Transmission, mobility, adaptation and concrete Expression of the Rama theme among different communities and regions in India and outside is the finest example of the power of the 'oral word' that transcends all boundaries, be they geographic, temporal, social or literary. It provides for plurality, diversity and continuity of the tradition transcending the rigid boundaries of the text to flow in multiple streams and directions meeting with tributaries and rivulets along the way. In order to explore, understand and comprehend this living and vibrant Rama tradition in Indian culture, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, in 2008,convened an international conference Ramkatha: Ankan, Manchan aur Vaachan under its ongoing project, Living Traditions of Ramakatha and Mahabharata. The present volume consists of select papers presented in this conference along with others that were specially invited from eminent scholars in the field.
The papers here range from textual to oral, performance and pictorial renderings of Rama theme both in traditional and contemporary contexts, covering a large geographic area and diverse communities. For example, Bhil Ram Sitama ni Varta, Kunkana Ramkatha, Gond Ramayani, Rama traditions among the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh, Ramman of Garhwal, Bundeli Ramkatha, Mewati Ramkatha and Ramkatha traditions among the khasis, to name a few. The volume also contains essays on traditional and modern presentations of Rama theme in Southeast Asia.
The volume is broadly organised under four themes: sacred geography; narrative; performance; and pictorial traditions. However, several of them overlap and flow into one another. The book is further divided into two sections; the first contains papers in English and the second in Hindi.
This book is a significant addition to the existing literature on Ramayana and Ramkatha traditions and of great value to scholars of Indian culture, folklorists, anthropologists and indologists.
Molly Kaushal is Professor of Performance Studies and Head of Lanapada Sampada Division of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Her area of research include oral cultures, folklore and performance traditions. Her co-edited publications include Chanted Narratives: The Living Katha vachana Tradition (2001); Folklore Public Sphere and Civil Society (2004); Journeys Heroes, Pilgrims, Explorers (2004); The' Word and Its Resonance: Bhagat Bani in Sri Guru Granth Sahib (2008).
Stories about Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman abound throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond. They penetrate through rural and urban, mundane and religious, sacred and secular domains defying the categorisation of art as folk or classical, rural or urban, textual or oral. Literary, oral, kinetic, and pictorial aspects intermingle to generate multiple renditions in different locales and contexts, each rendition with its unique local flavour and linguistic distinction (see Vatsyayan, 1980a). The spatial and temporal canvas of the Rama theme in art and literature is vast and so is the multiplicity of art forms in which this theme is rendered. Of these, the most widespread is the katha recitation by the kathakaras known to all parts of India. Every region has its own particular form and style of singing and reciting the story. Rama stories about both among the tribal and non-tribal communities. One can witness any number of versions among the Bhils, Mundas, Santhals, Gonds, Sauras, Korkus, Rabhas, Bodo-Kacharis, Khasis, Mizos, Meitels, and so on. While retaining a basic structural and thematic unity, most of the time, communities weave their own plots and sub-plots into the story. Muslim jogis of Mewat sing ballads woven around Rama, which were composed, according to belief, by the poet Nizamat Mev some 300 years ago. Muslim Manganiyars of Rajasthan have their own repertoire of bhajanas based on the Rama story. Sometimes an episode or a motif found in the Bhili varta and absent elsewhere, suddenly finds resonance in a Himachali, Garhwali, or a Southeast Asian tale; a southern narrative finds its parallel in the Northeast. Different communities in different regions and even within the same region tell stories of birth, marriage, exile, abduction battle and victory differently. Rama may be a nayak (hero) or an avatar (incarnation), a nomad, a farmer or a king; be may be village. Lakshmana becomes the main hero in many tribal tales. He is jati, an ascetic, and therefore the most powerful character of the story. In some tales he is a calm, cool, and wise young man devoid of any aggressive behaviour. In the Gond Ramayani, he undergoes a fire ordeal to prove his chastity. In many other tales, Sita takes the avatar of Kali to Chandi Kill Ravana and other demons.
By linking the story with local geography and rituals; by incorporating songs, poems, and narratives from their own repertoire; and by making the characters follow the social norms and ethical codes of the community, each group renders a tale, which is locally and contextually bound and, at the same time, shares and partakes of the larger pool of Rama stories. Physical and socio-cultural landscapes acquire a unique local character and define the sacred geography of the region. Often, communities heavily invest emotionally in the story and its characters, who appear as daughters, sons, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, nieces and nephews of the village community sharing and experiencing the joy and sorrows of the character at the most personal and intimate level. Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist leader, in his essay, 'Ram and Krishna and Shiva', commented, 'The story was continually retold, and in retelling, great bards and poets used their genius to refine and to deepen, and more so, irresistible pressure of numberless millions brought it their own transmuted joy and grief' (Lohia 1985, p.29-30). This empathy, identification, personalisation and localisation coupled with the power of the mobility of the oral word (Vatsyayan, 1980b) define the staggering multiplicity in the vast corpus of Rama-Sita tales, both structurally and at the level of the discourse; they provide for plurality, diversity, and continuity of the tradition. Ideological, political, and aesthetic responses ensure continual renewal. The story remains perennially new and contemporary.
Tradition confronted with this staggering multiplicity in the rendering of the Rama tales, tried to explain it by linking it with the notion of cyclical time. W.L. Smith explores this in some detail in the introduction to his volume Ramayana Traditions in Eastern India: Bengal, Assam, Orissa (Smith, 1988) and cites some significant references from Bishnupuri Ramayana or Shankara Kabichandra and Ananda Ramayana among several others. In the episode when Hanuman dives into the sea to retrieve Rama's signet ring and is astonished to find a pile of identical rings, he is addressed by the sage thus: 'Rama is an avatar in kalpa after kalpa. All the rings you see are his. Take the ring, when (sita) sees it she will rejoice. Who save Lakshmi will recognize the ring of Rama? ...
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