In medias res

Raja Ravi Varma

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Last week, I had the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to see the original paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. This was at the Piramal Art Museum, Lower Parel in Mumbai.

I have grown up watching my parents worship the framed prints of Ravi Varma’s Sri Rama Pattabhishekam, goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi. To see the paintings in real was a surreal ‘out of the world’ experience. The last show of Ravi Varma’s collection was apparently 20 years back. The paintings have been sourced from collectors around the world.

I particularly enjoyed a very large painting, scene from the Ramayana; Rama questions Sita’s chastity, Sita in utter disgust sitting on the lap of Bhoomadevi asks her to be taken away from the constant humiliation and her sons weeping and heartbroken. I stood there mesmerised. Totally blew me away. This painting is the one on the photograph.

The exhibition also displays oleographic prints that found their way as advertisements promoting soaps and detergents.

The exhibition is free and open to public till the 30th of April. The gallery is at Peninsula Corporate Park in Lower Parel. If you are Mumbai or if you plan to be in the city make sure you visit the exhibition, do not miss it.

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Pay it forward

Many Ramayanas

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“Many Ramayanas,” edited by Paula Richman is an excellent compilation of stories and observations on Ramayana.

In his key-note essay, “Three hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan begins with this beautiful folk tale.

“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.

One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”

Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.

He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It’s fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali). The King of Spirits (bhut), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, “We want to talk privately with you. We don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?”

“All right,” said Rama, “we’ll talk.”

Then they said, “Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off.”

“It will be done,” said Rama.

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. “Don’t allow anyone to enter,” he ordered.

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, “I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?”

Laksmana said, “Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.”

“What is there that Rama would hide from me?” said Visvamitra. “I must go in, right now.”

Laksmana said, “I will have to ask his permission before I can let you in.”

“Go in and ask then.”

“I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.”

“If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,” said Visvamitra.

Laksmana thought, “If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I don’t go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone should die.”

So he went right in.

Rama asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“Visvamitra is here.”

“Send him in.”

So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, “Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods.” That’s all they wanted to say.

Laksmana said to Rama, “Brother, you should cut off my head.”

Rama said, “Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?”

Laksmana said, “You can’t do that. You can’t let me off because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave.”

Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.

All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. “Rama Rama Rama . . .”

Then the King of Spirits asked, “Who are you?”

“Hanuman.”

“Hanuman? Why have you come here?”

“Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.”

The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama’s rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, “Pick out your Rama’s ring and take it.”

They were all exactly the same. “I don’t know which one it is,” said Hanuman, shaking his head.

The King of Spirits said, “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go.”

So Hanuman left.

This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana.”

Each article is enlightening and a delight for anyone who is interested in Ramayana. A cheaper Indian edition is available on Amazon or Flipkart now.

I gifted this book to my friend Anisa, when we met for dinner at one of my favourite restaurant, “Indigo Deli” at Lower Parel in Mumbai.

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Pay it forward

In search of Sita

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I am a reader, collector, follower on anything about Ramayana. I have been fascinated about the epic and its characters since childhood. My personal favourites among all the movers and shakers of Ramayana is Hanuman. But Sita’s character always fascinated me. The Indian society has always wanted their daughters to be like Sita. What makes her so special in comparison to other women like Draupadi or Radha? But is she really the demure husband worshipping girl that she is normally portrayed to be?

“In Search of Sita” is a collection of essays, conversations, folk songs centred around Sita. The contributors include Lord Meghnad Desai, Ranga Rao, Namita Gokhale, Sonal Mansingh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Madhu Kishwar and others.

I particularly loved the translations of folk songs from Telugu by Ranga Rao. In earlier times, Telugu women from the same neighbourhood would gather around and would sing folk songs about Sita. These songs were laden with sadness and melancholy. But it was not just Sita’s story, it was theirs too; their travails, lack of love, absence of freedom and being trapped in a household dominated by men.

I decided to gift this book. Same script like before; write a note and leave it at cafe for a stranger to pick it up. Amethyst in Chennai is an oasis. One of my all time favourite cafes in the whole country. I have so many fond memories of my meetings with fabulous people at this cafe.

So stranger, even if you are not a Ramayana fan you will love it!

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Stories from far and near

Wrath of Ahalya

“I have come here to see Ram.” Senapathi was shocked at the audacity of this young lady. Before he could react, “It is important and urgent, and I would like to meet him in private.” She was definitely not a threat, but no one has ever dared to call the King of Ayodhya by his name. Senapathi was of a wise age, but was not known to be impulsive or short tempered.

She was a beautiful lady and he was specially struck by her glowing skin. “What is your name lady, and where are you from?” asked senapathi.

“My name is Ahalya, daughter of Bramma and I am from the hermitage of Sage Gautama,” she was firm, to the point of being rude. This was no ordinary woman. Women have composed songs, in praise of her virtues. He sent word to Rama, about her arrival.

Rama came up to the door to welcome Ahalya. He was not a stickler to the customs of Kings, when it came to people he loved. “Welcome Ahalyaji. It is an honour to have you among us,” Rama welcomed her with a beaming smile. Ahalya touched his feet as pranams, but smiled at him customarily. She had the greatest regard for him, for he resurrected her from the curse of Sage Gautama. She looked deeply disturbed today.

After they sat down, Ahalya began, “Lord Rama, I am very troubled about what you have done to ma Sita. I learn that you have banished Sita devi to the forest? Why did you do that Lord?” Her eyes were red of crying continuously.

Rama, already missing his Sita, was deeply pained at being reminded of the tragic loss. “It was a very unfortunate loss, and a painful decision for me to make. But I had to do it, for the sake of dharma.”

“I am very disappointed at your decision, my majesty. I could not eat or sleep on hearing the news, and I plead that you to reconsider your decision”. She held her ground.

“Ahalya, I am able to relate to your pain. I am extremely pained as Rama the husband and lover of Sita, but I am now the King of the Suryavansha dynasty. I had to take that decision for protecting the laws of Manu and for being the role-model that a king should be. I am no ordinary husband of a woman,” Rama had the slow baritone voice, which would convince even the hardest critic.

“Lord, what about your dharma as a husband? What about your commitment to her? You have vowed before Agni, that you will take care of her, at all times, in happiness and sadness. You will have complete faith in her and would consult her in every action of yours. Have you forgotten?”

“Ways of men always surprised me. Why are you men so selfish when it comes to women? Your work, pride, dharma and everything else, takes precedence before us? Did you ask her side of the story, before you banished her to the forest?”

“Exactly the same way, Sage Gautama made me a stone. This news brought back all the tragic memories of the terrible day, when Indra preyed on me. Why was I reduced to a stone for no fault of mine? How easy is it, for you men, to pass judgments on us?” she was livid. Her fair skin had become dark bluish-grey.

Rama remained silent, but actively listened to her.

“I will tell you something that Maharishi Viswamitra did not mention, the day you resurrected me,” she continued. “I was entrusted to Sage Gautama by my creator Bramma. He sincerely and wholeheartedly fulfilled his wishes. He was both my father and guru. He was a mother too, for I learnt to distinguish between affection and love. But he should have stopped it there. He didn’t. He married me. Even if Bramma gave me as his bride, why did he take the offer? Did both Bramma and the Sage ask me, just like the way you never consulted Sita devi, but judged against her, not once, but twice?”

“Someone who was like his child became his wife. Did I have a say in this matter? Never!” she paused briefly.

“Why do you men, lose all your senses, when it comes to women? You men don’t care a hay for your wives. The butcher made the eater happy. The eater made the butcher happy. But where did the lamb disappear? The poor lamb has lost its identity. From lovely lamb to meat, from mutton to food, from delectable dish to feaces and from foul-smelling feaces to earth again”, she was furious.

“So what right does he have to curse me, when he did, what he did to me?”

“If banishing Sita devi, was about upholding dharma, how is it that your father had ten thousands wives? What happened to the laws of Manu then?”

Rama showed displeasure, when she referred to his father, but allowed to vent her anger.

“Without sounding ungrateful, I was so happy, locked inside the stone, for I had no man lusting me, no man judging me, no man banishing me, and no man to rescue me”.

“Rama, you have lost your wife, Sita devi. She is beyond the petty morals of mortals. Like me, I am sure she does not consider living in the forest any hard, but she would have been shattered, when you broke her heart, and her trust in you”.

“You might be the mightiest of kings, and world might praise you as the upholder of dharma and virtue, but you have lost the respect of a woman, who loved you, and you alone”, she got up.

“Rama let me tell you something, I have not shared with anyone. When kama Indra was making love to me in the guise of my husband, for a moment, I realized that it was no Sage Gautama. But I was so consumed in the pleasure that I gave in. Yes I was guilty to that extent”, she paused, “but Rama, your Sita, did not even raise her head to see the mighty handsome Ravana. How can you give her up so easily?”

“Rama, I came here to plead for mercy and request that you reverse your decision, but in hindsight, destiny was right. You could have not got a better punishment than this, for abandoning your wife. You will always be lonely Rama, and the guilt will eat you till the seas part”, she left the room without waiting for his response.

Rama stayed in his throne, while his disturbed eyes searched for his Sita.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

Sitayana

“What’s so wrong about loving someone passionately? Would noble men and Rama himself, judge me differently, if I was fair, beautiful like Sita and not a rakshasi?” Surpanaka cried profusely. The rakshasi who coveted Rama and attempted to kill Sita once, and had been savagely repulsed by Rama and brutally mutilated by Lakshman, and who was instrumental in waging the war against them, to seek her revenge.

It was all over. Ravana was dead and Rama lived happily with Sita in Ayodhya. Surpanaka was a woman depressed with the pain of unrequited love.

“If I can’t have Rama, then Sita shall not have him too. War and violence is not an option anymore, but deceit?” For death alone would stop Surpanaka.

Surpanaka shape-shifted as a cat, and was peeping into Rama’s private chambers, from the branches of a tall Arjuna tree. Her cat eyes penetrated even the pitch darkness of the night. She could not find him. She remembered Rama’s handsome muscular features. At this nostalgic moment, Sita walked into the chambers combing her lustrous long hair. “Sita is an epitome of beauty, no doubt, but she can never match me, in the pleasures that a woman can give a man”. Surpanaka was teething in anger and greed. She wanted to confront Sita and warn that her happy days are counted, but resisted venturing into Sita’s quarters.

Next day, a hermit wished to meet Sita. Surpanaka had disguised herself as the hermit. Ayodhyans always revered hermits and gurus. Sita was surprised, why a hermit wanted to meet. After the customary welcomes and prayers, Sita inquired the reason for his visit.

“Devi, could you paint the picture of Ravana?” Sita did not feel comfortable at the request. “I have never set my eyes on the demon ever. All I have seen is his feet”, said Sita. “Then can you paint his feet” insisted the hermit. It was considered discourteous to ask why. Sita paints Ravana’s big toe and gives it to the hermit. The hermit leaves after thanking her.

Surpanaka was happy at the success of her mission. She completes the rest of the painting herself; strong ankles, thighs, waist, broad chest, shoulders, hands and the head. It was the painting of a handsome tall dark muscular warrior that Ravana was. She takes the completed picture to Bramma and pleads that he gives life to the picture, so that she could see her dead brother alive again. Bramma was pained at her request. Ravana was an earnest Shiva bhakta when he was alive and makes him come alive in the picture.

It was noon and Sita was having a pleasant conversation with Urmila and other sisters. Surpanaka appeared before her out of nowhere. Sita shuddered at the sight of Surpanaka in her room. It reminded her, of the cruel times from the past.

“I am not here to harm you, but wanted to remind you of a life, that could have been, if you had chosen Ravana over Rama”, said Surpanaka.

Sita was surprisingly very calm and did not raise any alarm. To the contrary she felt deep sympathy for her. Sita closed her eyes to pray Mata Devi. Sita wished that peace fall upon Surpanaka, so that she forgets her pain and anger. When she opened her eyes, Surpanaka had vanished, but there was a picture floating in the air. It was the same picture of Ravana that Bramma had brought to life.

Sita was very unsettled with the sudden turn of events. Ravana’s picture starts pulling Sita. She gets very perturbed. Urmila and all the maids, try to get the picture off Sita. They decide to start a fire and destroy the picture. Urmila throws the picture into the fire. The paper and the painting stay intact. “Let us throw this wretched thing into the old well”, exclaimed one sister. The picture flew back immediately, only to get stuck with Sita. Sita was desperate. She chants ‘Rama’ japa and surprisingly, that subdues the picture. Everyone has a breath of relief.

All of a sudden, Rama walks into the chambers. Everyone decide, to not make much of what happened and retire to their rooms. “Sithe!” Rama always addressed her that way, when he longed and missed her. Rama had just returned from an official visit to Videha. Rama and Sita had become closer after the war. They missed each other’s presence, a lot more than before. Love liberated Sita from her worries and depression that she had suffered in Lanka. However Rama became more possessive and protective. Sita liked this side of Rama too. “I am going to leave you one day”, she would tease him. Rama would seal her lips and assured her that he would never allow that to happen. After great persuasion, he confessed to her, that he thought of committing suicide that day, when he stood powerless, when Ravana took her away.

Today was an extraordinary day. Things had suddenly unfolded and Sita did not have the time to inform the elders. She quickly hides the subdued picture under the bed. Rama affectionately approaches Sita and embraces her. He unties her blouse and tries to make love. Sita remains distracted and does not reciprocate. Rama does not understand but leads her to the bed. When both of them sit on the bed, the picture below the mattress kicks Rama out of the bed. Rama is on the ground and is very unsettled. Sita couldn’t get a grasp of what happened. Rama is angered and he wonders why Sita had kicked him out of the bed. He regains his composure and decides to approach Sita and his eyes land on the picture of Ravana lying on the bed.

“Sita, what do you have to say for this? So the dhobis, did speak the truth? You did have an affair with Ravana and you have chosen to keep this picture in his memory. Women are twisted and unreliable”, Rama was delirious.

She had not seen Rama consumed with anger, like that, ever before. She froze hearing his accusations.

Hearing the screaming, Urmila, Kausalya and other women rushed to her chambers. Urmila pleaded to Rama about what had happened. Rama was possessed by anger and he was unwilling to listen to their reasoning and justifications.

“Sita will be banished to the forest for this action”, Rama makes this statement and leaves for the Royal court.

Sita was still unwilling to explain or speak her mind. She had completely withdrawn. Sita was still coming to terms with what was happening to her. Her Rama doubted her again, when she was pregnant. “How could he doubt me?” this thought was continuously ringing in her mind.

Urmila, Mandavi and Srtakirti, all the wives of Rama’s brothers go to the court to defend Sita’s case. “You think that Sita is in love with Ravana. All of us are in love with him, so send us all to the forest. He was a rakshasha, no doubt, but he never laid his finger on Sita, when he had all the powers to do so. He was evil, but he never questioned the integrity of his loved ones. By questioning Sita, you have shown the impurity of your heart to the world. Be warned, that generations to come will remember and discredit you for this action. Just because we are women, did you think you could pass any rules against us, without any objection?” Urmila was furious.

Rama remained silent and while he was coming to realize the gravity of his decision, Sita relinquishes all her clothes, jewellery and was on her way to the forest.

He had lost her.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

A story can change your life!

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Along the banks of the Tungabadra river, lived Abuddhi and his wife Saraswathi. Abuddhi who worked as a farm labourer, was a simpleton with no ambition or enthusiasm. He loved eating and sleeping. Saraswathi, was educated, cultured and a teacher in the local school. She was quite the opposite in many ways.

Saraswathi tried hard to teach him culture, etiquette, and seriousness in life, but all her efforts bore no results.

During Ramanavami in the month of March, a famous pundit was visiting their village to perform the recital of the great epic Ramayana every night. He was a learned man and a master story teller. People would listen to his recital, which included storytelling, singing and dancing, with rapt attention all night. Last Ramanavami, he was sick and could not make it. People of the village grew sad and worried if some curse would come upon them. The village had been brimming with festivities this time, that the Pundit was performing at their village and thanked Lord Rama for breaking the jinx.

Saraswathi truly believed that her husband would benefit from attending the performance, and become useful. She nudged, cajoled, nagged, and forced him to go and listen. He grumbled as usual but decided to humour her. So he went for the recital scheduled in the evening and sat at the back. It was an all night performance but he could not stay awake. He slept through the recital. Early in the morning, when a canto had completed, the pundit ended the closing verses for the day and sweets were distributed to all devotees. Abuddhi, unmindful of all the proceedings, was still snoring. A volunteer stuffed Abuddhi’s open mouth with sweets. He woke up soon after and went home. His wife welcomed him with much delight. She was eager to know how the recital went and how he had felt. Abuddhi said, “it was very sweet”. Saraswathi was very happy to hear.

It took lot more effort to persuade him to go back to the recital the second evening. After much grumbling, he finally went. The pundit was exceptional that evening and even pilgrims from other villages were deeply moved and totally involved. A lot more people meant, he could not find room to lie down and had to sit up all night. A granny, who had brought her grandson, placed the kid on Abuddhi’s shoulder, because she could not find room. That did not deter him and he slept with his mouth wide open like the earlier evening. When the story of the night had come to an end, everyone got up and so did Abuddhi. The boy on his shoulders had left earlier but Abuddhi felt aches and pains, from the weight he had borne all night. When he reached home, his wife was eager to know how it was and he said, “it got heavier and heavier by morning”. She said, “that’s how the story is but pay attention to all details.” She was happy that her husband was finally beginning to feel the emotions and sentiments of the great epic.

On the third evening he felt more sleepy, located a corner quickly and continued sleeping with louder snores. Early in the morning after everyone had left, a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth. The sudden jet of luke warm water woke him up and he ambled home. When Saraswathi inquired about the earlier night’s performance he drew a confused expression and said, “terrible and very salty” wiping his mouth. Saraswathi, now confident that something was not right confronted him. He relented and admitted to have slept all nights. It made her very disappointed and sad.

Saraswathi decided to take matters into her hands. She went along  that evening and made him sit at the front row and warned him sternly. The story teller was at his best that evening. His recital made people cry when Sita was abducted by Ravana. Very soon Abuddhi got enraptured in the characters, events and emotions. He listened with rapture to the narration much to the delight of his wife. The story teller went on to recite how Hanuman had taken the big leap from the mountain towards Lanka, carrying Rama’s signet ring to Sita. “When Hanuman was leaping across the ocean, the ring slipped from his hand and fell into the ocean. Hanuman did not know what to do. He was worried, frustrated and stayed motionless, wringing his hands.” Abuddhi who was listening to the story with rapt attention was so moved by Hanuman’s predicament that he jumped and yelled, “Hanuman, I will get it for you.” Then he jumped dived into the ocean found the ring in the ocean floor, brought it back and gave it to Hanuman.

Everyone including Saraswathi were astonished. They thought he had become a special person by the blessings of Rama and Hanuman. Abuddhi became Buddhiman. Ever since, he was respected in the village as a wise man and behaved like one.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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