Growing up, epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana played a significant role in our preadolescent years. Grandparents or parents would often narrate excerpts from Mahabharata and Ramayana to instil moral values. This is a practice that continues to exist in most Indian households. I have always been fascinated by epics, narratives, and myths. The sheer power and authenticity ascribed to them have always raised questions from various vantage points by several scholars
As a part of my literature course on myth and narratives at the Manipal Centre for Higher Education, Karnataka, I first read A.K. Ramanujan’s influential essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation published in February 1987. Of course, needless to say, the essay was somewhat of an epiphany for me. I realised that there is no right or wrong interpretation of Ramayana given there are countless versions of the same epic. Take, for instance, the example of Rama’s (main protagonist around whom Ramayana usually revolves) wedding in the epic. In the Bengali version, he would have had a Bengali-style wedding. Whereas, if it was in Kashmir, then he would have had a Kashmiri-style wedding. Even within Bengal or Kashmir, there may be numerous versions of the same epic travelling from one place to another. Ramanujan stated that “the number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing” (see 2004: 133-134). Reading Ramanujan’s essay after twenty years or so, I can say that the influence of the epic seems to have only grown further.
Furthermore, when I read the Indologist Wendy Doniger’s work or the novelist Kiran Nagarkar’s modern retelling of Mahabharata in his play Bedtime Story, I realised how myth and narratives are retold and/or rewritten. For example, in Nagarkar’s retelling of Mahabharata in his play Bedtime Story (2015), Draupadi (one of the main characters in the epic) is not merely the wife of the five Pandava brothers (central characters). She questions any event that she is part of or anything that concerns her as any individual should. Thus, as time passes, these narratives are adapted catering to modern sensibilities both in written literature and oral traditions of knowledge.
As an AIF Clinton Fellow, I’ve been working with Bhasha Research and Publication Centre’s Vaacha Museum of Voice located in Tejgadh, Gujarat. While documenting the present artefacts in the museum, I came across a series of artwork that seeks to explain the local indigenous version of the epic Mahabharata. This version is based on the work of Gujarat-based folklorist Dr. Bhagwandas Patel and the artwork is by a local artist known as Mathurbhai. Most of the indigenous myths and narratives are conventionally not written and exist only in oral traditions of knowledge. This series of artwork does an excellent job in documenting and illustrating the indigenous version of Mahabharata which is as important as any other version of the epic. To conclude, there are several versions of Mahabharata in South Asia, keeping aside the Southeast Asian versions of the narrative. Their influence has seized borders to the extent that the former president of the United States, Barrack Obama had once said how he spent part of his childhood listening to Ramayana and Mahabharata while growing up in Indonesia (see PTI 2020: The Indian Express).
Nagarkar, Kiran. (2015). Bedtime Story: A Play. Published: Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. Noida, India.
PTI. (2020). ‘Spent part of my childhood listening to Ramayana and Mahabharata’: Barack Obama. Published: The Indian Express. November 17. Accessed here: https://indianexpress.com/article/world/barack-obama-spent-childhood-years-listening-to-ramayana-and-mahabharata-7054100/
Ramanujan, A.K. (2004). Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation. In The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan by Vinay Dharwadker (eds.). Published: Oxford University Press. Delhi, India.