Changing narratives in Indian mythology

Reimagining traditional mythologies through a different eye


August 3, 2019

/ By / Kolkata

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The two great Indian epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are being re-imagined and retold from the perspectives of the other characters and even those who were overlooked in the earlier editions.

Ambition, love, hate, greed, lust, loss, envy, fear, anger, forgiveness, truth, rightfulness – every human emotion have been represented in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The works even had strong feminist characters that are being brought forward by the re-interpretations and re-imaginations of the works.

“Ahalya Draupadi Sita Tara Mandodari tatha / Panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashaka”– this is a famous Indian verse about five ‘maidens’ from Indian epics which translates to  mean that one who remembers the five great women—Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari— will be saved from all manner of sin and failure. However, it is ironic that most of these characters are presented as warnings as they have been moulded into the patriarchal norms. The modern interpretations and retelling have the female characters and even the antagonists placed in the central positions.

Traditionally, mythology serving patriarchy overlooks development of women characters and ultimately they are either presented as the pious woman or the one who brought the downfall of a kingdom. The new versions or retelling of the mythology has the writers taking up these characters and subverting the traditional male-narrative to present us with a humiliated but undaunted Draupadi; sacrificing her palatial life but never her self-respect Sita, independent Urmila.  The new versions have also given us a peek into the minds of other characters like the second Pandava brother Bheema, the maternal uncle of the Kauravas Shakuni and the villain of Ramayana, Raavan.

Changing the outlook through writing

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has retold both the epics from the point-of-view of the female characters. While her Draupadi is a head-strong woman and faces all her problems head-on, Sita is strong in a different way. “In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita is, to an extent, quite powerful and nuanced, unlike in the modern retelling in the last 100 years that projected her as meek and subservient wife,” says Divakaruni. “When Ram decided not to take her back to Ayodhya for being at somebody else’s home, Sita was devastated. But at that moment, she says, ‘I may not be able to change your opinion but I will live or die by own terms,’” she adds.

Another writer Kavita Kane has taken up the characters who were a part of the epics and were affected by the situation, but remain in the background or unknown. Her protagonists are Urmila, the less-known wife of Lakshmana; Uruvi, the wife of Karna and Surpanakha, the misunderstood demoness. She gives voices to the women who were otherwise deemed unimportant or labelled evil due to them having desires.

Not only female characters but the male characters are also being presented through a different lens. Amish in his third book in the Ramayana series Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta focuses on Raavan, the villain of the epic Ramayana. While speaking about the three main characters he said in an interview, “All three are complex characters and all are tested to the extreme by fate. All three suffer but their reactions to that suffering are different. What makes someone like Raavan fascinating in the modern day is that he reacts with anger. Sita Ma tends to react with fierce determination and pragmatism. Lord Ram’s way is that the more he suffers, the more he behaves with honour and dignity. Most of our villains in the modern day are just thugs but what makes Raavan different is that he is genuinely talented, he is scholarly, a brilliant musician, and deeply devoted to Mahadev.”

These subverting of the traditional works may be fictional in nature and be criticised by a lot of the conservative thinkers as not being in line of culture and tradition, but they are serving as a great weapon for empowerment and forcing people to think from a different perspective.

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