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The Mutilation of Surpanakha

Kathleen M. Erndl

The Rama story, more than any other sacred story in India, has been interpreted as a blueprint for right human action. Although the Ramayana is a myth that can be approached on many levels, it is the human level that has had the most profound effect on the Indian people.[l] Certainly Rama, much more so than Krsna, Siva, Durga, or other popular Hindu deities, has been held up as the exemplary ethical deity, as dharma personified.

Nonetheless, Western scholars of Indian mythology have until fairly recently neglected to examine the ethical implications even of those texts which cry out for such examination, as Jeffrey Masson has pointed out, chiding them for their detached and impersonal approach to Sanskrit texts.[2] Members of the Indian interpretive tradition—authors of Ramayana texts and commentators on them—have not been nearly so squeamish and have found fault with Rama's behavior in several episodes. Or rather one might say that they have been sufficiently uncomfortable with these episodes as to feel the need to explain them, usually in order to make them fit in with the picture of Rama as a dharmic character. Two frequently cited examples are Rama's killing of the monkey-king Valin in an unchivalrous manner from behind his back (Kiskindhakanda ) and his repudiation of Sita (both in the fire ordeal of the Yuddhakanda and in the banishment of the Uttarakanda ).[3]

A third such episode, the subject of this essay, is the mutilation of Ravana's sister, Surpanakha, in most tellings carried out by Laksmana at Rama's behest, after she has proclaimed her love and made sexual advances to Rama at Pancavati (Aranyakanda ).[4] From a narrative point of view, this episode proves a crucial turning point in the story, the catalyst which sets off a chain of events, notably Ravana's abduction of Sita, around which the remainder of the epic in turn revolves. It is also crucial from an ethical point of view, for it sheds light on Rama's character and on attitudes toward female sexuality


in Indian culture. The authors and commentators of various Ramayanas have handled the episode in various ways, reflecting a deep ambivalence in the tradition concerning the actions of Rama, Laksmana, and Surpanakha herself. On the one hand, there is the desire to show Rama as a fair, chivalrous protector of women and other weak members of society. On the other hand, there is a deep suspicion of women's power and sexuality when unchecked by male control. On the one hand, there is an effort to evade the question of whether Rama's behavior in teasing and goading Surpanakha before having her mutilated was appropriate. On the other, there is in many tellings the not-so-subtle suggestion that Surpanakha, as an immodest would-be adulteress, deserves whatever treatment she receives.

At this point I feel compelled to take up Masson's challenge and state that my approach to the Surpanakha episode does not reflect mere antiquarian curiosity. Nor do I aspire to complete objectivity. I became fascinated with Surpanakha when first reading Valmiki's Ramayana , feeling both sympathy for her plight and admiration for her forthrightness and independence. It seemed to me that she, like Rama's stepmother Kaikeyi, had gotten a raw deal in a world where the rules were made by men.[5] I wondered how other Ramayanas depicted the episode and began to collect various tellings. The more I collected, the more ambiguity I saw, an ambiguity which also surrounds many of the dichotomies critical to Indian culture, such as the opposition of good and evil, pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious, divine and human, male and female.

I will discuss the implications of this episode in several versions of the Ramayana , allowing each version to shed light on the others so that common patterns can emerge. I have chosen to focus mainly on selected Hindu Ramayanas from the epic (itihasa ) and devotional (bhakti ) traditions. These are:

Ramayana (Valmiki), in Sanskrit (roughly 2nd C. B.C.E. -2nd

C. C.E. ) Iramavataram (Kampan), in Tamil (12th C.)

AdhyatmaRamayana , in Sanskrit (15th C.)

Ramcaritmanas (Tulsidas), in Avadhi or "Old Hindi" (16th C.)

RadhesyamRamayan , in modern Hindi (20th C.)

Following Lévi-Strauss, I will treat all tellings and interpretations of the story as equally valid; unlike an orthodox structuralist, however, I will take into account not only the structural features of the stories but also their content and the ideological positions explicitly taken by the authors.[6] Although I begin by summarizing the episode as it occurs in the Valmiki Ramayana and use it as a basis for the subsequent discussion, I do so only because it is the earliest complete literary version, one with which the composers of the other versions were surely familiar. My intention is not to privilege it as the normative or Ur -text: authors of the later literary versions, though drawing on the Valmiki Ramayana , also drew on their own local oral traditions, as well as on


their creativity and personal ideologies. As A. K. Ramanujan so delightfully illustrates in chapter 2 of this volume, the Rama story constitutes a universe so vast that it cannot be defined by a single text or even by a group of texts. Because of this, every interpretation is also a telling, and every telling also an interpretation.

The Surpanakha Episode

Valmiki Ramayana (Aranyakanda 16-17)

The Va1miki Ramayana is so famous that it needs no introduction here. Scholars generally concur that the bulk of the text, including the Aranyakanda , portrays Rama as an epic hero with human rather than divine status.

The scene in which Surpanakha is mutilated opens with Rama, Laksmana, and Sita living an idyllic existence in exile at Pancarati, practicing austerities and telling stories. One day a raksasi named Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, happens to pass by. Seeing Rama's beauty, she is instantly infatuated. The poet contrasts her appearance with Rama's:

His face was beautiful; hers was ugly. His waist was slender; hers was bloated. His eyes were wide; hers were deformed. His hair was beautifully black; hers was copper-colored. His voice was pleasant; hers was frightful. He was a tender youth; she was a dreadful old hag. He was well spoken; she was coarse of speech. His conduct was lawful; hers was evil. His countenance was pleasing; hers was repellent. (16.8-9)[7]

Seized with desire, Surpanakha approaches Rama, saying, "Why have you, while in the guise of an ascetic wearing matted locks, accompanied by a wife and bearing bow and arrows, come to this spot which is frequented by raksasas ?" (16.11). In response, Rama introduces himself, his brother, and his wife. He then asks her about herself, adding, in some versions of the text (though not the Critical Edition), "You have such a charming body that you appear to be a raksasi ."[8] She replies that she is a raksasi named Surpanakha, able to change her form at will (kamarupini ), and has been roaming the Dandaka forest alone, frightening all living beings.

This exchange raises many questions. How did Surpanakha really appear to Rama? Was she beautiful or ugly?[9] If, as a raksasi , she was able to take on any form she pleased, why did she appear ugly? Was Valmiki describing her "true" form rather than her "apparent" form? If Rama did in fact comment on her beauty, was his comment serious or sarcastic? As we shall see, other versions have tried to clarify or otherwise interpret this ambiguity, in some cases adding to it.

Surpanakha goes on to describe her brothers, King Ravana, the hibernating Kumbhakarna, the virtuous Vibhisana, and the heroic Khara and his


general, Dusana, saying that she could overcome all of them.[10] She then declares her love to Rama and invites him to become her husband, offering first to devour Sita, that "ugly, unfaithful, hideous, potbellied" woman, and then Laksmana. With those two out of the way, she argues, they could wander the Dandaka forest together forever, taking in all the sights. Rama laughs and says:

I am married, O lady, and cherish my wife. For women like you, the presence of a co-wife would be unbearable. Here is my brother Laksmana, virtuous, good-looking, gentlemanly, and virile. He is unmarried. Not having a wife, he is eager [for marriage], and since he is so handsome, he will make an appropriate match for one of your beauty. So, O wide-eyed, shapely one, attend upon him unencumbered by a co-wife, as the sunlight upon Mount Meru. (17.2-5)

Commentators have debated the significance of these lines at great length. If, as is said, Rama never tells a lie, then why does he say that Laksmana is a bachelor? The simplest explanation would seem to be that what is spoken in jest cannot be considered a lie, but the reading in the Critical Edition indicating that he spoke in jest (svecchaya ) is uncertain.[11] Moreover, given that the word svecchaya can connote self-indulgence, one wonders as to the purpose of such a potentially cruel jest. Was he taunting his brother affectionately, or was he having fun at Surpanakha's expense? In contrast, some text-historical critics have taken Rama's statement seriously, using it as one argument among others to prove that the Balakanda —in which Laksmana is married to Sita's sister, Urmila—is an interpolated book.[12]

A third, and by far the most ingenious, interpretation has been advanced by P. S. Subramanya Sastri in an essay entitled "Telling a Lie or Otherwise by Rama at Panchavati." He argues that the word akrtadara ("unmarried") can also mean "one whose wife is not with him" or "one who is not using his wife." He also says that the verses following that statement are a double entendre (slesa ) which can be read simultaneously to mean that Laksmana has had no opportunity to enjoy conjugal pleasures and thus needs Surpanakha, or that Laksmana has shown unprecedented behavior in leaving his wife to suffer pangs of separation in the prime of youth.[13] If there is indeed a play on words, it is a very strained one. My point, however, in citing this argument is not to quibble over Sanskrit tropes but rather to illustrate another way in which the problematic nature of this and similar verses has spawned attempts at reconciliation.

The story continues with Surpanakha making a similar proposal to Laksmana, who smiles and says that as he is Rama's slave, he cannot be a suitable husband for her, and that she should instead turn to Rama and become his junior wife. Soon, he argues, Rama will abandon that "ugly, unfaithful, hideous, potbellied old" wife and attend upon her alone. Surpanakha takes Laksmana's words at face value, "not being aware of the joke," and says that she will devour Sita on the spot to be rid of her rival.


Note that Laksmana, mockingly engaging in a joke at Surpanakha's expense, uses the same adjectives to describe Sita that Surpanakha herself used earlier. Reading additional meaning into the statement, presumably in an effort to redeem Laksmana's character, a note to the Hindi translation of the Gita Press edition again suggests a double entendre:

The meaning from Surpanakha's point of view has been given above [in the Hindi translation of the Sanskrit text], but from Laksmana's point of view, these adjectives are not critical but laudatory. Thus, virupa (ugly, deformed) means one with a visistarupa (distinguished form); asati (unfaithful, unvirtuous) means one who is unsurpassed in virtue; karala (hideous, horrible) means one whose limbs are high and low with respect to body structure; nirnatodari (potbellied) means thin-waisted; vrddha (old) means advanced in wisdom. Thus, the verse could also read as, "Having gotten rid of you, he will attend upon Sita [who has said qualities]."[14]

The argument here is similar to that of P. S. Subramanya Sastri noted above.

Another scholar, K. Ramaswami Sastri, in an essay entitled "The Riddle of Surpanakha," offers the following commentary:

The Surpanakha episode is one of the many examples of the wonderfully creative inventiveness of Valmiki's imagination. The story of her lasciviousness is a cleverly contrived prelude to the story of the lustful abduction of Sita by Ravana and gives ample scope to the poet to make the best of a situation which could afford him an ample opportunity for comic portrayal. Rama and Laksmana crack jokes at her expense. The poet says there is no humour in her mental composition (parihasavicaksana). He probably suggests that the cruel and egoistic Rakshasas were not capable of humour.[15]

The suggestion here is that Surpanakha had no sense of humor because she was a rsksasi rather than a human female, not because she was a woman blinded by infatuation—although one wonders whether Surpanakha would have found the joke funny in any case. The construction of Surpanakha as "other," as nonhuman, is particularly appropriate, since she really is other than human. Indeed, one purpose for Rama's presence in the forest is to rid it of the raksasas who torment the human ascetics.

To continue with Valmiki's account: Surpanakha, then prepares to pounce on a frightened Sita, whereupon Rama angrily grabs Surpanakha, saying to Laksmana, "One should never joke with cruel, ignoble people. . .. Mutilate this ugly, unvirtuous, extremely ruttish, great-bellied raksasi " (17.19-20). At this, Laksmana cuts off Surpanakha's nose and ears with his sword. Screaming loudly and bleeding profusely, she runs to her brother Khara and tells him what happened. Intending to avenge the insult, Khara, Dusana, and Trisiras wage battle against Rama, who defeats them singlehandedly. Ravana is first informed of these events by his minister, then by Surpanakha herself. Hearing of Sita's beauty, Ravana decides to gain revenge by abducting her.


The immediate reason for Surpanakha's disfigurement thus seems to be her attempt to devour Sita. However, the implied reason is her attempt at adultery, which, as we shall see, is made more explicit in other tellings. Disfigurement of a woman is not unknown elsewhere in Valmiki's text. In the Balakanda (26.18), Rama kills the raksasi Tataka for her crimes against tile sage Visvamitra, after Laksmana first cuts off her hands, nose, and cars as punishment. Similarly, there is a multiform of the Surpanakha episode later in the Aranyakanda . (69.17), in which Laksmana kills the raksasi Ayomukhi for making lustful advances toward him.

Modern Indian students of the Ramayana , like the traditional commentators, have been faced with the problem of reconciling episodes such as the mutilation of Surpanakha with the concept of Rama as the perfect human being or as an incarnation of Visnu. Some argue that the inclusion of such episodes "proves" the historicity of the text, for why would Valmiki report an unflattering deed of the hero if it were not true?[16] Another approach is the apologetic, inspired by pious devotionalism (bhakti ), often in reaction to what is perceived as antireligious criticism. Thus C. Rajagopalachari remarks in a footnote to his retelling of the Valmiki Ramayana :

There are some people who pose as critics of our holy books and traditions, saying "This hero killed a woman. He insulted and injured a woman who offered him her love. He killed Vaali from behind. . . . He unjustly banished Sits...."All such criticisms are based on a mentality of hatred. We have unfortunately plenty of barren, heartless cleverness, devoid of true understanding. Let those who find faults in Rama see faults, and if these critics faultlessly pursue dharma and avoid in their own lives the flaws they discover in Rama, the bhaktas [devotees] of Sri Rama will indeed welcome it with joy.[17]

In the Uttarakanda (23-24), which is considered to be of later composition, more information is given concerning Surpanakha's background. She is said to have been the hideous daughter of Visravas, the grandson of Brahma, and the raksasi Kaikasi. Her brother Ravana is said to have married her to Vidyujjihva, the king of the Kalakas, but Ravana then killed her husband accidentally in Asmanagara while conquering the netherworld. Surpanakha came to him and censured him, whereupon he sent her to live in the Dandaka forest with her brother Khara and his general Dusana. Although Surpanakha's status as a widow does not figure at the forefront of Valmiki's tale, it is prominent in other tellings, as we shall see.

Iramavataram (patalam 5)

Kampan's Ramayana , written in Tamil in the twelfth century, is a poetic work renowned for both its aesthetic and religious merit.[18] That it was greatly influenced by Vaisnava devotional (bhakti ) movements is evident even from its Tamil title, Iramavataram , which means "Rama, the incarnation [of Visnu]." There are a great many differences between Valmiki's and Kampan's


tellings of the Rama story, and not surprisingly the Surpanakha episode is no exception. In fact, Kampan's portrayal of Surpanakha is unique among Hindu Ramayanas . It is so compelling that Rajagopalachari, while largely following Valmiki in his English retelling, chose to append Kampan's version of this particular episode as well. One immediately striking difference between the Sanskrit and Tamil tellings is that while in Valmiki the episode is a single encounter related in 51 slokas , Kampan dwells lovingly upon the scene, which now extends over a two-day period, in 143 verses of various metres. Unlike Valmiki, Kampan not only describes Surpanakha's appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight. I cannot hope to reproduce the beauty of his language here, but will be content to provide a summary with occasional quotations from the excellent translation by George Hart and Hank Heifetz.

The episode begins with a description of Rama, Sita, and Laksmana settling in the beautiful Pancavati grove near the Godavari river. Into this idyllic scene wanders Surpanakha, whom the poet describes immediately as the one fated to bring about Ravana's destruction. Seeing Rama alone, she falls in love with him at once, captivated by his beauty, and wonders how to approach him.

As the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean, as her wisdom disappeared, her purity waned like the fame of a man who hoards up wealth and gives nothing with love as his reward for praise! (26.2854.)[19]

Purity (karpu , also translated "chastity") is a significant quality for the Tamils, for it is believed to provide women with great power.[20] Kampan's introduction of the concept here reinforces the foreshadowing he has already employed: if Surpanakha lacks purity, then all her other powers will ultimately fail.

Knowing her own appearance to be forbidding, Surpanakha visualizes the goddess Sri seated on a lotus, utters a magic spell (mantra ), and becomes a radiantly beautiful woman:

Beautiful as Sri on her flower flowing gold,


like a streak of lightning


fallen, never to vanish, out of the sky,


with her jewelled chariot


fresh as that of a young girl


and softly clothed,


and her shining face, the swords of her eyes,


like a lovely myna bird,


she came as if a peacock were coming,


with eyes like a deer,


of a sweet, abundant beauty, with a perfumed


honey of words



that would draw out desire for her who had taken


a body just like the valli,


glowing vine of heaven, given its life by the tall


and fragrant Wish-Granting Tree.


In this beautiful form she introduces herself to Rama as the virgin Kamavalli, granddaughter of Brahma and sister of Kubera and Ravana, whereupon Rama asks her how she can have such a form even though she is a demoness and why she has come there alone. She replies that her beauty was a result of her good character and penances and that she has spurned the company of unvirtuous raksasas . She then proposes marriage to Rama, who meets her proposal with several objections. First, he argues, a Brahmin woman cannot marry a Ksatriya, to which she replies that she is not really a Brahmin, since her mother is of royal descent. Deciding to have some fun, Rama says that it was not fitting for a human man to marry a raksasi . She replies that she has managed to cast off that unfortunate birth. Rama then says that he will take her only if her brothers will give her to him in marriage, but she insists that they have a gandharva rite, as is prescribed by the Vedas when a man and woman fall in love. Her brother will assent after it has taken place, she tells Rama, adding that with her as his wife, he will no longer need to fear harassment from the raksasas . Rama laughs, saying that would be a blessing indeed.

At that moment Sita returns from her bath. Surpanakha, seeing Sita's beauty and not thinking that Rama, in his ascetic garb, would be accompanied by a wife, wonders who she is and warns Rama that Sita must he a shape-shifting raksasi who has come to deceive him. Rama teasingly agrees. When Sita becomes frightened, Rama senses danger and, sending Surpanakha away, enters the hut with Sita.

Surpanakha spends the night pining for Rama, almost dying with the intensity of her love:

When the water she bathed in began boiling, she was terrified

in fear of the flames burning away her life and


the body that she so cherished and she thought,


"Where can I hide from the roaring ocean


or the cruel arrows of love?"


Wondering how her suffering will ever vanish, she contrasts herself with Sita: "Would he look at me as well, I who am so impure? . . . That woman is all purity, she is beautiful, and she is the mistress of his broad chest" (87.2915-88.2916).[23] In the morning, seeing Sita alone, she approaches her with the idea of snatching her, hiding her away somewhere, and taking on her form, but Laksmana, who did not witness the previous day's exchange, pushes her down and cuts off her nose, cars, and nipples. As Surpanakha lies writhing in pain, crying out to her brothers to take revenge, Rama appears and asks who


she is. She says that she is the same woman who appeared the day before, but "when a woman has lost her nipples, her cars with their earrings, her nose like a vine, . . . . isn't her beauty destroyed?" (119.2947).[24] When Laksmana explains that she was about to attack Sita, Rama orders her to leave.

Surpanakha still does not give up, saying that if she were to tell her brother what had happened he would destroy Rama and his race, but that she will save him from this fate if he accepts her. She argues that a strong woman like herself, who could protect him in battle, is better than the delicate Sita. She also accuses Rama of having her nose cut off to make her undesirable to other suitors, but offers to create it again, if he wishes. Rama replies that he and his brother are capable of slaying the raksasas without her help. He tells her to leave, but she persists until Laksmana asks Rama for permission to kill her. At this point she goes to find Khara.

The attack of Khara and Dusana proceeds as in the Va1miki Ramayana . However, even after their defeat, Surpanakha cannot rid herself of her love for Rama. She goes to Ravana and describes Sita's beauty in such detail that he hallucinates an image of her and falls in love with her. Surpanakha confesses her love for Rama to her brother, saying that when Ravana takes Sita as a wife, she will have Rama to herself.

Besides the differences in tone mentioned above, there are a few details of plot on which Kampan's Ramayana differs from Valmiki's. In this version, although Rama still jokes with Surpanakha, he does so in a gentler and more urbane fashion. He does not crudely suggest that she approach Laksmana, as he does in Valmiki's telling. Furthermore, Laksmana bears full responsibility for her mutilation: Rama only finds out about it afterward. All this is in keeping with Kampan's generally more "chivalrous" approach to Sita's abduction, in which Ravana picks up the earth around her rather than subject her to the indignity of having her body touched. On the other hand, Laksmana cuts off her nipples as well as her nose and ears. In Tamil culture, the breasts are symbolic of a woman's power, so mutilation of them is a harsh indignity.[25] On the whole, then, Surpanakha, like Ravana, is portrayed in a far more sympathetic light than in Valmiki, even though the tactics she employs arc far more devious.

Adhyatma Ramayana ( Aranyakanda 5)

The Adhyatma (or "spiritual") Ramayana , a Sanskrit text dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, is an important document in the development of the Rama cult in North India and is the sacred scripture of the Ramanandi sect.[26] Integrating various Vedantic, Puranic, and Tantric elements, it tends to view the human events and characters of the Rama story as divine allegory. Thus, Rama is an incarnation of Visnu, Laksmana is the cosmic serpent Sesa, and Sita the goddess Laksmi.

The Surpanakha episode follows the basic pattern of the Valmiki telling


but is much briefer and has some differences in emphasis. Surpanakha is not described as ugly, as in the Valmiki version, nor is she said to take on a beautiful form, as in the Kampan version: she is merely said to be capable of assuming diverse forms at will. She falls in love with Rama when she sees his footprints in the earth, which bear the divine marks of the lotus, thunderbolt, and goad. She approaches him but he directs her to Laksmana, saying only that she would not want Sita as a co-wife: he does not say that Laksmana is unmarried. She turns to Laksmana, who argues that as he is Rama's devoted slave, he is not fit to take a wife and that she should turn w Rama, "the Lord of all." Angry at being sent back and forth, Surpanakha says she will eat Sita up. The story proceeds as in the Valmiki Ramayana , with Laksmana cutting off her nose and ears. She appeals to Khara and Dusana, who fight Rama and are defeated. She then goes to Ravana, saying that she was mutilated when she attempted to bring Sita to him to be his wife. Ravana realizes that Rama is not merely a man but decides: "If I am killed by the Supreme Lord, I shall enjoy the kingdom of heaven. Otherwise, I shall enjoy the sovereignty of the raksasas . I shall therefore approach Rama."

Although the narrative is similar to that of the Valmiki Ramayana , the events are given a context very different from that of the heroic epic. Thus the perspective is changed: what was a battle between two opposing forces becomes a search for salvation through death. In the bhakti tradition, any intense emotion directed toward God is a form of devotion, and so, as Ravana understands, being killed in battle by God is a sure way to attain salvation. There is also an aura of playfulness (lila ), events being enacted according to a predetermined divine plan with everything coming out all right in the end. This playful quality allows many of the moral questions to be glossed over. Thus, in this version, it is only a phantom (maya ) Sita who is abducted, not the real Sita, and Rama is aware of the outcome of everything beforehand. [n fact, in the Balakanda portion of the AdhyatmaRamayana , Rama is depicted as a playful and mischievous child, much like the child Krsna. In this context, the Surpanakha episode can be seen as a childish prank, ultimately imbued with grace, as is all divine play.

Ramcaritmanas (Aranyakanda 16-18 )

The Ramcaritmanas , which means "The Lake of the Acts of Rama," was written by Tulsidas in the old Hindi dialect of Avadhi in the sixteenth century.[27] It is the most popular form of the Ramayana in North India, to the point that in Hindi-speaking regions the term Ramayana is synonymous with the Tulsidas version. It is first and foremost a bhakti text, full of discourses on devotion to Lord Rama.

The Surpanakha episode more or less follows that of the Valmiki and AdhyatmaRamayanas , but the rhythm of the narrative emphasizes certain points and the extensive interpretive comments give it a flavor of pious didac-


ticism that is absent in other versions. This portion of the story is narrated by Kak Bhusundi, the devotee crow, to Garuda, the giant bird who is Visnu's mount. I summarize it as follows:

Rama spends his days at Pancavati preaching discourses to Laksmana on the nature of disinterested devotion. One day Ravana's sister Surpanakha, "foul-mouthed and cruel as a serpent," happens by and falls in love with both Rama and Laksmana. At this point the narrator interjects, "At the sight of a handsome man, be he her own brother, father, or son, O Garuda, a woman gets excited and cannot restrain her passion, even as the sun-stone emits fire when it is brought before the sun" (16.3).[28]

This interjection sets the tone for the rest of the episode, in which the emphasis is placed not so much on Surpanakha's raksasa nature as on her female nature. She has fallen in love with both brothers, since they are both handsome, not just Rama: like all women, she lacks self-control.[29]

As the story continues, she assumes a charming form and proposes to Rama, saying that there is no other man like him and no other woman like her, that theirs is a match made in heaven, and that she has remained a virgin just for him. The Lord casts a glance at Sita and says only, "My brother is a bachelor" (16.6).[30] Surpanakha then goes to Laksmana, who, knowing her to be their enemy's sister, says that he is Rama's slave and sends her back to Rama. Rama sends her again to Laksmana, who remarks, "He alone will wed you who deliberately casts all shame to the winds" (16.9).[31] She then reveals her true form, frightening Sita. Laksmana cuts off her nose and ears, "thereby inviting Ravana to a contest through her as it were" (17.0).[32] She flees to Khara and Dusana, who challenge Rama and are defeated, attaining eternal bliss by crying out his name at death. Surpanakha then goes to Ravana, scolds him for allowing this to happen, and describes Sita's beauty. Deciding that the easiest way to "cross the ocean of mundane existence" is to be killed by Rama, Ravana abducts Sita—actually a phantom, the real Sita waiting in a sacrificial fire.

The comments made about the allegorical aspects of the AdhyatmaRamayana apply here as well, where the devotional overtones are even more pronounced. Rama and Laksmana do not even go through the motions of asking Surpanakha who she is, for, being divine, they already know. Thus, although the goading of Surpanakha is retained as the essential catalyst of the story, it is less extravagant and, as is implied by Rama's glance at Sita, who is present the whole time, Sita is let in on the joke. While an atmosphere of divine play again pervades the episode, Tulsidas has also attempted to justify the brothers' actions on ethical grounds, Laksmana's moralizing reaching a degree unprecedented in any of the previously mentioned versions. However, not all commentators on the Ramcaritmanas are convinced by such moral justifications. Hindi literary scholar Mataprasad Gupta, for example, resorts to an aesthetic interpretation of Rama's actions:


There are two episodes that do not fit with the greatness of this character: (1) disfiguring Surpanakha and (2) killing Bali with deceit. But some people try to justify both actions completely. However, it is perhaps necessary to point out that the objections raised in these connections are from the point of view of morality, while we are concerned with these actions from a literary point of view, too, that is how far do these blemishes prove helpful in enhancing the beauty of this poem.[33]

Two additional points: Surpanakha, as in Kampan but not the other versions, states that she is a virgin. Also, she is sent back and forth between the brothers an extra time.

Radhesyam Ramayan ( sankhya 10)

The RadhesyamRamayan was composed in the mid twentieth century in simple modern Hindi verse.[34] Written in a lively, colloquial tone, it is available in cheap editions and is much easier for the average Hindi speaker to read than the Ramcaritmanas , which is written in a more archaic and flowery language. Interspersed with songs, the RadhesyamRamayan is also a major source for the Ram Lila performances in some towns in North India.

The story begins, as in other tellings, with Surpanakha falling desperately in love with Rama after happening upon the pleasant abode where he dwells with Sita and Laksmana. I translate the rest of the episode as follows:

She said, "In the midst of the world, there is no other woman as beautiful as I, nor is there a beautiful man like you anywhere. Our mutual beauty is as if the Creator had planned it. The maker of the moon has also made the sun. Give me shelter, O Forest-dweller; fulfill the aspiration of the Creator. I command you to marry me in the gandharva fashion."

Sita thought, "Let my heart not be shattered. If the sun and the moon have truly met, then for me there is complete darkness." Smiling to himself, the husband of Sita said, "Forgive me, desirable one, you cannot be with me. I am not a bachelor, but am married and vow to remain faithful to one woman. Forget about me. I consider all other women to be mothers and sisters. Therefore, I can never accede to your request. I am a noble man and can never break the code of honor."

The demoness listened, and when he had stopped talking, she turned from him and cast her eyes on Laksmana. She said to Laksmana, "Why are you looking at me and quietly snickering? He is married, but you seem to be a bachelor. Well then, don't give me a harsh answer as he did. If you are willing, and I am willing, then there is nothing wrong with our union."

Laksmana had always had a somewhat fierce nature. He could not bear the demoness's behavior. He said, "Aren't you ashamed to say these things? You should have died before saying these things, O sinful one! This is the first time in my life I have ever seen such shamelessness! Because I have seen


such shamelessness, this is an inauspicious day. O demoness, O disgracer of your family! If you have not yet been married, then tell your guardian to get you married somewhere. Marriage should be noble, performed according to righteous means. Don't consider it a bargain in the marketplace. Its proper goal is not the fulfillment of pleasure, but rather the fulfillment of duty. If you have already been married, then serve your own husband! He is your god and should be worshiped. Wish only for his happiness. But if you are a widow, then be a renunciant for the sake of your own husband. Become a true ascetic for the purpose of serving your family, caste, and country. Work toward instructing and improving your own sisters; this is your proper course of action. Remain steadfast in this way, in the midst of the world, remembering your own dear husband. Why do you bring shame upon yourself, uselessly going here and there in this way? O adulteress, you are drowning the good name of your father and husband."

Laksmana's tirade in this version makes his moralizing in the Ramcaritmanas seem mild. His message is clear: For a woman, there are three possible statuses, unmarried daughter, wife, or widow—and none of these permit a woman to go about choosing her own sexual partners. A family's honor is invested in the chastity of its women. There is a very modern tone to this passage, reflecting the concern of conservatives in a rapidly changing twentieth century India. The poet seems to be telling his audience that he does not approve of the recent fashion of "love marriages," lest someone think they are permissible as the modern equivalent of the ancient gandharva rite. (His remark about the marketplace is unintentionally ironic, since in fact many modern arranged marriages are driven by pecuniary considerations.) Similarly, he reiterates the traditional ideal that a wife should worship her husband as a god, attaining salvation only through him. His remarks about widows have a modern application, since widow remarriage among the upper castes is still a controversial issue, in spite of a relaxation of the ban in some communities. The references to serving one's country and to the educational uplift of women also have a modern, nationalistic ring to them.

The story continues:

Hearing this teaching of the forest ascetic, she was even more agitated. The pure water slid off her as off a slippery pitcher. Then she thought, "This won't work with him. He's a regular preacher and won't change his ways. Yes, the dark lotus-mouthed one seems comparatively gentle to me. But he has his wife with him. Because of her, he won't accept me. So I will assume my horrible form and eat that lovely one. In that way, I will get rid of that thorn in my path in a moment."

As she assumed a horrible form, her garland, which had been a mass of flowers, immediately became a mass of spears. She approached Sita, but when she opened her mouth wide, Laksmana could no longer bear her antics.


Who has the nerve to torture a mother in front of her son? How can someone harm a mistress in front of her servant? At that moment, the eyes of Laksmana became red. At the same time, the Ksatriya's arms became horrible weapons of death. He thought, "I will twist her neck and rid the earth of her. With my kicks and fists, I will pulverize her in a flash." When Rama realized the fierce sentiment in Laksmana's heart, he signaled to Laksmana, "Don't kill her; mutilate her." Laksmana could not ignore Rama's order, so he immediately cut off the demoness's nose and ears.

When that evil one had left, crying in pain, the Beloved of Sita said to Laksmana: "You were ready to kill her, but I did not think it was right. On this occasion, I considered it appropriate not to kill a weak woman. So I had you mutilate her so that she would become ugly. Never again will she be able to make such an obscene proposition."

Laksmana said, "You have abided by the warrior code. But even killing her would not have been a wrong action. The guru of whom we were disciples [Visvamitra] and who increased our zeal had us kill Tataka in our childhood. He used to say, 'It is not a sin to kill a fallen woman. It is not a sin to rid the earth of heinous things.'"

Laughing, Sita said, "You could have killed her, but your brother is an ocean of mercy and forgiveness!" Hearing the lovely one's irony, Rama became embarrassed. Laksmana also burst out laughing, covering his mouth with his hand.

This version is an interesting combination of black humor and didacticism. Rama and Laksmana do not toy with Surpanakha in quite the same manner as in other versions. For example, Rama does not tell Surpanakha that Laksmana is unmarried; she assumes it herself. Laksmana's lecture is also an innovation, perhaps inspired by the much shorter one in Ramcaritmanas . The Radhesyam Ramayan also makes it clear that the motive for mutilation is not only punishment but deterrence. Much later, in the sequel to this text, Rama's sons Lava and Kusa are reciting the story of Rama. When they get to the Surpanakha episode, they say, "Who would have thought . . . that [Rama] would have Laksmana cut off this woman's nose and ears? But it was really a matter of his duty to punish the wicked. He disfigured Surpanakha in order to keep her away from sin."[35] In other words, Rama is doing her a favor by preventing her from sinning again. After she leaves, the three of them have a good laugh over the whole thing.

The rest of the story is similar to the Ramcaritmanas version. When Surpanakha confronts Ravana with what has happened, she says, "If my nose is gone, it is gone. Now you better look after your nose." In colloquial Hindi, to lose one's nose (nak ) means to lose one's honor. Ravana pretends to become angry, but, as in other devotional versions, he seizes upon this chance to attain salvation.


As a counterpoint to the apologetic tone of the Radhesyam Ramayan , I present here a roughly contemporaneous critique of the mutilation of Surpanakha, that offered by Arvind Kumar in A Study in the Ethics of the Banishment of Sita .[36] It was originally written as a legal defense of his poem, "Ram ka Antardvandva" (Rama's internal conflict), which appeared in 1957 in the popular Hindi magazine Sarita . The poem was banned after a public uproar and could not be published in the book since the ban was still in effect.

In both the poem and the book, Kumar questions Rama's loyalty to Sita, broadly hinting that Rama was attracted to Surpanakha. Kumar describes his poem as a monologue in which Rama looks back over the events in his life while trying to decide whether to banish Sita. It shows Rama doubting Sita's faithfulness and admitting that he too was once tempted by Surpanakha, and even now remembers her beauty. In the essay, Kumar says that Rama has adopted many poses in his life, one of which was his treatment of Surpanakha: "Rama knows that he is telling a lie. Laksmana has been married to Urmila and before going to the jungle has lived with her for twelve years. Is this not a pose to say the least?"[37] He also criticizes the goading of Surpanakha:

The propriety of Rama's joking in a ribald manner has also been questioned. Would an upright man, with nothing otherwise in his mind, ask a woman who has openly come to him with such an invitation, to go to his younger brother? Rama does not refuse Surpanakha directly. He only says, "Of course, you would not like to share me with a rival wife." Then, both Rama and Laksmana join in the game and make Surpanakha fly like a shuttlecock from one end to the other.[38]

The public outrage produced by Kumar's original poem and subsequent essay defending it shows that criticism or satire involving religious figures can be just as inflammatory in Hinduism as in Christianity (the film The Last Temptation of Christ ) or Islam (Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses ). Rama's status as moral exemplar is so central to Indian culture that to impugn his motives has become essentially an act of heresy.

Mutilation as A Punishment for Women

Three interrelated themes or motifs thus seem to emerge from the Surpanakha episode, all of which figure significantly in the broader context of Hindu mythology and culture. The first of these, mutilation as a punishment for women, is a standard feature of the Surpanakha story. In the majority of Ramayana tellings, it is Surpanakha's nose and cars that are cut off. In some versions, it is her nose alone, whereas others add her breasts, hands, feet, or even hair.[39] As we have seen, in South India, especially Tamilnadu, the breasts are seen as a symbol of female power; thus, cutting them off is a


humiliating punishment which deprives a woman of her power. The nose is a symbol of honor; in all versions of the story its removal signifies the loss of honor. In the Radhesyam Ramayan , as we have seen, this is made explicit when Surpanakha warns Ravana that he had better watch out for his nose— meaning, of course, that his honor is at stake. Since honor is especially associated with the sexual purity of women, the cutting off of the nose has traditionally been a punishment reserved for women.

Most Indian legal texts forbid killing a woman, even as punishment for a serious crime, though the practice is not unheard of.[40] For example, in tile Balakanda of Valmiki's Ramayana , Rama kills the demoness Tataka at the behest of the sage Visvamitra, after Laksmana first disfigures her. Generally, however, women and men receive different punishments for the same crime. Disfigurement of the woman is the most common punishment for crimes of a sexual nature, such as adultery—or even attempting to poison one's husband—and Indian mythology and folklore abound with examples of the motif.[41] Interestingly, such incidents are often presented in a humorous light.[42] Thus, in many North Indian Ram Lilaq performances the Surpanakha episode is a kind of burlesque, to which the (predominantly male) audience responds with ribald jokes and laughter, perhaps again betraying a certain male anxiety about female sexuality.[43]

Sexuality and Austerity in the Forest

The mythologies of Siva and of Krsna allow a free interplay between eroticism and asceticism: though the two are in tension, full expression is given to both. In the character of Rama, however, sexuality appears to be almost completely suppressed. There is some tension between the ascetic and the householder way of life, but the conflict is always presented in terms of dharma, that is, in terms of which duty he should fulfill, rather than in terms of the indulgence or suppression of erotic desires. According to the traditional interpretation, during his exile Rama is a vanaprastha , a forest-dwelling ascetic accompanied by his wife. This stage of life is rife with complications, as it is an "unsatisfactory compromise" between two mutually exclusive modes of existence, the householder and the ascetic.[44] According to tradition, Rama and Sita refrained from sexual activity for the fourteen years of their exile, although Valmiki, at least, is ambiguous on this point.

In the Sanskrit aesthetic tradition represented by Abhinavagupta, the major theme of the Ramayana is summed up by the story, recounted early in Valmiki, of a hunter sinfully killing a bird, thereby interrupting its lovemaking with its mate.[45] In the Rama narrative proper, a somewhat similar interruption of marital bliss is created first by Surpanakha and then, more disruptively, by Ravana. This is a common motif in Hindu mythology: when Siva


and Parvati were interrupted in their lovemaking, for example, disastrous consequences ensued.[46] At the same time, in keeping with the ambiguous character of the vanaprastha mode, the Surpanakha episode resembles the myth of Kama's interruption of Siva's austerities. The Ahalya story follows a similar pattern: Indra disrupts the marital bliss of the forest-dwelling couple Gautama and Ahalya, but at the same time interrupts their austerities, for which both he and Ahalya are cursed. The narration of the Surpanakha episode generally begins with a twofold description of idyllic domesticity and the performance of austerities. Surpanakha is punished for her display of unrepressed sexuality, which is harmful to both domesticity and asceticism.

Sita, and Surpanakha as Alter Egos

Sita and Surpanakha exemplify two types of women who appear almost universally in folklore and mythology: Sita is good, pure, light, auspicious, and subordinate, whereas Surpanakha is evil, impure, dark, inauspicious, and insubordinate. Although male characters also divide into good and bad, the split between women is far more pronounced and is always expressed in terms of sexuality.[47] Similarly, when a woman such as Surpanakha performs a wrong deed, it is typically ascribed to her female nature, whereas Ravana's evil deeds, for example, are never said to spring from his male nature. It is also worth noting that in the bhakti -oriented Ramayanas , in which the evil-doings of the male characters are recast as devotional acts leading to eventual salvation, Surpanakha's salvation is not mentioned.[48]

Sita is the chaste good woman; Surpanakha the "loose" bad woman. The good woman is one who remains controlled, both mentally and physically, by her husband (or, in his absence, her father, brother, or son) and whose sexuality is channeled into childbearing and service to her husband. The scriptures make frequent references to a man's duty to unite himself with such a woman in order to produce sons and thereby fulfill obligations to the ancestors. According to an oft-quoted injunction, a woman must obey and be protected by her father in youth, her husband in married life, and her sons in old age; a woman should never be independent (Manusmrti V.147, IX.3). The good woman, however, is far from weak and powerless. She is a source of power, sakti .[49] In other words, it is her auspiciousness and nurturing that keep things going, but her power must be controlled to suit the purposes of a patriarchal society. Thus Sita comes to the forest as a companion to her husband, and she is watched over and protected every step of the way. Otherwise, she would not be allowed to set foot out of the palace.

The bad woman is one who is not subject to these controls. In contrast to Sita, Surpanakha is unattached and wanders about freely. In Valmiki, she describes herself as a strong woman who goes where she likes under her own


power. It is not surprising that she is said to be a widow, since widows are considered dangerous and inauspicious, circumstances having rendered them unable to bear children. Their chastity is also suspect, since they are no longer under the control of a husband, and women are believed to have insatiable sexual appetites. In Hindi, Panjabi, and other North Indian languages, the word suhagin or sumangali , signifying auspiciousness, is used for a married woman whose husband is alive, while the word randi can mean both a widow and a whore.[50] Surpanakha's unmarried state is thus the major source of her evil nature; being a raksasi is at best a contributing factor. After all, Mandodari, also a raksasi , is praised for her virtue, chastity, and devotion to her husband, Ravana. Accordingly, it is Surpanakha's status as an independent woman which is denounced. But the loose woman, while perceived as dangerous, also holds a certain fascination for the male imagination, which is perhaps why Rama and Laksmana linger a bit, egging her on rather than banishing her immediately.

It is revealing that Rama uses Sita as the excuse for Surpanakha's mutilation: the "bad woman" is punished in order to protect the "good woman," or perhaps to serve as an example of what would happen to the "good woman" if she decided to go "bad"—for the division of women into two types in fact reflects a basic mistrust of all women. One could even argue that if the beautiful and virtuous Sita is Laksmi, the goddess of prosperity and auspiciousness, then the ugly and unvirtuous Surpanakha must be her sister Alaksmi, the goddess of misfortune and inauspiciousness. In festivals honoring Laksmi, her sister Alaksmi is often driven away by lighting lamps, but in a Bengali Laksmi festival, an image of Alaksmi is made and ritually disfigured by cutting off its nose and ears, after which an image of Laksmi is installed in order to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year.[51] The structural similarity between this popular ritual and the Surpanakha episode is striking.

The analysis of a single episode as it appears in selected tellings and interpretations can thus provide a telling glimpse into the dynamics of the Ramayana as a whole. The mutilation of Surpanakha is significant to the Rama story from multiple perspectives. From a narrative point of view, it serves as the catalyst for the key events: only after Surpanakha reports her disfigurement to Ravana does he decide to abduct Sita. From an ethical point of view, the episode raises complex questions about Rama's supposedly exemplary character, questions which authors and commentators have attempted to resolve in diverse ways. From a cultural perspective, the episode sheds light on Hindu attitudes toward female sexuality and its relationship to such polarities as good and evil, pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious. However, the final word on Surpanakha has not been voiced: her story is sure to fascinate and inspire hearers, tellers, and interpreters for generations to come.


Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram

David Shulman

Even perfection has its problems. Especially vulnerable are those unfortunates who have to live beside or in relation to some paragon. No doubt Rama, exemplary hero that he is in the major classical versions of the story from Valmiki onward, attracts the love and utter loyalty of nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact, especially the members of his immediate family. As Kampan, the twelfth-century author of the Tamil Ramayana , puts it:

Just as Rama is filled with love
of many kinds
for all the living beings of this world,
so, in so many ways, do they
love him.[1]

And it is, of course, no ordinary love: elsewhere we are told—this is Sita speaking to Laksmana—that "those who have known him for even a single day would give their lives for him" (III.8.13). Still, statements such as these by no means exhaust the range of emotions generated by Rama's presence. Moreover, in at least two contexts this idealized model of humanity is explicitly problematized by the Ramayana tradition: first, in the painful case of his cowardly and unfair slaying of the monkey-king Valin; and second, in his relations with Sita after the war and her restoration to him.[2] The latter context is even, in a sense, doubled. Rama initially rejects Sita in Lanka, requiring her to undergo a test of fire (agnipariksa ), which she passes. Only later, in the seventh book, the Uttarakanda , does Rama take the more drastic and apparently final step of exiling his wife in response to continuing slanderous rumors about her faithfulness to him during her stay at Ravana's court. The Indian literary tradition has explored the tragic dimension of Rama's action and has offered various solutions to the problems it raises—since there is no


doubt that Sita's punishment is entirely unmerited, as Rama himself clearly knows.[3]

Modern Indological scholarship has, since Jacobi, tended to attack the problem by a characteristic act of stratigraphy: the Uttarakanda is declared later than the "central core" of books 2 through 6, so Rama's final repudiation of Sita is reduced to the status of an accretion. For reasons that I cannot develop here, I feel that this "solution" is unacceptable.[4] In any case, our present concern is with the earlier trial, in Lanka, primarily as it appears in Kampan's Tamil version. In Kampan this is the only such moment of overt hostility on the part of Rama toward Sita, for the Tamil work concludes with Rama's happy return to Ayodhya; there is no Uttarakanda .[5] The Tamil poem thus achieves an outwardly pacific closure—which should not, however, mask the inherent turbulence of its emotional universe. Reading Kampan, one should never be wholly taken in by surface idealizations. Still, the relationship between Rama and his wife is generally idealized in the Tamil text; thus Sita's ordeal by fire, with its bitter overtones, acquires an intriguing singularity. In many ways, this is a critical and culminating moment in the narrative.

We will study this episode as a particularly revealing illustration of certain basic themes and tensions embedded within Kampan's poem, and also as a striking condensation of the cultural distinctiveness of this Tamil Ramayana , especially vis-aà-vis the earlier text of Valmiki. By way of introduction, let me say merely that, however we may seek to understand Rama's status in the Sanskrit text, there is no question that for Kampan he is God in visible and earthly form. Kampan rarely lets us forget this identification—though, as we shall see, its implications for the hero's own consciousness are rather different than in the case of Valmiki's presentation of the avatar. The Tamil Ramayana is a devotional kavya , replete with the poses and values of Tamil bhakli religion and marked by the general cultural orientations of the Kaveri delta during the Chola period, when it was composed. This means, among other things, that it has the power of subtlety as well as the volatile movement of internal complexity; and that it builds, in sometimes surprising ways, on the earlier foundations of Tamil poetry with its inherited modes of classifying the world and its typical understandings of human identity and experience.

The Cost of Self-Knowledge:Valmiki's Vision

We begin with an overview of the episode in Valmiki's text. The great war is over, and Ravana slain. Vibhisana, Ravana's righteous brother, has been crowned king of Lanka and, at Rama's magnanimous insistence, has performed the funeral rites for his dead brother. Now Sita, who has heard from Hanuman the happy news of her deliverance, is brought into Rama's presence by Vibhisana. This is the beginning of the trial. Even before any direct


contact can be made between the two separated lovers, an unseemly and somewhat inauspicious commotion breaks out. Clearing a way for Sita, Vibhisana's servants violently push aside the curious crowd of bears, monkeys, and demons—these are, after all, the constant witnesses of Rama's career—at which they clamor indignantly. Rama, too, is indignant: these are his , Rama's, people now, he informs Vibhisana; they should not be injured. Moreover, there is absolutely no harm in their seeing Sita directly, for women can be seen in the context of disasters, wars, a bridegroom choice, sacrifices, and weddings. There is therefore no need to protect Sita— especially, he notes, "in my presence" (VI.117.28).[6] Hanuman, Laksmana, and Sugriva quite rightly detect a sinister note in this speech. They are disturbed, afraid that Rama is somehow unhappy with Sita; and indeed the poet-narrator has already indicated to us that Rama is filled with conflicting emotions at this point, specifically joy, misery, and anger (harso dainyam ca rosas ca , 117.16).

Sita now stands before him, her eyes raised hopefully to his face. She is a little embarrassed and hides her face with the edge of her sari. She is weeping, repeating over and over, "My lord" (aryaputra ). It should be a moment of joyful reunion, but to everyone's shock Rama proceeds to speak his "innermost thought" (hrdayantargatam bhavam , 118.1), articulated in a speech that is horribly cold, formal, and aloof. "So I have won you back by defeating my enemy; I have acted as a man should, wiped out the insult to my honor, revealed my prowess. Today I have fulfilled my promise and can control my life. Your misfortune in being carried off by that fickle demon, as fate (daiva ) decreed, has been overcome by me, a mere mortal" (118.2-5). As an afterthought, he adds that the heroic feats performed by Hanuman and Sugriva, as well as Vibhisana's decision to abandon his wicked brother, have also been vindicated by this success.

Sita appropriately bursts into tears at this unexpected welcome. Looking at her, Rama becomes still angrier, like a fire fed by oblations of butter. (Some manuscripts add that he is afraid of public opinion, and that his heart is split in two.)[7] He launches into an outright attack on his wife: she should know that he fought not for her sake but simply in order to remove the insult to himself and his famous family. Now there is some doubt as to her conduct (caritra ) during this period, and as a result she is repugnant to him, like a lamp to a person whose eyes are diseased. "Go, then, with my permission, wherever you may wish. The world is open before you; but I will have nothing to do with you, nor have I any attachment to you any more. How could I take you back, straight from Ravana's lap?"

It is a brutal outburst, perhaps calculatedly so, if we adopt the perspective that the Ramayana tradition often proposes, and that Valmiki himself may finally hint at. In any case, the listener, no doubt like Sita herself, reels under the impact of the simile Rama chooses for himself: he is like a man half-blind


in the presence of a lamp.[8] Certainly, Rama does appear at this point quite unable to perceive the truth. So Sita replies, choked and weeping, in words of protest that are, at least at first, strikingly restrained: "Why are you speaking to me so harshly and inappropriately, like a common man to a common woman? I am not as you imagine me; you must believe me, I swear to you. Because of the conduct of some lowly women, you cast doubt on the entire sex. Put aside this doubt; I have been tested! I could not help it if my body was touched by another, but there was no desire involved; fate is to blame. That part of me that is wholly under my control—my heart—is always focused on you. Can I help it if the limbs of my body are ruled by others? If, after our long intimacy, you still do not know me, then I am truly cursed forever." She marshals a trenchant argument: If Rama were determined to repudiate her, why did he bother sending Hanuman to find her when she was a prisoner? Had he so much as hinted at his intention, she would have killed herself at once, in Hanuman's presence. This would surely have saved everyone a good deal of trouble and risk! Sarcasm is creeping into her speech; it seems she is getting angry after all, to the point where she allows herself one truly biting line: "By giving in to anger like a little man, you, my lord, have made being a woman altogether preferable" (tvaya. . . laghuneva manusyena stritvam evam puraskrtam , 119.14).

Rama reacts to all this with silence, and Sita takes command. Turning to Laksmana, she demands that he light a pyre for her. Entering the fire is, she says, the only medicine for this illness; she will not go on living if her husband is dissatisfied with her virtue. Deeply distressed, Laksmana looks to Rama for a sign and gets the equivalent of a nod. So the fire is lit; Sita quietly circumambulates her husband—who will not even raise his head to look at her—bows to the gods and Brahmins, and, calling on the fire, the witness of all that happens in the world, to protect her, leaps into the flames. The whole world, including all the gods, is watching; the monkeys and demons scream.

The moment of terror contains its own redemption. Rama, the embodiment of dharma (dharmatma ), is thinking (dadhyau ), his eyes clouded with tears. He must, in fact, have rather a lot to consider: has his life, with its unwavering commitment to dharmic ideals, inevitably brought him to this painful point? Such moments of reflection in the context of disaster are often points of transformation in the Sanskrit epics: one thinks of Yudhisthira's final act of bewildered reconsideration (vimarsa ) in hell, where he has just discovered his brothers and his wife.[9] And Valmiki does indeed seize upon this juncture to effect a powerful and integrative transition, which brings us back to the frame of the Ramayana as a whole and to one of the central issues of the text. For, as Rama meditates on the situation, the gods swoop down upon Lanka, crying out to him in sentences that must strike him as wholly surrealistic and confused: "How can you, who are the creator of the entire world and the most enlightened being, ignore Sita as she is falling into the


fire? Don't you know yourself, best of all the gods?" At this, Rama, clearly unsettled, turns to the gods with an impassioned plea: "I know myself as a human being, Rama, son of Dasaratha. Who am I really? To whom do I belong? Whence have I come? Let the Lord [Brahma] tell me!"

The questions are by no means trivial or accidental, nor does it help to see them as the interpolations of a later generation interested in Rama only as avatar.[10] "Who am I really?" In a way, this latent cry has pursued Rama through the whole of his story. The Ramayana is the portrait of a consciousness hidden from itself; or, one might say, of an identity obscured and only occasionally, in brilliant and poignant flashes, revealed to its owner. The problem is one of forgetting and recovery, of anamnesis: the divine hero who fails to remember that he is god comes to know himself, at least for brief moments, through hearing (always from others) his story.[11] This is what happens now: responding to his cry, Brahma tells him the "facts" of his existence. He is none other than Narayana, who is the imperishable Absolute; he is supreme dharma, Krsna, the Purusa, Purusottama, the world's creator, the sacrifice, and so forth. As to the more immediate circumstances, Sita is Laksmi and Rama is Visnu, who has entered into human form for the purpose of killing Ravana. Now that this has been accomplished, Rama can return to heaven.

Note the course of development through this passage: Rama sends for Sita and addresses her harshly; she responds by denying his insinuations and protesting his repudiation, and jumps into the fire; the world clamors in outrage, and Rama is led to reflect upon matters and to inquire as to his "true" identity; Brahma then reveals the mythic and metaphysical components of his nature and the cause of his human incarnation. The sequence is carefully worked out and saturated with meaning. If one feels, as I do, that the issue of Rama's self-awareness is basic here (as it is in related episodes, such as the scene in the Uttarakanda when Sita at last returns to Rama, only to disappear forever), then one discovers that Sita's trial by fire is actually more a testing of Rama than of her. By undergoing this ordeal, she precipitates the momentary switch in levels that presents the hero with his own divinity. His anamnesis proceeds directly from her suffering, the cost of his obsession with dharma as defined, rather narrowly, in wholly normative and human terms. Of course, this is only a temporary recovery of knowledge on his part—if not on ours (the listeners outside the text) or on the part of other participants in the story (within it). For now Agni, who has heard Brahma's hymn to Rama as Visnu, can appear in visible, embodied form, holding in his hands the radiant, golden Sita, unsinged and unscarred, even her garlands and ornaments as fresh as before. He speaks the obvious moral of this passage: Sita is pure, totally devoted in word, thought, and sight to Rama; she maintained this purity throughout her time in Lanka, as Ravana's prisoner, despite all threats and temptations; Rama should take her back. He does so readily, and


now he, too, breaking his silence for the first time since the revelation by Brahma, can offer an excuse. People would have blamed him as foolish and ruled by desire (kamatma ) had he taken Sita back without purifying her (avisodhya ); it was all meant simply to establish her faithfulness before the eyes of the world (pratyayartham tu lokanam trayanam , 121.16); he, Rama, could no more abandon her than he could abandon his own fame (kirti ), for he knows that she remained true, protected by her innate radiance (tejas ). Ravana could not touch her.

How much of this is post facto rationalization? The text gives no clear indication, although the language is, once again, eloquent: Rama's kirti is precisely what is in question, both here and in his later decision to send Sita away. It is easy for the tradition to take at face value the hero's assertion that he was only staging a dramatic public vindication by ordeal. But however we might see this, it is clear that a reintegration has taken place—first, of the two separated lovers; then, on another plane, of their mythic counterparts, Visnu and Laksmi, and, internally, of Rama with his divine self. The spectators and listeners witness this as well. The whole epic drama has reached a point of (still temporary) closure, which is reinforced by the immediate aftermath to Sita's trial. Dasaratha, Rama's father, descends from heaven and is reunited with his sons. He expresses this sense of happy closure: "Those words uttered by Kaikeyi, which meant exile for you, have remained in my heart until now when, seeing you well and embracing you together with Laksmana, I have been freed from sorrow, like the sun emerging from fog." Dasaratha restates the conclusion proffered earlier by Brahma as to Rama's mythic identity; he reminds both Laksmana and Sita that Rama is the highest god and begs Sita not to be angry because of the ordeal she has been put through, which was for her own purification. This scene of family reunion not only heals one of the bitterest wounds opened up by Rama's story—that of Dasaratha's grief and premature death—but sets the pattern for yet another closing of the circle. When Indra, before returning to heaven, offers Rama a boon, Rama asks that all the monkey warriors who died for his sake in the battle of Lanka be revived. They immediately arise, as if from sleep. The Ramayana , true to its ideal vision and in cogent contrast to the Mahabharata , reverses death itself and leaves behind a living, restored, reintegrated world—even if the shattering tragedies of the Uttarakanda still lie ahead.[12]

Let us sum up the main lessons of this passage, so beautifully and carefully articulated by the Sanskrit poet. At the center lies the revelation to Rama by the gods, with the consequent transformation of his consciousness through the momentary recovery of a lost, other self. Sita's trial produces doubt and confusion in Rama and outrage on the part of the world, whereupon the gods intervene with the shocking message of Rama's mythic identity. Sita's restoration can follow only upon this epistemic intervention. This theme relates directly to the Ramayana frame story, where we find Rama listening intently to his own story as sung by his as yet unrecognized sons, Kusa and Lava.


We, the listeners, know Rama as god, but he clearly lacks this knowledge, which comes to the surface only in exceptional moments of crisis and breakthrough. The basic Ramayana disjunction between the text's internal and external audiences sustains this play with levels of self-awareness. Sita's trial is one such critical moment, and thus, as we noted, the test is really more Rama's than hers. It remains unclear just how calculated and premeditated his initial statements are; the issue of "testing" in this sense—Rama's wish to demonstrate Sita's faithfulness publicly and also, apparently, to purify her by passing her body through fire—is expressed but never fully resolved. Her own response to his angry words is relatively restrained, though there are flashes of sarcasm and irony as well as one impassioned assertion of women's superiority. The passage concludes with a generalized reintegration and healing: Rama is at peace with Sita, Dasaratha is reunited with his sons, the slain monkeys are revived. The tensions that produced the avatar and generated conflict within the cosmos have been eased, and, on this metaphysical level at least, and for the moment, harmony is restored. On all these counts, Kampan's Tamil version presents us with radical contrasts.

Kampan: The Metaphysics of Reunion

"Can good fortune give rise to lunacy?" (pakkiyam perum pittum payakkumo , VI.37.26). This, according to Kampan, is Sita's response to Hanuman when he brings her the news of her deliverance. At first she is too moved to speak, and he is forced to ask why she is silent: is it because of an excess of joy, or does she doubt the messenger? She answers with the above question, followed by a beautiful set of verses in which she speaks of her inability to reward this messenger in any commensurate way. Note the important theme of silence because of a sensed inadequacy of language in the face of strong emotion. But Sita's first, rhetorical question might almost serve as a motto for the entire highly charged episode to come. Pillu , "lunacy," is not too strong a word for the confrontational experience awaiting her, especially after the hundreds of earlier verses in which the idyllic relations between the two figures of Rama and Sita have been set forth. It is almost as if the orderly progression of this story, so closely linked in Kampan to the examination and enactment of orthodox social ideals, had to proceed through a zone of "crazy" inversion before the end. We might also remember Kampan's own proclaimed identification with this same notion of lunacy in one of the introductory verses (avaiyatakkam ) to the Iramavataram , where, as is customary, he apologizes to the connoisseurs and great Tamil poets for his supposedly flawed or inferior work:

I would say something to those superior poets
who have properly studied the ways of Tamil:
who would study closely


the utterances of madmen, fools,
or of devotees?[13]

The poet, by implication, has something of all three: he is, in his own eyes, a madman and an idiot and, above all, explaining all, a devotee. His devotion breaks out of any sane limit; moreover, much of Kampan's text will be devoted to exploring the operation and limitations of this same unruly, "mad" quality, based on flooding feeling, in the terrestrial career of his god.

Sita's question sounds a note that will continue to echo through the description of her ordeal. Let us see how Kampan chooses to present her situation. Here the setting, if not quite lunatic, is at least suitably lurid. Sita is brought before her husband as he stands, still, on the battlefield—so beloved of Tamil poets—where he has generously arranged a feast of corpses to assuage the hunger of the kites, vultures, and demons (paruntotu kalukum peyum , 55). Against this stark backdrop Sita gets her first glimpse, after so many months of separation, of her husband, with his dark body, mouth red as coral, his bow in his hand. The poet reminds us first of her earlier feelings, during the period of loss and captivity: this is the same flawless woman who had thought, "My body is polluted; my life's breath has gone; there is nothing I want any more" (57). These were suicidal thoughts, born of despair; yet now, as Sita stands before Rama, they are strangely echoed by the metaphor the poet summons to describe her state, a metaphor grounded in the notion that the physical body alone is always potentially impure and subject to the inherent confusions of sensory experience:

As when the false body


that has lost the breath of life


sees it, and reaches out


to steal it back again,


she touched the ground


as she unveiled her face.


By seeing Rama, she is reclaiming, "stealing back," the life that she lost. She expresses her feeling in a single verse:

Even if I must be born again,


or if I leave forever


the great suffering of being born;


if I forget,


or if I fall and die


in some other way,


still all is well


now that I have worshiped


this husband,


this lord.



She still has reason to be afraid—not only of rebirth and dying, but also, we might note, of forgetting—but at least this moment of reunion promises to relieve the cumulative burden of anxious anticipation and potential despair. The sight of her husband induces in Sita an illusion of closure and containment. Meanwhile, he sees her too, pregnantly described as "that queen of chastity" and also "like merciful dharma that had been separated from him" (60). This is essentially all we are given before Rama's tirade: having caught sight of her, he at once begins to abuse her, "like a snake raising its hood." Before we pursue this speech, though, let us notice the way Kampan has introduced the major metaphysical and psychological themes of this section in these three simple, hard-hitting verses.

Most salient is the image of life separated from and rejoining the body. Indeed, this image may be said to condense the entire issue of union and separation, so basic to Kampan's poem (as to all Tamil bhakti ). It is not by chance that Kampan opens the episode with just this simile: this moment that ends the period of separation also recalls, perhaps deliberately, the very instant of its beginning, its first intrusion into the hero's consciousness. When Rama races back to the hut in the forest where Laksmana has so reluctantly left Sita alone and finds it empty—for Ravana has meanwhile abducted her, as the audience well knows—he is compared to "the breath of life that has been separated from its containing body (kutu ) and has come in search of it, but cannot find it" (III.8.158).[14] If we apply the metaphor literally, in both cases Rama is compared to the breath of life (uyir ), while Sita is like the body; in the forest, the uyir panics at the loss of its corporeal container, while in Lanka the body reaches out to recover its lost vital force (as Sita glimpses Rama). The separation that informs so large a part of the epic story is thus, metaphorically and also metaphysically, the shattering of a longed-for and necessary symbiosis on the level of the composition of the human individual. This symbiosis is not that of body and soul, inert matter and spiritual substance (and thus the temptation to allegoresis is easily resisted for the Iramavataram ); indeed, it is not truly dualistic at all. Rather, it reflects the interlocking relationship between two dynamic, equally living and substantial entities that together create a unity of perceived experience.

This unity of body and life-force has, in Kampan, several associated characteristics and implications that are invoked at points throughout the lramavataram when this recurrent metaphor breaks through the text. It is, first of all, a unity based on flux, resistant to stasis and stable definition. The fluid quality that pervades the relation of life to body is nowhere clearer than in the introductory canto to the poem as a whole, the Arruppatalam or "Chapter on the River." This opening replaces the entire Ramayana frame story as given in Valmiki; in its stead, we have a striking description of water flooding own from the Himalayas, violently jumbling together the elements of hitherto distinct landscapes:


Turning forest into slope,
field into wilderness,
seashore into fertile land,

changing boundaries,
exchanging landscapes,
the reckless waters

roared on like the pasts
that hurry close on the heels
of lives.[15]

The rushing water is translated into the register of rushing lives (with their burdens of past deeds and memories), a metaphoric conjunction that becomes even more powerful as the description reaches its climax:

Like a life filling
and emptying
a variety of bodies,
the river flowed on.[16]

Uyir again, the vital breath that moves endlessly through one body after another, always seeks but then separates from these partial vessels. The life-force clearly enjoys an ontological superiority of sorts—it is the "false body" that reclaims its lost uyir in the verse describing Sita's glimpse of Rama—yet this animating power can never dispense with embodiment, even as it can never be entirely contained by it. This is the second characteristic to be stressed, one directly relevant to Sita's situation in Lanka: the unity of life and body is always unfinished. No final integration is called for; the restless flux has no teleology beyond its own process. The body that reclaims its uyii , as we are told Sita wishes to do, will doubtless lose it again. Sita's emerging confrontation with Rama thus fits naturally into the underlying metaphysics of flux, in which separation is no less necessary than union. A jarring narrative episode inherited from Valmiki is integrated into a conceptual constellation specific to the Tamil literary and philosophical universe. The prevalent Tamil bhakti characterization of the relation between god and his human devotee as troubled, even tormented, also fits this pattern, and it is thus not surprising that in Kampan, too, one "regains" Rama only to be immediately rejected by him.

But the potential for union is also crucial to this set of images, especially insofar as it includes the dimension of loving emotion. Thus when Rama and Sita first catch sight of one another in Mithila, before they are married, they become

one breath of life


in two different bodies.


When the two lovers separated



from their bed on the dark sea


found each other again,


was there need for words?

(I. 10.38)

Uyir is unitary, even as it flows in and out of an endlessly fragmented series of distinct bodies; when two embodied beings feel love for one another, they experience this underlying unity of the life-force. In the case of Rama and Sita, there is also a mythic dimension, evident in this passage, hovering somewhere in the background of awareness—for the two lovers are Visnu and Laksmi, who have become separated from one another and from their proper cosmic setting, the serpent-couch floating upon the "dark sea" of milk. They find one another again, in moving silence, when Rama and Sita fall in love.

And having found one another, they then proceed to lose each other, to experience at great length the impatient longings and confusions inherent in separation, ultimately to confront one another again, in our scene at Lanka. We begin to see why this meeting must have something of the quality of the uyir's unstable meeting with the body. Dynamic flux, instability, emotional excess and imbalance, the flooding of memory, the mingling of past and present, an inner experience of potential unity, the hesitations of language— this is the range of associations that Kampan calls up at the outset of Sita's ordeal.[17] Schematically stated, this episode is made to embrace three forms of movement along a thematic continuum: an oscillation between separation and union, on the most fundamental experiential and metaphysical level; an interplay of speech and eloquent silence, on the external linguistic level; and an unfolding tension between forgetting or lack of feeling and memory or intuitive understanding, on the cognitive and epistemic level. The opening verses already bring these issues to the fore.

Now comes Rama's speech, which is even more cruel to Sita, and more outspoken, than in Valmiki's text:

You took pleasure in food,


you didn't die


for all your disgrace


in the great palace of the devious demon.


You stayed there, submissive,


wholly without fear.


What thought has brought you here?


Did you imagine that I


could want you ?


Kampan's male heroes have the somewhat unpleasant habit, at difficult moments, of blaming their women for not dying (thus Dasaratha to Kaikeyi, II.3.222). Rama will return to this theme, as he does to the oral obsession with which the whole diatribe begins:


You abandoned us.


All this while, you have been relishing


the flesh of living beings,


sweeter than ambrosia,


and happily drinking strong liquor.


So you tell me: what proper feasts


are in store for me now?


A nice inversion: Sita is held responsible for having "abandoned us." The kidnapping has become irrelevant, and the focus is on her hedonistic delight in the carnivorous cuisine of Lanka. Can a wife so corrupted ever serve the fastidious Rama another meal? (South Indian vegetarian values have by this point superseded any dim memories of Rama's habitual Ksatriya diet of game!) To make things crystal clear, Rama also informs her, as he does in Valmiki's version, of the real reason for his campaign:

It was not to save you


that I dammed the sea,


cut off at the root


these demons with their gleaming weapons,


and overcame their enmity:


it was to redeem myself from error


that I came here, to Lanka.


Pilai , "error," is also a lack or deficiency, or some more serious mistake, even a crime. Rama speaks with the hero's egoistic concern for his own honor, and without intentionally implying that he is now enacting a mistake of greater magnitude than any previously connected with his story. His attack gathers force, becoming more and more personal and unfair: Sita was, after all, born not in a family distinguished by goodness but, like a worm (kitam pol ), from the soil (65; here Kampan has lifted a theme from Sita's speech in Valmiki, intensified it, and placed it in Rama's mouth).[18] It is no wonder, then, that

womanhood, greatness,


high birth, the power


known as chastity,


right conduct,


clarity and splendor


and truth:


all have perished by the mere birth


of a single creature such as you,


like the fame of a king


who gives no gifts.


Sita has become the total antithesis to the exemplary figure Rama had always recognized in her. Her survival alone is enough to impeach her: wellborn women in her situation would have embarked on a regimen of rigorous


austerities; and if disgrace (pali ) came, they would wipe it out by wiping out their lives (67). (Again, the male complaint at his wife's refusal to disappear.) Now Rama can conclude (again rendering Valmiki's formulation more extreme):

What is the point of talking?


Your conduct has destroyed forever


all understanding.


The thing to do


is to die—


or, if you won't do that,


then go somewhere,






The demand for death is Kampan's innovation, to be seized upon at once by Sita. But this verse also introduces, for the first time in this episode, the important concept of unarvu, the intuitive, felt understanding that is the normal medium of connection between individuals and, across existential levels, between human beings and the god. It is this form of communicative understanding that Rama claims Sita has destroyed through her conduct; her survival is beyond his unarvu , and she should therefore die or disappear. We shall soon see how Sita takes up this important statement and develops it in crucial and suggestive ways.

So far we notice an impressive exacerbation of the bitterness inherent in Rama's speech as set out in Valmiki. Rama lashes out at Sita with horrific accusations, ridicules her miraculous birth, and even tells her she should die. This extreme heightening of tone continues into Sita's reply, as we shall see. But before she begins to speak, her inner state is summed up in another graphic metaphor:

Like a deer


on the point of death,


tortured by terrible thirst


in the middle of a desert


thick with kites,


who sees a lake


just beyond reach,


she grieved at the barrier


that rose before her.


Perhaps most striking here is Kampan's use of imagery drawn from classical Tamil love poetry, the akam or "inner" division structured around conventionalized landscapes with their associated emotional states. A Tamil reader immediately identifies this verse as a palai or wilderness poem caring up a sense of traumatic separation.[19] The image of the predatory kite, which helps to specify the landscape, also points to something in the dramatic situation—


no doubt something in Rama's menacing attitude and conduct. Sita's inner reality is indeed a palai experience at this moment: she has entered a wilderness zone of rejection and loss. This suggestive use of the classical conventions is a constant element in Kampan's art. Seen in relation to the central story of Rama and Sita's common fate, the entire lramavataram might well appear as an extended love poem in the bhakli mode.[20] Like earlier Tamil bhakti poets, Kampan conflates heroic or panegyric themes (puram ) with akam or "interior" elements, largely subordinating the former to the latter in nonexplicit ways. But in Kampan the narrative follows the prescribed structure of the Sanskrit epic, with the result that the classical love situations of Tamil poetry—premarital courtship and stolen union, the several forms of separation and longing, as well as later quarreling and conflict—are now scattered somewhat unpredictably, without orderly sequence, throughout the text. They emerge from time to time, usually with very powerful implications: thus Rama's crossing of the wilderness as a young man recalls palai themes; premarital passion, kalavu , is suggested in Mithila; Sita, pining in Lanka, appears as the impatient heroine of the neytal coastal landscape; and here the palai atmosphere is again present at the moment of reunion. In itself, this is instructive, for palai , the landscape of separation at its most severe, embodies that aspect of the love experience felt to inhere in all others, including union.[21] Love, even in union, is largely predicated on the sense of separateness and separation. We can see how appropriate this classical element is to the underlying metaphysics of Sita's encounter with Rama—an encounter structured around rejection—and we observe the delicate and calculated artistry of the poet who, following Nammalvar and other Vaisnava bhakli poets in Tamil, turns the ancient conventions to his devotional purpose.

Tirade and Trial

Sita's response is of a different order altogether than in Valmiki. It resumes and extends themes that have already been broached by the Tamil text, and it does so in the context of a complaint aimed directly at Rama, both as husband and, implicitly, as god. Irony is the least of Sita's weapons. More than in any other passage of the Iramavataram , she blasts Rama directly and with literal intent.[22] To those familiar with the Tamil tradition, she calls up the image of the bereaved Kannaki from the classical kavya Cilappatikaram (especially cantos 18 and 19)—a woman crying out bitterly against an unjust fate. But, closer to home, there are also affinities between her outburst and Kampan's major formulation of the problem of theodicy in the outraged speech by the dying Valin, shot by Rama from an ambush.[23] Like Valin, Sita is both angry and bewildered; she feels betrayed, and wholly justified in her own prior actions, which have nonetheless led to this unacceptable conclusion; her anger is entirely focused on Rama, its compelling, proper target.


One feels from the fury and precision of her words that the poet is largely speaking for himself through her mouth.

It is not a long speech. She begins by mentioning Hanuman, who came to Lanka, saw her, and promised her that Rama would soon arrive. Did he not then inform Rama of her dreadful suffering? Next she addresses Rama's preposterous claim that she, Sita, had ruined the world's finest ideals, especially those relating to womanhood, simply by being born:

All that I suffered,


all the care


with which I kept my chastity,


my goodness,


and at what cost,


and for so long a time—


all this seems crazy now,


a futile waste,


since you, O best of beings,


don't understand it in your heart.


Pittu , lunacy, again: her earlier, unwitting prophecy, couched as a rhetorical question, has come true. Tidings of good fortune have led unexpectedly to this taste of madness. She preserved her precious chastity, karpu , with such scrupulous, even ferocious, care, but it was all for nothing, a futile waste (avam ), a kind of mistake (pilailtatu , echoing Rama's term, pilai , above). As impressive as this conclusion is the logic behind it: the true failure is Rama's, on the level of feeling and understanding (unarvu , again echoing Rama's earlier statement). Lacking unarvu , he—the god—can make only aberrant and inhuman claims; and the effect is to translate human notions of right or goodness into lunacy.

This question of knowledge or understanding becomes more and more central:

The whole world knows


that I'm a faithful wife (pattini ):


not even Brahma on his lotus


could change my foolish mind.


But if my lord, who is like the eye


that sees for everyone,


should deny this,


what god could teach him otherwise?


Everyone knows the truth except Rama, who should be able to see it outright, for he is the universal eye, kannavan —punning, perhaps, on kanavan , husband, as well as on Kannan, or Krsna. The pun takes up Rama's simile—the diseased eye squinting in the light of a lamp—in the Sanskrit text. The god sees without really seeing, and surely Sita is right: there is no


god above him to teach him otherwise. Her own stubborn mind, intent on faithfulness as an act of inner autonomy, is thus truly foolish (petaiyen; petai can also mean simply "woman")—the second quality, after lunacy, that Kampan seems to claim for himself in the introductory verse we examined.[24] The coordinates laid out in that verse are uncannily retraced in this one; only devotion, bhakti , is still missing.

Having laid the blame where it belongs, Sita can conclude with an arnbiguous eulogy of womanhood (again following Valmiki's Sita). The trimurti , Brahma, Siva, and Visnu—called, no doubt sardonically, dharmamaurti , the incarnation of dharma—might be able to see the whole universe "like a myrobalan in the palm of the hand," but "can they know the state of a woman's heart?"[25] Obviously not, judging by her own husband's conduct— and he is that Dharmamurti himself. All that is left is for her to execute Rama's command: there is nothing better now, she says, than dying.

She asks Laksmana to light the fire; he does so "as if he had lost his own life" (79), after receiving a sign from Rama's eyes. As Sita approaches the pyre, the world goes into crisis: not only the gods, all other living beings, and the cosmic elements, but also the four Vedas and Dharma cry out in horror. She worships her husband and demands that Fire burn her if she has erred in thought or word. Then

as if she were going home


to her palace on the lotus


that rises up from the flooding waters,


she jumped in;


and as she entered, that fire was scorched


by her burning faithfulness (karpu ),


as milk-white cotton


goes up in flame.


She is, after all, the goddess Laksmi/Padma, who reigns in state upon the lotus. For her, the experience inside the pyre is drenched in watery associations, as if she had plunged not into fire but into a flood. But for the unfortunate god of fire, Agni, who has to receive her, the moment is one of excruciating, fiery torment. This is yet another innovation in Kampan: Fire is burned by Sita's fire. Karpu —chastity, self-control, faithfulness—is no abstract ethical virtue but a substantial and dynamic reality that suffuses the woman's inner being. The effect of the trial is thus even more dramatic than in Valmiki. Not only does Sita emerge unsinged, but she actually scorches the god of fire himself, who screams out in pain and protest (pucal itt' ararrum , 86) to Rama. Lifting Sita in his hands, Agni points out that the beads of perspiration, formed on her body by her anger at her husband (utiya cirrattal , 87), were not dried up by his flames, while the flowers she wears in her hair still drip honey and are filled with bees, "as if they had been steeped in water." Sita's ordeal has been something akin to a refreshing bath, but


Agni's eye detects the still evident traces of the rage that drove her to undergo this test. In terms of Tamil poetics, the confrontation has become an instance of utal , the lovers' quarrel, heightened to an almost lethal degree.

Now Agni is angry at Rama: "You did not think about this divine flame of karpu , and so you have destroyed my power; were you furious with me, too?" This prompts another cutting statement from Rama, for whom the test is still, clearly, not over: "Who are you, appearing in this fire, and what are you saying? Instead of burning this vile woman (punmai cal orutti ), you praise her!" (90) He insists on Sita's mean and lowly character, even at this late stage. Agni must therefore spell out the truth for him, first presenting his credentials: "I am Agni; I came here because I could not bear the blazing fire of faithfulness in this woman. People get married before me, resolve their doubts before me." And, at last, a verse no less biting than Rama's:

Didn't you hear


when the gods and sages


and all that moves and is still


in the three worlds


screamed, as they struck their eyes?


Have you abandoned dharma


and resorted to misery instead?


Rama accused Sita of "abandoning us"; Agni throws the expression back at Rama and, in a manner that goes far beyond anything in Valmiki, illuminates the real import of Rama's attitude. This god incarnate has "abandoned dharma" and, in the gloss of one modern commentator, resorted to adharma.[26] The consequences are, according to Agni, potentially disastrous:

Will rain fall,


will the earth still bear its burden


without splitting in two,


will dharma go the right way,


or can this universe survive


if she becomes enraged?


If she utters a curse,


even Brahma on his lotus


will die.


To the moral issue is now added an overriding argument from identity. Sita is the great goddess herself—though Rama hardly seems to know this. He does, however, bow to Agni's verdict and accept Sita back, welcoming her with a surprisingly laconic, almost grudging acknowledgment:

You [Agni] are the imperishable witness


for this whole world.


You spoke words I can't condemn.



You said she is wholly


without blame.


Blameless, she must not


be sent away.


That is all: Rama does not address Sita directly. Still, Kampan gives Rama an epithet here: he is karunaiy ullattan , a man whose heart is compassion. Has a transformation taken place? Or has the underlying compassion of the god been released, at last, back into the world? Or is the poet simply enjoying the irony he has built into this context?

Let us briefly take stock before we turn to the final section of the narrative. There is no doubt that this couple's reunion is far more embittered, in the Tamil text, than in its Sanskrit prototype. They speak to one another with shocking verbal abandon. Rama's doubts and suspicion have turned into a violent denunciation, an a priori pronouncement of guilt that focuses on Sita's alleged hedonism and lowly birth. Her reply incriminates him: he stands condemned, in her eyes, for a terrible failure of understanding that has led to blatant injustice. The ordeal itself assumes a watery rather than fiery character for Sita, while Agni, tortured by her superior power, becomes her advocate. As such, he still has to argue with Rama about Sita's purity of character; somewhat reluctantly, or at any rate uneffusively, Rama gives in. There is as yet no hint at all that the entire scene is only a trial to persuade an external audience (the world, or Rama's subjects) of something Rama already knows. On the contrary, his lack of unarvu—the knowledge that is a form of feeling, of empathetic understanding—is a major issue, still unresolved, and one which has implications on tile divine level, where Rama as god is implicitly accused of acting against dharma. Finally, and perhaps most conspicuously, the logical sequence of the Sanskrit narrative has been disturbed. There, Agni appears with Sita in his hands only after the revelation by Brahma of Rama's divine identity. It is the revelation, with its dramatic epistemic consequences for the hero, that breaks through the calculations and anxieties that have constrained him and paves the way for Sita's restoration. Here, however, Sita is restored, on Agni's pleading, before Brahma speaks. Why this reversal? How does it fit into the overall transformation that Kampan has worked on this passage?

The Silence of a God

In the Tamil text, it is not Rama who provokes the revelation with agonized questions about his identity, but the gods who decide to do so for their own inscrutable reasons: "The time has come to tell Rama the truth" (98). Brahma speaks, addressing Rama—as have many others, at various points throughout the text—by a clear epithet of Visnu's, netiyoy ("Long One"


= Trivikrama). He utters fourteen verses of the familiar stotra type—a short hymn of praise, again like others scattered through the poem. Perhaps most remarkable, in comparison with the epiphany described in Valmiki, is the largely impersonal content of these verses: they are an exercise in the application of orthodox cosmological and philosophical categories, drawn especially from Sankhya, to the bhakti context of worship. The type is familiar from other South Indian bhakti narratives, especially the Bhagavata Purana and its vernacular descendants.[27] Thus the incarnate god, Rama in this case, is repeatedly identified with the Vedantic absolute. "Do not think of yourself," Brahma— says, "as a man born into an ancient royal family; you are no other than the truth spoken as the conclusion of the Vedas" (i.e., Vedanta, 99). Similarly, Rama is told that he is the primeval Purusa, the twenty-sixth tattva , higher than all the evolutes of matter (pakuti=prakrti ), the supreme truth (paramartha , 101); he cannot be measured by the usual criteria of knowledge, and sensual perception is no use, but the Upanisads proclaim his existence (105-6); those who are sunk in the illusion of having parents, who do not know their own selves, suffer endlessly, but those who know Rama as father achieve release (103). It is Rama's illusion, mayai , that produces the world, though he himself, like others, does not fully understand this state (99); he also preserves the world with his own form (as Visnu) and destroys it (as Siva). A single verse introduces the avatar concept: he comes to destroy pride, to rout the demons, and to make the gods take refuge with him. All this leads up to the practical conclusion, which is something of a non sequitur: "This being the case," Brahma says, "do not hate our mother (Sita), who gave birth to us and to the triple world and who has demonstrated the glory of married life" (112).

Perhaps the argument is wholly based on this affirmation of identity: as the goddess, Sita is hardly to be judged by human social standards, and Rama must in any case take her back. But the hymn does not quite suffice, for now Siva also puts in an appearance (though there is no precedent for this in Valmiki) in order to present the message more forcefully and more simply. "It seems," he says, "that you do not know yourself (unnai niy onrum unarntilai ); you are the primordial deity (murtti ), and this Sita, mother of the three worlds, resides upon your breast" (113). Siva's intervention thus confirms the mythic identity of Rama as Visnu and reiterates the notion of his ignorance. For good measure, Siva adds that if one errs with respect to the goddess who gave birth to the worlds, many living beings will die; Rama should thus forget the aversion or scorn (ikalcci ) he has felt for her. On this note of recommended forgetfulness, the divine revelation abruptly ends.

And Rama is silent. He makes no acknowledgment whatsoever of all that has just been said. Indeed, he will have nothing more to say until, somewhat later, Dasaratha asks him to name his boon. Here, in fact, it is Dasaratha alone who makes the important statement—to Sita—that the ordeal was


meant only to demonstrate publicly her chaste character, "as one passes gold through fire to reveal its purity" (123).[28] Rama utters nothing to this effect. Silence has engulfed him, despite the tremendous announcement he has just heard. In Valmiki's version, we may recall, the revelation is followed by Agni's restoration of Sita and then, immediately, by a voluble, self-justifying outburst by Rama, who wants to make clear to everyone that he acted only pratyayartham tu lokanam —to establish Sita's innocence in the eyes of the world. But in the Tamil text, where a dialogic loquaciousness is something of the rule,[29] the hero who has just been told he is God offers no response at all.

It is a pregnant silence, well suited to the subtleties and tensions of the moment, as Kampan sees it. In a reunion that proceeds via rejection and renewed separation, speech easily issues into silence. Clearly, the fundamental theme of loss and recovery has taken a new form in Kampan's poem. Anamnesis—the hero's regaining of memory through perceiving his divine identity—is not, for Kampan, the essential point. In fact, it is in a sense quite beside the point: the embodied god's consciousness of himself as god is never what is at stake in the Tamil text. When Siva tells Rama that he does not know himself, he is pointing to a very different content of unknowing than that intended by Valmiki in this same context. On closer inspection, we find this pattern—Rama recognized as God and praised as such in a stotra like that sung by Brahma, which elicits nothing but silence from its divine object—recurring frequently in the Iramavataram .[30] Each time it happens, Rama ignores the eulogies showered upon him. It is always as if the text shifts levels, for a passing moment, opening up the dimension of discovery and celebration of explicitly recognized divinity before reverting, after the hymn, to the ongoing narration. Or as if, once the intimation of Rama's divinity is externalized, once it is articulated in language (usually by one of his victims), Rama's own task is finished. One wonders if he even hears the stotra that others offer to him. This aspect of his awareness—the god-hero's own recognition of his "true" identity, apparently veiled by his humanity— is not presented to us by Kampan and seems not to constitute one of this poet's concerns.[31]

We might formulate this observation somewhat differently. What we see in Kampan is a shift away from the psychology of recovery and the play of memory to a different thematic, which seeks to map out in detail the actual human experience of the god in the world. This works both ways: many passages in Kampan explore the god's own experience of human limitations, and above all of human emotions, generally those of loss, shame, helplessness, but also occasionally of wonder and joy. If he forgets, it is not so much his identity that becomes hidden as some much more immediate and interpersonal concern—Sita's sufferings, for example, although at times the problem is quite the opposite, when Rama evinces a very human inability to


forget some troubling anxiety or hurt. (Thus, as we saw, Siva begs him to learn forgetfulness, 114.) But in the episode of Sita's trial, as so often in this poem, the real center lies in our response—in the experience that we, as devotees, as listeners, have of Rama's nearness. The god acts or speaks, and the world around him somehow assimilates his presence. It is, almost by definition, a frustrating and often enigmatic presence, marked by strong tendencies on the part of the god to withdraw into silence, to block connection, to toy capriciously with those around him, to hide.

And the result can be angry protest. In our episode, Sita speaks like any of Rama's other victims. She has reason to be angry: his conduct seems perverse to the point of cruelty, even if he is axiomatically a hero of compassion, as the text so often states. She protests a real failing on the level of unarvu , the god-man's capacity to feel and understand what she, or any other human being, must know or undergo. She says that Rama does not truly know what she has suffered and is suffering now, and that without this knowledge on his part her endurance becomes an exercise in futility. Since Rama is no ordinary husband—since Sita knows, on some level, his cosmic and mythic identity[32] —she is expressing a frustrated demand that the god share fully our essential perceptions and our sorrows. But in contrast to the Valin episode, where the revelation of Rama's own broken heart turns the tide of Valin's bitterness (IV.7.118), here he unfortunately fails to comply with this all-too-human expectation. Again a transformation has taken place, from the notion of a clouded and temporarily forgotten self-knowledge, in Valmiki, to the god's actual unfeeling ignorance, in Kampan. The content of the missing knowledge is quite different in each case. In Kampan, Sita speaks of a failure of the divine imagination, a failure that informs, at this moment, her own experience of Rama. (It is also striking that, from this point onward, Sita has very little to say in Kampan's text.) On another level, by not expressing Sita's truth publicly, by allowing the ordeal to proceed out of an apparent lack of feeling, Rama demonstrates again the inherent asymmetry in the relations between the divine and the human. This imbalance in the intensity and content of unarvu is surely part of what Siva is referring to when, in the Tamil text, he tells Rama that he does not know himself. The process of discovery has also been, in a sense, reversed: whereas Valmiki's hero is a man who finds himself to be god by hearing and living out his story, and is graced by moments of anamnesis, Kampan's protagonist is a god who discovers repeatedly, often to his own amazement, the painful cognitive and emotional consequences of being human.

Silence, separation, and the failure to feel or to understand: these are the undercurrents surging through the story of Sita's trial in Kampan's text. Like other points in this great love poem, this episode highlights the conflicts rather than the serenities or certainties of passionate feeling. In this way, the


final meeting of Rama and Sita follows the more general paradigm of the lovers' thorny career in Tamil poetry and its extensions into the sphere of bhakti devotionalism. Lovers, like devotees, are not meant to be at peace.

But this is by no means the only conclusion to be drawn from Kampan's treatment of this passage, for the two versions we have examined reveal outstanding contrasts in theme and structure. In addition to Kampan's careful exploitation of the conventionalized language of Tamil love poetry (especially as reformulated by Nammalvar), there are four major points of divergence and transformation:

1. In Valmiki, the real test is Rama's, while Sita's ordeal is proclaimed a show for the benefit of a skeptical world. In Kampan, her trial seems altogether real: her love and commitment to Rama, despite his verbal hostility, and her readiness to die for her truth, are put to the test—and Sita wins, like the devotee who so often triumphs over the god.

2. Her rejection is thus equally real in tile Tamil text, which offers no space for the notion of a public demonstration or trial until Dasaratha's late commentary on the events. Rama himself never mentions this possibility. More important still, his repudiation of Sita has metaphysical implications: union, whether of lovers or of a devotee with god, presupposes separation.

3. Valmiki's sequence is overturned in Kampan: Agni restores Sita before Rama hears Brahma's revelation of his, Rama's, divinity (which thus serves no pressing function as far as Sita's status is concerned; she has already been reintegrated into Rama's life, and no great upheaval in consciousness is required to facilitate the move). The sense of this change in sequence, as of Rama's subsequent silence in the face of the gods' impressive news, becomes clear from the contrasting axiology and problematics of Kampan's text. The central thematic concern of the episode in Sanskrit—the transition in Rama's self-awareness in the face of Sita's suffering and his own responsibility—is almost irrelevant to Kampan's discourse. There is no point at which Rama has to ask himself, "Who am I?" Instead, the Rama of the Iramavataram , who is clearly god for the Tamil poet, for his audience, and probably for himself, is caught up in the emotional complexities of human experience: this is what he must come thoroughly and intimately to know, as others come to perceive him through their responses to his embodied presence and puzzling deeds. Sita's ordeal is yet another richly articulated opportunity for this course of asymmetrical mutual exploration.

4. Finally, Valmiki's description of the ordeal returns us, together with the epic hero, to the frame of the work, in which the themes of the hero's self-awareness and self-forgetfulness are so subtly and powerfully embedded. The glimpses he gets of his divine nature develop logically out of the structure of that frame. But this frame is wholly absent from Kampan's work, which opens instead with vivid images of flux—of rushing water, and of lives.


Significantly, the Tamil poet reverts to these images as he begins to narrate the episode of the ordeal, and they spring to mind again with the oxymoronic depiction of Sita's fire as a cool, liquid bath. Kampan's poem has traced a course from the initial deluge to a culminating fire that is itself another kind of flood. These metaphors are imbued with meaning. If in Valmiki, Sita's trial by fire sparks the flash of recovered memory in Rama, in Kampan it re-presents the experience of the divine river of life flowing mysteriously through and out of bodies, playing with awareness, infusing and transcending these fragile vessels. The god both propels this movement onward— perhaps through the elements of his unknowing (98)—and overflows with it himself into and beyond human form. He also remains paradoxically subject to the concomitant law of continuous separation, with the inevitable ensuing sensation of recurrent, indeed continuous, loss. Perfection is a process, magical, unfinished, flawed.

A Ramayana of Their Own: Women's Oral Tradition in Telugu

Velcheru Narayana Rao

As a boy growing up in a Brahmin family in the northeastern district of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, I used to hear my mother humming in the mornings:

levesitammamayamma muddulagumma leve bangaru bomma leve
leci ramunilepave vegamuledikannuladanaleve

Wake up Sita, my mother, my dear, you are my golden doll
Wake up yourself and wake up Rama, you have the eyes of a doe
     It is morning!

She had a notebook in which she had written down a number of songs, many of them on the Ramayana theme, which she would sing on occasions when women gathered at our house. The notebook my mother carried is lost now, but those songs and many others like them are still sung by women in Andhra Pradesh. They tell a Ramayana story very different from the familiar one attributed to Va1miki.[1]

The Ramayana in India is not just a story with a variety of retellings; it is a language with which a host of statements may be made. Women in Andhra Pradesh have long used this language to say what they wish to say, as women.[2] I shall discuss two separate groups of songs, those sung by upper caste Brahmin women and those sung by lower caste women, although my major focus will be on the former. I shall demonstrate that while the two groups of songs represent a distinctly female way of using the Ramayana to subvert authority, they are still very different from each other, both in the narratives they use and in the specific authority they seek to subvert.


Some Background

While upper caste men in Andhra associate the Ramayana with the Sanskrit text attributed to the legendary Valmiki, the Andhra Brahmin women do not view Valmiki as authoritative. Va1miki appears in their songs as a person who was involved in the events of Sita's and Rama's lives and who composed an account of those events—but not necessarily the correct account. Like most of the participants in the tradition, these women believe the Ramayana to be fact and not fiction, and its many different versions are precisely in keeping with this belief. Contrary to the usual opinion, it is fiction that has only one version; a factual event will inevitably have various versions, depending on the attitude, point of view, intent, and social position of the teller.

The events of the Ramayana are contained in separate songs, some long and some short. These are sung at private gatherings, usually in the backyards of Brahmin households or by small groups of older women singing for themselves while doing household chores. Altogether, about twenty-five of them are especially popular, which together constitute a fairly connected story of the epic.[3] Most of these songs, especially the longer ones, are also available in printed "sidewalk" editions, although the oral versions vary in small details from the printed versions.[4]

Since it is difficult for a man to be present at women's events, I could not record all the songs myself. With the help of two female colleagues, however—Kolavennu Malayavasini of Andhra University, Waltair, and Anipindi Jaya Prabha of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of whom are Brahmins—I was able to acquire a number of Ramayana songs on tape. The few songs I was able to record were sung by Malayavasini and Jays Prabha, who demonstrated singing styles to me while reading the words from a printed book. My information about the context of singing, the singers, and their audience comes partly from my childhood experience and partly from Malayavasini and Jays Prabha.

Brahmins are perhaps the most widely studied community in India with the result that South Asian anthropological literature offers considerable ethnographic information about Brahmins in general. However, the Brahmins of Andhra Pradesh have not been that well studied, and in particular little is known about Brahmin women of Andhra. Unfortunately, the following brief sketch cannot be intended as a full ethnographic study of Brahmin women, but it will at least provide the background for my conclusions in this paper.

Brahmins (Telugu: brahmanulu or, more colloquially, brahmalu ) is a cover word indicating a cluster of endogamous groups in Andhra. These groups have independent names,[5] but in terms of the fourfold hierarchical order of Hindu society, they are all placed in the highest category, namely, the brahmana . Vegetarian and considered ritually pure by virtue of their birth,


Brahmins have held the highest level of social respect in Hindu society for centuries. Brahmin families have a very high percentage of literacy, and the men have traditionally been scholars, poets, and preservers of learning both religious and worldly. Brahmins have thus set the standards of Sanskritic culture, and their dialect is considered correct speech. Other castes imitate this dialect in order to be recognized as educated.

In Andhra, women of Brahmin families are segregated from men, though they are not veiled as arc women of North India, nor are they kept from appearing before men in public, as arc women of the landed castes. But they are encouraged to live a sheltered life. In premodern Andhra, before the social reform movements and legislation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Brahmin girls were married before puberty to a bridegroom arranged by their parents. He was often much older than the bride, and the Brahmin wife was not allowed to remarry if her husband died. Even today widows are considered inauspicious and undesirable; they cannot, for instance, bless young brides at weddings. They are also denied access to ornaments, colored clothes, bangles, turmeric, and the red dot on the forehead, which are symbols of auspiciousness. In some families, especially those belonging to the Vaidiki subdivision of the caste, widows have to shave their heads. However, older widows are respected for their age, especially if they have raised a family, and younger women look up to them for guidance and help. They arc repositories of caste lore and often good at singing songs. Auspicious women, in contrast to widows, are treated with affection. They arc looked upon by their men as sources of family prosperity, and their rituals are considered sacred and valuable. Men are expected to facilitate such rituals by staying away from them but providing all the necessary resources: until recently, a woman was not allowed to own property, except gold given to her as a gift by her parents or husband.

Proper behavior on the part of a wife requires that she obey her husband and parents-in-law, as well as her husband's older brothers and older sisters. Any disobedience is severely punished, and defiant women are disciplined, often by the mother-in-law. In a conflict between the mother and the wife, a son is expected to take his mother's side and punish his wife. In fact, a man is often ridiculed as effeminate if he does not discipline his wife into obedience. Female sexuality is severely repressed; a proper Brahmin woman has sex only to bear children, who should preferably be male. Pursuit of sexual pleasures is offensive to good taste, and a woman is severely punished for any deviance in word or deed. Women should be modest; an interest in personal appearance or a desire to be recognized for physical beauty is discouraged. Women should not even look into a mirror except to make sure that they have put their forehead dot in the right spot. According to a belief popular in Brahmin families, a woman who looks into a mirror after dusk will be reborn as a prostitute. However, women often guide their husbands from behind the


scenes in decisions that have a bearing on family wealth and female security, which suggests that this code of obedience, if creatively manipulated, can be a source of power.

Brahmin women who sing the Ramayana songs discussed in this essay generally come from families relatively less exposed to English education and urbanized styles of life, in which singing such songs is going out of fashion. They are literate in Telugu, but most of them are not formally educated. Their audience consists of women from similar backgrounds, usually relatives and neighbors, and may also include children, unmarried young women, or newly married brides visiting their mother's house for a festival. Often a marriage or similar event provides an occasion for a number of women to gather. The audience does not generally include women of other castes. While adult men are not supposed to be present at such gatherings, young boys stick around. Nonetheless, men do hear these songs, or more precisely overhear them, even though they tend to pay no attention to them, as it is "women's stuff," not worth their time.

Not every singer knows all of the approximately twenty-five popular Ramayana songs. There is a general recognition, however, that a certain person knows the songs; such a person is often called upon to sing. Some singers have learnt certain songs well, but when a singer does not know a song adequately, she uses a notebook in which she has recorded the text. Singers do not need special training, nor do they consider themselves experts. No musical instruments accompany the singing of these songs, and the tunes are simple, often monotonous. At least one song has refrains, govinda at the end of one line and govinda rama at the end of every other line, suggesting that it may be used as a work song[6] Some of these songs only take about twenty minutes to half an hour to sing, but others are very long, taking several hours to sing.[7]

The precise age of the Ramayana songs is not easy to determine. While they are accepted as traditional, and therefore must be fairly old, there is no reliable way of dating them since oral tradition has a tendency to renew the diction while keeping the structure intact. It is also difficult to determine to what extent the songs are truly oral compositions. All are orally performed, but at least some of them were written by a single individual. Several songs contain a statement of phalasruti (the merit which accrues from listening to the song), some of which include the author's name, and a few even mention an author in the colophon.[8] That the singers as well as the authors of the songs are acquainted with literary texts is beyond doubt: many songs have references to writing and written texts. However, the singing styles are passed down from person to person, and the performance is often from memory—though, as we noted, a singer does not mind also using a book. In short, we do not know whether these songs were composed orally and then preserved in writing, or were originally written compositions.

Nearly every scholar who has studied these songs has either assumed or


concluded that their authors were men. Only Gopalakrishnamurti has suggested that many of these songs were composed by women, and I am convinced he is right.[9] Judging from the feelings, perceptions, cultural information, and the general attitudes revealed in the songs, it seems likely that all of them—except one minor song, a waking-up song for Sita, which happens to mention a male author—were women's works. Certainly, the songs are intended for women: many of the songs mention the merit women receive from singing or listening to them.

Even a cursory look at the subject matter of the songs indicates that female interests predominate among the themes. Together they comprise a very different Ramayana than that told by Valmiki or other poets of literary versions.

1. Ramayana in summary, narrated with Santa (Rama's elder sister) as the central character

2. Kausalya's pregnancy, describing her morning sickness

3. Rama's birth

4. A lullaby to Rama

5. Bathing the child Rama

6. Sita's wedding

7. Entrusting the bride Sita to the care of her parents-in-law

8. Sita's journey to her mother-in-law's house

9. Sita's puberty

10. Several songs describing the games Rama and Sita played

11. Sita locked out

12. Sita describing her life with Rama to Hanuman in Lanka

13. Incidents in Lanka

14. Sita's fire ordeal

15. Rama's coronation

16. Urmila's sleep

17. Sita's pregnancy

18. The story of Lava and Kusa, Sita's twin sons

19. Lava and Kusa's battle with Rama

20. Laksmana's laugh

21. Surpanakha's revenge

Significantly, these songs do not mention many of the familiar Ramayana events. Dasaratha's glory, the rituals he performed in order to obtain children, Visvamitra's role in training Rama as a warrior, the Ahalya story, the events in the forest leading to the killing of demons, Rama's grief over Sita's loss, Rama's friendship with Sugriva, the killing of Valin, the search for Sita, the exploits of Hanuman, and the glories of the battle in Lanka—none of these incidents receive much attention in these songs. On the other hand, events of interest to women are prominently portrayed and receive detailed


attention: pregnancy, morning sickness, childbirth, the tender love of a husband, the affections of parents-in-law, games played by brides and grooms in wedding rituals. Moreover, significant attention is given to the last book of the Ramayana , the Uttarakanda : some of the longer songs in my recorded collection as well as in the printed book relate to the events of the Uttarakanda , especially Sita's abandonment and Lava and Kusa's battle with Rama.

The Songs

As the saying goes among men in Andhra, "The news of the birth of a son is pleasant but not the process of the birth." Men are not very interested in the details of pain women undergo in childbirth. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, literary Ramayanas in Telugu describe Rama's birth in glorious terms. They relate how the king and his kingdom were delighted by the news, and describe in eloquent phrases the festivities celebrated all over the city of Ayodhya and the gifts given to Brahmins. Only in the women's song versions of the Ramayana do we find a description of Kausalya in labor, graphically depicting the pain associated with it. The song describes how the child is delivered while the pregnant woman stands upright, holding on to a pair of ropes hung from the ceiling.[10]

Now call the midwife, go send for her.
The midwife came in royal dignity.
She saw the woman in labor, patted her on her back.
Don't be afraid, Kausalya, don't be afraid, woman!
In an hour you will give birth to a son.
The women there took away the gold ornaments,
They removed the heavy jewels from her body.
They hung ropes of gold and silk from the ceiling.
They tied them to the beams, with great joy
They made Kausalya hold the ropes.
Mother, mother, I cannot bear this pain,
A minute feels like a hundred years.

Attention to ritual is common in many Ramayanas , but the rituals are the grand Vedic rituals, in which Brahmin priests play the leading part. Rituals in the women's songs pertain to more domestic matters, in which women are prominent. The only man present is usually the bridegroom Rama, and as the bridegroom in women-dominated rituals, he is controlled by and subservient to the demands of the women surrounding him. In addition to the rituals, the songs also describe various games Sita and Rama play during the wedding and in the course of their married life in the joint family. In all such games Sita comes out the winner. Rama even tries to cheat and cleverly escape defeat, making false promises of surrender.

Another point repeatedly stressed in the songs is the auspicious role


women have in Brahmin households as the protectors of family prosperity. Women are personifications of the goddess Laksmi, the goddess of wealth, and it is a well-known belief that the women of a household bring prosperity to the family by their proper behavior and ruin it by improper behavior. In these songs the bride enters the house of her new husband, always with her auspicious right foot first. It is the women who perform all the appropriate actions to remove the evil eye from the newborn baby. Women, again, serve a delicious feast to the Brahmins and the sages who come to bless the newborn. The ceremonies described in these songs—the naming ceremony and the ceremony of placing the boys in new cribs (especially made for the occasion, their designs and decorations described in detail)—show how important women are on all those occasions . Even the humor is feminine: when Kausalya gives the women boiled and spiced senagalu (split peas) as a part of a ritual gift, they complain among themselves that the senagalu were not properly salted.

A song about Sita's wedding presents a reason—not found in the Sanskrit text of Valmiki—why Sita's father Janaka decides on an eligibility test for Sita's future husband. In her childhood, Sita casually lifted Siva's bow, which was lying in her father's house. Janaka was amazed at her strength and decided that only a man who could string that bow would be eligible to marry her. Only a hero can be a match for a hero. Several literary Ramayana texts, including Tulsidas's Ramcaritmanas , also give this explanation, which is therefore not unique to women's Ramayana songs. But this event gains a special significance in the context of women's hopes for a husband who is properly matched to them. In an arranged marriage, where the personal qualities of the future husband are often left to chance, women dream of having a husband who loves them and whom the), love. Significantly, therefore, the song describes Sita's feelings for Rama, whose charms have been described to her by her friends. Sita falls in love with him and suffers the pangs of separation (viraha ) from him. Closely following the conventional modes of love in separation, the song delicately presents Sita's fears that Rama might not succeed in stringing the bow. She prays to all the gods to help him to string it.

The song then describes how Rama falls in love with Sita. He arrives and sees the bow. He has no doubt that he can easily break it. But he wants to make sure that Sita is really beautiful. He asks his brother Laksmana to go and see Sita first. In his words:

If a meal is not agreeable, a day is wasted
But if the wife is not agreeable, life is wasted.

He asks Laksmana to make sure that Sita has a thin waist, that her skin is not too dark, that her hair is black and her feet small. The breaking of the bow itself, which is prominently and powerfully described in literary Ramayanas , is presented in an almost perfunctory manner in the women's songs: it is the


mutual love between Rama and Sita that is prominent in the song. All too often, women in this community find that there is little real love between them and the husband who has been chosen for them. An elaborate description of the mutual love and desire of Rama and Sita thus serves as a wish fulfillment. The wedding festivities that follow are seen through women's eyes—every detail related to women's roles in the wedding ceremony is carefully described, even the saris the women wear. Toward the end, an incident that portrays Sita as an innocent girl is narrated. Rama shows her a mirror. Seeing her image in the mirror, Sita thinks that it is a different woman, to whom Rama has already been married. Why did Rama marry her if he has a wife already? Has he not vowed to live with one wife and no other? Rama quietly moves closer to the mirror and stands by her side. Sita, seeing Rama's reflection also in the mirror, recognizes her innocence and shyly bends her head down.

A song entitled "Sita Locked Out" describes a delicate event in which Sita is delayed in coming to bed because she has work to finish in the house. Rama waits for her, but, growing impatient, closes the bedroom door and locks it from inside. Sita arrives and pleads with him to open the door. He stubbornly refuses.[11] Sita quietly informs Kausalya, who has already left for Dasaratha's bedroom. Kausalya comes out, knocks on Rama's door, and admonishes him for locking Sita out. Rama has to obey his mother: Sita knows how to manipulate the situation in her favor by enlisting Kausalya's help. Kausalya is represented here as the ideal mother-in-law every daughter-in-law dreams of in a joint family, a mother-in-law who shows warmth and support for her daughter-in-law and who helps to bring her closer to her husband.[12]

Men's Ramayanas have no great use for Santa, who is sometimes nominally mentioned as Dasaratha's foster daughter and who is married to Rsyasrnga. But for women she is a very important person in the Ramayana story. In Brahmin families, an elder sister is allowed to command, criticize, and admonish her younger brother. As Rama's elder sister, Santa often intervenes on behalf of Sita in these songs.

Santa's importance in women's Ramayanas is best represented by a long song called "Santagovindanamalu," which describes Santa's marriage. A striking feature of this song, which narrates most of the early part of the Ramayana , is the importance women have in all the events: at every important juncture, women either take the initiative themselves and act, or advise their husbands to take a specific step. Men's position is presented as titular; the real power rests with the women.

The story tells how Laksmi, Visnu's consort, decides to be born on the earth to help Visnu, who will be born as Rama. She descends to the earth and is born as Sita on a lotus flower in Lanka. Ravana finds her and gives her to Mandodari. When Sita is twelve years old, he wants to marry her as his


second wife. The Brahmins, however, advise Ravana that Sita will destroy Lanka and that therefore she should be cast into the sea. The song then moves on to narrate other events leading to Rama's birth.

The two most significant stories in the early books of Valmiki's Ramayana are the birth of Dasaratha's sons and Kaikeyi's evil plot to send Rama away to the forest. In the first story women have no role to play except as passive bearers of children; in the second, the evil nature of women is highlighted in the descriptions of Kaikeyi's adamant demands to have her son Bharata invested as the heir to the kingdom and to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years.

The narrative in "Santagovindanamalu" ingeniously transforms both these events so that women acquire the credit for the birth of sons and the evil nature of Kaikeyi's demand is eliminated. First, according to this song, Kausalya advises Dasaratha that they should adopt Santa as their daughter. This daughter will bring good luck to the family and they will have sons. This is a powerful change indeed. The usual Brahmin family belief is that the firstborn should be a son. A firstborn daughter is greeted with disappointment, though it is not always openly expressed. This story suggests that a firstborn daughter is actually preferable because she, as a form of the goddess Laksmi, blesses the family with prosperity, which then leads to the birth of sons. Moreover, it is significant that the whole strategy is planned by a woman—whereas in the Valmiki Ramayana , for example, the sage Rsyasrnga performs a sacrifice for Dasaratha which leads to the birth of sons. What is interesting here is that Dasaratha listens to his senior queen's advice. Kaikeyi, however, initially refuses to go along because she will gain nothing from the plan. But Sumitra convinces Kaikeyi, who finally accepts the plan on the condition that Bharata, her son, will inherit the kingdom. Santa is duly adopted and brought to Ayodhya with great honors, where she is received as the very goddess of wealth. When she grows of age she is married to Rsyasrnga, again on the advice of Kausalya. The song then describes in fine detail the festivities of the wedding and the harmonious atmosphere of the palace, where the women are in control.

The innocence, fun, love, and gentle humor of the songs come to an end and serious problems in Sita's life begin with the events of the later portion of the Ramayanaevents that take place after Sita is brought back from her captivity in Lanka. But the women described in these songs are far from meek and helpless: they are portrayed as strong, quite capable of protecting their position against the unfair treatment meted out to them by Rama.

One song depicts how, after abandoning the pregnant Sita, Rama decides to perform a sacrifice. Since ritual prescribes that he have a wife present, he has a golden image of Sita made, to be placed by his side at the ritual. The image has to be bathed, and the person to do the bathing must be Rama's


sister, Santa. However, when Santa is called to perform the bathing, she refuses because she was not consulted before Sita was abandoned.

A more serious situation develops when Rama's sacrificial horse is captured by his sons, Lava and Kusa. He does not know that Sita is still alive and being taken care of by the sage Valmiki in his forest hermitage, nor does he know that Lava and Kusa arc his sons. Appeals by Laksmana and Rama to the young boys fail to convince them to surrender the horse. In fact, they will not even reveal their identities. In the inevitable battle that ensues, all of Rama's best fighters, including Hanuman and Laksmana, get killed. Finally, Rama himself goes to battle, and even he is killed. When Sita comes to know about this, she grieves and chastises her sons for killing their father and their uncle. Valmiki, of course, comes to the rescue and brings everybody back to life.[13]

Even then, the boys insist that Rama bow to their feet before he gets his horse back. Is he not the cruel husband who banished his pregnant wife? Rama, realizing now that Sita is alive and that these boys are his sons, wants to see her, and so Valmiki arranges for Sita to be brought before him. Sita dresses in her best jewelry to meet Rama, but Lava and Kusa run into the hermitage to prevent their mother from meeting him. How can she go to a husband who has treated her so cruelly? To resolve the problem, all the gods appear on the scene, Brahma, Siva, and Indra in the company of their wives. The gods take Rama's side, while their wives support the boys. Siva's wife, Parvati, advises the boys not to surrender, while Brahma's wife, Sarasvati, makes the boys insist that Rama should bow to them first. The gods advise the boys to accept the arbitration af the Sun god, but the boys reject that idea: Rama belongs to the solar dynasty, so the Sun will not be impartial. How about the Moon god? No, Visnu saved the Moon when Rahu and Ketu swallowed him. Therefore, the Moon's arbitration cannot be trusted. Nor is Indra an acceptable arbiter because he owes favors to Visnu, who cheated the demons out of their share of ambrosia and gave it all to him. Valmiki's name is suggested, but even he is not impartial, since he wrote the Ramayana in praise of Rama. Brahma, Siva, and .Rsyasrnga—all are rejected one after the other. Rama has no choice. He decides to fight the boys. Parvati opposes this idea, suggesting instead that Rama bequeath Ayodhya to the boys and go to the forest. Ultimately, a compromise is reached: Rama should bow to the boys, intending thereby to honor his parents. So Rama bows to his sons' feet, uttering Kausalya's name, and thus the dispute is resolved.

Finally the family is reunited, and Rama embraces Lava and Kusa. But even then the boys refuse to go to Ayodhya, for they feel that they cannot trust a father who planned to kill his sons while they were in the womb. Only after much pleading do the boys agree to go with their father. Soon after they reach Ayodhya they demand to see the "grandmother" (Kaikeyi) who


banished Sita to the forest! They announce that Sita is under their protection now and nobody can harm her anymore.

Among the male characters, Laksmana receives very affectionate treatment in these songs. He is closer to Sita, understands her problems, supports her, and even protects her in her time of troubles. In Valmiki, Rama banishes Sita to the forest under the pretext of fulfilling her desire to see the hermitages, instructing Laksmana to leave her in the woods and return. According to the women's version, Rama orders Laksmana to kill her. Laksmana takes her to the forest but, realizing that she is pregnant, decides not to kill her. He kills a hare instead and shows its blood to Rama as evidence. Rama then prepares for her funeral and asks Laksmana to go to the hermitages and invite the sages' wives to the ceremonies. When Laksmana goes to the forest, Sita asks him if Rama is preparing for her funeral. To spare her further pain, Laksmana tells the lie that they are performing a special ritual to rid the palace of evil influences. Laksmana's wife, Urmila, protests against her husband's cruelty in killing Sita. She demands that she be killed too, as does Santa. Unable to stand their anger and their determination, Laksmana tells them the truth: Sita is alive, pregnant, and will deliver soon. Laksmana goes to the forest to visit with her after she has delivered.

Another song in this collection concerns Urmila, whom Valmiki barely mentions. What happens to Urmila when Laksmana leaves for fourteen years to accompany his brother to the forest? According to the women's version, Urmila and Laksmana make a pact: they trade their sleeping and waking hours. Urmila will sleep for the entire fourteen years while Laksmana will stay awake so that he can serve his brother without interruption. Fourteen years later, when Rama has been successfully reinstated on the throne and Laksmana is serving him at the court, Sita reminds Rama that Laksmana should be advised to go visit his wife, who is still sleeping. Laksmana goes to Urmila's bedroom and gently wakes her up. Urmila does not recognize him, however, and thinks that a stranger has entered her bedchamber. She questions him, warning him about the sin of desiring another man's wife.

If my father Janaka comes to know about this,
he will punish you and will not let you get away.
My elder sister and brother-in-law
will not let you escape with your life.

As a proper wife she does not even mention the name of her husband. Instead, she refers to him indirectly:

My elder sister's younger brother-in-law
will not let you live on the earth.

Then she tells him how, in the past, men who coveted others' wives suffered for their sin.


Did not Indra suffer a disfigured body
because he coveted another man's wife?
Was not Ravana destroyed along with his city
because he desired another man's wife?

That the sleeping Urmi1a could not possibly have known about Ravana kidnapping Sita and his eventual death at Rama's hands is immaterial.

Laksmana gently identifies himself, whereupon Urmila realizes that he is none other than her husband. The rest of the song relates in loving detail how affectionately they embrace each other. Kausalya receives them, prepares a bath for them, and feeds them a delicious meal. Laksmana and Urmila sit side by side—as husband and wife rarely do in conventional Brahmin families—and the members of the family tease them. When they are sent to the bedroom Laksmana combs and skillfully braids Urmila's hair while Urmi1a asks him about all the events of the past fourteen years. How could Ravana kidnap Sita when a man like Laksmana, courageous as a lion, was present? Laksmana relates the story of the golden deer, telling her how Sita spoke harsh words to him and forced him to leave her alone and look after Rama instead. All the major events of the epic have now been narrated briefly, and the song ends wishing all the listeners and singers a place in heaven.

A related song also takes as its starting point Laksmana and Urmila's pact. When the goddess of sleep visits Laksmana in the forest, he asks her to leave him alone for fourteen years and go to his wife instead. She can come back to him exactly fourteen years later, when he returns to Ayodhya. Sure enough, as Laksmana is serving Rama in the court hall after their return from Lanka, the goddess of sleep visits him. Amused at her punctual return, Laksmana laughs. Laksmana's sudden laugh amidst the serious atmosphere of the court makes everybody wonder. The song describes how each person in the hall thinks that Laksmana laughed at him or her. Thus Siva, who is present in the court, thinks that Laksmana laughed at him because he brought a low caste fisherwoman (Ganga, actually the river Ganges) and put her on his head, while Sesa, the ancient snake, thinks that Laksmana was ridiculing him because he served Visnu for a long time but is now serving Visnu's enemy, Siva. Angada assumes that Laksmana was laughing at him for joining the service of his own father's killer, Rama. Sugriva has his insecurities too: he had his brother killed unfairly and stole his brother's wife. Vibhisana revealed the secrets of his brother's kingdom to Rama and thus caused the ruin of Lanka. Hanuman is bothered by the fact that he, a mighty warrior, was once caught by a young soldier, Indrajit. Bharata and Satrughna, too, have something to be ashamed of: they were given the empire as a result of their mother Kaikeyi's cunning plot, which deprived Rama of his position as future king. Even Rama thinks that Laksmana laughed at him


because he, Rama, has taken back a wife who has lived in another man's house—while Sita thinks that Laksmana laughed at her for having lived away from her husband. Furthermore, she was the one who suspected Laksmana's intentions when he insisted on staying with her to protect her in the forest. She spoke harshly to him, forcing him to leave her alone and go help Rama, who appeared to be in danger from the golden deer—thus causing the chain of events that led to the battle of Lanka. Everyone in the court has a secret shame, and Laksmana's laugh brings their insecurities to the surface. In this skillful way the song suggests that no character in the Ramayana is free from blemishes.

Angry at Laksmana for his improper act of laughing in court, Rama draws his sword to cut off his brother's head, at which point Parvati and Siva intervene. They suggest that Laksmana should be asked to explain his reasons for such irreverent behavior: he is young and should not be punished harshly. When Laksmana explains, Rama is embarrassed at his rash and uncontrolled anger. He asks Vasistha how he, as a proper king, should expiate his sin of attempting to kill his innocent brother. Vasistha advises Rama to massage Laksmana's feet. So a bed is made for Laksmana, and, like a dutiful servant, Rama massages his feet as Laksmana sleeps comfortably. When Laksmana wakes up and sees what Rama is doing, he dutifully dissuades his glorious elder brother, the very incarnation of god Visnu, from serving him.[14]

Ravana's sister Surpanakha's role in the women's Ramayana songs is especially noteworthy. Rama and his brothers are living happily in Ayodhya when Surpanakha happens to see them. She desires to avenge her brother Ravana's death, but she is a woman. If only she were a man, she could have fought against Rama and killed him—but as a woman, she can only disrupt his happiness. So she decides to plant suspicions in Rama's mind about Sita's fidelity. Taking the form of a female hermit, Surpanakha goes to the palace and asks to see Sita. Although Sita hesitates, surprised that a forest hermit has come to see her, after some persuasion she consents to see her. The hermit asks Sita to paint a picture of Ravana, but she replies that she never set eyes on the demon's face; she looked only at his feet. So the hermit asks Sita to paint the feet, and Sita draws a picture of Ravana's big toe.

Surpanakha takes the drawing and completes the rest of the picture herself—strong ankles, thighs, and the rest. She then asks Brahma, the creator god, to give life to the image so she can see her dead brother again. When Brahma does so, Surpanakha brings the picture back to Sita, drops it in front of her, and runs away saying, "Do what you want with this picture." When the image of Ravana starts pulling at Sita, asking her to go to Lanka with him, Sita grows perturbed. Urmila, Santa, and all the other women in the palace try to get rid of the picture. They make a big fire and throw the picture in, but it does not burn. Then they throw the picture into a deep well,


but it comes back up. By no means can they destroy it. Finally Sita utters Rama's name, which temporarily subdues the image.

Suddenly Rama enters the house. Not knowing what to do with the picture, Sita hides it under her mattress. Rama approaches Sita and embraces her, wishing to make love to her. He unties her blouse, but Sita is distracted. Puzzled, Rama tries to show his affection by describing in many words how he loves her. When he takes her to bed, however, Ravana's picture under the mattress throws him off the bed. Thinking that Sita threw him off, Rama is angered. He turns around and sees Ravana's picture. This convinces him that Sita is really in love with another man and that women are unreliable.

He decides to banish Sita to the forest along with her picture, but all the women of the palace protest. They explain to Rama how a certain hermit made Sita draw Ravana's picture; they tell him that Sita is pure, but Rama does not listen. In his anger, he speaks rudely to his mother, Kausalya, who pleads in favor of Sita. When Sumitra, Laksmana's mother, intervenes, he tells her that she could have Sita as her daughter-in-law, suggesting thereby that Sita could be Laksmana's wife. Ordering that Sita be killed in the forest, he leaves the house for the royal court. Urmila, Mandavi, and Srutakirti, the wives of Rama's three brothers, go to Rama to protest his unfair punishment of Sita. One after another they assure Rama that Sita was not at fault. Finally, Srutakirti tells him:

We are all born in one family,
married into one family.
Our sister is not the only one
who loves Ravana now.
We all love him together
so kill us together.
Because we are women
who stay within the palace,
your actions pass without check.

This united front only makes Rama more angry. He commands Laksmana to take Sita away to the forest, cut off her head, and bring the sword back (thus setting the stage for the events described above).

The Structure of The Songs

The structure of these songs, which open with praise of Rama before moving on to the story at hand, might appear somewhat commonplace, but becomes significant in relation to the time and place of their performance. The songs are usually sung in the late afternoon, after the midday meal, when the men of the family have all retired to the front part of the house to take a nap or chat on the porch, the younger among them perhaps playing cards. Having


been served a good meal, they now want to be left alone, to relax and rest, until evening. Their daily chores completed, the women arc now free from marital and family obligations, at least for the moment. This is their own time, during which they can do what they please—provided, of course, that they don't violate the norms of good behavior. Very much like the place in the house where the songs are sung, then, this time period is largely insulated from the demands of the men, for whom women must otherwise play their dutiful roles.

A Brahmin house is divided into three areas. The front is where the men sit, conduct business, receive guests, or chat among themselves. Except when they arc called for meals or when they retire for the evening, men do not usually go into the interior of the house, and when they do, they indicate their arrival by coughing or calling to one of the women from outside, who then comes into the middle part of the house to receive them. The middle part of the house is a relatively neutral area, where men and women meet together. In the back of the house are located a kitchen and a verandah opening into the backyard, often with a well in it. It is here that women gather. Women visitors, servants, and low caste men use the back entrance of the house to converse with the women.

At the front of the house, the conventional male-dominated values reign supreme, but the back part of the house, and to a somewhat lesser extent the interior, are primarily the women's domain. Women arc relatively free here from the censuring gaze of their men, and thus enjoy some measure of control over their own lives. Men are even ridiculed for lingering in the back of the house, although male relatives of the wife's family may enter, as can the husband's younger brothers if they are much younger than the wife.

The structure of the songs precisely replicates the structure of the house. Each song begins with a respectful tribute to Rama, the king. Rama in these songs is not only God, as in bhakti Ramayanas , but also the yajamani , the master of the house—albeit a master who is not entirely in control. This opening dutifully made, the song moves toward the interior—and the people who inhabit the interior of the songs are mostly women. Much like certain male relatives, however, some men are allowed to enter this area: Laksmana, the younger brother-in-law; and Lava and Kusa, the young twins.


Women in these songs never openly defy propriety: they behave properly, even giving themselves advice that the male masters of the household would accept and appreciate. The tone of the songs is innocently gentle, homely, and sweet—no harsh or provocative language, no overt or aggressive opposition to male domination. Daughters-in-law thus take great care to observe the conventions in addressing mother-in-law Kausalya and sister-in-law


Santa. Likewise, on several occasions proper behavior is preached to young brides, as when Sita is told to:

Be more patient than even the earth goddess.
Never transgress the words of your father-in-law and mother-in-law.
Do not ever look at other men.
Do not ever speak openly.
Do not reveal the words your husband says in the interior palace,
even to the best of your friends.
If your husband is angry, never talk back to him.
A husband is god to all women: never disobey your husband.

While proper respect is always paid to authority, what follows on the heels of that respect can seem strikingly different. There are polite but quite strongly made statements that question Rama's wisdom, propriety, honesty, and integrity. However, Sita herself never opposes Rama or her other superiors: as a new bride, Sita is coy, innocent, and very obedient to her husband and the elders of the family. Rather, criticism against Rama is leveled only by women who have the authority to do so, like Rama's mother, Kausalya, or his elder sister, Santa, a mother surrogate. Rama's brothers' wives question Rama, too, but in order to do so, they need the support of Santa. Rama's young sons, Lava and Kusa, are also permitted to criticize their father, provided they are acting in their mother's defense.

Both the affections and the tensions of a joint family come out clearly through these songs. Beneath the apparent calm of the house, joint family women often suffer severe internal stress. The songs reveal a similar atmosphere in their use of language. The general style of the language is deceptively gentle. Very few Sanskrit words are used, the choice of relatively more mellifluous Dravidian words lending to the texture of the songs an idyllic atmosphere of calm and contentment. However, the underlying meanings reveal an atmosphere of subdued tensions, hidden sexuality, and frustrated emotions. On occasion, even the gentle words acquire the sharpness of darts, hitting their targets with precise aim. Under the pretext of family members teasing each other, every character is lampooned. No one's character is untainted; no person loves another unconditionally. Even Sita's chastity is open to doubt: the picture episode suggests that Sita harbors a hidden desire to sleep with Ravana, her drawing of Ravana's big toe making veiled reference to his sex organ. The final picture that emerges is not that of the bhakti Ramayanas , with an ideal husband, an ideal wife, and ideal brothers, but of a complex joint family where life is filled with tension and fear, frustration and suspicion, as well as with love, affection, and tenderness.

The Ramayana songs also make a statement against the public Ramayanas , the bhakti Ramayanas , which glorify the accepted values of a male-dominated world. In the songs, it is the minor or lowly characters who come out as


winners. Urmila, Laksmana, Lava and Kusa, Santa, and even Surpanakha have a chance to take their revenge. Sita does not fight her own battle alone: others fight it for her. She even enjoys the freedom she acquires by the (false) report of her death; for once, she can exist without living for Rama. As Rama prepares for her death ceremonies, burdened by the guilt of having her killed unjustly, Sita gives birth to twins and awaits her final victory over Rama, won through her agents, her sons. In the final analysis, this is her Ramayana , a Sitayana .

Non-Brahmin Songs

A similar strategy of subverting authority while outwardly respecting it is found in the Ramayana songs sung by non-Brahmin women. These are not as long as the Brahmin women's songs, nor are they as prominent in the non-Brahmin women's repertoire as they are in Brahmin women's. Although the Ramayana is often alleged to be universally, popular in India, closer examination will, I believe, reveal that the epic's popularity increases with the status of the caste. At any rate the number of Ramayana songs sung by non-Brahmin women that are available in published collections is relatively small, though the songs are by no means less interesting. My information regarding these songs comes almost entirely from these published collections, and as such my use of the data is rather constrained.

The label "non-Brahmin" masks more than it reveals. Unfortunately, the published information about these songs does not record the precise caste of the singer. As Ganagappa informs us, the songs are sung by women when they are working in the fields, grinding flour, or playing kolatam (a play of music and dance in which the players move in circles as they hit wooden sticks held in each other's hands). Female agricultural labor in Andhra largely comes from Malas, a caste of Untouchables, and other castes of very low status. Women of these castes work in the fields with men, make their own money, and thus live relatively less sheltered and controlled lives. Separation of the sexes is not practiced to the same extent as among the upper castes, although women are seen as inferior to men, paid lower wages, and given work which is supposed to require less skill, like weeding and transplanting, as opposed to ploughing, seeding, and harvesting. Women also work in groups, which are often supervised by a man. The household chores that these women perform are also distinct from those of the men, but the separation is not as clear cut as it is among upper castes. Lower caste men, for example, do not consider it demeaning to feed children and take care of them.

Women of these low castes have the same kinds of family responsibilities as Brahmin women do: raising a family, bearing (male) children, being sex-


ually faithful to their husbands, and obeying their husbands and mothers-in-law. But the low-caste women are not as dependent on their husbands as are Brahmin women. Widows are not treated as inauspicious, nor are their heads shaved; and they are not removed from family ritual life. Among some non-Brahmin castes widows even remarry.[15]

The Ramayana songs sung by non-Brahmin women reflect this difference. These songs also concentrate on women's themes: Sita's life in the forest, Urmila's sleep, Sita's request that Rama capture the golden deer, Ravana's kidnapping of Sita, and the battle between Rama and his sons, Kusa and Lava. But there is little interest in descriptions of woman's role in ritual, in their wish for importance in family decisions, or in saris and ornaments, nor is there much allusion to the inner conflicts of a joint family. Also significantly absent are hidden sexuality, feminine modesty, and descriptions of games played by husband and wife.

Interestingly, there is a song describing how Rama grieves when Laksmana swoons in battle and how Hanuman brings the mountain with the life-giving herb samjivini . Another song describes how Vibhisana advises his brother Ravana in vain to surrender Sita and how he deserts Ravana to join Rama. Their mother advises Vibhisana to take half of Lanka and stay. Describing the glory of Lanka she says:

The god of wind sweeps the floor here in Lanka.
The rain god sprinkles cow-dung water to keep it clean.
The fire god himself cooks in our kitchen,
     cooks in our kitchen.
Three hundred thirty-three million gods take
shovels and crowbars and work for us as slaves,
     all the time, work for us as slaves.

It is fascinating to see how the song reverses the hierarchy and relishes the description of gods working as slaves, for in truth it is the low-caste women and men who must work as slaves for their masters, the "gods on earth." The chores of sprinkling cow-dung water in the front yards and cooking are women's work, while digging earth for the landed masters is the work of low-caste men. The song thus refers jointly to the tasks of both men and women of the low castes, opposing their situation to that of the upper castes.

Another short song in this collection describes the glory of houses in Lanka where Ravana and his brothers live.

Steel beams and steel pillars, whose palace is this?
Lovely Srirama [Sita], this is Kumbhakarna'spalace.
Teak beams and teak pillars, whose palace is this?
Lovely Srirama, this is Indrajit's palace.

Silver beams and silver pillars, whose palace is this?
Lovely Srirama, this is Ravana's palace.[16]


Sung during kolatam play, this group song, its lines repeated again and again, enchants the listeners with its play on words and sound, the increase in value of the house keeping pace with the increase in the tempo of singing. Here, it is Ravana, not Rama, who is described in glorious terms befitting a king. We hear of Rama more as a name in the devotional refrain than as the hero of the epic story.

Among the other male characters Laksmana again receives affectionate treatment as Sita's younger brother-in-law. As surrogate father he takes care of Sita's sons. He puts oil on their scalps, feeds them milk, and they urinate on his clothes. Laksmana loves it; his face glows like the full moon.

The joint family does merit a favorable description in a song depicting Sita's answer to the demon women guarding her in Lanka.

Cool lemon trees and fine ponna trees all around
have you seen, Sita, Ravana's Lanka.
Time and again you think of Rama,
who is this Rama, Sita of Ragavas
Rama is my man, Laksmana, my maridi .
Barta and Satrika are my younger maridis .
Kausalya is my real mother-in-law,
Kaika, the elder one and Saumitri, the younger.
Urmila and I are daughters-in-law.
All the world knows, Janaka is my father.
All the directions know, Dasaratha is my father-in-law.
All the earth knows, the earth goddess is my mother.[17]

So Sita is neither alone nor unprotected. When threatened by an alien power, she can count on all the members of her extended family to come to her support.

An incident that makes Sita look somewhat childish in the upper-caste Ramayanas is her demand for the golden deer, even though Rama tells her that the animal is a demon in magical disguise. In the Ramayana of the low-caste women, though, Sita does not insist on getting the animal like a spoiled child; she says instead:

You give me your bows and arrows
I will go right now and get the animal.

His ego hurt, Rama rushes forth to capture the golden deer.

These songs are sung in rice fields and play areas—not in the private backyards of houses as the Brahmin songs are. Interestingly, songs collected from the fields where women sing as they work begin with a straightforward narration but end almost abruptly; they seem rather unfinished. One wonders if the open structure of the work songs does not reflect the low-caste women's lack of interest in finishing what really does not belong to them. Rather than indicating an inability to produce a finished song, the songs' structure is thus an expression of rejection: like the open fields where they


work, the story of the Ramayana , with its regal settings and brahminical values, really belongs to others. The same women can, moreover, sing beautifully finished songs when the theme interests them, as, for example, the kolatam play song describing the glory of the houses Ravana and his brothers live in. And there is that devotional mention of Rama's name, perhaps a thin facade covering the actual lack of interest in Rama's stature as a hero.


Why do women sing these songs? Edwin Ardener has proposed a theory of muted groups, who are silenced by the dominant structures of expression.[18] India's lower castes and women fall in this category. However, muted groups, according to Ardener, are not silent groups. They do express themselves, but under cover of the dominant ideology.

The contents of the women's Ramayana songs do not make their singers or listeners feminists. If anything, the Brahmin women to whom I talked consider singing these songs an act of devotion, a proper womanly thing to do in the house. Nor have men who have listened to these songs or read them in print objected to their use by the women of their households. None of the scholars (of both sexes) who have written on the Brahmin Ramayana songs perceive in them a tone of opposition to the public Ramayanas , the "male" versions.[19]

Do the women consciously follow the meaning of the songs when they sing them for themselves? They have so routinized their singing that they seem to receive the meaning subliminally, rather than self-consciously. Furthermore, the very same women who sing these songs also participate in the public, male Ramayana with all the devotion appropriate to the occasion. Does the contrast between what they sing at home and what they hear outside the home receive their attention? Do they discuss these issues among themselves? The texts women sing are not esoteric. Their language is simple, their message clear; they protest against male domination. I believe it is the controlled context of their performance that makes their use properly "feminine." Perhaps the value of the songs consists precisely in the absence of conscious protest. The women who sing these songs have not sought to overthrow the male-dominated family structure; they would rather work within it. They have no interest in direct confrontation with authority; their interest, rather, is in making room for themselves to move. It is this internal freedom that these songs seem to cherish. Only when such freedom is threatened by an overbearing power exercised by the head of the household do the women speak up against him, even then subverting his authority rather than fighting openly against him. These songs are a part of the education Brahmin women receive, a part of brahminic ideology, which constructs women's consciousness in a way suitable to life in a world ultimately controlled by men.


In sharp contrast to the Brahmin women's songs, the songs sung by the low-caste women seem to reflect their disaffection with the dominant upper-caste masters for whom they work rather than with the men of their own families. As low-caste women, these singers are doubly oppressed. As women, they share some of the feelings of the upper-caste women, and to that extent they understand Sita's troubles. Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the lack of interest in Rama and the attention shown instead to Ravana and Lanka, in an apparent rejection of Rama. But again, as in the Brahmin women's songs, the rejection is not open and confrontational, but subtle and subversive.

The Raja's New Clothes: Redressing Ravana in Meghanadavadha Kavya

Clinton Seely

Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) stated quite candidly:

People here grumble that the sympathy of the Poet in Meghanad is with the Raksasas. And that is the real truth. I despise Ram and his rabble, but the idea of Ravan elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow.[1]

This confession—really more a proud declaration—appears in a letter to Raj Narain Bose during the period when Dutt was writing his magnum opus, MeghanadavadhaKavya (The slaying of Meghanada), a poem retelling in nine cantos an episode from the Ramayana , composed in Bengali and published in 1861. Unlike more traditional Rims tales, the poem begins in medias res and focuses on Ravana's son Meghanada, telling of his third and final fight in defense of the raksasa clan, his demise, and his obsequies. If one analyzes Dutt's characters closely, one finds that the main protagonists—Rama, Laksmana, and Ravana—are consonant with those characters as found in the most widely known Bengali Ramayana , composed in the fifteenth century by Krttivasa. Likewise, the events are fundamentally those narrated in one portion of Krttivasa's Ramayana : Ravana's two sons, Virabahu and Meghanada, are slain, the latter by Laksmana; Ravana slays Laksmana; Laksmana, with help of a special herb procured by Hanuman, is revived. Nothing in MeghanadavadhaKavya leads the reader to assume any other conclusion than that Ravana will eventually die at the hands of Rama, as happens in the Ramayana . But despite Dutt's rather remarkable adherence to traditional characterizations and events (remarkable, given his declared contempt for Rama and his rabble), his poem engenders in the reader a response vastly different from that produced by the more traditional Rama story. Nirad C. Chaudhuri may have put it most succinctly:


We regarded the war between Rama and Ravana, described in the Ramayana , as another round in the eternal struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. We took Rama as the champion of good and the Demon King Ravana as the champion of evil, and delighted in the episode of Hanumana the Monkey burning Lanka, the golden city of Ravana. But Dutt would be shocking and perplexing us by his all too manifest sympathy for the Demon King, by his glorification of the whole tribe of demons, and his sly attempts to show Rama and his monkey followers in a poor light. . .. He had read Homer and was very fond of him, and it was the Homeric association which was making him represent a war which to us was as much a struggle between opposites and irreconcilables as a war between rivals and equals. When we were thinking of demons and of gods (for Rama was a god, and incarnation of Vishnu himself), Dutt was thinking of the Trojans and the Achaeans. Ravana was to him another Priam, Ravana's son Meghanad a second Hector, and Ravana's city, which to us was the Citadel of Evil, was to Dutt a second Holy Troy.[2]

If both the characterizations and the events in Dutt's poem correspond, by and large, to the Ramayana's core story, how did Dutt manage to "shock" and "perplex" people such as Chaudhuri? Other readers, moreover, take an even more extreme position and conclude that Dutt did not render Rama and Ravana as equals (as is the case with the Iliad's arch foes, Achilles and Hector) but reversed their conventional roles altogether, fashioning Ravana as the hero—the epitome of the sympathetic and respected raja, beloved by his subjects, as well as a devoted brother, husband, and father.[3] How can a work that purports to have as its template a rather predictable story skew the reader's perception of its protagonists so effectively? The answer is complex, for the talented and skillful Dutt employed various literary strategies to accomplish his ends. Elsewhere I have discussed how Dutt used similes to subvert the reader's preconceptions about the traditional epic tale by consistently aligning the raksasas with various heroes of Hindu Indian literature. By the process of elimination Rama and Laksmana, the nominal heroes of the Ramayana , become associated with the opposers of these heroic exemplars. In what follows, I extend my earlier argument, moving from the level of simile to that of storytelling, and argue that Dutt's epic poem tells not one tale but four tales simultaneously, with the three subordinate stories—three of the most prominent tales in Bengali Hinduism—running counter to and subtly undermining the dominant Rama story.[4] As this essay's title suggests, at one level MeghanadavadhaKavya is a tale about the invisible, almost subliminal, cloaking of Ravana in the finery of heroism, while "Ram and his rabble" go about stripped of their traditional garb of glory. But first a bit of background for those unfamiliar with Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Bengal of the nineteenth century. And like Dutt's opus, we begin at a beginning, but not necessarily the beginning.


Background: Multiple Traditions

In 1816 a group of the leading Indian residents of Calcutta established Hindoo College, which opened its doors to Hindu students the following year, expressly "to instruct the sons of the Hindoos in the European and Asiatic languages and sciences."[5] Hindoo College proved to be the intellectual incubator for an amorphous group known as Young Bengal—youths eager to assimilate new and progressive ideas as well as to denounce what they viewed as superstitious, obscurant practices among their fellow Hindus. Starting in 1833, when he was nine years old, Dutt attended the junior department of this college.[6] He had been born in a village in Jessore district (now in Bangladesh) into a fairly well-to-do Hindu family. Dutt's father commanded Persian, still the official language of British India's judicial system, and was employed in Calcutta's law courts. It was to Calcutta that the senior Dutt brought young Madhusudan for his education.

Even outside institutions of formal education, there was at this time considerable enthusiasm for English and for knowledge of all kinds. Various periodicals helped satisfy this need, as did a number of societies. One of these, the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge, came into being in 1838 with a membership of around 150 of Calcutta's educated elite, including one "Modoosooden" [Madhusudan] Dutt.[7] With such a supportive environment at Hindoo College and within the upper echelons of society (epitomized by the Society), it is not surprising that Madhusudan Dutt began his literary career writing in the English language. English, after all, was the language of the literature he had been taught to respect, the literature for which he had cultivated a taste. As his letters to a classmate make clear, he dearly loved English literature and wanted fiercely to become a writer in English. Boldly he sent off some of his poetry to a couple of British journals, identifying himself to the editor of Bentley's Miscellany , London, in this way:

I am a Hindu—a native of Bengal—and study English at the Hindu College in Calcutta. I am now in my eighteenth year,—"a child"—to use the language of a poet of your land, Cowley, "in learning but not in age."[8]

Of his fantasies there can be no doubt, as a letter to his friend Gour Dass Bysack reveals:

I am reading Tom Moore's Life of my favourite Byron—a splendid book upon my word! Oh! how should I like to see you write my "Life" if I happen to be a great poet—which I am almost sure I shall be, if I can go to England.[9]

In 1843, the year after he wrote the above letters, Dutt went even further in his acceptance of things Occidental: he embraced Christianity, in the face of very strong opposition from his father. As a Christian, Dutt could no longer attend Hindoo College and so transferred to Bishop's College, where his cur-


riculum included Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.[10] At the start of 1848, he left Bengal suddenly, going south to Madras, where he secured employment as a schoolteacher and married, within his profession, the daughter of a Scottish indigo planter. Early on during his sojourn in Madras, the first signs appear of a shift in aspirations from that of becoming a noted poet in English to that of devoting his creative energies to writing in his mother tongue, Bengali.

A year after he arrived in Madras, Dutt published "The Captive Ladle," a very Byronic tale (the epigram for the first canto came from "The Giaour") in two cantos of well-modulated octosyllabic verse. One reviewer—J. E. D. Bethune, then president of the Council of Education, whose opinion Dutt personally sought—advised Dutt to give up writing in English and put his talents to work on Bengali literature. Wrote Bethune to Dutt's friend Bysack, who concurred and passed the advice on to Dutt:

He might employ his time to better advantage than in writing English poetry. As an occasional exercise and proof of his proficiency in the language, such specimens may be allowed. But he could render far greater service to his country and have a better chance of achieving a lasting reputation for himself, if he will employ the taste and talents, which he has cultivated by the study of English, in improving the standard and adding to the stock of the poems of his own language, if poetry, at all events, he must write.[11]

Bethune went on to say that from what he could gather, the best examples of Bengali verse were "defiled by grossness and indecency." He suggested that a gifted poet would do well to elevate the tastes of his countrymen by writing original literature of quality in Bengali, or by translating. Dutt's biographer points out that such counsel was not reserved for Dutt alone but offered by Bethune to the assembled students of Krishnagar College.[12] Given Bethune's stance, it seems safe to assume that he was not simply judging literary merit in the case of "The Captive Ladie." (The piece is actually quite effective poetry.) Rather, he wanted to encourage the writing of Bengali literature, not just good literature per se. It should be noted, moreover, that the following year Bethune was among the founders of the Vernacular Literature Society.[13]

Bysack rephrased parts of that letter and then encouraged Dutt to heed Bethune's words:

His advice is the best you can adopt. It is an advice that I have always given you and will din into your ears all my life. . .. We do not want another Byron or another Shelley in English; what we lack is a Byron or a Shelley in Bengali literature.[14]

The precise impact of Bethune's and Bysack's advice cannot be known with certainty. In an off-cited letter to Bysack a month later, Dutt boasted of a nearly impossible daily regimen of language study: "Here is my routine; 6


to 8 Hebrew, 8 to 12 school, 12-2 Greek, 2-5 Telegu and Sanskrit, 5-7 Latin, 7-10 English." He added that "I devote several hours daily in Tamil" and concluded, with rhetorical panache: "Am I not preparing for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers?"[15]

Earlier that year, though, even before Bethune's unexpected, unenthusiastic reception of "The Captive Ladie," the first signs of Dutt's impending conversion to his mother tongue for creative writing had already shown themselves, well before "The Captive Ladie" had even been published. He wrote Bysack, asking him to send from Calcutta two books. The books requested were the Bengali re-creations (not really translations) of India's Sanskrit epics and were among the first books printed in Bengali, published from the Baptist missionaries' press at Serampore. The stories and characters from these two epics, known to Dutt from childhood, provided about half the raw material for what he would write in Bengali, including Meghanadavadha Kavya .

In 1856, at the age of thirty-two, Dutt returned to Calcutta. Between 1858 and 1862, when he finally got an opportunity to go to England (to study law), Dutt wrote and published in Bengali five plays, three narrative poems, and a substantial collection of lyrics organized around the Radha-Krsna theme. Along with all this, he found time to translate three plays from Bengali into English.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the original ideals of the Young Bengal group—an earnest, enlightened quest for knowledge coupled with a rejection of what they viewed as demeaning superstition—had been misinterpreted by some to mean aping the British and flouting social norms. In particular, patronizing dancing girls, meat-eating, and the drinking of alcohol (taboo among devout Hindus), along with speaking a modicum of English, came to symbolize for some their "enlightenment." Quite otherwise was Dutt's embrace of things Occidental. He had a good liberal education, was a practiced writer (although much of that practice had been in English), and had drunk deeply from European and Indian literature. Of a fellow writer Dutt wrote in 1860:

Byron, Moore and Scott form the highest Heaven of poetry in his estimation. I wish he would travel further. He would then find what "hills peep o'er hills"—what "Alps on Alps arise!" As for me, I never read any poetry except that of Valmiki, Homer, Vyasa, Virgil, Kalidas, Dante (in translation), Tasso (Do) and Milton. These kavikulaguru [master poets] ought to make a fellow a first rate poet—if Nature has been gracious to him.[16]

There was little or no doubt in his mind that in his case Nature had indeed been kind. And by the end of the 1850s he felt himself prepared "for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers." The pattern—of beginning one's literary life writing in English and then switching to one's mother


tongue—was not an uncommon one. R. Parthasarathy, himself an Indian poet who also writes in English (not his mother tongue), refers to Dutt as "the paradigm of the Indian poet writing in English . . . torn by the tensions of this 'double tradition.'"[17] But it was in Bengali that Dutt made his lasting literary contributions, foremost among them Meghanadavadha Kavya .

The Text: Epic Departures

To reiterate, Meghanadavadha Kavya tells of the third and decisive encounter between Ravana's son and Rama's forces, wherein Meghanada is slain by Rama's brother Laksmana. In the first of his nine cantos, Dutt introduces us to Ravana and Meghanada on the day prior to the slaying; at the epic's conclusion, Ravana performs Meghanada's obsequies, a scene that dramatically unifies Dutt's narrative while also foreshadowing the closure of the Ramayana's larger conflict, Rama and Ravana's battle over Sita. The reader can assume that events following Meghanada's demise will largely correspond to those found in the traditional Ramayana , since Dutt's narrative throughout has conformed in essence to that epic. But Rama's story is merely the warp, if you will, of Dutt's poem; three other tales form the woof of this Ramayana fabric, interweaving with Rama's tale to create texture and, most importantly, to subvert the main narrative's purport—the aggrandizement of Rama.

Complex narrative structuring was by no means introduced into Indian literature by Dutt. Sanskrit boasts a type of multisemic narrative which, if read one way, tells a certain tale (of Krsna, for instance) and, read another way, tells a different story (of Rama, for example). The two—or more—tales are simultaneously present in the same text, but, depending on choices the reader makes, one or the other story becomes manifest. Sanskrit, by its very nature, allows for ambiguous reading, and certain poets exploited that ambiguity for artistic effect. Owing to euphonic assimilation (sandhi ), word boundaries can become difficult to discern. A string of phonemes can be variously divided to produce diverse words; different parsings of a sentence can thus produce diverse readings. On the simplest level, to take an example from the Ramayana itself, we have the mantra-like utterance by Ratnakara, a thief who, thanks to the purifying nature of a spell, becomes Valmiki, devotee of Rama and author of the Ramayana . A penitent Ratnakara is directed to chant the name of Rama, but he demurs, claiming he is too vile a sinner. So Ratnakara is instructed to speak the word mara , meaning dead. By chanting mara mara continuously—maramaramara—Ratnakara does in fact say Rama's name, by virtue of the contiguity of the two phonemes ra and ma . Divide the phonemes one way and one gets "dead"; divide them another way and Rama springs to life.

In his survey of Sanskrit literature, A. B. Keith mentions somewhat more


sophisticated examples. In a poem entitled the Raghavapandaviya "we are told simultaneously the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata ," while another work, the Rasikaranjana , "read one way, gives an erotic poem, in another, a eulogy of asceticism." And yet a third narrative, the Raghavapandaviyayadaviya , narrates the tales of Rama, of Nala, and of the Bhagavata Purana simultaneously, using the same phonemes in the same order.[18]

Written Bengali, in which word boundaries are more recognizable and permanent, does not lend itself as readily as Sanskrit to such linguistic virtuosity. Though individual words may, apropos of kavya or poetic literature, have more than one meaning, whole sentences or paragraphs cannot be construed to contain certain words in one reading and different words in another. Nevertheless, in the tradition of his Sanskrit poetic forefathers, Dutt creates in Meghanadavadha Kavya a multistory narrative. On the denotative level, it is simply an episode out of the Ramayana , but read another way, primarily through its similes, Meghanadavadha Kavya dons the clothing of Krsna to tell Krsna's tale. Read even differently, Dutt's poem alludes to the Mahabharata and its internecine struggle between Kurus and Pandavas. And read from yet one more perspective, the fabric of Meghanadavadha Kavya glitters with the myth of Durga and her annual autumnal visit to Bengal, when Bengali Hindus celebrate Durga Puja [worship], the grandest public festival of the Hindu year.

All the subsidiary interwoven stories are present in one and the same reading of Meghanadavadha Kavya , albeit in far less narrative detail than Rama's story, just as the threads in fine cloth can be discerned but tend to blend into the total design. Because all are manifest and thus not only can but must be read and apprehended simultaneously, each tale affects the reader's understanding of all the other tales. As one reads of Meghanada's demise and Rama's impending victory—a joyous event for any Hindu—one also reads the more dolorous tale of Krsna, who grew up in bucolic Vraja, delighting the cowherd maidens, but who then had to leave, never to return. The conflation of characters, in this case Krsna and Meghanada, serves to confuse the reader's response: is the reader made uncomfortable by the departure of Krsna or by the death of Meghanada? The resulting subversion of the main story by a secondary tale leads at least some readers, as Chaudhuri attests, to react with shock and perplexity. Have the raksasas been glorified beyond what they are in more traditional Ramayanas ? Well, no, not directly. Has Rama been shown in a poor light? Not exactly. These characters are precisely what they have always been. But Dutt's submerged tale of Krsna has complicated matters for the reader. In similar fashion, as one reads the episode drawn from the Ramayana , one is also presented with a vignette from the Mahabharata as well as the mythic tale of Durga, each bittersweet stories, each in its own way countering the emotional impact of Meghanadavadha Kavya's main story line.


Let us examine the three substrata stories more closely. The tale of Krsna is told entirely through similes, all of which compare him with Meghanada. These similes are drawn from two periods in his life. According to his hagiography, Krsna was born in Mathura (also called Madhupura) but taken immediately after his birth to Vraja (Gokula) to escape the wrath of King Kamsa, his uncle. In Vraja, by the banks of the Yamuna, Krsna grows up to become the lover of the gopis , the local cowherds' wives, Radha chief among them. There comes a time, however, when the idyll must end. Krsna leaves Vraja and returns to Mathura, there to slay his wicked uncle. That done, he moves on to the city of Dvaraka. But for Bengali Vaisnavas, it is the time Krsna spent in Vraja with his gopi lovers that is most cherished.

Dutt's Krsna similes are by no means randomly scattered throughout his poem. In the first half of Meghanadavadha Kavya , while Meghanada is still living with his fellow raksasas , the Krsna similes refer to Vraja in the happy days when the deity resided there. Early in the first canto, for example, a passage describing Ravana's sumptuous court runs: "Constant spring breezes delicately wafted scents, gaily/transporting waves of chirping, ah yes! enchanting as the/flute's melodic undulations in the pleasure groves of/ Gokula."[19] Toward the end of the same canto, we find Meghanada, first compared to the moon (lord of night) and then to Krsna (the herdsman). at ease. He has defeated Rama in open warfare not once but twice and assumes, reasonably enough, that the raksasas have won the war.

That best of champions dallied with
the maids of shapely bodies, just as the lord of night sports
with Daksa's daughters, or, O Yamuna, daughter of the
sun, as the herdsman danced beneath kadamba trees, flute to
lips, sporting with the cowherds' wives upon your splendid banks!  (1.648-53)

Alerted to the danger facing his father (for Rama is not dead as the raksasas suppose), Meghanada leaves his wife behind in that country retreat and returns to the walled city and his father's court. We see in the opening lines of canto 3 that young Pramila—who is likened to Radha, the maid of Vraja—does not react to the separation from her beloved husband with equanimity.

In Pramoda Park wept Pramila, youthful Danava


daughter, pining for her absent husband. That tearful moonfaced


one paced incessantly about the flower garden


like the maid of Vraja, ah, when she, in Vraja's flower


groves, failed to find her yellow-dad Krsna standing beneath


kadamba trees with flute to lips. That lovelorn lady would


from time to time go inside her home, then out, just like a


pigeon, inconsolable in her empty pigeon house.


Donning warrior's garb, Pramila marches with her legion of women (a borrowing by Dutt from the Asvamedhaparva of the Bengali Mahabharata )


through Rama's ranks—Rama grants her passage—and rejoins her husband in the walled city. Then in canto 5, Meghanada is awakened by doves on the morning of the day he is to do battle once again. He wakes Pramila, kissing her closed eyelids: "Startled, that woman rose in haste—as do the cowherds' wives/at the flute's mellifluous sounds" (5.387-88). Later that same morning he leaves Pramila, who watches him walk away from her for, unbeknownst to her, the last time.

Wiping her eyes, that chaste wife departed—as cowherds' wives,
about to lose their lover, bid farewell to Madhava
on Yamuna's shores, then empty-hearted return to their
own empty homes—so, weeping still, she entered her abode. (5.604-7)

Just as Krsna (Madhava) left pleasant Vraja to slay the evil Kamsa, so Meghanada leaves, intending to slay Rama. Neither one will return. Krsna goes to Dvaraka; Meghanada dies. The remaining two Krsna similes are set during the time after Krsna has gone away.

Meghanada is slain in canto 6. Though at that moment his death is known only to Laksmana and Vibhisana, it affects the three individuals emotionally closest to him: his father's crown falls to the ground; his wife's right eye flutters, an inauspicious sign; and his mother faints. "And," adds Dutt, "asleep in mothers' laps, babies cried/a sorrowful wail as Vraja children cried when precious/Syama [Krsna] darkened Vraja, leaving there for Madhupura"(6.638-41). It is not until the ninth and final canto that another Krsna simile occurs, once more depicting Vraja after Krsna's departure. As the funeral cortege for Meghanada files out of the walled city of Lanka toward the sea, "that city, now emptied, grew dark like Gokula devoid of Syama" (9.308-9). Again, the Krsna woof, created here with similes, is woven into the Ramayana story. If the two tales typically evoked the same audience response, then the anticipated reaction would simply be intensified. But in this case, the traditional audience responses are discordant: sadness at the loss of Krsna; glee over Rama's triumph.

Similar subversion of the expected reader response to Rama's victory is fostered by the Mahabharata woof. The Mahabharata is a compendium of stories, a far more eclectic text than the Ramayana ; the many Mahabharata similes in Meghanadavadha Kavya are drawn from diverse episodes. One set of these similes, however, focuses on the specific tale of the ignominious slaughter of the Pandavas' sons by Asvatthaman. This particular episode takes place at the end of the war, after the outcome is clear. Although both sides have sustained heavy losses, the five Pandavas have won. The Kaurava Duryodhana, the great enemy of the Pandavas, lies dying, his hip broken. At this point Asvatthaman, a cohort of Duryodhana's, decides to slip into the Pandava camp and slay the five Pandava warriors out of spite. Under cover of darkness, Asvatthaman and his accomplices proceed to the victors' bivouac, at the gate of which stands the god Siva, as Sthanu (a veritable


pillar). Asvatthaman manages to get by Siva and penetrate the enemies' camp. Once inside, he kills those he takes to be the senior Pandavas but who are in fact their five young sons. Pleased with himself, Asvatthaman hastens to tell the senior Kaurava, Duryodhana, what he has done.

The first canto of Meghanadavadha Kavya contains a reference to the encampment of the Pandavas, couched in a series of similes describing Ravana's grand court. "Before its doors/paced the guard, a redoubtable figure, like god Rudra [Siva]/trident clutched, before the Pandavas' encampment's gateway" (1.53-55). This same Mahabharata episode is alluded to again in canto 5 when Laksmana, preparing to slay Meghanada, must first proceed to the Candi temple situated in a nearby forest. As he approaches, his way is blocked by a huge Siva, whom he must pass in order to enter the woods. Laksmana circumvents Siva and overcomes several other obstacles in his path before successfully reaching the temple. It is there that Laksmana is granted the boon of invisibility for the following day so that he may enter the raksasas ' walled city undetected. Just as Asvatthaman had first to bypass Siva before entering the Pandavas' camp under cover of darkness in order to slay what turned out to be their sons, so Laksmana must get past Siva, then penetrate under the cloak of invisibility the raksasas ' stronghold to slay Ravana's son Meghanada.

In the very next canto, Laksmana does slip into the raksasas ' city and kill Meghanada. As Laksmana and his accomplice flee the walled city, Dutt describes their action with a combination of two similes, one natural, the other based on the same episode from the Mahabharata :

The two left hurriedly, just as a hunter, when he slays


the young of a tigress in her absence, flees for his life


with wind's speed, panting breathlessly, lest that ferocious beast

should suddenly attack, wild with grief at finding her cubs


lifeless! or, as champion Asvatthaman, son of Drona,


having killed five sleeping boys inside the Pandava camp


in dead of night, departed going with the quickness of


a heart's desire, giddy from the thrill and fear, to where lay


Kuru monarch Duryodhana, his thigh broken in the


Kuruksetra War.


And like Asvatthaman, who ran to tell Duryodhana what he had done, Laksmana runs to Rama to bring him news of the slaying. Here again, two tales simultaneously told, one from the Mahabharata and the other from the Ramayana , produce contrary effects: delight when Laksmana slays Meghanada; disgust at Asvatthaman's heinous act. Small wonder the reader is perplexed.

Yet a third tale is woven into Meghanadavadha Kavya , that concerning goddess Durga's annual puja . According to myth, on the sixth day of the waxing


moon of the autumn month of Asvin, Durga arrives at her natal home, there to stay until the tenth day, when she must return to her husband Siva's home on Mount Kailasa. Her short visit is the occasion for Bengal's greatest public Hindu festival, the Durga Puja, during which she is worshiped in the form of the ten-armed goddess who slays Mahisasura, the buffalo demon. On that tenth day, called the vijaya (victorious) tenth, she as the victorious one is bid farewell for another year as she leaves to rejoin her spouse. Durga's departure is, as departures tend to be, a somewhat bittersweet affair, for although she wants to return to her husband's side, she is sad to leave her parents and friends. Her mythic parents, Menaka and Himalaya, are loath to let their daughter go. The eighteenth-century Bengali poet Ram Prasad Sen, a devotee of the mother goddess in all her sundry manifestations, sang eloquently and passionately of the plight of Menaka (or any mother), who had to say goodbye to her daughter for yet another year. Those songs, called vijaya songs, were no doubt sung in Dutt's time and can still be heard today. Dutt captures this bittersweetness, setting an unexpected tone for his poem in the very first canto when he describes Laksmi—she who must leave Lanka—with a simile drawn from the Durga Puja. Laksmi is the goddess of good fortune; as Rajalaksmi, she is the raja's luck or fortune. Lanka's grandeur (a feature common to all Ramayanas , not just Dutt's) attests to the presence of good fortune in Ravana's realm, but with the advent of Rama, Laksmi must soon leave Lanka.

With face averted, moon-faced Indira [Laksmi] sat


glumly—as sat Uma [Durga] of the moonlike countenance, cheeks

cradled in her palms, when the tenth day of the waxing moon


of Durga Puja dawned, with pangs of separation at


her home in Gaur [Bengal].


In one way or another both the warp and woof of Meghanadavadha Kavya narrate departures and death. Krsna left Vraja. The Pandavas won the war but lost their sons and kinsmen. Every year, on the tenth day of the waxing moon of Asvin, Durga must depart. And Meghanada is slain. The first three are attended by sorrow; the fourth should be a cause for joy, were it not for the subversion wrought by the other three.

In the concluding canto, Dutt again accentuates the Durga Puja theme. As the cortege exits the city gates, Pramila's horse is led riderless while Meghanada's war chariot goes empty:

Out came the chariots moving slowly, among them that


best of chariots, rich-hued, lightning's sparkle on its wheels,


flags, the colors found in Indra's bow, on its pinnacles—


but this day it was devoid of splendor, like the empty


splendor of an idol's frame without its lifelike painted


image, at the end of an immersion ceremony.



On the tenth lunar day of the Durga Puja the iconic representation of the goddess, in all her ten-armed splendor, slaying the buffalo demon is immersed in the Ganges. It is then that the life-force of the deity, which entered the idol several days before and has been present throughout the celebrations, leaves and travels back to Mount Kailasa. The images are made from straw tied around bamboo frames; the straw is covered with clay, which when dry is painted, and the image meticulously clothed to represent the supreme goddess. When such an icon is immersed in the river, the clay eventually washes away, leaving a stick and straw figure exposed. Just so appears Meghanada's chariot without its vital warrior.

When the funeral procession reaches the seashore, a pyre is built of fragrant sandalwood, onto which is placed Meghanada's corpse. Pramila mounts the pyre and sits at her dead husband's feet—the decorated pyre being likened to the goddess's altar during Durga Puja (9.375-76). From Mount Kailasa Siva now commands Agni, god of fire, to transport the couple to him: like Durga after the immersion of her icon, Meghanada and Pramila will travel directly to Siva. Dutt invites—nay, forces—his reader to feel toward Meghanada and Pramila what they feel toward Durga on the day of her departure. The loss of a traditional enemy becomes, by the subversive power of Durga's tale, a cause for lamentation.

When the funeral fire is finally out, the raksasas purify the site with Ganges water and erect there a temple. To wash away some of the pollution which attends death, they then bathe in the sea. Dutt concludes his epic poem as follows:

After bathing in waters of the sea, those raksasas


now headed back toward Lanka, wet still with water of their

grief—it was as if they had immersed the image of the


goddess on the lunar tenth day of the Durga Puja;


then Lanka wept in sorrow seven days and seven nights.


The Durga Puja similes in the first and final cantos not only lend symmetry to Meghanadavadha Kavya but also, more than any of the other tales, presage Ravana's death. In Bengal, it is the Durga Puja that Hindus celebrate during the waxing Asvin moon, coming to an end on the tenth of that month, the victorious tenth. In some parts of India, however, the Ram Lila, a reenacting of Rama's divine play is performed in that season, culminating on the very same tenth of Asvin with the slaying of Ravana by Rama.[20] Thus, the Durga Puja similes in Dutt's text not only relate in part the tale of Durga's annual leaving but also imply the story of Rama's victory over Ravana, for Durga's and Rama's tale occur simultaneously in mythic time. If the substratum story, Durga's tale and her departure, effect a bittersweet response, then the elation at Rama's triumph—when the two tales are perforce read together—cannot but be vitiated. That was unquestionably Dutt's intent, for, as we


recall, he had declared his dislike for Rama and his admiration for Rama's foe. But dislike Rama or not, Dutt kept his Rama character true to the Ramayana tradition, preferring to let his similes and simultaneously told secondary tales complicate his reader's response.

The Reception: Mixed Blessings

Different audiences received Meghanadavadha Kavya differently, though in general it met with approbation and congratulations. Dutt himself, no disinterested judge, tells us through his letters that his poem was gaining acceptance almost daily.

The poem is rising into splendid popularity. Some say it is better than Milton—but that is all bosh—nothing can be better than Milton; many say it licks Kalidasa; I have no objection to that. I don't think it impossible to equal Virgil, Kalidasa and Tasso. Though glorious, still they are mortal poets; Milton is divine.

Many Hindu Ladies, I understand, are reading the book and crying over it. You ought to put your wife in the way of reading the verse.[21]

Even before the entire work had been published (cantos I through 5 appeared first), a man of letters of the day and patron of the arts, Kali Prosanna Singh, understood the importance of Dutt's accomplishment and felt it essential that Dutt should be honored. This was done under the aegis of the Vidyotsahini Sabha (Society for Those Eager for Knowledge), one of various private organizations formed during the nineteenth century by educated Bengalis in Calcutta. Singh's letter of invitation to a small circle of guests read in part:

Intending to present Mr. Michael M. S. Dutt with a silver trifle as a mite of encouragement for having introduced with success the Blank verse into our language, I have been advised to call a meeting of those who might take a lively interest in the matter.[22]

Following the ceremony, Dutt wrote to Raj Narain Bose:

You will be pleased to hear that not very long ago the Vidyotsahini Sabha—and the President Kali Prosanna Singh of Jorasanko, presented me with a splendid silver claret jug. There was a great meeting and an address in Bengali. Probably you have read both address and reply in the vernacular papers.

On the whole the book is doing well. It has roused curiosity. Your friend Babu Debendra Nath Tagore [Rabindranath's father], I hear, is quite taken up with it. S— told me the other day that he (Babu D.) is of opinion that few Hindu authors can "stand near this man," meaning your fat friend of No. 6 Lower Chitpur Road [where Dutt resided], and "that his imagination goes as far as imagination can go."[23]


And still later, writing to the same friend:

Talking about Blank-Verse, you must allow me to give you a jolly little anecdote. Some days ago I had occasion to go to the Chinabazar. I saw a man seated in a shop and deeply poring over Meghanad. I stepped in and asked him what he was reading. He said in very good English—
"I am reading a new poem, Sir!" "A poem? I said, "I thought that there was no poetry in your language." He replied—"Why, Sir, here is poetry that would make any nation proud."[24]

And again:

I have not yet heard a single line in Meghanad's disfavour. The great Jotindra has only said that he is sorry poor Lakshman is represented as killing Indrojit in cold blood and when unarmed. But I am sure the poem has many faults. What human production has not?[25]

Jotindra Mohan Tagore's reservation aside, few if any readers (and it should be noted that "readers" implies the educated elite who could in fact read this erudite work) took umbrage at Dutt's iconoclasm. As Pramathanath Bisi, a contemporary literary scholar, tells us:

Disgust toward "Ram and his rabble," the sparking of one's imagination at the idea of Ravana and Meghanada—these attitudes were not peculiar to Dutt. Many of his contemporaries had the very same feelings. What was native seemed despicable; what was English, grand and glorious. Such was the general temperament. . . . Dutt cast Ravana's character as representative of the English-educated segment of society.[26]

We may not choose to accept all of Bisi's statement at face value, but history forces us to conclude that Dutt's attitudes were indeed not peculiar to him alone. Meghanadavadha Kavya did not go unappreciated: by the time Dutt died in 1873, his epic poem had gone through six editions.

Four years after Dutt's death, Romesh Chunder Dutt (not a relative), one of the most respected intellectuals of the day, wrote in his The Literature of Bengal :

Nothing in the entire range of the Bengali literature can approach the sublimity of the Meghanad Badh Kabya which is a masterpiece of epic poetry. The reader who can feel, and appreciate the sublime, will rise from a study of this great work with mixed sensations of veneration and awe with which few poets can inspire him, and will candidly pronounce the bold author to be indeed a genius of a very high order, second only to the highest and greatest that have ever lived, like Vyasa, Valmiki or Kalidasa, Homer, Dante or Shakespear.[27]

As might be expected, however, over the years not everyone has been enamored with Meghanadavadha Kavya . Rabindranath Tagore, born the year it came out, was one of Dutt's harshest critics. Dutt's "epic" was an epic


(mahakavya ) in name only, he declared. Tagore found nothing elevating or elevated about Dutt's characters or in his depiction of the events. There was no immortality, as he put it, in any of the protagonists, not even in Meghanada himself; none of these characters, he contended, would live with us forever.[28] Tagore published those opinions when he was twenty-one. Later, in his reminiscences, he recanted:

Earlier, with the audacity that accompanies youth, I had penned a scathing critique of Meghanadavadha Kavya . Just as the juice of green mangos is sour—green criticism is acerbic. When other abilities are wanting, the ability to poke and scratch becomes accentuated. I too had scratched at this immortal poem in an effort to find some easy way to achieve my own immortality.[29]

But despite the retraction, Tagore never accepted Dutt fully. Edward Thompson, Tagore's English biographer, quotes Tagore as follows:

"He was nothing of a Bengali scholar," said Rabindranath once, when we were discussing the Meghanadbadh; "he just got a dictionary and looked out all the sounding words. He had great power over words. But his style has not been repeated. It isn't Bengali."[30]

Whether something is or is not the genuine article, whether it is "really Bengali," has been for some time a criterion by which Bengali critics judge the artistic accomplishments of their fellow artists. Pramatha Chaudhuri, colleague of Tagore and editor of one of the most prestigious and avant-garde journals from the early decades of this century, Sabuja Patra (Green leaves), wrote in the initial issue of that magazine:

Since the seeds of thought borne by winds from the Occident cannot take root firmly in our local soil, they either wither away or turn parasitic. It follows, then, that Meghanadavadha Kavya is the bloom of a parasite. And though, like the orchid, its design is exquisite and its hue glorious, it is utterly devoid of any fragrance.[31]

But what Pramatha Chaudhuri looked upon as suspect has since come to be recognized as the normal state of affairs. As our colleague A. K. Ramanujan, a man of many literatures, has commented:

After the nineteenth century, no significant Indian writer lacks any of the three traditions: the regional mother tongue, the pan-Indian (Sanskritic, and in the case of Urdu and Kashmiri, the Perso-Arabic as well), and the Western (mostly English). Poetic, not necessarily scholarly, assimilation of all these three resources in various individual ways seems indispensable.[32]

Perhaps Dutt was just a bit ahead of his time.

Attacked by Tagore and Pramatha Chaudhuri as un-Bengali, Dutt's poem has also been praised for—of all things—being in line with international communism. Since in Meghanadavadha Kavya Rama is more man than in-


carnation of Visnu, Bengali Marxists lauded Dutt, in their underground publication Marksavadi (The Marxist), for debunking religion and the gods.[33]

Though now, like Milton's Paradise Lost , read more as part of a university curriculum, as the first great modern work of Bengali literature, than as a best-seller, there was a day when Meghanadavadha Kavya qualified as required reading for the educated Bengali-speaking public at large, the sine qua non of the cultured Bengali. Of Dutt's standing in Bengali literature, an assessment by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, though made some four decades ago, still applies today. "In addition to his historical importance," wrote Chaudhuri, "the absolute value of his poetry is also generally undisputed; only his reputation, like that of every great writer, has had its ebbs as well as tides, its ups and downs; and his most modern Bengali critics have tried to be as clever at his expense as the modern detractors of Milton."[34] Also generally undisputed has been the conclusion that Dutt's raksasa raja is decked out in some very regal new clothes. That this conclusion has been so widely accepted proves how deceiving appearances can be, for Ravana, in truth, wears no new attire. Instead, the master poet has slyly—to borrow Chaudhuri's term—woven his central Ramayna episode so as to suggest heroic raiment for Ravana rather than for Rama. Clothed in cunning finery, Meghanadavadha Kavya presents a deceptive exterior. The raja—redressed though he may be—wears no new clothes, even though the reader sees what in fact is not there.

Creating Conversations: The Rama Story as Puppet Play in Kerala

Stuart H. Blackburn

The Rama story in India is an oral tradition. Although texts do stabilize certain variants, and may engender other variants, the diversity of the tradition—the many Ramayanas —is a function of the many genres, the many languages, and the many occasions on which the Rama story is orally performed. By tale-tellers and epic-singers, temple pundits and schoolteachers, and any number of unknown tellers and tellings, the story is spoken, chanted, sung, mimed, retold, and explained. Several contributions to this volume draw attention to this variety of tellers and tellings, and implicitly to their audiences. Here, too, is diversity. The audience may be the immediate listeners, whose role in performance varies from that of active participant (as respondent to a spoken line) to silent spectator. Some audiences are physically absent, such as patrons, who are meant only to overhear the performance or learn of it later. The audience may also be a god or goddess, as when a text is ritually performed with no human onlookers. And combinations of these audiences often coexist in a single performance event.[1]

Audiences seem especially important in the Rama story tradition. Several major texts, including the Ramcaritmanas and the Adhyatma Ramayana , are cast in dialogue form, Siva narrating the story to Parvati. Even in Valmiki's variant, Narada summarizes the first chapter to the poet. Whether or not this focus on narration offers further evidence for the essentially oral nature of the Ramayana , these texts include another type of audience: an internal audience, created by tellers within their text. This internal audience is what I found in studying performances of the shadow puppet play in Kerala. The puppeteers did not perform for a conventional audience, since few people, often absolutely no one, remained throughout the night to hear their chanting and exegesis of the Rama story; instead, they created conversations among themselves.

The Kerala shadow puppet play itself illustrates the diversity of the


Ramayana tradition in that it performs a classical Tamil text in a Malayalam folk context.[2] The plays are presented in a long series of overnight performances, often running twenty or more nights, as part of the annual festival in central Kerala to the goddess Bhagavati. Although the puppet stage, called a "drama house," is built outside the temple proper, the performances are explicitly linked to the temple: its lamp is used to light the little lamps inside the drama house that cast the puppet shadows on the screen; the screen is handed to the puppeteers by the temple oracle-priest on the first night of performance; each night the performance is blessed by the oracle-priest; and each night hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individuals make donations to the puppeteers (in advance of the performance), who in return will ask the goddess to bless them, cure their leg sores, return runaway cousins, or restore a brother's lost livestock. From this public perspective, the puppet plays are recitations, an extended verbal ritual (puja ) intended to win benefits for its patrons.

Textually, the puppet plays are based largely on Kampan's epic poem, the Iramavataram , composed in the Chola court during the twelfth century. Of Kampan's more than 12,000 verses, the puppeteers sing between 750 and 1,150, depending on whether the story is begun in the Forest Book or the War Book and on how many nights the puppeteers perform. Approximately one-fifth of the verses, however, are drawn from unidentified sources and introduce episodes and motifs not found in Kampan.[3] All the verses are carefully memorized, syllable by syllable, and recalled in performance by the initial word of the first line. Following each chanted verse, the puppeteers launch into their own commentary, sometimes glossing the verse line by line but more often digressing into mythological stories, grammatical explication, or improvised dialogue between the epic characters. All this is carried out by a small group of three to five men, who sit on wooden benches or woven mats and manipulate the puppets behind a white cloth screen.

Outside there is an open space, where a few people lie asleep on mats, sometimes waking to watch for a moment before dozing off again. Puppeteers speak of a "golden age," before movies, videos, and television, when large crowds watched their performances. This claim is not entirely fabrication. Even today, when the puppet play coincides with a popular entertainment event such as a folk drama or a fair, the open space in front of the drama house is crowded; perhaps a hundred people will watch the puppets for an hour before drifting off. It is also true that at particular sites certain episodes regularly muster crowds of fifty or more, most of whom remain mostly awake for most of the night. However, these are the exceptions: usually the Kerala puppeteers chant their verses and expound their interpretations to no one beyond the cloth screen.

Several aspects of the puppet play work to discourage a conventional audience. The language of the verses is an allusive medieval Tamil, read by


scholars only with the aid of written commentaries and scarcely understood by the local Malayalam-speakers;[4] nor is the commentary (delivered in a dialect of Tamil heavily influenced by Malayalam, the local language) a conversational idiom. Second, the puppet play is primarily a commentarial rather than narrative tradition: the burden of performance is the convoluted interpretation of the verses, which tire even the epic character forced to listen to them, as we shall learn below. Third, the dominant role of commentary produces performances that are static, more like a frieze than a film. The slow pace of these performances was critically noted in 1935 by the first recorded Western observer of the tradition and again in the late 1940s by a Kerala scholar, who made this recommendation:

If the olapavakuthu [puppet play] is to survive (and it would be a great pity if it did not), it will apparently have to undergo considerable renovation in the reduction of exposition, a change that would have the desirable effect of quickening the movements of the figures on the screen and bringing the kuthu [play] nearer the natural desire of people for rhythmic representation.[5]

That this appraisal fails to appreciate the less obvious dimensions of the puppeteers' art is what I hope to demonstrate in this essay.

Any potential audience is also distanced by the medium of shadow puppetry, which drops a screen between the performers and listeners. This is not true of shadow puppetry in Java and Bali, for example, where the screen is free standing and the performers are open to public view; indeed, patrons and favored members of the community are invited to sit behind the screen to fully appreciate the puppeteers' art.[6] In Kerala, however, the stage is a permanent building and the screen seals the puppeteers within, cut off from the public in a private space of their own.

This divide, I believe, deeply affects the Kerala puppeteers' telling of the Rama story. Specifically, because these puppet plays have virtually no external listeners or viewers (audience in the ordinary sense), they have generated internal audiences. On the outside the performances are a ritual act; but on the inside they are an uninterrupted conversation, both within the text and among the puppeteers themselves. In their telling of the Rama story, talking is no less important than the events of the tale.[7] Even in the eventful War Book, which dominates the puppet play, the martial action is defused through dialogue. Puppets do fight battles, weapons are hurled, even stuck into puppets' chests, but the art of the Kerala puppeteers is the art of conversation.

In adapting a medieval epic poem to shadow puppet play, the Kerala tradition has created several levels of conversation. On the textual level, the leather puppets speak in three separate dialogues: as Brahmins, at the opening of every performance; as epic characters speaking through verse and commentary; and, intermittently, as gods commenting on the epic action.


The second of these conversations, that between epic characters, is the most important, but all three contribute to the total dialogic effect of the puppet performance.

The very first words of every performance are spoken by two Brahmin puppets who dance around the Ganesa puppet pinned to the center of the screen, a feature not found in Kampan's text. Their presence in Kerala is an instructive innovation because the puppet play might have been framed differently—narrated by the single voice of one of the famous puppeteer-poets saluted in the introductory devotional songs, for instance. Instead the performance is framed by a dialogue between the two Brahmin puppets, named Muttuppattar and Gangaiyati. Once the initial songs to Ganesa and Sarasvati have faded away, Muttuppattar speaks to his companion and welcomes other Brahmins (not represented by puppets):

"Welcome, Gangaiyati, welcome."
"I am here, Muttuppattar."
"Is Kuncappappattar here?"
"I am here also, Muttuppattar."
"Has Comacippattar arrived?"
"I have come, Muttuppattar."
"We have all come chanting the name 'Govinda-Rama,' the most powerful name in the world."
"How is that?"

Muttuppattar's answer to this question leads to a description of Hindu cosmology and local sacred geography, ending with an enumeration of the fruits of devotion. After forty-five minutes of invocations and preliminaries, the Brahmin puppets are removed. Then the first narrative verse—spoken by one epic character to another—is sung and the commentary is added, as part of that dialogue. This is followed by more verses and more commentary, over and over again, until the early morning. In this way the Brahmin puppets set in motion a conversation that continues throughout the telling of the Rama story, ending only when the performance itself comes to a close.

The peculiar nature of that conversation is illustrated by the opening scene of the Kumbhakarna episode, translated below. Kumbhakarna, Ravana's brother, has taken the field after Ravana's humiliating defeat by Rama the previous day. As the demon warrior and his elephant army enter the screen from the left, Rama and his army of monkeys stand on the right. The lead puppeteer introduces the scene, chants a verse from Kampan, in which llama addresses Vibhisana (Ravana's other brother, who defected to Rama's side) and then begins his commentary:

"With thirteen thousand soldiers, Kumbhakarna entered the field, and from a distance Rama saw his figure emerge. He turned to Vibhisana."


"Who stands there, shoulders so wide
that many days would pass for the eyes
to scan from right to left? Is he
a battle-hungry warrior? Or Mount Meru on legs?"[8]

"Vibhisana, yesterday we defeated Ravana and his two hundred thousand demon soldiers; I felled him, knocking off his crown. Now he knows that he cannot win, and I am wondering, 'Will he release Sita and end this war? Or will he send more demons to be killed?' But look, over there! Some huge warrior has taken the field—god, he is enormous! Even to run your eyes from his right shoulder to his left would take days! He cannot be human-born. Looks more like a mountain risen from the earth, like Mount Meru, flanked by the cosmic elephants, with the nine planets circling his head. Who is this mountain-man?"

"Rama, look closely—what do you see?"

"I don't know. Could it be Ravana in disguise—changing his twenty arms and ten heads for these two arms and single head? Is this his maya frightening us again? Tell me, tell me quickly."

"Listen, noble one (ariya ), he is the younger brother of the raja of
this earth's (ati talam ) beautiful Lanka, and he is my older brother;
Wearing anklets of black death and wielding a cruel trident,
he's called Kumbhakarna, oh, lord of victory."[9]

"Rama, notice that the poet calls you ariya or 'noble one.' We also call you pujyan , which means not only 'worthy' but something else as well. It means 'nothingness,' a cipher. True, we add, say, ten to twenty to find out a total. But more useful is a symbol of nothingness, and everything at the same time That's you, Rama. Nameless, formless, you are the unknowable brahman , the hidden essence. You are svayambhu , self-generating reality.

"Of course, some will ask, 'Why worship this nothingness?' Our answer is that the nothing takes form to protect us. You, too, assume the eight dispositions (guna ): love, compassion, and so on, like the rest of us. So what separates you from us? Well, the Saiva texts describe three layers of body: visible, subtle, and inner. The visible body is that known to the naked eye. Inside is another, the subtle body, which can be known by yoga and meditation; and inside it is a still more subtle body, which is known only by wisdom. Humans and gods alike have these three layers, but there is a difference. All the outer bodies of all the beings in the world equal the outer body of god; all the inner bodies of all the beings form the inner body of god; all the innermost bodies are subsumed in god's innermost body. In short, god's body is this world.


"People debate the nature of god. Some say he has name and form, some deny it. But, Rama, the simple truth is this: god takes bodily form to protect this world in times of crisis. Because you are an example of that compassion, we call you pujyan ."

"Yes, but who is that giant warrior bearing down on us?"

"Right, now look at the rest of the first line. Ati talam refers to the earth, because one walks on it. This is an example of a 'derived noun.' The other class of nouns is derived from conventional usage. Then each of these two categories can be either 'general name' or 'special name.' Hence, there are four classes of nouns. For instance, we use the word pankam to mean 'mud' (ceru ). Other things that come from mud, like the word pankayam for 'lotus,' are derived nouns—even though many would consider 'lotus' a noun by convention. Still, few people use the word pankayam and use instead centamarai , which is a 'special-derived noun.' Similarly, mukkannan means 'three-eyed' and is a derived noun when we use it to mean 'coconut'; but when we use it to mean Siva, it is a 'special-derived-noun.' This phrase ati talam is also a 'special-derived-noun' because it was coined by a single person but for a special reason. And that person was Vamana, the dwarf-avatar of Visnu."

"Vibhisana, I appreciate your learned explanations, but first tell me, Who is this gigantic warrior almost upon us?"
"That's what I am telling you, Rama, by explaining this phrase ati talam . Long ago a raja and his son Mahabali built the magnificent city of Asurapati, from where the demons ruled the three worlds. Soon the gods and sages petitioned Brahma for relief from the demons' violence; Brahma sent them to Narayana, who assured them that he would end their troubles once and for all.

"'First,' he said, 'we must churn the milk ocean to acquire ambrosia. Bring that huge Mandara mountain, the long snake named Vasuki, the sixteen-phased moon Candra, and that other snake, Karkottan. But for this you gods need the help of the asuras, especially their king, Mahabali.'

"With the demons' help, the gods set up Mount Mandara as the churning stick, using the moon as a latch and a horse as a pin to fasten the stick to the tortoise as the resting place. Vasuki was wrapped around the stick, and, with the gods holding his tail and the demons his head, they began to churn. They churned and churned . . ."

For two hours Vibhisana speaks to Rama, and while he speaks, he raises his right hand two or three times to make a point. No other movement is visible on the screen. In the epic action, however, Kumbhakarna and his huge armies, the earth quaking beneath them, rapidly advance on Rama. Any reader may share Rama's growing anxiety about "that giant warrior bearing down upon us," as Vibhisana expatiates on the epithet "noble one," tells the story of Mahabali, explains the classifications of nouns, all the time


ignoring Rama's pleas, and finally finishes with a long account of the Markandeya story. By exaggerating and playing on the difference in pace between the rambling commentary and the imminent battle of the text, and not, as one might expect, hiding this discrepancy to maintain the illusion of narrative reality, the puppeteers establish the primacy of speech over action, of their interpretation over Kampan's text. And even their exegesis is cast in dialogue, spoken by one epic character to another.

We might note also that this particular scene has been staged, in a pattern repeated throughout the puppet performance, as a conversation: a warrior appears on the battlefield; Rama (or Laksmana) asks who he is, and Vibhisana then describes his birth, weapons, and boons. Vibhisana speaks similar words in Kampan, but there his words occupy a mere thirteen verses—about 3 percent of the episode—whereas the puppeteers stretch them to cover two hours, or one-third of the night's performance. The folk tradition also entirely omits the string of verses in which Kampan describes Kumbhakarna's appearance, his chariot, his armor, and his armies (or else slips these verses into Vibhisana's speech). The same principle of omitting descriptive verses in favor of conversation has determined the folk tradition's adaptation of every episode from Kampan's text. Nowhere is there description of landscape or person, except as addressed to a listener.

The tropism toward dialogue is clearest in the consistent alteration of reported speech in Kampan to direct speech in performance. This alteration at times requires a new line, or even two, but the most common technique is very simple: the final word of a Kampan verse is changed from "he said" (enrar ) to "I say" (enkiren ) or to an expletive, a vocative, or an imperative. An example of the last case is the famous first verse of the Surpanakha episode, which likens the beauty of the Godavari river to poetry. When the puppeteers chant this verse, they make one minor change: the finite verb "saw" (kantar ) becomes "look, brother" (tampi kanay ), so that the entire verse is addressed by Rama to Laksmana. Thus, instead of "The warriors saw the Godavari," we hear:

Look, Laksmana, here is the Godavari,
lying as a necklace on the world
nourishing the rich soil
rushing over waterfalls
flowing through the five regions
in clear, cool streams
like a good poet's verse.[10]

The shift to dialogue also allows the puppeteers to express emotions that remain mute in Kampan. Voicing hidden or forhidden feelings is a characteristic of folk tradition everywhere, and the Rama literature is no exception—as when Sita draws a picture of Ravana, which then assumes physical


form beneath her bed; or when, as a ferocious goddess, she kills him; or when Laksmana marries Surpanakha.[11] Perhaps the epic's pretense of virtue prompted the Telugu proverb: "The Ramayana is about illicit sex, the Mahabharata about lies."[12] In the Kerala puppet play, these suspect feelings are often kept private yet given greater immediacy when a character addresses himself, replacing the last phrase of Kampan's verse ("he thought," "she feared") with "O, Heart!" (manace ). Rama or Vibhisana, then, is not simply described as thinking the words to himself; he says them to himself. Inner thoughts, too, have a listener in the puppet play.

Misgivings about war, which are faint, almost whispered, in Kampan, are loudly and continually voiced in the puppet play. This difference may be illustrated by comparing Kampan's treatment with the puppeteers' treatment of the same scene. When Rama sees Laksmana and the monkeys lying dead, felled by Indrajit's snake-weapon (naga-astra ), he falls down in grief over his brother's body, and cries out:



"No more war!

Strong-shouldered Rama looked at

and no more fame!

his bow, at the knots of the

No victory bow!


no wife! no kingdom!

Looked at the still, dark night,

Even Siva who gave me life,

at the gods in heaven

I renounce them all,

and screamed,

If you, Laksmana,

"I'll rip up this earth!"

do not live."

Then, biting his coral lips, he


pondered what wise men said.

"We left our father

He rubbed Laksmana's feet

and mother and we left Ayodhya

with his soft hands;

But like the Vedas,

Opened Laksmana's lotus-

we have never been apart;

eyes and peered inside.

Now you've left me, Laksmana,

His heart beat quickly as

and this earth is not my home;

he looked at the sky and

Let my soul leave me,

lifted him to his chest.

if Yama is ready to take it."

Laying him on the earth,


he wondered, "Is that


devious Indrajit near?"13

In both versions Rama is bitterly angry at his brother's (apparent) death, but they differ in their expression of that anger. In the first of Kampan's verses, Rama screams in frustration but then recedes into defeated silence; in the first folk verse, by contrast, he explicitly condemns war and its instruments. The power of this folk verse grows with the repetition of the pained cry vente ("No morel"). A repetition (kantar , "he saw") also organizes the Kampan verse: Rama's pain is suggested by his looking, first at his useless


bow, then at the merciless gods—by what he sees more than what he says. Rama remains similarly mute in the second Kampan verse, his feelings kept within his eyes, heart, and mind. In the second folk verse, however, he again speaks without reserve. Verbal denunciation rings through the folk verses, whereas revenge is visually projected in the Kampan verses.

The puppet play also voices furtive emotions through dialogue between characters. More misgivings about war, and about Rama himself, are expressed by Rama's general, the good Jambuvan. When Ravana sends in his reserve army, Jambuvan flees the field and explains to Angada:

"What can our seventy divisions do against their thousand? We'd only make a meal for them! I'm not ready to die yet."

"Jambuvan, don't say that! Once, at my father's death, you spoke to me with brave words and now you talk of retreat!"

"You're young, Angada, and cannot understand what these demons can do in battle. Ravana has sent them, and this time Rama will not defeat him."

"But, there's Laksmana, and Hanuman . . . surely . . ."

"Don't be naive. Do you think we are anything more than bodyguards to them? Did anyone protect [my son] Vasantan when Kumbhakarna mauled him? And no one will stop the pain when you die, either. Better to escape into the forest, drink pure water, and eat fresh fruits. Let Rama win or lose— what's it to us anyway? Why should we die for them?"[14]

In a later episode, "The Revival of Vasantan" (considered a late interpolation in Karopan), the horror of death again prompts Jambuvan to accuse Rama of disloyalty. After Ravana's death and Vibhisana's coronation as raja of Lanka, Rama, Sita, Laksmana, and the monkeys prepare to return to Ayodhya in Ravana's old chariot. At this happy moment, Jambuvan speaks angrily, refusing to enter the chariot because, he says, "I am old and have seen many amazing events, but never have I seen someone take back so quickly what they have given." His charge, that Rama is reclaiming the chariot that only minutes ago he gave to Vibhisana when crowning him, seems somewhat contrived, but we soon learn its underlying motivation: Jambuvan is angry at Rama for his indifference to Jambuvan's son, Vasantan, killed while fighting for Rama's cause. Rama may well celebrate—his wife and brother are still alive—but what of the thousands of monkeys who died in their defense? Are they to be forgotten in the triumphant return to Ayodhya?

Jambuvan's refusal to ignore the reality of death in the celebration of victory characterizes the emotions given new voice in the puppet play. The folk tradition will not accept platitudes or categories uncritically; in the key Surpanakha and Valin episodes, it shows that the Rama-avatar is flawed and that the claims of the bhakti epic are easily deflated. My favorite example of this check on the epic's excessive posturing is the puppeteers' treatment of


Hanuman's mission to bring back medicinal herbs needed to revive Laksmana and the monkeys. Jambuvan speaks excitedly:

"Listen, Hanuman, we have only three-quarters of an hour to revive Laksmana and the others. Then the sun rises and Indrajit will behead them all!"


"Before that, you must travel seventy-three thousand yoganas to the Medicine Mountain, find a special healing herb, and return."

"Are you joking?"


"Seventy-three thousand yoganas in three-quarters of an hour? And return? It's . . . impossible."

"But, Hanuman, if you don't . . ."

"That far, that quickly, to locate a rare herb for an incurable disease? Ridiculous, that's all."

In the puppet play, even Hanuman, the ideal Rama devotee, cannot resist poking fun at epic hyperbole.

The puppet play's countervailing comic voice, however, belongs more often to characters either insignificant or absent in Kampan's text. The most important of these figures arc the Standard Bearer, nowhere found in Kampan but always stationed next to Ravana on the cloth screen, and Ravana's messengers, present but nondescript in Kampan.[15] The Standard Bearer stirs from his silent pose when he and Indrajit, Ravana's son, inspect the bodies of Laksmana and the monkeys felled by Indrajit's snake-weapon. His comic dialogue with the great demon warrior (considered more dangerous than Ravana) serves to undermine Indrajit's pretensions to power. They meet unexpectedly on the battlefield and the Standard Bearer speaks first, parodying the sounds of war:

"Bing-bang, bing-bang! Who are you?"

"Me? I just shot the snake-weapon, the whole point of this night's performance."

"Oh, and you came here in this chariot, I suppose."

"Right. How'd you come?"

"I'm the Standard Bearer; I just grabbed onto the chariot and came along for the ride."

"What do you want?"

"Problem is your snake-weapon did not kill them; it only knocked them out. I'll finish them off by stabbing them with the tip of my staff. Anyway, let's walk along this battlefield and inspect each body. If my staff doesn't finish them off, you can always shoot another snake-weapon."

"All right."

"Who's this, lying here?"


"It's Nalan, the one who built the causeway to Lanka by carrying all those stones on his head."

"A contractor, huh?"

"Yes. Give the 'boss' a good stab."

"And this one?"

"That's Blue-Man (nilan )."

"Oh, I need some of that."

"Of what?"

"You see, my wife hasn't washed her sari for a week and . . ."

"Not blue-soap (nilam ), stupid! Blue-Man. Besides, do you wash your wife's saris?"

"If you saw them, you'd understand why no one else would touch them. Anyway, who is low enough to be my washerman?"

Apparently a servant's staff is more potent than the epic's most fearsome weapon. The same point is made later when the epic battle grinds to a standstill because the Standard Bearer refuses to hold the standard without receiving his pay. This servant-figure, anonymous but indispensable, appears fully assimilated into the epic when he requests and receives moksa (religious liberation) from Rama. But this supreme act of bhakti is compromised when he flinches in fear of death. As with Jambuvan's anger and grief at the moment of the return to Ayodhya, the puppet play speaks of mortality precisely when the epic wishes to celebrate victory or religious devotion.

At other times, the Standard Bearer and messengers laugh when epic characters mourn. If the Rama story in the puppet play is pervaded by a single emotion, it is grief, especially over loss in death. But the most powerful scenes of grief—-when Rama cries (twice) for his dead brother and allies, and when Ravana cries over his dead son, Indrajit—are hedged around with a comic element supplied by these folk figures. Rama's mourning is immediately preceded by the slapstick, puns, and dirty laundry of the scene translated above in which the Standard Bearer and Indrajit inspect bodies on the field; the same scene is repeated later (before Rama mourns those felled by the Brahma-astra) with the same jokes, to the same effect. An even more obvious undermining of grief occurs just before Ravana learns of Indrajit's death. Returning from the battlefield with this information, the messengers sing a mock dirge to Indrajit. Then, when Ravana asks them for the "news" (of his son), they trifle with him, informing him of the latest gossip in the vegetable market. Finally, anticipating Ravana's tears just before they tell him about Indrajit, the messengers comment sarcastically, "It's monsoon time again!"

This dialogue between epic characters, which we have been listening to in both verse and commentary, comprises most of the long hours of performance. The introductory dialogue between Brahmins is brief by comparison,


while the third dialogue, that between Indra and the gods, is intermittent. Unlike the epic characters, but like the Brahmin puppets, Indra and the gods do not participate in the epic action; they comment on it as omniscient narrators. Indra and the gods occasionally appear in Kampan's text, too, commenting on and influencing the epic action, especially when Indra sends Rama his chariot and charioteer in the final battle against Ravana. But in the shadow puppet play, Indra appears frequently and always with another puppet, who represents the other gods collectively; and, whereas in Kampan Indra speaks directly to the epic characters, in the puppet play he speaks only to his companion puppet.

A good example of this third-level dialogue occurs when Ravana enters his palace humiliated, having lost the first battle with Rama:

"Tell us, Indra, how did Ravana feel when he entered the palace?"

"He was disgraced. Having lost his chariot, he walked on foot, dragging his long arms along the ground, just as the sun set in the west."

"He entered just as the sun set—is there any special meaning to that?"

"I'll come back to that. First it is important to say that this twenty-armed Ravana was defeated by the two arms of Rama."

"Sri Rama's right and left arms, right?"

[At this point, a man who I had thought was fast asleep in the corner of the drama house jumped up and spoke, displacing one of the puppeteers:]

"What was your question? Something about the setting sun?"

"Nothing really, Indra. Some say that the setting sun symbolized Ravana's life, its decline, I mean."

"No! No! Nothing of the sort. Demons fight at night because you can't defeat them in the darkness. The point of this line is that the first battle took place during the day and thus Rama was able to defeat Ravana. To say that Ravana's entering the palace at sunset symbolizes the end of his life is sheer nonsense! It simply indicates the fact the battle took place in daylight and nothing more. Now if you want to talk about Rama's two hands . . . [that's another story]."

Pinned high on the cloth screen, above the epic characters, Indra and the gods are spectators as well as narrators. From the very first episode in the puppeteers' text, when they petition Visnu to defeat their enemies, the gods have kept a close watch on Rama. Visnu's eagle, Garuda, for instance, spies Rama grieving on the battlefield and flies down from Mount Meru to tear free the knots of the snake-weapon that bind his brother. Rama and Ravana, for their part, are not unaware of their distant audience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last scene of the great battle: Ravana tells Rama to spare no effort in offering the gods a good spectacle, and, before he kills the demon raja, Rama addresses the gods: "Gods, I, Rama, now kill Ravana."

To summarize the discussion thus far: The puppet play is performed as


dialogue on three levels, each of which has its listeners, an audience internal to the performance. The interaction among the Kerala puppeteers, however, is more complex than these puppet voices. When the puppets converse as Brahmins at the opening of the performance, or as epic characters in verse or commentary during the narrative, or as gods above the action, only their shadows are projected on the public side of the cloth screen. Inside the drama house, however, another kind of exchange, a private "conversation," is carried on among the puppeteers themselves.

The puppeteers always perform in a pair, a lead man and a respondent, and in shifts: two men will begin and, after a few hours, one or both of the performers will be relieved by others who have been resting. The long hours of narration and interpretation, then, amount to a tête-à-tête between the lead puppeteer and his respondent. At times, when a puppeteer launches into a diatribe on his favorite point of Hindu philosophy, the performance may resemble a monologue. Nonetheless, however far a speech may wander, it eventually reverts to dialogue by concluding with a question to the respondent, or when the respondent himself puts a question to the first puppeteer. The dialogic nature of the commentary is also continuously, if a little monotonously, maintained by the partner, who responds with a drone-sound ("ahhhhh") whenever the lead man pauses for thought or breath. In addition, every speech, again regardless of its length, begins and ends with standardized vocatives. Thus Rama is always addressed as "Rama-god," Laksmana as "Young-god," Vibhisana as "Raja of Lanka," and so on. While these labels are addressed to the epic character, they also function as signposts to a puppeteer lost within a detailed commentary. When one man plunges into the story of the "Churning of the Ocean" and resurfaces to the epic story forty minutes later with the question, "So what do you think?" his partner is likely to have forgotten who is speaking to whom and is rescued only when the man mercifully adds, "Raja of Lanka?"

Dialogue between puppeteers during the commentary is more obvious when, as is usual, they trade speeches of two or three minutes' length. And when they speak in a rapid-fire exchange, improvising freely, anyone sitting behind the cloth screen realizes that the puppets on the screen are less interesting than the puppeteers. On one occasion, during the confrontation between Indrajit and Hanuman on the battlefield ("Hey, runt, where's your weapons? Come and fight like a man!"), the puppeteer speaking for Indrajit challenged his partner, jabbing his finger and shouting at him; the puppeteer playing Hanuman merely raised his eyebrows and responded with cool disdain. In their long and complicated telling of the Rama story, a puppeteer will react to his partner with every kind of emotion—frustration with his wordiness, respect for his wit and knowledge, gentle humor at his sleepiness.

Familiar tactics of talk are employed by puppeteers to control the flow of conversation among themselves. "Let that be," one man interrupts the


other's account of Ravana's palace, "and explain how you got here, Vibhisana." Certain senior puppeteers are notorious for their long-winded discourses and apparent disregard for time; others in the drama house, fearful that the sun will in fact rise before Hanuman returns with the medicinal herbs, wrestle with them to hasten the pace of the commentary. As the senior puppeteer glides effortlessly through Jambuvan's account of the origin of the worlds, for example, he is cut short: "I see, Jambuvan, so that's how you were born; but what can we do about Laksmana's death?" No one likes to be cut off, and some puppeteers will fight to maintain control of the commentary, raising their voice or speaking faster. The most effective way to silence your opponent and regain control, however, is suddenly to recite a line from the verse you are explaining (which everyone else has in all likelihood forgotten). By an instinct born of long training, your partner will almost certainly drop whatever he was trying to say and chant the rest of the line, leaving you free to continue on.

Inside the drama house, cut off from their conventional audience, the puppeteers perform for themselves. The learned quotations, the rapid replies, the skill at parody, the displays of logic—all are calculated to win respect from the little band of fellow puppeteers and drummers, and the occasional stray connoisseur.[16] Even when only two puppeteers are awake, they take pride in setting right the meaning of the setting sun, explaining how Ravana got his name, or laughing at the foolish messengers. Likewise, there is a measure of shared shame when someone fails, forgets the next verse, or begins with the wrong line. That is why some puppeteers, even those with ten years' experience, take a notebook of verses, and sometimes quotations, into the drama house; one may refer to this book, but not read directly from it. Only once, in three research trips, did I see a puppeteer completely at a loss. The young man suddenly went blank in mid-verse: "I don't know the verses in this part," he murmured to his partner and then hung his head, while the other man glared at him but carried on.

The quality of a performance matters on the other side of the cloth screen, too. If not the reception by the half-awake "audience" on the ground, the opinions of the patrons and temple officials determine which puppeteer group will be hired next year; and the loss of patronage at even one temple delivers a hard financial blow. I have no precise data on how these influential men form judgments about performances, but from my conversations with them it is clear that they hold definite views. Although patrons and officials rarely stay through the night, they do listen to the long introduction by the Brahmin puppets and hear informal reports from many people during the course of the festival. Almost as important to the puppeteers are the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual patrons who give a single rupee in the hope of securing blessings from Bhagavati. They will not be present in the middle of the night when the puppeteers sing their names to the goddess,


but the general reputation of the puppeteers will determine how many villagers offer them money.[17]

Another external audience for the puppet play is the goddess Bhagavati, as the origin legend of the tradition explains:

The goddess who guarded the gates to Brahma's treasury grew proud and was cursed to serve as guard to Ravana's treasury in the city of Lanka. For thousands of years she protected Ravana's wealth, until Rama and his monkey armies attacked the city. When Hanuman attempted to enter and she blocked his path, the monkey slapped her with his tail and sent her to Siva's heaven. Once there, she complained: "For years and years I have suffered under Ravana and now, just as he is to be killed by Rama, I am here and cannot see this special event." Siva then gave her a boon: "You shall be born on earth as Bhagavati and I will be born as the poet Kampan. I will write the story of Ravana's death and you may watch it every year in your temple."[18]

In the origin legend, as in the patronage system, Bhagavati is the public audience. The puppeteers play to please her.

However, even Bhagavati hears words and see shadows on one side of the cloth screen only. Neither she nor the patrons nor the sleeping listeners play any role in the performance; they overhear it. Such extreme distance between performers and external audience distinguishes the shadow puppet play from most other kinds of oral folk performance. Tales, proverbs, folk theater and so on are partially, sometimes largely, shaped by audience reaction; this is why donations to performers in most Indian folk traditions are offered during the performance and not beforehand, as in the Kerala puppet play. Although every performance involves a degree of separation between performer and audience, the distance shrinks when a teller draws on the local setting for details of his story. And the gap all but disappears when listeners play a role in the performance, as a spirit-possessed dancer in a ritual or as a respondent in a joke.

Interaction between performers and audience gives a performance vitality and popularity, but communication is difficult through a screen of shadows. In Kerala, the distance inevitable in shadow puppetry is increased, rather than decreased, because the puppeteers are completely enclosed inside a drama house and use a medieval Tamil text, making little concession to spectator taste for music or movement. Observers and scholars, as noted earlier, have faulted the Kerala tradition for its apparent unresponsiveness, which has tended to alienate its audience. But the absent audience may have contributed to the complexity of the puppeteers' art. Converting Kampan's text to dialogue, the puppeteers created internal audiences: every word spoken by a Brahmin, an epic character, or a god is addressed to another puppet; every speaker is paired with a listener with whom he interacts. And the most important audience for the Kerala puppet plays are the puppeteers themselves. In


commentary, in chanting verses, and in manipulating puppets, these men constantly interact with each other, responding to jokes, jibes, and personalities. This is true of actors on any stage, but the Kerala puppeteers' full performance is visible only to the audience inside the drama house.

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