Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Jaipur Literature Festival - In Search of Sita

22 January 2010
I absolutely loved the book  - In Search of Sita : Revisiting Mythology and I just had to be there for this session.
An anthology compiled by Namita Gokhaleand Malashri Lal. (Namita is also one of the 2 Festival Directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival) it has contributions from numerous well known and not so well known authors. (I will review this book seperately). 3 of the other contributors who were part of this session were Lord Meghnad Desai, Reba Som, Chitra Ghosh Jain and Devdutt Pattanaik

Namita started off the session saying that she was once asked if her book was about Sita - the wife of Ram. She responded "No, this book is about Sita whom Ram was the husband of" and this truly encapsulates the spirit of this collection.

Lord Meghnad Desai then expounded on his view of Sita. That he originally believed in the role of Sita as victim, but as he read more about her and researched more about her, it wasn't so. He was fascinated by her married life. By most accounts, Sita was married when she was around 12-13 years old to Ram who was about 14-15 years old. They weren't sent to the forest until Ram was around 28 and by the time they came back to Kosala they were around 40 and 42 years old. During all this time Sita did not have children.

An interesting point to note is that most men in the epics are impotent and child creating is outsourced. Women who are portrayed as passive are also autonomous to the point were they had complete control over reproduction. Since very little is mentioned about Sita in Valmiki's Ramayana, hence there is a lot more room for speculation about her. Perhaps she did not want to bear children until Rama was king and she could be assured of a throne for her children?

Malashri Lal read an excerpt from the book and commented that what was most noteworthy is that Rama never remarried even though he lived in a time where monogamy was an exception, especially for a king. so perhaps he had found the ideal woman in Sita and needed no other or no other could match up to her.

Dr Reba Som spoke of her contribution, where she took an approach to the symbolism of Sita in the political sphere going right back to Democratic India's First Leaders - Nehru and Gandhi.

Gandhi chose Sita as the ideal woman for the Indian woman to emulate. He advocated women to show their resistance through methods involving boycotts, picketting, weaving Khadi. These roles for women exemplified the silent, stoic embodiment of Sita. He did not seem to want women to overstep these roles. He was against them joining in strikes and courting arrest. He did feel that women had a role to play in the freedom struggle, but they were vastly different from the roles he defined for men.He actively projected the role of Sita onto the women who wanted to participate in the Freedom Struggle.

Nehru preferred to project Chitrangada on the Indian woman. Chitrangada from the Mahabharath was a Manipuri Princess (who later married Arjuna) who was brought up by her father the king, as a son. A warrior princess. Equal and No less to a man. Hence what impressed Nehru most about women's participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement, was its equalising impact (between women of diverse socio-economic backgrounds & as co-sharers with men)

Chitra Ghosh Jain read from her contribution - a piece of speculative fiction called "Sita's Letter to her Unborn Daughter" which she reimagines the tale of Sita conceiving a daughter instead of 2 sons in the time of rampant female foeticide.

Devdutt Pattanaik started with an extremely telling statement - "When in India, if you write about Ram, you will invariably be gagged by someone. If you say something positive about him, the left wing will get all upset and call you patriarchal. If you say he was a good husband, the feminists will jump in to say that he was definitely not a good husband. If you say anything negative about him, the entire right wing gets upset and says that he is a God, how can you say anything against him?"

Coming to mythological symbolism, In any Indian temple depiction, you will see "Dampatya" - man and woman together. They cannot be taken in isolation. Whether it is the mother-son relationship of Renuka and Parashuram, the friends Krishna and Draupadi or husband & wife/consort - Shiv and Parvati they form two halves of a whole.When People referred to Ram, it used to be as Siya-Ram (Sita-Ram).

Sita is an embodiment of a woman who can be as wild as Kali or as Domesticated as Gauri. Whereas in the commonly followed versions of Ramayan (Valmiki & Tulsidas) it is Sita who is portrayed as a delicate being needing protection and Surpanakha is portrayed as a demoness for stating her wants and being open about her needs.

Once the authors had summarised their visions of Sita, there was hardly any time left for audience questions. But the one that was asked by an angry man in the audience was "How can you say all these things about Sita. There is no evidence of it in the Ramayana!" This was when he was corrected saying that "It might not be there in the popularly followed Ramayan of the Hindi speaking belt of India which formed the basis for the TV serial, but you will find these stories and more in the other versions of Ramayan which abound all over India and beyond her shores.

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