Friday, 5 May 2017

Sita’s Ramayana - Using old stories and traditional art to render new perspectives

This graphic novel is a collaborative effort between Samhita Arni, a writer, and Moyna Chitrakar, a patua artiste. Samhita’s first book, titled The Mahabharatha: A Child’s View, was published when she was twelve. Moyna Chitrakar is from a Bengali community of Muslim and Hindu patua folk artistes who are painters, lyricists, singers and performers rolled into one.  Traditionally, men undertake the patua art assisted by the women but Moyna is an independent patua artiste. Many barriers are thus broken here. Women take on the traditional patriarchal epic Ramayana and present their perspective not only on the story of Rama and Sita but also on war and governance.

        In this book, the narrative does not begin, as is usual, with the birth of Rama or the marriage of Sita and Rama, two focal events that reveal Rama’s divinity and his strength and skill in archery. Instead, in a feminist manner, Arni and Chitrakar begin by asking questions about the woman who faces the predicament of loss of identity and home. What happens to a woman who is far away from her father’s house and is abandoned by her husband when she is pregnant with their child?  Sita rescues herself not by finding a man to depend on but by finding her voice, and identifying herself by her mother’s name. She says, “I am Sita, daughter of the Earth, sprung from the same womb that nurtures this forest. . . . The world of men has banished me” (8-9). Sita reminds us of a tradition of strong women who do not let themselves feel overpowered by male oppression but retain the power to think, feel and take their own decisions.
In her telling of the story of Ramayana, Sita does not hesitate to speak from her perspective nor does she mince words. She blames Lakshmana for much of what happened, but reiterates that it is not Lakshmana per se who is the culprit, but all men who think that being male gives them the birthright of domination over women.
           Sita’s Ramayana is a reminder that war is perpetrated and fought by men but its primary victims are women. War makes heroes of men, says Sita, “if they are the victors. … But if you are a woman – you must live through defeat . . .  You become the mother of dead sons, a widow, or an orphan, or worse, a prisoner”. Apart from the emotional turmoil women go through, they also have to face an obliteration of their selves and their identities.

    The book both begins and ends with the focus firmly on Sita. Although rejected and abandoned in the forest, “[a]t her touch, the flower creepers and trees of Dandaka forest awoke from their long sleep” (8). Sita has the power of regeneration, the life-giving and life-enhancing ‘feminine’ ability rather than the destructive and warring ‘masculine’ ability. And finally, she turns the tables – it is she who abandons Rama; it is she who has a secure place of refuge in the home of her mother. Unlike Rama who, while building the bridge, could enlist the co-operation of the ocean only by threatening to destroy the sea-creatures (61-3), Sita does not need to threaten to receive help.

The artwork of the graphic novel also subtly contributes to defying certain hegemonic notions of good and bad, male and female. Rama and Sita are represented with dark brown complexions, while the rakshasas, Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Indrajit are blue. In mainstream ACK comics, the asuras, demons and rakshasas are of a dark brown complexion while the gods Krishna, Rama and Shiva are coloured blue. Chitrakar thus reminds the reader of the constructedness of even the most well-entrenched stereotypes.  She also makes the point that when Sita walked out of the circle drawn by Lakshmana, it was not an act of foolishness or wilfulness but a reaction to the patriarchal confinement of women. The two panels that depict the drawing of the circle and Sita waiting alone for news of Rama and Lakshmana show her behind bars (20-1), a prisoner of the rules laid down by men. The windows in the earlier panels had no bars. 

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