TALKING WITH PAULA RICHMAN
‘Ramayana is important to people because it’s tied up with the truth’
Paula Richman has studied the Ramayana for the last 15 years. She is a Professor
of Religion at Oberlin University in the USA and put together the book Many
Ramayanas about the diversity of this narrative tradition. Currently on research
leave, Richman lectured on her subject at the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi last
weekend. Excerpts from an interview with Renuka Narayanan.
What drew you to Indology?
Professor A K Ramanujan at Chicago University. I met my husband (Persian scholar
and author Michael Fisher) there. We were both attracted by the sparkle in
Ramanujan’s eye, his enthusiasm, the way he made classical Indian literature
come alive for us.
With such a wide choice of subjects in ancient India, what attracted you to the
Ramayana, a text with which many modern people have huge problems?
There is no other story on earth that comes close to
the Ramayana in the extraordinary way it is lives as a vital, fluid, narrative
tradition. I’m sure everyone knows that there are many Ramayanas.
It is important to go through these many versions to understand the problems
others had with it in the past and how they retold the tale.
Did they too have problems, like we do today, about the ambivalences—the
less-than-perfect behaviour of Lord Ram in the episodes of Vali, Surpanakha and
Yes, absolutely. But that is the marvellous thing in the Ramayana. These issues
are present in the very first Ramayana, by Valmiki. They were not edited out but
allowed to stay and yet, unlike the Vedas which had to be memorised exactly so,
with not a word that could be changed, the Ramayana was treated as a beloved
epic open to re-interpretation in regional texts and in the oral tradition.
Why do you suppose it was so important to somehow make sense of the Ramayana and
hang on to it, despite the grey areas?
I love what Telugu scholar Narayana Rao once said, which sums up this situation.
He said, ‘‘Fiction has only one form; truth has many’’. The Ramayana is
so tied up with truth that it is important to people. A novel by Jane Austen is
just one text. The Ramayana is less a single text than a tradition of tellings.
It reflects the concerns of people at different stages in time, in different
places. The Ramayana your grandmother heard will be different from her
granddaughter’s, but all the stories of the past will be in it.
How many Ramayanas are there exactly?
There are over 300 traditional versions and I’ve read (in English translation)
more than 200, not counting the hundreds of oral narratives.
Are there any patterns discernible in these ‘types’?
I think there are two strands visible—Ramayanas which deal with happiness in
union and those which deal with the sorrow of separation.
That sounds like the emotional dynamics of classical dance—the counter-pull
between vipralamba (separation) and sambhoga (union).
Exactly. Sita’s either banished or there’s a mangalam ending. There are more
Ramayanas that favour a happy ending, in fact, as many know, there’s this
theory that the Uttara Kandam (Agnipariksha) was added later. But sadness is
truer to life, perhaps? Ram is never happy after Sita’s banishment.
Does anyone have a theory on why Lord Ram really sent her away?
I can tell you it’s upset lots of people in the past! In fact, some of the
best stories relate to Lakshman’s wife, Urmila. In the modern Malayalam play
Kanchana Sita by Srikantan Nair (made into a film by Aravindan), Urmila whiles
away her separation by going to college! She sits with the most learned pundits
to study the Dharma Shastras and by the time the 14 years are up, she’s an
expert. So when Rama banishes Sita, she has a big debate with him. He justifies
the banishment as ‘‘the will of the people’’ and not his own dharma as a
husband. But then, says Urmila, what about your own banishment? That was against
the will of the people. But you insisted on upholding the king’s personal
What kind of happy ending could there be?
Bhavabhuti has them meet and forgive each other. Ku Vem Pu’s Kannada story has
Rama and Sita both going into the fire to purify themselves, because who is
really free in human birth from mistakes?
What other patterns do you see in the tradition?
The regional influences are very interesting. In the Eastern areas the Shakta
Ramayanas have Sita going in to battle to kill off a hundred-headed cousin of
Ravana’s who suddenly shows up after the battle, when Rama is too exhausted to
fight. The South Indian Ramayanas like Kambar’s or Ezhuthacchan’s tend to be
more lyrical and poetic. Kerala and Karnataka, because of Kathakali and
Yakshagana, have the most talented Ramayana actors. Ravana gets a lot of respect
in South India as a warrior, scholar, veena player and devotee of Shiva. No way
is he demonised, in fact he tells Vibhishan, ‘‘I know Rama is a good person,
but I have to avenge my sister Surpanakha.’’
In the north, there is an anthology of devotees’ questions to Tulsidas called
the Sankhavali which asks things like ‘‘What did they eat in the
forest,’’, ‘‘Which mother did they bow to first?’’ Every region has
some format in which the complexities of this epic are repeatedly raised.
Monday, October 21, 2002 The Indian Express.