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

Sanskrit loan words in Telugu shorten the long vowel at the end of feminine nouns: Sita, Urmila. In the passages quoted from the songs these names appear without the final long vowel and with Telugu diacritics.

I am grateful to Kolavennu Malayavasini for collecting these Ramayana songs for me. Her cultural insights and her knowledge of the Ramayana song tradition have been very useful to me. Thanks are also due to Jaya Prabha, who collected several songs from her mother. Peter Claus and Robert Goldman read and commented on an earlier version of this paper when it was presented at the 40th annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in San Francisco, March 1988. Joyce Flueckiger, A. K. Ramanujan, Joe Elder, Kirin Narayan, and Paula Richman read a later draft and made a number of suggestions for improvement. I am grateful to all of them. Responsibility for the interpretation (and misinterpretation) is entirely mine.

1. The songs women sing on the Ramayana theme have received extensive attention from Telugu scholars for some time. The earliest collections of these songs were made by Nandiraju Chelapati Rao, Strila Patalu (Eluru: Manjuvani Press, 1899), and Mangu Ranganatha Rao, Nuru Hindu Strila Patalu (c. 1905). The existence of these early collections is reported in Sripada Gopalakrishnamurti's introduction to another collection, Strila Ramayanapu Patalu , ed. "Krishnasri" (Hyderabad: Andhrasarasvataparishattu, 1955), but they were unavailable to me. A more recent collection of folk-songs, which includes several shorter women's Ramayana songs, is that of Nedunuri Gangadharam, Minneru (Rajahmundry: Sarasvathi Power Press, 1968). A small but extremely interesting collection, which includes Ramayana songs collected from low-caste women, is found in Sriramappagari Gangappa, ed., Janapadageyaramayanamu (Gunturu: By the author, 1983). Another collection, also by Gangappa, is Janapadageyalu (Vijayawada: Jayanti Publications, 1985), which includes a number of the Ramayana songs already published in his 1983 collection.

Earlier studies of these songs include: Hari Adiseshuvu, Janapadageyavanmayaparicayamu (Gunturu: Navyavijnanpracuranalu, 1954; repr. 1967), 245-50; Birudaraju Ramaraju, Telugujanapadageyasahityamu (Hyderabad: Janapadavijnanapracuranalu, 1958; 2d ed. 1978), 78-126; Tumati Donappa, Janapadakalasampada (Hyderabad: Abhinandanasamiti, Acarya Tumati Donappa Mudu Arvaila Pandaga, 1972; repr. 1987); Panda Samantakamani, Telugusahityamulo Ramakatha (Hyderabad: Andhrasa-

rasvataparishattu, 1972), 248-69; T. Gopalakrishna Rao, Folk Ramayanas in Telugu and Kannada (Nellore: Saroja Publications, 1984); and Kolavennu Malayavasini, Andhra Janapada Sahityamu: Ramayanamu (Visakhapatnam: By the author, 1986). Donappa includes several Ramayana songs from the Rayalasima region of Andhra Pradesh, unavailable in any other published collections. In addition, Gopalakrishna Rao mentions K. Srilakshmi's "Female Characters in Folk Songs Based on Ramayana" (M. Phil. thesis, Osmania University, Hyderabad, 1980), but unfortunately I was not able to consult it. [BACK]

2. To continue the language metaphor, it may be said that there are Ramayanas whose grammar is less conventional, such as the DK (Dravida Khazagam) version popular in Tamilnadu: see Richman's essay in this volume. There are also several such Ramayanas in Telugu, most notably a recent feminist, Marxist version by Ranganayakamma entitled Ramayana Visavrksam (The Ramayana: A poison tree), 3 vols. (Hyderabad: Sweet Home Publications, 1974-76). [BACK]

3. It should be noted that the popularity of these songs is waning: most young Brahmin women who attend college or university no longer sing these songs. [BACK]

4. In 1955 Andhrasarasvataparishattu, a literary service organization in Hyderabad, assembled forty-two of these songs in one volume entitled Strila Ramayanapu Patalu , with a critical introduction by Sripada Gopalakrishnamurti, but no information is given about the methods of collection, the singers, or the context of singing. Absent also is information regarding the tunes to which these songs were sung. It is possible that the book drew chiefly or entirely on earlier printed sources. Gopalakrishnamurti's otherwise valuable introduction is silent about these matters. Even though the title page of the book says that it is edited by "Krishnasri"—presumably a pseudonym—the introduction indicates that Gopalakrishnamurti was not directly involved in the collection of these songs. [BACK]

5. For example, Vaidikis, Niyogis, Golkondavyaparis, Madhvas Dravidas, etc., each group boasting numerous subdivisions. [BACK]

6. In a work song, the lead singer sings the main text, while the refrain is repeated by the group of women working along with her. On my tape, however, one singer sings both the text and the refrain. [BACK]

7. I was not able to acquire sung versions of several of the long songs, but they are available in print. [BACK]

8. The author of "Kusalavula Yuddhamu" says that the song was composed "on behalf of" ( tarapuna ) the Ramayana of Valmiki, referring to himself/herself in the third person but without giving a name: varusaga idi valmiki ramayanamu tarapuna vrasenu i kavitanu . Because of the use of the masculine kavi , ''poet," in this line, scholars have concluded that the author is a man. It is not improbable that kavi would be used to indicate a woman poet: the feminine term kavayitri is more pedantic. In another song, "Kusalavakuccalakatha," the author refers to herself as sati , "auspicious woman," again without mentioning her name. Quite possibly women poets preferred not to give their names because to do so would be immodest. Only one song, " Sita Melukolupu ," mentions its author's name: Kurumaddali Venkatadasu, a man. Gopalakrishnamurti thinks that two other songs, "Lankayagamu" and "Lankasarathi," were also composed by men, because men as well as women sing them. [BACK]

9. See Gopalakrishnamurti's introduction to Strila Ramayanapu Patalu , ix-x. [BACK]

10. Apparently this was the practice in premodern Andhra; it is attested in carv-

ings on temple carts and kalamkari cloth paintings. [BACK]

11. In another song, also with a "locked out" theme, it is Rama's turn to be locked out and Sita refuses to open the door for him. See M. N. Srinivas, "Some Telugu Folk Songs," Journal oft he University of Bombay 13, no. 1 (July 1944): 65-86, and no. 4 (January 1945): 15-29. See David Shulman, "Battle as Metaphor in Tamil Folk and Classical Traditions," in Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India , ed. Stuart H. Blackburn and A. K. Ramanujan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 105-30, for a study of this song in a different perspective. [BACK]

12. In reality, the mother-in-law is often a hindrance to the union of wife and husband. Women's folksongs make many references to quarrels between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. [BACK]

13. Again, this motif is not unknown in literary. Ramayanas : for example, the Bengali Ramayana of Krttivasa tells a similar story. Interestingly, many of the themes in the women's Ramayanas are similar to ones found in Jain versions. It is possible that the Jain versions were popular with Telugu Brahmin women, or, alternatively, that the Jain Ramayana authors borrowed from the women's versions—or both. At this stage of our research, it is difficult to tell for sure. [BACK]

14. In another version, Rama suggests that he will serve Laksmana in another birth; for now, it would be improper for an older brother to serve a younger one. Thus, in the next avatar, Rama (i.e., Visnu) is born as Krsna and Laksmana as Balarama, Krsna's older brother—so Laksmana now receives Rama's services. (I am grateful to Jays Prabha for this information.) [BACK]

15. For information on castes among whom widow remarriage is permitted, see V. Narayana Rao, "Epics and Ideologies: Six Telugu Folk Epics," in Another Harmony , ed. Blackburn and Ramanujan, 131-64. [BACK]

16. The reason why Srirama here stands for Sita is unknown to me. [BACK]

17. In Sanskrit the name is Raghava; Bharta and Satrika are Bharata and Satrughna; Kaika is Kaikeyi; and Saumitri is Sumitra. (Such adaptations of Sanskrit names are common in the dialects of the castes described here.) Maridi is a Telugu kinship term for a husband's younger brother. [BACK]

18. Edwin Ardener, "Belief and the Problem of Women" and "The Problem Revisited," both in Perceiving Women , ed. Shirley Ardener (London: Dent, 1975), 1-17 and 19-27, respectively. [BACK]

19. Ramaraju, however, comments that the events in the later part of the song "Kusalvula Yuddhamu" are "blemished by impropriety" ( anaucitidosadusitamulu ), apparently referring to the harsh words Lava and Kusa speak against their father, Rama: Telugujanapadageyasahityamu , 117. [BACK]

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