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

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