In her book, Women and Power, A Manifesto, Mary Beard wrote, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” She may as well be speaking about the East, where patriarchal traditions have managed to control and mute women’s voices for generations, through ridicule, societal pressure and violence.
Anita Sivakumaran’s book gives voice to a group of such women from myth and epic, women who were denied their say by their male storytellers. She writes about Kannagi, Ahalya, Kali, Sita among others, adding a modern twist to their traditional tales.
Sivakumaran opens the book with a chapter on Sita (“Lakshmanan’s Circle”). Sita even today is portrayed as the ideal Indian woman, the perfect wife-and-mother archetype. But many also consider her to be a liberated single mother to two boys. The debate over whether she was one who worshipped her husband or stood up to him continues to evoke impassioned responses on all sides.
In the book, Sitai (as Sivakumaran calls her) is not afraid to speak her mind nor is she antagonistic towards the demon clan (Ravana, Surpanakha). Sita’s “liberation” is plotted by Surpanakha and she is not afraid to look into Ravana’s “kind eyes”, Sivakumaran writes. Also, the three do not follow the accepted norms of good and evil as set down in the popular narratives of the epic.
Reading Sita differently is not new, nor is it a modern trend. For a while now, women have retold the epic to give Sita a more heroic role than Valmiki foresaw. Chandrabati, a medieval poet from Bengal, cast Sita as the hero of the tale. She did not dwell much on the great battle between Rama and Ravana because Sita was not a part of the proceedings and never saw the battlefield. Chandrabati also does away with the popular understanding of the name “Sita”. She says that the girl got her name from her foster mother Sata, the wife of a boatman who found the child floating in a casket in the Bay of Bengal. Sita’s biological mother, in Chandrabati’s Ramayana, is Mandodari.
The Birth of Kali; Author: Anita Sivakumaran Publisher: Juggernaut Pages: 222 Price: Rs 299
Writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who has studied women’s retellings of the epics in great detail, says women wrote for a variety of reasons. But she found that the favourite episodes of the women storytellers and singers were mostly from the Balakanda and the Uttarkanda, the two books that are seen to be later additions to the text by classical (read male) Ramayana scholars. The Balakanda deals with the birth and marriage of Sita and the Uttarkanda with the post-war state of affairs. The folk retellings follow a similar pattern.
Sen has an interesting insight into the tradition of women writing or singing about Sita. They all speak up for Sita, highlighting her sorrows and the injustices committed against her, but largely steer clear of handing her the whip to lash her tormentors with. In this book, Sivakumaran breaks free of this practice. She gives Sita and all the other characters a distinctive voice, one that is not always in keeping with their characters as we know them.
In the past women also wrote to challenge the male order. Some did it by mimicking the style of the male epic poets, as Molla did in her 16th century Telugu Ramayana. Others questioned the status quo and the treatment of women in the epics, using their own voice to tell the story like Chandrabati in Bengal. She shocked the people of her time by turning the epic’s primary contention, that Rama was born to destroy Ravana, on its head. In her poem, Sita is born to bring about the end of Lanka and its kings.
Molla and Chandrabati are amongst the earliest women retellers of the epic but neither was accepted by the people of the time. Molla’s poem drew appreciation but was not allowed to be read in the royal court because it was written by a low-caste, Chandrabati’s writings were dismissed as oral literature and not an epic retelling.
A K Ramanujan said that in folk literature and among women writers, the norms and values of marriage, chastity, fidelity and such values stipulated for women by patriarchal systems are overtly dismissed. In many folk ballads, for instance, Surpanakha stands up for her sexual rights, Arjuna is portrayed as a weak misogynist and so on. Naturally, these retellings or interpretations were construed as a challenge to the prevalent patriarchal order and therefore never considered to be a part of the mainstream literature.
However, this did not stop women from writing and experimenting with the epics. The stories change depending on the teller, the audience and the purpose they were meant to serve. And thus in song, dance, ballads and stories, Sita has changed many times over. Draupadi can fight demons and bring them to heel. And Kali does not have be shamed by her sexuality.
Sivakumaran’s book is part of the tradition of women using the old and familiar myths and legends to tell their own stories. Fortunately for her, she writes at a time when it will be difficult to silence her voice. Or so one hopes.