Categories of Art (4): The Colossal Leap – Of a Hero & Of Imagination

Hanuman (Courtesy:

Hanuman (Courtesy:

With his head then held so high

Gained he size for task on hand.

Sundar Kand! That is where I had first heard of Hanuman’s colossal leap across the ocean to Ravana’s Lanka. In this part of the epic – Ramayana, Hanuman prepares for traveling across the ocean to Lanka where Ravana has kept Sita after abducting her. Kand in Hindi language means a ‘canto’ of a poem. Sundar is another name of Hanuman (his mother Anjana called him Sundar) and this canto of Ramayan bears his name because in this section he is the hero. It talks of how Hanuman leapt across to Lanka and searched for Sita. When he finds her, he urges her to return with him but Sita refuses. She insists that Ram must come to Lanka and avenge her insult. It is a fascinating account of Hanuman’s abilities, his challenges and finally how he sets Lanka on fire when his tail was set on fire after being caught.
This particular episode of Ramayana is considered auspicious to hear as well as read by Hindus. While a written version of it exists as a part of Valmiki’s Ramcharitramanas it is primarily an oral tradition. It is performed by bhajan mandalis (music troupes) across the Hindi speaking belt of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh during festivals or an auspicious occasion in the family. On one such occasion, we had the Sundar Kand being performed in our house and it was to be sung through the night as the recitals are interspersed with explanations. The troupe which performs this is comprised of men. Almost all of them have learnt the epic orally and by being a part of a troupe as they grew up. The musical instruments that accompany this recital are – dholak, manjeera and harmonium. The recitals are often very energetic and for a first timer a very interesting experience to hear it being sung in a dramatized and sometimes boisterous manner.
I was in my early twenties. My encounters with religion, scriptures and traditions of my family were rather limited. It is around this time that I participate in this night long recital of Sundar Kand. The prose as they flowed in Awadhi language drew me in completely. I was drawn in by the lyrical flow. As the poem progressed the listener is offered a magnificent persona and details of his actions as he prepared to take that leap across the ocean into something unknown and uncharted.
Listening to it one could almost feel the whole scene coming alive – Hanuman attaining a humungous size, the surging tide, full moon, the chaos amongst other creatures, the awe, the daring act that he was about to perform, the gaze he casts on the distant land standing on the shore and the breeze blowing in his face. Recalling this experience now I am inclined to think that it opened up to hitherto unexplored aspects of my own life. The picture of my ‘person’ gets more detailed now and in the following ways –

  1.  Orientation: Listening to Sundar Kand offered a sort of orientation to me with respect to the religion and belief system that my family espouses. It tells me of the value system that my people align to and look upon in times good and bad. It suggests of a certain way of life, a conduct that one might adopt through Hanuman’s story. The symbolism is difficult to miss. Even for a kid, the realization – that aha! moment – which suddenly seems to connect that story heard years back to the course of life in the present might have to wait but nevertheless it happens. The process may take time, it has been seeded. With oral traditions like these it becomes easier for a person to locate himself in the diverse range of faith and value systems that exist in the world around us. It is a cultural, social and religious marker. This, the recital of Sundar Kand did for me.
  2. Imagination: Sample this from an English translation of Sundar Kand,

While huge boulders slid in scores
Out came smoke in thick columns.
With that squeeze it came under
Cried all creatures in their caves.
Frightened was no less wildlife
Heard were their howls world over.
In their state of confusion
Serpents with all fiery fangs
Marks of swastik on their hoods
Spewed then venom in profusion.
Venom they spit was fireball like
Turned to tiny stones there rocks.

This detailed description of what was happening all around brings such a completely different world alive. It is as if an almost real bridge is built by the recital to walk from the present world where the story is only words to a world where this is all happening in real time. It gets overwhelming as one listens to the hero going about his work rescuing, fighting, saving and returning to his land. The range of experiences has the potential to engage a kid, a grandma and a young man – all at the same time. And of course it offers sufficient imaginative freedom for each one of them to make their own meanings as they together navigate the story.

3. Travel: Years later, as I stood in the shallow waters and amidst the softly breaking waves on the shores of Dhanushkodi – the place from where Hanuman was said to have taken that ‘colossal leap’ in Sundar Kand – I am almost drawn into that story again. The real and the mythic begin to blend into each other in a manner that the experience of standing in that place acquires a whole new meaning. The moment is stirring. That hero of my story is not a God, he is me now. I am him!

Such is the effect of a story that I heard from that night in a small town in central India.

Note: This was a response to a writing assignment in an arts course: Write a paragraph or two about a time when you HEARD an epic story. This is not about seeing it on film or reading. It is about the context and content of listening to an ORAL narrative. Focus on your experience and the context of telling and what impact it had on you.


Categories of Art (3) : A Thousand Splendid Versions – On Ramayana & Sita Sings the Blues

Being familiar with the epic and having grown up watching it on TV in the 1990s (Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana tele-series) the first reaction to Sita Sings the Blues (SSTB) was of amusement. Here was something fresh in its colours, ideas and presentation and which didn’t preach, in fact it enquired! Also, that the shadow puppets- their positioning and language gave the story a completely radical feel. An epic of such repute layered with a language which stops just short of being profane is a bold attempt. The author appears to have taken an offence at depiction of Sita in this story. Perhaps the anger is amplified by incidents in her personal life which to her appeared parallel to Sita’s story. As a person located outside the Hindu belief system in which Ram and Sita are deified, she connected with the epic as just a story, void of its deeply entrenched cultural and traditional values. When one connects in this way interpretation and relationship with the story is completely altered. SSTB is an illustration of such a process.
The director goes through a personal crisis of having been left by her husband and in that state of mind questions if Sita’s portrayal in Ramayana too was unjust and unfair. That, for her spawns a new narrative of Ramayana which is told through Sita’s experience. Sita singing the blues is an imagination which is creative, audacious, progressive and suggestive. It is suggestive in its reading of gender in Ramayana and contests it with its own version. This version doesn’t quite differ in its outcome from that of the epic but that it is combined with an urban story and another layer of criticism as incidents happen. It seems to suggest that if these questions are asked clearly and openly, perhaps our social world will not borrow from such distorted version of gender and follow it for real.
That the director is an American woman narrating the epic in her life’s context makes it noteworthy. It is an experiment in an alternative narrative and in my opinion a moderately successful one. For it achieves a refreshingly modern form with an interesting combination of story, commentary and technology. She sees the tragedy of following such role models like Sita in our daily lives. It would take a significant effort for an Indian to attempt the same not only for the intense backlash that it might trigger from the radical groups but also that the Indian imagination does not allow for such a thought which challenges the depicted roles of women in the epics.
Use of animation and shadow puppetry into telling of Ramayana alters the way the story is experienced. It has existed in diverse forms and traditions across Asia and the Asia Pacific. This new attempt in SSTB can be seen as just another one. As with every form this one too appears a product of its own times and of a particular conception of social world. This conception is not singular or homogenous at any given time. While one perceives it as an art from, another person lives by it. It is subjective to people’s location in the cultural-social milieu as well as their relationship with it. Therefore, it is not surprising that SSTB evoked angry response from Hindu radical groups (like Hindu Janajagruti Samiti) and at the same time the ‘liberal’ variety applauded such a bold experiment with their comprehension of the form remaining equally fuzzy.
SSTB is also a milestone in filmmaking as well as distribution with its audacious attempt to break free from the exploitative copyright and distribution networks. While the original record copyrights for Annette Hanshaw were not held by anyone, the songs were still under copyright. This had severe financial implications because if the film were to be released and distributed legally it should have bought the rights to use the songs. That is when the director leverages internet and peer sharing networks to distribute the film free of cost over the internet. Not many would experiment with such forms of distribution especially when a lot of money and reputation is at stake. This is affirmed with the recent controversy over the Indian filmmaker Kamal Hasan’s film Vishwaroopam. These experiments are the stuff that progress in any field rests on.
Watching a film is certainly about entertainment but it is often difficult to experience it with a frame of mind that is culture and value neutral. SSTB offers a variable and highly subjective experience of Ramayana to audiences of various nationalities and culture. This must be said before one attempts to examine the various connotations of this film.