I have never bought picture postcards. They look nice, no doubt, but it’s the same packet of 6 postcards everywhere and so it doesn’t seem worth the money. But, picture postcards have value for those who don’t have a camera and have no other memories to carry with them.
Why am I talking about picture postcards? Because, the new book out by the glib name of “Sita’s Ramayana” is nothing more than picture postcards to a camera-less tourist. Buy it if you want to see pictures, and if you have never read, or heard, Ramayan before. Otherwise get your mythology elsewhere.
Just released, “Sita’s Ramayan” is a supposed new perspective to Ramayan by shifting the point of view of the epic. “A powerful meditation on women’s fate” it says. Say what? The only meditation on a woman’s fate in this book is if, like me, you wonder why the woman who painstakingly drew the whole story has been given second billing to the woman who tried to write it.
While the back cover states that Samhita Arni, the writer, “collaborates” with the folk artist Moyna Chitrakar, the afterword to the book starts with “Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written”. How, dear writer and publisher, do you make Bat(wo)man the sidekick and Robin the hero(ine)?
The story is exactly the same as that of the original, with just a different speaker. It does not even make the familiar story disjointed by changing the chronology of events to match Sita’s actual understanding of the entire story. Instead, one sees Sita tell the story as flashback, conveniently arranging all events chronologically. When she is abducted by Ravan, we are quickly filled in to what was happening with Ram and Lakshman by power of 20-20 hindsight. It would have been heaps better if we just followed her to Lanka and imprisonment.
One quickly realizes that Sita is just a voicebox in this book because as narrator she only recounts the brothers’ journey to Lanka, their war, Hanuman’s many episodes, Ravan and his brothers and so on and on. In numbers, 86 out of 142 pages is about Ram’s journey towards Lanka and the war, while only 18 pages go before it and 37 pages after it – 60% of “Sita’s Ramayan” is about Ram’s journey as heard by Sita. Nothing of her life before marriage is deemed as important.
The book has three publishing categorisations – Graphic Novel/Epic/Art. Please only pick it up for the last one. The illustrations are very carefree in their use of colours and quite a joy to behold at times. The interpretations of some of the characters, and the mesh of Man and Nature is original in this form. In this form, because as explained, the artist is a Patua artist from Poschim Bangal (yikes!) and must have been quite comfortable with the style that looks new to us.
To me every woman in an epic is a study in quiet indignation. She is always equal in every virtue to a man, but yet she has to willingly stand a step below. It is a choice to be less equal, not a congenital reality. Sita’s story should reside less in the war and more in the marriage and life in the forest and in her relationship with Ravan. As chauvinistic as that sounds, the fact remains that between the two her agency lies not in the war. To see Sita’s story one must see Sita in action, not in prison listening to the radio war broadcast.
A new collection of essays looks at Sita in-depth, and a recent novel tells the story of Mahabharat through Draupadi. With such predecessors can this book be forgiven for not venturing anywhere new? Mythology re-tellings have become very popular now, from Ravanayan to Ramayan 3392 AD, India Authentic to Batu Gaiden. So it is a time when the spirit of competition and discovery should bring new brilliance forward, and not complacency.
Moyna Chitrakar (Artist)
Samhita Arni (Writer)
Tara Books, 2011