Saturday, June 12, 2010

10 heads, 10,000 Ravanans

At a children’s birthday party, a group of six to 10 year olds is fiercely debating the Rama-yana. "It’s an adventure story. They’re climbing rocks and waterfalls," says one. "Ravana and Sita are husband and wife," pipes up another know-it-all.

The pint-sized movie buffs may have got much of it wrong, but teasers for Mani Ratnam’s upcoming film ‘Ravanan’ have rekindled interest in the epic of gods and men, good and evil, flying monkeys and golden chariots.

"The Ramayana is one of the greatest stories ever told, so it continues to inspire people in different ways," says political scientist Swarna Rajagopalan. "Every region has a different version of the Ramayana, the songs and stories are quite different," she says.

It is these variants that make the story richer with every re-telling, since each storyteller brings different ideas to it. The Ramayana has always been deeply political, adapted by different social groups to express their particular world view. In south India, the epic has been loudly debated, debunked and denounced as a story that reinforces the idea of Aryan superiority.

"There is a political history to the different perceptions of Ravana in the north and south, but there is also a cultural and social history," says AR Venkatachalapathy, professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. "Saivism has been dominant in south India and so Ravana, a devout Shiva follower, is not seen as a complete villain. The Dravidian movement saw a secularisation of society and this perception of Ravana deepened, though in a different way." In the late 1940s, Pulandar Kuzhanthai wrote the ‘Ravana Kavyam’, seen as the Dravidian version of the Ramayana. "The Congress banned it in 1948. Karunanidhi lifted the ban in the 1970s," he says.

If you look at the epic as literature, demonising Ravana does Rama a disservice as it obliterates the complexities of the characters. "If you slot them as good and evil, you forget that Rama was unaware of his divine origins. So his mistakes seem monumental," says Swarna. In south India, the better-known version of the Ramayana is Kamban’s. "It paints Ravana as a tragic villian like Lucifer in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’," says Venkatachalapathy.

Evil Ravana’s effigies are merrily set on fire in north India, but down south, he is also seen as a just king, a protector of family, a Shiva devotee, the counter to the Aryan Rama, and enough of a hero for parents to name their children after him.

"Ravanan being a villain is a typical instance of winners getting to write history. Rama comes off worse in the end because he abandoned his wife. But since he won the war, he is seen as the hero," says Mindtree CFO Rostow Ravanan, whose name is a delightful combination of an American political theorist and a mythological villain. "My grandfather was an atheist and a follower of Periyar, who founded the self-respect movement. He named my father Ravanan," he says. "My name is always a talking point. No one ever forgets it."

R Ravanan, associate professor of statistics, Presidency College, agrees. "My father was a Tamil teacher, who loved literature and the epics. He named me Ravanan, after a character of great strength, learning and devotion," says Ravanan, who believes the Ramayana is just a story and too much should not be read into it. "But my name is an unusual one," he says. "People know me instantly as I am the only Ravanan in my field."

Though the makers of Mani Ratnam’s film ‘Ravanan’ deny that it is based on the epic, the director’s note on the film’s website quite distinctly declares: ‘Ten heads... ten minds... One man... Is there a Ram inside Raavan and a Raavan inside each of us?’ "It’s nothing to do with the Ramayana. It’s just a modern day story about people," insists one of the producers.

Swarna says that Ravana could be seen as a contemporary character too. "He was a person whose judgement was clouded by the push and pull of family — he reacted to his sister’s insult; he was dependent on his brothers, son and uncle Maricha for help. Maybe you could see it as the push and pull of coalition politics. Maybe there is a Ravana in every politician," she says, laughing.

Venkatachalapathy says he’s looking forward to the film. "Mani Ratnam is not the most sensitive of filmmakers but it will be interesting to see how the story will be presented to Hindi and Tamil audiences," he says.

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