Why Looking at Raavan in a More Forgiving Light Gives India Some Hope

Culture

Why Looking at Raavan in a More Forgiving Light Gives India Some Hope

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

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ack in the 1980s, few television series brought things to a standstill the way Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan did. With the joint family system far more prevalent then, Sunday mornings would see everyone from grandparents to children congregate in front of the TV to watch it. For many of us ’80s kids, especially convent-educated Mumbaikars, this was possibly our first introduction to mythology. Even though we intimately knew William Shakespeare’s works, we remained unaware of the work of Tulsidas, also a 16th century poet. But it wasn’t very difficult to tell that our society idolised Ram and demanded Ram-like obedience and dutifulness from children (especially elder sons), public figures, and politicians alike.

Three decades later, the reverberations of Ramayan have curious developments. On one hand, Ram’s temple seems to have become more sacrosanct than the virtues he stood for, and his name, once used for greetings like “Jai Ram ji ki” or in devotional songs like “Jai Siya Ram,” has turned into a war cry of “Jai Shri Ram”, used to disrupt the Parliament and often chanted by lynch mobs. On the other hand, lies the trend of reinterpreting Raavan – the villain of Ramayan, whose effigy is burnt to symbolise the victory of good over evil every Dussehra – that strives to go beyond the simplistic black-and-white narrative of the past.

In 2010, Mani Ratnam made Raavan, a modern-day narration of the epic, told from the perspective of its antagonist. The film starred Vikram (Dev, the good cop), Abhishek Bachchan (Beera, the villain), and Aishwarya Bachchan (Ragini, Dev’s loving wife) and culminated in a thrilling end that saw Beera winning Ragini’s heart. Ragini sympathises with Beera when she learns that his actions, including abducting her, were led by his desire to avenge his sister’s rape at the hand of cops, in the same way Raavan abducted Sita to avenge his sister Suparnakha’s humiliation. Irrespective of the film’s eventual fate, Ratnam managed something crucial with Raavan: He offered an alternate standpoint of a widely discussed and dissected epic that touched on the complexities of justice, class, privilege, and how these intersect with our notions of sympathy. More importantly, he attempted to break the idea of Raavan as a stock evil cardboard villain. 

A year after the film, two comics released – Ravana: Roar of the Demon King by Abhimanyu Singh Sisodia and Sachin Nagar, and Ravanayan by Vivek Goel and Vijayendra Mohanty. Both reimagined Raavan as a central protagonist, further humanising the king of Lanka. But it was really Anand Neelakantan’s Asura: Tale of the Vanquished that turned the Ramayan’s classic version on its head, making readers question their past perceptions. In this 2012 book that delves into Raavan’s origins, Asuras are a liberal community while the Deva clan is orthodox. In this retelling, Sita is Raavan’s daughter.

Raavan

In 2010, Mani Ratnam made Raavan, a modern-day narration of the epic, told from the perspective of its antagonist.

Madras Talkies

New plays (Raavan Ki Ramayan), books (Indrayani Sawkar’s Ravanayana), and shows (Sankatmochan Mahabali Hanuman, Devon ke Dev… Mahadev, Siya Ke Ram) also delve into interesting traits of Raavan’s personality rather than regurgitating him as a mindless villain. In fact, Devdutt Pattanaik’s Ravana: A Worthy Opponent, which emphasises that there is no Ram without Raavan, suggests that Raavan is the key to understanding the Ramayan. Early this year, we’ve seen another Raavan bestseller – Amish Tripathi’s Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta.

But looking at Raavan’s perspective is not necessarily a new trend, engineered by a culturally progressive climate. In southern India, Himachal Pradesh, Kanpur, and parts of Maharashtra, Raavan has long been worshipped for his scholarship and devotion to Shiva. According to Tripathi, it is the ritual of burning Raavan’s effigy (probably 100 to 150 years old), which is the new phenomenon, in comparison.

The mainstreaming of Raavan as a misunderstood protagonist then, falls in line with the ancient Indian tradition of offering counter narratives and discerning existing narratives with nuance. “When it’s your own king, you explore ideas freely. That’s why Sanskrit has so many versions of Ramayan… But once you’re a defeated society, you become conservative,” Neelakantan tells me. The long line of invasions, Tripathi and he believe, have undeniably played an integral role in enforcing this conservatism, and counter narratives survived wherever regional languages continued to hold sway. Asura for instance, is based on folktales of Raavan that were told through kathakali and yakshaganas that Neelakantan grew up with. 

Likewise, he observes, our epics make a comeback whenever a medium matures. For example, soon after independence in 1951, Acharya Chatursen writes Vayam Rakshamah that portrays Ravan’s personality as superior to Ram’s and credits him with devising Rakshasanskriti, a new cultural system to unite the North and South. If the bulk of retelling Ramayana is happening in English today, he believes it’s because Indian-English has come of age. 

The mainstreaming of Raavan as a misunderstood protagonist then, falls in line with the ancient Indian tradition of offering counter narratives and discerning existing narratives with nuance.

There is a conversation in Neelkantan’s book Asura that holds more clues about the reason behind Raavan’s renewed relevance today. In it, Raavan explains to Mahabali that his ten heads represent ten different emotions – jealousy, anger, discontentment, ambition, among others. He then goes on to unapologetically admit that he doesn’t want to change them because they make him human. Essentially, Raavan uses these traits for power and growth. Neelakantan’s point is that most rulers of yore, whether it is Ashoka or Akbar, and most business tycoons in the present day, exhibit similar traits. If Ram is the obedient and dutiful, ideal man, the author views Raavan as a practical and proactive man, willing to take independent decisions, enjoy its fruits as well as bear the consequences. 

In today’s India, where capitalism, instant gratification, and erosion of secularism are flavours of the season, it’s understandable why Ram’s idealism doesn’t fascinate as much. “This idea of one book, one God, one way of worship is very semitic. It’s not Hinduism,” claims Neelakantan. He is not off-mark. As events of the last year have shown us – men being heckled and asked to chant “Jai Shri Ram” – this only breeds violence. 

Tripathi’s leaves us with an interesting thought when it comes to an eye for an eye mindset. “Lord Ram, Raavan, and Sita all suffered throughout their lives. What varied were their reactions. While Ram became nobler with every suffering, Ravan grew angrier. No one can be saved from suffering, and anger can be justified, but ultimately it’s for you to decide what to do and who suffers most from anger held within.” 

That said, he warns us against idolising a character just for being an antagonist – “it’s the same as unquestioning hero worship” and instead proposes the ancient Indian thinking that “there’s something to learn from everyone.”

Maybe then in an India divided over Ram, our willingness to not other Raavan, can serve as a unifier. Our willingness to acknowledge a different point of view, then is an example of the part of India that is still open to ideas. Raavan gives us that hope. 

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