We were introduced to the prospect of a variety of Rama tales told by others with radical differences among them by the seminal work of A.K. Ramanujan (Three Hundred Ramayanas) and it is heartening to see that this book actually brings in that concept to the fore. The book Multivalence of the Epic, Retelling the Ramayana in South India and Southeast Asia is a saga of many Ramayanas which crossed many boundaries and are present in the political and cultural imaginations of the people of South India and Southeast Asia. An insightful introduction by Parul Pandya Dharunderscores the idea of the book and the theoretical premises on which it stands. The contributors are specialists in the field and they have all contributed to the making of this book, which is a serious addition to knowledge both in the domain of India-Southeast Asia Studies as well in Epic Studies.
When we talk about Southeast Asia in the context of any region of India, two names, Suvarnabhumi (generally identified with mainland SE Asia) and Suvarnadvipa (maritime SE Asia), resonate in our minds. This book traverses both the land and the water that marks Southeast Asia and its links with India. Here we have a series of interesting essays which speak about the retelling of the variety of the narration of the Ramakatha, engagement with a particular episode of the Rama story in a spatio-temporal context and also in the context of the mediums through which they were retold. Moreover, the book demonstrates the degree of the Rama story’s influence on the various local cultures. Thus, multiple layers, multiple versions, multiple topoi of the Ramayana unfold in front of us. This was possible only through interactions between regions of India and regions of Southeast Asia; in case of this book, the chosen area is South India.
There were many travelling narratives, like the stories from the Jatakas, Avadanas and the epics which touched the heart and the imagination of the people of Southeast Asia. There has been a retelling of the narratives, and here the epic Ramayana stands out. Ramayana has been retold, rewritten and refashioned across the South and Southeast Asian landscape. Significantly, the popularity of the Rama story in Southeast Asia goes back to 6th century CE and even now it remains an integral part of the cultural consciousness and political imagination of the Asian people.
The essays are arranged in three broad thematic structures: a) Visual Cultures: Sculptures, Paintings, and Inscriptions, b) Literary Cultures: Texts, Recitation, and Associated Imagery, c) Performance Cultures: Theatre, Puppetry, and Folk Practices. These indicate the medium in which the Ramayana traditions were narrated.
In the first section, the opening chapter by Parul Pandya Dhar demonstrates how in the regional Ramayana tellings, epigraphs assume a pride of place. Episodes from the Ramayana are also represented in the temple sculptures which are studied to fathom the shifts in the epic’s thematic emphasis and narrative strategies. The importance of visual evidence in the representations of Rama story throughout Southeast Asia forms the core of John Brockington’s essay. Valerie Gillet’s study is an iconographic search for the epic hero Rama’s presence in the Pallava royal iconography and she identifies his presence in Kailasanatha and Vaikunthaperumal temples. The popularity of Yuddhakanda in the portrayal of the epic on Khmer temples is demonstrated by Rachel Loizeau. In the context of bronze sculptures, we learn from Sharada Srinivasan that images of Rama, Sita, Laksmana and Hanuman become important icons for processional worship. Hanuman is privileged by Gauri Parimoo Krishnan when she writes about the adaptation and localization of Hanuman and Ramayana in Southeast Asia. Krishnan rightly suggests that greater credence is to be given to the designers of the monuments for creating space for the adaptation of the Ramayana tales as per their own local context. R.K.K. Rajarajan speaks of Nayaka-period Ramayana temple paintings and Cheryl Thiruchelvam discusses Ramayana in Malaysian arts, specially the wayangkulit tradition, whose roots lie in the Ramayana.
The second section sets off with an essay by Malini Saran which is an attempt to trace the discourse on governance and ethics in the Ramayana Kakawin. Thai Ramakien and its close linkages with South India is discussed by ChirapratPrapandvidya. The creative development of the floating maiden episode in the Thai Ramayana to Rajasekhara’s Balaramayana by Mary Brockington reads like a detective story. The next two essays by A.J. Thomas and Sudha Gopalkrishnan are examples of translations as an act of retelling. A deep connection between text and recitation in retelling of the Ramayana in Bali is highlighted by Thomas Hunter.
The third section commences with Paula Richman’s essay on the representation of Ravana in a Kathakali piece where she analyses the stimulus for the change in the characterization of Ravana where the rule of Ravana offered alternative possibilities and political vision. Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof discusses the well known Malay shadow play Wayang Kulit Kelantan and suggests adaptations taking place in response to local beliefs and practices. The folk version of the epic rendered in Kannada, forms the subject of Krishna Murthy Hanuru’s essay. In South India, some of the popular indigenous theatrical traditions representing the Ramayana are: Yakshagana of Karnataka and Kerala and Kathakali of Kerala. Purushottama Bilimale talks about these traditions and the creative processes. The centrality given to Ravana in Kathakali offers an alternative political vision whereas in the Yakshagana there is an attempt to denude religiosity from the play, a contrast from the expression of religious devotionalism offered in Ramlila performances in north India.
Just as the crafting of storytelling by the Buddhists in the Jatakas brought about a specific form of oral communication, the Ramakatha also became a favoured means of articulating epic narratives. A few of the chosen episodes were given a form and a shape which added to the grandeur as the story came alive in the visual representations. Thus, there was an interlacing of the intangible heritage with tangible heritage. Why certain episodes were chosen over others is difficult to decide and some of the authors tried to offer a plausible reason. The book makes us aware that there was multidirectional traffic between South India and Southeast Asia, which acted as interconnected nodes contributing to the genesis and circulation of the Ramayana story leading to several centres of Ramayana discourse. It further reinforces Hermann Kulke’s influential theoretical formulation of cultural convergence and the epic encounters are read in many of the essays in this light.
Reading this book was a rewarding experience and it would appeal to a wide range of readers, the specialists and the curious. This volume, with its emphasis on the multivalence of the Ramayana tradition, is particularly relevant in the present times when plural cultures are being appropriated by political interest groups to represent a historically untenable monolithic reading. The editor, publisher and contributors have convincingly established the epic’s diversity, pluralism and inclusiveness. Manipal Universal Press has done a wonderful job in reproducing the excellent photographs and I particularly liked the coverdesigned by Surabhi Gurukar.
Suchandra Ghosh is Professor, Department of History, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.
The Multivalence of an Epic, Reading the Ramayana in South India and Southeast Asia
Edited by Parul Pandya Dhar
Manipal Universal Press, Manipal, 2021, pp. xvi+354, ISBN-978-81952797-1-5