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A translation of epic proportions

By July 22, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu  –  Mini Krishnan

Adaptations of the Ramayana are many and varied, across history

How might we view the story of a warrior-god who gradually overtook the Vedic gods of the rain, wind and air and became a part of the cosmogony of the subcontinent? Never actively propagated, the Rama story has inspired people located thousands of miles apart and with radically different languages and cultures, living on and on in poetry and in paintings, in temple carvings and theatre.

Having reached us from an undated time, the Ramayana narrative migrated up to courtly circles before filtering down again. Asomiya, Bangla, Odia, Maithili, Nepali, Mizo or Naga can all boast of several types of retellings. Can these adaptations be called translations? They have been circulated orally for a long time, but it was only about 600 years ago that some accounts began to be written down. Besides, after the Islamic conquests and Shakta waves, Vaishnava bhakti swept through all of Eastern India strengthening the hold of the Ramayana on the public imagination.

The lost battles

Kamban — who read Valmiki all day, and who composed his own version in Tamil, said of the story that it is ‘many and one at once’ — could never have imagined that the most recent interpretation would come from Prasanna the theatre activist and critic in Bengaluru who describes the Ramayana as a Leftist text. He draws our attention to luxurious disorderliness and drunken excesses in Lanka, while the ashram dwellers in the forest exemplify the simple life: the dignity of labour and discipline.

Translations (or shall we say adaptations?) of the Ramayana are so many and so varied that in the mid-1970s the Sahitya Akademi collaborated with the French government (Inventaire raisonné des ÉtudesduRamayana ) to catalogue the Ramayanas of the world. It has been pointed out that since most of the poets had no experience of warfare, their descriptions of battle suffered the most. There is however one outstanding and astonishing exception.

On the banks of the river Sutlej the 10th master of the Sikhs, the warrior–poet Guru Gobind Singh composed Ramavatar. To establish Rama’s valour the writer describes how terrifying Ravana is as he pounds into battle with 20 different weapons, chanting “Shiv ! Shiv! Shiv!” from his primary mouth/ face.

The second face is turned in the direction where Sita sits imprisoned. With the third he challenges the opposing army. With the fourth he shouts, “Kill them!” The fifth face is focused on the radiant strength of Hanuman. The sixth looks bitterly at brother Vibhishana who had betrayed him. The seventh is directed at Rama. The eighth face gazes sorrowfully at nothing in particular. The ninth has a curiously pleading expression while the 10th blazes with fury.

Switch to a Kashmiri Ramayana which has Rama approaching his teacher, silver tablet in hand. With Dasharatha’s gold pen he scrawls “voma-vom” (om). In this endearing scene, the four-year-old is asked to remember his own name. He has no idea who he is. As always, Tagore took the long view when he said the Ramayana is not just the history of the Ikshavakus but also a history of India!

There are Jain and Buddhist traditions of Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Emperor Akbar had it translated into Persian in the late 1580s. The existence of the Ramayanas in Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia and the Mappila Ramayanam from Malabar show that delinking from Valmiki is entirely possible.

All of which leads to something the literature brigade could consider: adaptations of the puranic tradition brings us to a zone where translation, adaptation and retelling cannot be clearly separated; nor do classical and folk stand in opposition to each other. Indeed a study (in Tamil) which maps the vast history of the Ramayana in South Asia is A.A. Manavalan’s Ramayanas & Ramakathas which won the Saraswathi Samman in 2011.

From a song

While Kamala Subramaniam and Rajagopalachari are the most popular adaptor-translators of Valmiki’s Ramayana into English, one of the most unique retellings is by William Buck, the American student of the Puranas. He was so fascinated that he read every translation he could find and then, in the tradition of all the re-tellers and adaptors, wrote his own version, always bearing in mind that the work was originally a song.

For the ultimate literary feat we have to go back 900 years to the Raghavapandaviyam which is a simultaneous retelling of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in a single text of ambiguous and ornate verses. Let me quote one verse to demonstrate the inconceivable scale of versification:

“Going round the enemy’s kingdomforces, he came to a thicket of Asoka trees/ the reverse of grief/ In an instant as it were, his task was accomplished, by his sight of the daughter of the Earththe cows

Easy to understand that the first variant refers to Hanuman seeking Sita and the second to Arjuna on a cattle-rustling expedition. Needless to say that a truly joyful reading rests on the reader’s knowledge of both the epic texts.

Parsa Venkateswara Rao gets the last word and scatters gold dust: “There is no Kamban or Tulsidas in English”.

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

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