam performance tradition transforms the plot of the epic and challenges the audience to relish complex, multiple-identity characters.

One of the many performance modes in which the Rāmāyaṇa has appeared is considered in the next essay by Vidyut Aklujkar, who describes a musical adaptation of the Rāmāyaṇa from Maharashtra. Created in the early 1950s for radio audiences, the Gīta-Rāmāyaṇa was a series of fifty-six songs in the Marathi language set to music in the classical style. Broadcast every week, (p.14) the program quickly won large audiences at the time, and more recently it has again become popular at home and abroad. Such was its popularity that the composer began to perform the songs to live audiences and continued to do so through a twenty-five-year stretch. He was followed by other singers elsewhere in India and, more recently, in North America. Attempting to explain the instant success and enduring appeal of the series, Aklujkar balances the creative genius of both the creator and the singer against the intrinsic strengths of the Rāmāyaṇa, noting that the musical series has become a defining identifier of the culture that produced it.

With the next two essays we not only move out of Indian forms of the Rāmāyana but also move toward understanding its discursive instrumentality in social and political exchange. Whereas Laurie Sears delves into the historical and evolutionary process of the movement of Rāmāyaṇa story in Indonesia and its religious and political implications, Kaja McGowan undertakes a topi-cal and contemporary inquiry into the use of the story in East Timor as a framework within which the nation's troubled and erased history is being reconstructed. Sears argues that cross-cultural traffic between Hindu-Javanese social and religious practices, on the one hand, and those of the Muslim immigrants who arrived in the eighteenth century, on the other, have resulted in a synthesis in which Javanese shadow puppeteers not only find audiences for Hindu myths across religious boundaries but also adapt Mahābhārata puppets to tell Rāmāyaṇa stories. The process, Sears states, subverts the linearity of the Rāmāyaṇa but builds a discourse in which the puppets serve as material objects that encode ideas of character, ethics, behavior, and morals.

The use of the Rāmāyaṇa as a mediating artifact between politics and semiotics is examined by Kaja McGowan in her essay on the conservation and interpretation of history in East Timor. In its violent history, mapmaking has often turned into a military contest, obliterating the actuality of public experience and history which, McGowan believes, may nonetheless be recovered through silent objects as witnesses. In East Timor, the historical experience of foreign domination and destruction is sought to be recovered, interpreted, and validated within an allegorical framework supplied by the theme of Sītā's abduction by Rāvaṇa, which is conveyed through a unique artistic medium, that of intricately embossed shell casings depicting the Rāmāyaṇa episode. McGowan argues that this ekphrastic entry into sites of domination and contest from which conventional language has been erased has been made possible by the availability of the Rāmāyaṇa as a narrative model.

The place of the Rāmāyaṇa in the performing arts of Southeast Asia is assessed by Julie Mehta in her survey of the performance traditions of Thailand and Cambodia, which traces their roots, their evolution, and their impact on contemporary cultural and social life. While the epic has been the single richest source of inspiration for sculpture, it exists in a more dynamic relationship with the indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia in dance dramas. Mehta observes that though these performance forms are deeply rooted in the original Indian narrative, their plot and characters are altered to fit the specific psyche and artistic traditions of the Thai-Khmer social milieu. This has occasionally (p.15) resulted in significant deviations from the Indian sources in the construction of plot and character, leading to substantially different ethical points of view.

As a wrap-up to the volume, Kapila Vatsyayan's essay offers a wide-ranging inquiry into the role of the Rāmāyaṇa in shaping the arts of South and Southeast Asia since early times, which leads her to a many-layered argument about the nature of the formative role of the Rāmāyaṇa in artistic production; of the relationship between the literary, visual, and kinetic arts; of the criteria for the selection of themes and narrative elements in the arts; and of the interdependence of content and medium. Along with an extensive inventory of the visual and plastic arts, especially painting and sculpture, in India, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Malayasia, Burma, Java, and Bali, she lists literary versions in different languages and from religious traditions other than the Hindu, such as the Buddhist and the Jain. Noting that across the vast terrain of Asian arts the representation of the Rāmāyaṇa has varied widely, and that attitudes to themes and protagonists have changed over time even as the presence of the epic remains unchallenged, Vatsyayan suggests that this process of dynamic cultural negotiation may revolve around an indispensable thematic core to generate countless variants. As a parallel to this process, she posits an interaction between a regionwide model and its local retooling. This view of a dynamic of diversity leads her to ask whether the varied expressions of the epic reveal a specifically Asian aesthetic. As a supplement to her observations, Vatsyayan provides in an appendix an inventory of the visual and plastic arts, especially painting and sculpture, of India, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Malayasia, Burma, Java, and Bali, as well as of literary versions in different languages and from different religious traditions, such as Buddhist and Jain, in addition to the Hindu heritage.

As acknowledged at the beginning of this introduction, the essays presented here neither cover the entire field they explore nor offer the last words on their subjects. But as parts of a joint venture, they attempt to demonstrate the critical importance of correlating the varied identities of a work of the epic imagination. In doing so, these studies not only take fresh critical positions but reaffirm the centrality of the Rāmāyaṇa to humanist scholarship. Vālmīki's ancient prediction still holds true:

Yāvaccandradivākarau dyuloke pracariṣyataḥ /

Tāvad Rāmāyaṇikathā bhūloke pracariṣyati//

As long as the sun and the moon reign in the sky, the story of Rāma will continue to reign on earth.

It is hoped that the present volume will help to extend this singular longevity of the Rāmāyaṇa by probing the sources of its vigor.



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(1.) Leaving aside the wealth of journal articles, the full, book-length works over the past twenty years include: Brockington 1984; Goldman et al. 1984–in progress; (p.16) Hart and Heifetz 1988; Lutgendorf 1991; Smith 1988; Thiel-Horstmann 1991; Richman 1991 and 2001; and van der Veer 1988.

(2.) A full inventory of dramatic and film renditions of Rāma tales is not yet available, but stage and film versions have been made by major figures in the performing arts such as Uday Shankar, Shanti Bardhan, Rukmini Devi Arundale, and Utpal Dutt. Critical work on the Rāmlīlā is more substantial, and the recent literature includes Parkhill 1993; Schechner and Hess 1993; Bonnemaison and Macy 1990; Kapur 1990; Sax 1990; and Hess 1983. Although Sooraj Barjatya's 1995 hit film, Hum aapke hain kaun? (Who am I to you?) was not a Rāmāyaṇa remake, it closely paralleled an idealized pattern of family relationships and values.

(3.) V. Dalmia-Luderitz 1991.

(4.) Davis 1996; Lutgendorf 1995; Pollock 1993; Datta 1993; and Thapar 1989.

(5.) My emphasis on the public nature of this subscription is deliberate and reflects some doubt as to private engagement with the Rāmāyaṇa; almost none of the households canvassed in Vancouver in 2002 reported possession of a copy.

(6.) The Legend of Prince Rama: Ramayana. Produced by Nippon Ramayana Films and directed by Yugo Sako and Vijay Nigam. An international venture, the DVD is marketed by a Malaysian company from Kuala Lumpur and carries the announcement, “Ramayana Goes Where Aladdin Never Dared”!

(7.) As illustrated, for instance, in Thiel-Horstmann 1991; Singh and Datta 1993; and Richman 2001.

(8.) See, for instance, Kumar 1995.

(9.) As an example of such labors we may cite the work of Nilmadhab Sen, who published eighteen articles between 1949 and 1957, sixteen of them on grammar. Camille Bulcke's work on recensions of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Edward W. Hopkins's on narrative parallels, and M. V. Kibe's on the historicity of Laṅkā, remain models of scholarship.

(10.) For some early notices, see Sen 1920; Raghuvira and Yamamoto 1938 and Raghavan 1961. Suniti Kumar Chatterji discussed Rāmāyaṇas from India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia extensively in his Bengali writings scattered through numerous periodicals from the late 1920s onward and collected as a posthumous “résumé” in The Rāmāyaṇa, 1978. Extensive studies in comparative mythology were done by Sukumar Sen, especially in his Bengali work, Rāmakathāra Prāk-Itihāsa, 1977.

(11.) Rabindranath Tagore 1961.

(12.) Raghavan 1980; Sahai 1981; and Srinivasa Iyengar 1983.

(13.) The phrase is Datta's own, from a letter to his friend Rajnarayan Basu, c. 1861. On Datta's oppositional stance, see C. Seeley, “The Raja's New Clothes: Redressing Rāvaṇa in Meghanādavadha Kāvya,” in Richman 1991. Clifford Hospital discusses a similar elevation of Rāvaṇa to heroic status in C. N. Srikantan Nayar's Malayalam play, Laṅkālakṣmī nāṭakam; see C. Hospital, “Rāvaṇa as Tragic Hero: C. N. Srikantan Nayar's Laṅkālakṣmī,” in Thiel-Horstmann 1991.

(14.) See, among others, V. Narayana Rao, “A Rāmāyaṇa of Their Own: Women's Oral Tradition in Telugu,” in Richman 1991. Substantial work on women's Rāmāyaṇas was outlined by Nabaneeta Dev Sen in her Radhakrishnan Memorial Lectures at Oxford University in May 1997 (unpublished).

(15.) Useful surveys are offered in Raghavan 1980; see especially H. B. Sarkar, “The Migration of the Rāmāyaṇa Story to Indonesia”; Amin Sweeney, “The Malaysian Rāmāyaṇa in Performance”; J. R. Francisco, “The Ramayana in the Philippines”; Chamlong Sarapadnuke, “Rāmāyaṇa in Thai Theatre”; Kamala Ratnam, “The Ramayana in Laos”; S. Sahai, “The Khvay Thuaraphi”; U Than Han and U Khin Zaw, “ (p.17) māyaṇa in Burmese Literature and Arts”; and J. Tilakasiri, “Rāmāyaṇa in Sinhala Literature and Its Folk Version.”

(16.) My own survey of the Rāmāyaṇa in the performing arts of India is in its initial stage.

(17.) The festival has been extensively documented and examined by Blackburn 1996.

(18.) A valuable discussion of the correlation of the dramatic and the visual appears in a study of the yātrā performances of (mainly) rural Bengal by Abanindranath Tagore 1969. Rabindranath Tagore's nephew, Abanindranath (d. 1951) was the leading figure of the Bengal School of art.

(19.) For instance, a dance based on the life of Sītā by Mallika Sarabhai, and Sītāyaṇa, a dance drama by the Canadian dancer Menaka Thakkar.

(20.) A notable exception is a study by Tony K. Stewart and Edward C. Dimock, “Krttibāsa's Apophatic Critique of Rāma's Kingship,” in Richman 2001.

(21.) Dev Sen 2000.