We need to reclaim the various sitas | Bengaluru News - Times of India
We need to reclaim the various sitas
This story is from October 30, 2011

We need to reclaim the various sitas

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BANGALORE: Even as the debate rages over Delhi University’s decision to remove AK Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ from its History syllabus, a new book that provides a fresh perspective on the eternal epic has been making waves around the world.
Written by 27-year-old Bangalore-based author Samhita Arni and illustrated by traditional Patua artist Moyna Chitrakar, the graphic novel ‘Sita’s Ramayana ’ has got excellent reviews and was recently on the New York Timesbestseller list. Samhita, who has previously written ‘The Mahabharata — A Child’s View’ and is working on her first novel, a speculative fiction thriller tentatively titled ‘Sita’ , spoke to STOI about the need to update myths:
Why did you choose to write ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ as a graphic novel? It’s due to the efforts of Jonathan
Yamakami , a Japanese-Brazilian designer, that it has a very graphic novel feel. He’s put together Moyna’s artwork and my text in such a dynamic way. Sometimes, I feel textual literature is often an elitist or exclusive way of telling stories — it restricts things to people who can read and write, in a certain language . But there’s something far more inclusive and universal about art. Folk art forms have preserved very different, alternative , even subversive perspectives, often created by people on the margins of society . That makes it fascinating and compelling. Also, ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ can be read by people of all ages, but I wanted to reach out to children. It is important to create stories in forms that provoke questions.
Your book retells the epic from Sita’s perspective. Why?
Moyna’s images came first and I fashioned the narrative around them. They clearly emphasize Sita’s point of view. There was a time when I found it difficult to engage with the Ramayana because of how we look at Sita, who prevails in popular imagination as a quiet, suffering, idealized woman. When I returned to the Ramayana five years ago, I was surprised by what I found — a strong Sita who can lift Shiva’s bow, one who is intelligent and critical of Ram, one who must have great inner strength and courage to endure exile, kidnapping, imprisonment, the agni pariksha, banishment, gossip, childbirth and raising two children on her own. I believe we need to reclaim these various Sitas for the Ramayana to be relevant to us, particularly to girls and women. It’s also important to retell myths such that these stories remain relevant to our lives.
Tell us something about the Patua art...
The Patuas are fascinating; they’re an itinerant story-telling tribe that travel with painted scrolls and songs from village to village in Bengal. They’re a mixture of Hindu, Muslims and Buddhists and their Ramayana focuses on Sita, and seems to have been influenced by Chandrabati’s Ramayana (a 16th century Bengali poet) whose version retells the epic from Sita’s point of view.
What accounts for the book’s success?
It’s thanks to Moyna’s artwork and Jonathan’s design, which takes an old art form and gives it a contemporary, dynamic feel. As for NYT, there’s also a lot of interest in India right now in the US and that might have been a factor. Many people I talked to shared some of the discomfort I felt with the treatment of Sita. I think my book expresses it and recasts Sita not as an ideal, suffering woman but as a woman who discovers great courage and strength, a woman who voices critical thoughts. I think this Sita is one we can find more in common with, and this changes our relationship with the Ramayana.
What do you think about Delhi University pulling out Ramanujan’s essay?
Ramanujan’s essay is truly brilliant — it looks at the epic as a literary and storytelling tradition and it’s terrible to prevent students from having access to it. The essay shows how our storytelling heritage is a rich, pluralistic tradition that spans cultures, languages , eras and forms, which has crossed borders and proliferated in Thailand and even in Japan. Why do we want to erase the record of such a rich, vibrant, polymorphic, influential literary tradition? It feels like we’re doing our best to deny our own heritage — and that’s terribly, terribly tragic.
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