Sunday, 22 August 2010

THE ETERNAL WOMAN


THE ETERNAL WOMAN

With her unbroken presence through the ages, Sita — the daughter of Janak and the wife of Rama, has been part of the Indian ethos. But, Ramayana’s Sita is often equated with the womanhood that suffers the patriarchal juggernaut silently. “Actually there’s a double aura around Sita”, says writer-editor Namita Gokhale. “Sita is usually interpreted as a victim in the mythology as she had to prove her chastity and was forced to live in exile. But she’s also a strong character both mentally and physically,” Gokhale says. She along with Dr Malashri Lal edited a collection of essays, dialogues, versions and creative interpretations on Sita in the book In Search of Sita — Revisiting Mythology. The editors were in town yesterday to talk about the book and Sita. I interacted with them prior to the event.

“We wanted to bring together the different voices on Sita... a mass interrogation into the complex-yet-simple character,” informs Gokhale about the anthology.

Irrespective of the selective patriarchal reading of Sita, “in many of our folk versions of the Ramayana, she is actually portrayed as a symbol of strength who makes her own choices,” explains Lal. And it is this strength that makes Sita a role model, even if not a prescriptive one, to the modern, urban Indian women. “We spoke with many urban women... college students and professionals. All of them find Sita to be an inspiring character,” Lal informs. And Sita’s inspiring role as a woman doesn’t quite contradict her status as a deity. “She’s also a human and a secular figure,” says Gokhale. The Ramayana is “not a religious text,” says Lal in this context.

I ask both of them about Sita’s appeal beyond India. While for Gokhale, Sita does have a universal appeal — she mentions about the film Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley “from which the Indian diaspora can relate to Sita” — Lal thinks that the ideas of a pan-Indian woman or universal woman are “rather complex”. She refers to the “varied interpretations of the mythology based on the readership of the different communities — linguistic or otherwise, which in turn leads to multiple interpretations of Sita”.

Talking about how the feminists can deal with Sita, Gokhale makes a distinction between the Indian feminism and the Western feminism. “For us, family remains at the centre, and a woman’s individuality and her strengths come from her abilities to nurture her family and to perform her duties, just as it is for Sita,” believes Gokhale.

That takes us to the role that Rama played; he is often at the receiving end as he allowed his duty as a monarch to overrule his affection as a husband. He let Sita go through the ‘chastity test’ to conform to public values; he let Sita languish in exile but kept a golden statue of the lady next to his throne. “While that all may sound disturbing, one has to remember that Rama didn’t remarry when Sita lived in exile,” says Lal. That in a way, perhaps, helps to revive Rama’s sullied image.

The epic of Ramayana almost invariably brings in a comparison with the Mahabharata. So we veer towards comparing Sita and Draupadi, the two ladies of the two great epics. “The two epics were written from different contexts. The Ramayana is about a monogamous marriage where family is at the centre. In case of the Mahabharata, Draupadi is married to five husbands,” says Gokhale. “Draupadi rebels more actively against the foundations of the society. The story is more about the dharma and the values attached to it. Sita, on the other hand, rebels more subtly,” adds Lal. “That makes her enduring”.

So, with her subtle-yet-firm ways, Sita remains the eternal woman who is revered, loved and doted upon, “and continues to exert a powerful influence across India”.