The Ajnabee’s Required Reading: In Search of Sita

In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology eds Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale(Penguin Books India 2009)

Sita is upheld as a paragon of womanhood in South Asia, but there is no single version of her tale. We find versions of the Ramayan from all over South Asia, and beyond (Indonesia and Thailand, for example), which present Sita to us variously as a goddess,  as a folk heroine and an everywoman in whose story wives, mothers and daughters recognise their own struggles.

In Search of Sita is a cross disciplinary anthology of essays about Sita which includes work from ethnographers, poets, textual scholars, practitioners of Indian classical dance and literary critics among others.

I read this book during my last field visit to the plains,which was an appropriate choice since Sita, or Janaki as she is also known, is herself from the Tarai. Quite literally a daughter of the soil, orphaned baby Sita was found in the furrow left by a plough by childless King Janak (of what is now Dhanusa district), who adopted her, or so most versions of her story go.

Sita, the dutiful, stoic wife who endures banishment to the forest by her husband Ram is a pervasive figure in South Asian literature, dance, film and even T.V serials, but also a problematic one. Opinion among the (predominantly female) contributors to this volume is divided about whether Sita is a figure to be celebrated,  re-appropriated as a feminist heroine, or a part of an oppressive myth that has been foisted upon women in patriarchal Hindu societies.

Choreographer Nalimma Devi (‘The Diary of Sita’) falls into the re-appropriation camp; for her, creating a dance-drama about the symbolism of Sita was a chance to ‘make peace with the Sita of tradition’ by finding something of the subversive within the story:

‘Many women try to project Sita as a source of strength by saying that her stoic suffering is ‘strong’. It is either that or one has to reject Sita. But now I having done the research on Sita and thought about it, I see it another way and am able to read between the lines… and understand that Sita was making choices all along….. Destiny is brutal to Sita but it does not make her helpless. When Rama gives into political pressure and abandons Sita, she excercises her freedom to choose once again. She freely enters into mother earth’s arms’

Perhaps one of the most interesting essays in the collection is Navaneeta Dev Sen’s ‘The Essential Orphan: the Girl Child’. This essay does not so much reject Sita as to look into cultural reasons why the themes of abandonment, sacrifice and stoicism have such resonance in various South Asian cultures. Sen argues that while Sita may be a princess,  womens’ folk songs often portray Sita as an orphan and hapless daughter-in-law. Sita is an orphan, and by default this is something that women can relate to, because the family structure whereby a woman is either a girl child waiting to be married into someone else’s family, or a daughter-in-law who is the eternal outsider, makes orphans of all women. Sen looks into how themes of female subordinance along the lines of the Ramayan make their way into the everyday language of songs and aphorisms in Indian families:

‘If we take a look at the prayers of the Bengali vrata kathas we can clearly see how the girl child grows up – unprotected, unwanted, lonely in a crowded household, a mere tool in the patriarchal machinery… in one vrata the girl child makes ten clay dolls and prays for a better life in the next birth. ‘After I die this time I shall be born as a doll’ she prays ‘and get a husband like Rama. After I die the next time I shall be born a doll and get a father in law like Dasharatha!…. After the next time I die I shall be born a doll and be a sati like Sita’

One of the essays I enjoyed the most in the collection was Malashree Lal’s ‘Sita: Naming Purity and Protest’. Lal examines how motifs from the Rama-Sita relationship are played out in popular Indian TV serials. Needless to say, she looks at Ramanand Sagar’s cult t.v adaptation of the Ramayana, which ran from 1987-88 on Doordarshan. Lal sees serial, which portrayed Rama and Sita as the ideal couple existing in perfect balance to one another, as an event in popular culture which opened the doors for multiple new interpretations of the Ramayana, which became ‘a text to ‘play’ with, to innovate and interpret’. She looks at how motifs from the Ramayan have found their way into TV soaps – particularly that of the wife/daughter in law who is plagued by marauding inlaws, false allegations about her ‘honour’ and a husband preoccupied with safeguarding his reputation. There is a very interesting analysis of the Hindi teleserial Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi centred around a poor Brahmin girl, Tusli, who has a love-marriage into a rich business family, only for her and her husband’s relationship to be constantly put under pressure by the machinations of jealous family members. Tulsi is subjected to trials that are highly reminiscent of those of Sita, including banishment from the family at one point, but the scriptwriters never make the connection to explicit. They don’t need to.

After having read In Search of Sita, I would say that the most compelling parts of the anthology were those that looked at interpretations of Sita, or the Ramayan, in contemporary popular culture – that is to say, soaps, movies and popular womens’ songs. I would call for more research along these lines in future writing.

You don’t have to look far in South Asia to see how pervasive themes of the Sita-Rama relationship are – abandonment, stoicism, enduring separation from a husband, punishment of a married woman for reasons she cannot fathom. Look at two recent big-budget Bollywood monstrosities movies, Main Aur Mrs Khanna and Dulha Mil Gaya, for example. Both feature women who are abandoned by their husbands through absolutely no fault of their own, and must endure some form of ‘trial’ in order to salvage their marriage. It is further proof of the prevalence of the Sita myth that both the heroines in these movies are orphans, which strengthens the abandonment theme.

For an example, have a look at this clip from Dulha Mil Gaya. The hero has married ingenue Samarpreet only for money, and has abandoned her so that he can pursue his playboy lifestyle. Samarpreet then goes on a journey halfway across the world to find him – but not before there has been a montage in the verdant fields of Punjab/she has sung a song about her sense of abandonment and enduring love for her estranged husband*.

However one feels about Sita, personally or analytically, there is no getting away from the hold she has over popular imagination in South Asia. She may have disappeared into the earth at the end of her life, but her influence is still all-pervasive. In Search of Sita reminds us that if we want to understand this pivotal female figure, then a multidisciplinary approach is necessary, because we find Sita not only in religious/literary texts, but in the homes, temples, cinemas, songs and daily speech of South Asia.

*I would like to add that, despite watching many terrible Bollywood DVDs I have a full and active social life. Well, most of the time.


One Response to “The Ajnabee’s Required Reading: In Search of Sita”

  1. […] to be married into another family and that her loyalty will lie with them (see earlier blog post here). However, when she becomes a daughter in law, her new family will never quite get over thinking of […]

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