Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sita's songs


It is perhaps appropriate time to be reading 'Sita's Ramayana', the book written by Samhita Arni, and beautifully illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar which retells the epic, Ramayana from the perspective of the lady protagonist. In the original epic Sita the princess and wife of lord Rama, the most eligible bachelor and Dasharath's son lives a life where she sees a battle fought over her and is finally exiled into the forest, at a time when she is pregnant by her own husband. Her fault is that she had stayed with a Rakshasa for a substantial period of time and cannot prove her chastity.

It is perhaps about time I think that one told the Ramayana from Sita's perspective since unlike the heroine of the Mahabharata, (Draupadi who has always been percieved as a strong woman) Sita has always been percieved as weak, a creature forever crying, someone who has not stood up for her rights. Ramayana, as a work also focuses more on Rama the ideal man and Sita as a consequence more or less remains in the shadows. One does not really understand her pain or her feelings, strange because she being the very cause why the Lanka war was fought seems to remain in the background.

'Sita's Ramayana' tells the story from a modern woman's perspective also highlights briefly the plight of Sugriva's wife who was abducted by Vali. To avenge his own humiliation Sugriva seeks the help of Rama who agrees to fight and kill Vali on behalf of Sugriva. Sugriva's wife Ruma has stayed with Vali since the time she has been kidnapped by him and developed feelings for Vali. Hence when Rama, who is hiding in the bushes kills Vali, she is aghast that Vali is dead. She is even more aghast when Sugriva asks her to become his wife again immediately after the killing of Vali. When Hanumana, the monkey follower of Rama narrates this particular incident to Sita while she is still in captivity, Sita is concerned whether her captivity has endangered the sentiments and emotions of Ruma.

Women are often sensitive creatures; this is not to say that men are not, often this sensitivity is mistaken for her weakness. So while Sita for many is the epitome of Indian women, often glorified over the ages as the princess and the wife of one of the bravest men in those times. she surprisingly remains just that, a pious and devout wife. reading this book from a fresh perspective, thus adds beauty to the charachter of Sita, even while one remembers the 2008 animated film 'Sita sings the Blues' presented in MTV style where Sita swings her hips to songs performed by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, even while the presenters take a dig on many of the traditions set in the epic., for example the song where Luv and Kush are supposedly singing the praise of Rama actually go, 'Sing his love/sing his praise/Rama sets his wife ablaze', in what appears a rather comic setting.

Interestingly though, the attempt to humanise Sita is not as much a new trend as one would think so. A comparative study with some ancient literature, especially those that mention the songs of Sita and about her written over the ages in different Indian languages startlingly reveal an identity of Sita that not many might be aware of. Sita's songs in different depictions of the epic in different Indian languages, curiously portray the woman in Sita in shades where she is neither princess not the wife of a demi God, but just as a woman  in different ways. There are expressions of her happiness, fear, pride, etc, but what comes across most predominant here is her sense of loneliness and alienation.

The songs( which are written quite some time back incidentally) often describe the eagerness of a woman to describe her plight as someone who feels isolated from society, in spite of her status as a princess and the wife of a would be king. In Bengali, Chandrabati’s poem, Sita tells Lakshman:

'I have no father, no mother

I was found at the tip of a plough

I don’t know who my parents are

Or who my brother is

Like moss in a stream

I float from shore to shore...'

A Munda tribal song from Chhotanagpur shows us Sita’s inner feelings-

'On the grassy uplands, the

ploughmen found me

They took me to the King’s palace...

I grew up like an edible fruit..'

Edible fruit, is perhaps an apt description that describes the availability of woman who just needs to be plucked to satisfy the hungry urges of some men? One wonders then, that why is it that all these songs/poems choose to sing of Sita as the destitute, in spite of her being a woman relatively well off, born with a silver spoon, a princess and wife to the most eligible bachelor in town- Sita has been described in Bengali, as well as in Maithili at times as “Janam-dukhini” (one who is born to suffer).

Reading these songs, one understands that these are not songs that describe the plight of one woman perhaps. They are a description of what women have felt through the ages. They speak of a woman's fundamental insecurity, her sense of being isolated from the world of men in spite of being mother, wife and sister. The songs describe a woman as a being without an identity, exiled at times even from an understanding of herself.

Curiously enough one cannot but think of Radha in the same context, the consort of Krishna, who is himself supposed to be reflected in the avatar of Rama. In the 'Geet Govind ' poet Joydev writes, ' "Dehi padme ballava mudaram!" (Radha's foot on the head of Krishna!)

The depiction of characters shall perhaps continue in more interesting ways, different from what they have been perceived so far and in this one hope the richness of the Indian epics shall be brought forth in a far more divergent and interesting manner.


Enigmatic Soul said...

I've always felt a sense of indignation concerning the role of a traditional and ideal Indian woman, or rather, any woman. What Sita's songs portray is probably what millions of women have felt at some point of their lives. The two conflicting ideas in the identities of Sita and Radha just highlight our culture's hypocrisy and double standards. We believe what we want to believe. We make others believe what we want them to believe.

And informative and insightful post. A pleasure to read.

Meenakshi Malhotra said...

I am always awed by the sensitivity of your posts and the kind of books you read, 'If I could borrow them'. Sita holds an enigma to me which I have note been able to unfold fully. Sits was humble, meek, 'ideal Indian wife'. But still had the audacity to leave her husband for ever to avenge her indignation. Radha on the other side was always given the honour and dictated her own terms but in the end was left alone and other women picked over her to wed!!

Which one was meted out the just treatment is difficult to say.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury said...

True 'Enigmatic Soul' & thank you for reading so well. Meenakshi thanks for the information on Radha & for the compliment :)