By Kavitha Rao
Friday, December 30, 2011
Religious epics in India are chock-a-block with patiently self-sacrificing women. In the past year, however, a trend has been accelerating for writers and artists to revise those characters in blockbuster novels, essays, films and theatrical scripts.
The new versions of these epics are controversial.
In October, Delhi University decided to drop an essay by the late linguist and scholar A.K. Ramanujan from its syllabus, following violent protests by the student wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The essay, "Three Hundred Ramayanas," talks about the many versions of the Ramayana, including some in which Sita is portrayed as Ravana's daughter and another in which Ravana is actually a hero.
The university has been strongly criticized by academics and students for caving in to pressure from Hindutva groups, who say they will not allow any "blasphemous" versions of the Ramayana to be circulated.
Meanwhile, Oxford University Press, Ramanujan's publisher, stopped printing his collected essays, citing "minimal demand." This month, following protests and accusations of censorship by over 450 scholars, authors and students, Oxford University Press did a complete turnaround and announced that it would reprint the essays.
In July and September this year, screenings of "Sita Sings the Blues" were cancelled in New York and Goa, India, following protests by Hindu groups who called the film "shameful" and "denigrating."
Despite protests, Arni believes that women need to "reclaim" the many versions of the Ramayana.
"Right-wing Hindu groups want to impose their own version of the Ramayana on us because it suits their political purposes," she says. "India has such a rich and diverse storytelling tradition, both oral and written. It would be a tragedy to lose it."
Arni is currently writing a speculative novel on the search for Sita, set in modern times, featuring a Rama with distinctly human failings. She admits to being a bit worried about how it will be received, but plans to go ahead anyway.
"India is getting more intolerant, but if we writers don't stand up for artistic freedom, who will?" she says.
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Kavitha Rao is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist who writes on culture, people and places. Her website is at www.kavitharao.net.
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