Revealing the real Sita

Revealing the real Sita

sita’s many voices : ‘Sita Sings the Blues, in a painting by Ravi Varma

Sitaanveshana. Searching for Sita. No easy task. Was the search for Sita by the Vanara heroes easy? We had to wait for an intrepid voyager into the unknown like the supremely intelligent Hanuman (buddhimataam varishtam) who had no clue to Sita’s personality except the obvious love and anguish for her exhibited by Rama.Remember P B Sreenivos singing ‘Vaidehi Yenadalu’? Well, after reading the varied documentation brought by In Search of Sita, it appears that we have to wait again for such a unique sahridaya who can reveal to us the real Sita.
 
Meanwhile, two cheers for Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale for their scrupulously well-planned and well-balanced presentation. They have given space, however brief, for several viewpoints and approaches. There is the positioning of Sita near other classical heroines (Meghnad Desai), a tremblingly existential study of Rama (Arshia Sattar), an anxious justification of Ayodhya’s prince by generations of kathaks (Ratna Lahiri), and the sympathetic vibrations of Indian women down the millennia (Smita Tewari Jassel, Meenakshi Faith Paul, Navaneeta Dev Sen). There are dialogues with sensitive researchers like Madhu Kishwar and Madhureeta Anand. The two editors themselves talk to each other for a while bringing out the inherent strength of Sita who is herself a representative of Indian womanhood, the aim of the volume:

“The diversity of India encourages the depiction of many Sitas — protean, culturally authentic and specially inspiring for a gendered approach to mythopoeic understanding. She speaks not just for women but also for the marginal people, the ones who are compelled to receive the dictates of power. We wish to foreground Sita’s voice and her subversive authority. Daughter of the Earth, touched by the anguish of mortality, she is both a conformist and a rebel, mystic yet real.”
Actually, but for the fire-ordeal to which Rama gave silent assent we may not have had any serious problem nor this plasticity for a million variations. In fact, the terrifying test may never have happened if we go by the ‘Ramopakhyana’ in the Mahabharata. The ancient bards in Tamil, the Alvars (3rd to 8th century AD) who initiated the Bhakti Movement do not refer to it either. Nor the eminent Manipravala commentators in Vaishnava literature who thrill to the core with Sita’s words to Hanuman when he wants to punish the demonesses in Asoka Vana after the war is over. “Even if one deserves to be killed, it is the duty of the noble person to forgive. Indeed, there is none in this world who has not committed a wrong.”  

But without this agni-pareeksha, this touch of scalding tears in mortal life, there is no poetry, no criticism, no creative inspiration, nor In Search of Sita. For, this volume has sips from all these variations. Reba Som says that Jawaharlal Nehru preferred Chitrangada to Sita as a model for gender equation and himself “thrived on the emotional strength that he derived from his association with women — whether in his family or outside.”

Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) does not offend the real bhakta, for don’t we revel in ninda-stuti? As for the Protestant-isation of Sita shown through pictures, all we can say is there has been some Donigerisation in the critical psyche of Aman Nath. Paintings, even sculptures, reflect only contemporary style and social life. There is no deliberate whitewashing of received tradition. The yoga of divine love adorns the personal image with the best it can offer and hence these stylistic variations.

It cannot be denied that a sense of victimisation runs deep in contemporary writers who retell the story of Sita. We have a good range here (Shashi Deshpande, Amit Chuadhuri and Chandra Ghosh Jain among others) and shudder for a moment when Mallika Sengupta’s Sita sends a vengeful missile at the assemblage in Rama’s audience-hall: “Let’s suppose I had lost the golden coin named chastity in Lanka twelve years ago.” How is it that the Partition terror suddenly descends upon us with these words? How many Sitas were stared at by a merciless society then!
There are unenviable limitations in putting together an anthology but when Malashri comments that the exploration of the Sita prototype “in Indian writing in English has been remarkably tame,” one has to remind her gently of K R Srinivasa Iyengar’s Sitayana: Epic of the Earth-born (first edition 1987, second edition 1989) which was warmly welcomed when it was published for boldly seeking answers for queries indicated by Malashri’s phrase, ‘the millennium’s global agenda’.

It is stimulating to find Indira Goswami quoting Mulla Masiha: “One can never see Sita disrobed, but always covered in clothes. Just the way one can never see the soul, but always covered in the body.” How I wish there had also been a reference in this volume to the immortal ‘Sita’ of Toru Dutt, daughter of Christian parents. Such is Sita’s range, she transcends all barriers.

Namita Gokhale’s opening piece with its rapier-flashes admits that it was reading Kumudini’s imagined letters of Sita to her mother that put everything in perspective: “Devotion and respect had distanced Sita from us, while academic interpretations had sterilised the subject. This imaginary daily life reminded me that, at some level, Sita was a human incarnation, tried and tested by extraordinary circumstances.”
Sita had been writing about saris and ornaments to her mother and with the same ease writes to her about going into exile. The P.S. tells all: “There is no need to worry any more about the colour of saris. Peace of mind is now mine. How helpful it would be if all women were to go to the forest? Half the worries would disappear.”
That is the icon that Indian womanhood has been worshipping and fortifying itself with the strength to enjoy the best in life and also be ready for matchless sacrifice at any time.  Hence we revere the Ramayana because it is Sita’s great story:
Sitayah charitham mahat.

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