Despite a parallel Amartya Sen- Kapil Sibal session happening at Andrew's Court, and the disturbance caused by boisterous, departing Rafters – the staff room was full, and everyone listened, utterly engaged, to what Dr. Bharati Jagannathan had to say about the 'Ramayana as a Bestseller'.
Her talk was about why the Ramayana continues to interest us, and has interested us for so long. She shared her insights, along with humorous anecdotes of her experience of teaching the A.K. Ramanujan essay as a history professor. The Ramayana is full of contradictions and controversies, and it is these that generate a great deal of questioning in the Ramayana tradition and keep the Ramayana as 'popular' as it has been. For example, you have the case of Rama killing Vali with an arrow from the back, and Rama brutally mutilating Surpanakha, and the killing of Shambuka, the Shudra, because he performed 'tapas' that resulted in the death of Brahmin's son.
Romila Thapar describes the Ramayana as a 'metaphor for Indian politics'. It is inherently political because it describes the 'Ramraj' – the kind of perfect model for a kingdom, governed by the ideal sort of rule. And Rama is the 'ideal' man – his behaviour presents the ideal code of conduct with relation to gender, class and caste heirarchies. So a large number of Ramayanas have come up, in many different contexts – as each group of people deals with these issues in different ways. A.K. Ramanujan talks about the 'Many Ramayanas' model – instead of looking at the Valmiki version (which happens to be the oldest one) as the authoritative text and the rest as variants – you look at each text as equally important and not derived from the Valmiki text, and study the context each has come from.
The Ramanujan essay(which can be found here) was removed from the History syllabus of DU. All this is part of a much larger trend in which certain political groups and persons have sought to impose a single version of the Ramayana onto the people, trying to erase all the other retellings. This is seen right from the start, in the 90s with Ramanand Sagar's serial that was aired all over India – it dealt very selectively with the Ramayana. And then you have the claim that the Babri Masjid was the actual, physical location of Ayodhya, and its subsequent demolition. The Sangh Parivar's problem with accepting the different versions of the Ramayana is this - if the Ramayana is to be made into history there cannot exist many tellings and many versions.
A very interesting example are the feminist retellings of the Ramayana. I personally, had a problem with the way Sita was treated in the Valmiki text. Rama makes her go through the trial by fire, and then it is proved beyond doubt that she is chaste, takes her back. Only to abandon her once more when she is pregnant.
A very recent (and inventive) retelling is 'Sita Sings the Blues' (which can be seen here legally). Touted as the 'Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told', it was made by Nina Paley. The film moves between her break-up with her husband and the story of Sita. It pares down the Ramayana – summarizing it extremely – and looking at it from a very Western and 'modern' perspective. The film is irreverent and somewhat flipppant, yet very entertaining – especially as the broken-hearted Sita lip-synchs to the songs of Annete Hanshaw, a jazz chanteuse of the 20s. The film shows Rama as heartless, and in a very funny way. You have Lava and Kusha learning as children to worship Rama - “Sing his love, sing his praise, Rama set his wife ablaze. Got her home, kicked her out, to allay his people’s doubt. Rama’s wise, Rama’s just, Rama does what Rama must. Duty first, Sita last, Rama’s reign is unsurpassed.” The film has been attacked by a large number of religious right-wing groups. Their problems with the film range from the way Sita has been caricatured (apparently in a lewd fashion) to how the film twists and subverts the meaning of the original epic.
The tension in the telling of the Ramayana is this duality - the Ramayana as one of the best stories ever, retaining the interest of the reader how ever many times s/he reads it, yet the treatment of Sita, which while remaining a minor irritant to women, is majorly worrying because Sita is touted as a role model for women in India. Many of us may escape this stereotyping, but most Indian women are caught between tradition and the tensions of modern life. They have to work for a living, get educated, travel in public, have public roles to perform, yet cannot transgress the roles that Sita's story lays out for them - fidelity, chastity, humility, deference to men and elders, etc. etc. In this sense, the telling of the Ramayana is a hugely modern problem.