Through a study of twentieth- and twenty-first century media versions of the epic Ramayana, this presentation demonstrates that a canon consisting of iconographic visuals constitutes a new way of universalizing and democratizing its appeal. Such an analysis illustrates the valence of epics in discourses of cultural nationalism in the postmodern age by appropriating the strategies and devices of pastische and simulacra.
The Ramayana, or story of Ram, is a narrative that I term a “living” epic. That term, which immediately invokes binary opposition to a “dead” counterpart, needs to be clarified. A living epic, in my mind, reaches beyond the literary and becomes part of the practice of everyday life. It pervades not only words but also images and performances of the most diverse kinds; it provides a vocabulary of signs – and once again not exclusively linguistic or literary -- for conceptualizing and representing the world; it insinuates itself into social behavior, ethical decision, and political action; it provides a semiological framework for the construction of identity and difference. All through these processes, it remains open to heterodox interpretations and polymorphous interventions.
The “core narrative” of Ramayana is as follows: retiring King Dasharatha of Ayodhya chooses his son Ram as his heir. His wife Kaikeyi asks that he appoint another son Bharata, instead, and banish Ram to the forest for fourteen years. The king reluctantly agrees, so Ram goes with his beautiful wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshman, leaving their riches to live a simple life. In the forest the three meet the demoness Surpanakha who falls in love with Ram. Ram refuses her advances and Lakshman wounds her. She flees to her brother Ravan, ruler of the island kingdom of Lanka. After hearing Surpanakha's report of the beauty of Sita, Ravan decides that he must have Sita. He tempts her in the disguise of a golden deer. Instructing Lakshman to protect Sita, Ram goes off to hunt it. Sita, hearing a cry from the forest, begs Lakshman to check on his brother. Once she is alone, Ravan appears in the hut, this time in the garb of a holy man, and carries Sita off to Lanka. Sita mourns in Ravan's garden in Lanka, while Ram and Lakshman enlist the services of Hanuman, the monkey king, to help them find her. Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman, and his monkey army lay siege on Lanka. The monkeys make a bridge to Lanka, and after a long battle with spears, bows and arrows, Ram kills Ravan. Sita, however, is not received by Ram unreservedly; he questions her chastity after having lived in the house of another man. When he asks her to undergo the test by fire, she agrees. Proving her chastity by remaining unscathed by the fire, she rejoins Ram.
The diverse “traditions” of the Ramayana, which operate around this core narrative, have been contrasted to Homer’s compositions, for instance, which have been consolidated into a single literary text.1 The “ready availability” of the core narrative, as Sheldon Pollock demonstrates, resulted in its appropriation for political struggle and resistance to perceived cultural “invasions” or “contaminations”; during the twelfth century, the Sanskrit Ramayana attributed to Valmiki became the hegemonic narration in the northern part of the subcontinent, offering a prototype of a divine political order within which “a fully demonized Other” could be “categorized, counterposed, and condemned.”2 A multitude of vernacular renditions of the story can be found in the Buddhist Jatakas, the sixteenth-century Hindi Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas, Kampan’s Tamil and Kritivas’ Bengali Ramayana, Eknath’s Bhavarth in Marathi, as well as Malayalam, Telugu, Urdu, and Kannada. A. K. Ramnujan emphasizes that the Valmiki Ramayana, far from being the Ur-text generating “versions” or “variations,” is only one “telling.” The relationship between the various texts mentioned above is not so much derivative as genealogical, drawing upon a “pool of signifiers that include plots, characters, names, geography, incidents, and relationships.”3 Beyond the realm of fixed literary texts, many such “tellings” are still being produced today in oral and performative genres. Like Tulsidas, some of them claim to follow the Valmiki text as faithfully as possible; others, like Kampan’s early Tamil rendition, in which Ravan is portrayed as a tragic hero rather than a villain, boldly subvert narratological and semiotic imperatives of the canonical Valmiki text. Tulsidas provides both script and tropes for Ramlila in North India, an annual street enactment performed by members of a particular neighborhood or town. At the other end of the spectrum, the severely persecuted Dalits in Bihar have recuperated/ generated a radically revisionist version of Ramayana. Particular elements of the Dalit narrative, such as the portrayal of Sita as primordial, powerful nature rather than victim of patriarchal institutions, have in turn provided contemporary writer and activist Mahasweta Devi with instruments for highlighting the continuum of oppression and marginalization of indigenous peoples.
Multiple lives of the Ramayana across diverse literary, oral, and performative genres for several centuries already challenge binary oppositions between high and low, classical and popular, authentic and mass, traditional and modern culture which, according to Andreas Huyssen, constitute the “adversary culture” of modernism defined by the anxiety of “contamination.”4 Mass media became an important part of this plethora of cultural crossings when Doordarshan, the national television network of India, aired the Ramayana as a 78-part serial between 1987 and 1990. The political environment in which it was aired and the events in its aftermath have made the television serial a cynosure of attention. The late 1980’s saw a resurgence of Hindu right-wing religious nationalism in an atmosphere of what many observers have called a crisis of the secular modern nation-state. In 1990, a massive nationwide rally was organized by a coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and myriad other wings of the Hindu right to reclaim “Ramjanmabhoomi,” the birthplace of Ram. The rally culminated in January 1992 at the north Indian town of Ayodhya, where a sixteenth-century mosque called Babri Masjid was designated as the exact site of Ram’s birth. With the view of erecting a temple at this site, the marchers, armed with bricks inscribed with Ram’s name, entered the mosque and established a shrine on its premises. Babri Masjid let loose an unprecedented spate of religious violence that has continued, in sporadic bursts, to this day, accompanied by the ascent of BJP, the mainstream component of the Hindu Right, to state and federal legislatures. The role of the television serial in this sequence of events –bringing together a nationwide interpretive public that could instantly identify with the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, producing a grand narrative of the collective Hindu past, constructing an essentialist ideology of “Hindutva” (Hindu-ness) from a polymorphous group of philosophies and sects, and historicizing a religious community as national community – was noticed by scholars immediately and has come to constitute an indispensable element in investigations of religious nationalism in postcolonial India.5 Two monograph-length recent studies by Purnima Mankekar and Arvind Rajagopal focus specifically on the relationship between television viewership and the formation of cultural nationalisms, focusing exclusively on the television serial Ramayana.6
My talk today seeks to expand both the concept of viewership and the media through which the Ramayana has come to constitute a “higher narrative” for an imaginary community of Hindu nationals. Scholarship on the impact of the television serial Ramayana focuses largely on the literate urban middle-class, and the intersection of discourses examined involves literary renditions, television representations, and political rhetoric of the Hindu right. My investigation takes as its point of departure the following questions. The television serial was certainly viewed by a large cross-section of people whose relationship with the narrative extends far beyond the literate and literary spheres. Every Sunday for almost two years, many viewed the televised Ramayana not on TVs in their living rooms, but by crowding around display models in shop windows or the single TV in the rural neighborhoods. Literary renditions of the Ramayana were remote from many members of this group, who are illiterate, although the lack of acquaintance with the primary texts may also be extended to the urban, “westernized” middle classes. Did “traditional” or “folk” performative traditions provide the only other prisms for receiving the media version of the Ramayana? If so, the Ramlila, which is largely restricted to North India, and oral narratives particular to very small community spaces, cannot account for the “affect of universal recognition” – the television characters characterized widely as “the very pictures (chhavi) of Ram and Sita” – that Mankekar reports from the interviews she conducted.7 Is there a different semiological system, then, that unifies visual representations of the story of Ram throughout the nation?
I propose to look for such a semiology in terms of what may be termed “visual literacy”: a system of identification and difference consisting entirely of mechanically reproduced images in wide circulation. The television serial constitutes an element in my analysis, but by far not the only one. Genres and forms that I will examine command audiences and spaces extending far beyond the serial and, like the diverse lives of the epic itself, enjoy parallel existences in periods both preceding and succeeding the television. They include calendar and poster art, Bombay films, graphic novels, the Internet, and gaming. I have chosen moments from the Ramayana that have come to constitute what may only be termed iconography: normative modes of visualizing the epic that are infinitely reproduced across diverse media. I wish to discuss the mutually interdependent, self-reflexive, and referential nature of this iconography, paying special attention to their composition, mise-en-scene, characterization, and narratological implications. Through such an analysis of “intervisuality,” I propose to return to two fundamental issues. Do such images comprise a parallel canon through which, borrowing Arjun Appadurai’s inversion of Walter Benjamin’s phraseology, the epic, and its function as signifier of a cultural past, become “a work of reproduction in an age of mechanical art”?8 And how does visual literacy of the Ramayana affect the triangular relationship between language, literature, and history -- the constitutive elements of a “higher narrative” of cultural nationalism at the cusp of the twenty-first century?
Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger, in The Invention of Tradition, demonstrate that traditions, which appear ancient, are of quite recent origin. They are invented through a "set of practices, of a ritual or symbolic nature which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition which automatically implies continuity with a suitable historic past.”9 To trace the origins of the media Ramayana, therefore, we have to start with the oldest and most ubiquitous genre: poster and calendar art. Regardless of local physiognomies or cultural formations, these highly stylized images adorn the walls of the meanest tea shop to powerful business offices, and, often framed, reside on the household altar of all classes. Often, such images are hung alongside idols in temples; poster and idol, often replicating each other, ballast each other’s historical veracity within a “tradition” of representation. Such posters have a strong dialogic relationship with film and television imagery as well.10
The four images on page 1 of the handout visualize Ram and Sita’s coronation, Ram as ascetic, Ram as king/ godhead, and Hanuman’s display of loyalty by tearing open his chest to reveal a portrait of the couple. The first of these images presents a composite portrait of all the chief characters within one frame. Although each of the characters is an object of veneration, the composition of this icon immediately establishes their internal hierarchy in terms of gender, kinship, and caste: Sita as the lesser coeval of Ram, Lakshman bowed before his elder sibling, and Hanuman, member of a lower evolutionary rung (the lower-caste subhuman?) prostrate in the most lowly position of all. The viewers’ perspective is that of a member of the audience that has come to witness the coronation, but not from the realistic angle of eyes in a crowd. The portrait grants him/her an exclusive “darshan,” a view of a deity that can be obtained only by entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple, usually by paying much larger fees than the general public. The second and third images of Ram, in great realistic detail, present him as a composite image of masculinity. He sports caste markers of both a Brahmin (the sacred thread, the garland of seeds called rudraksha, dreadlocks, the saffron robes) and a Kshatriya, the warrior caste, through the bow and arrow, crown, and earrings, emerging as a transcendent figurehead of attributes not usually combined together: knowledge, strength, and worldly wisdom. Ram and Sita, however, are also particularized geographically and historically: the image reproduces dress codes of the north Indian upper-middle class of the twentieth century, best exemplified by Sita’s modest blouse. Hanuman’s self-mutilation as a sign of his unerring faith is a rare moment of violence sublimated into sacrifice, which will be repeated in a scene I have not been able to find represented in calendar art. It is Sita’s trial by fire, which, as we shall see, will emerge into a significant moment, if not the key element, in visual Ramayana.
Page 2 of the handout depicts a genre between the literary and the imagistic – a graphic narrative series called Amar Chitra Katha (Eternal Picture Stories) launched by affiliates of the Hindu militant group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The purported function of these reasonably-priced volumes was to both ameliorate the rampant ignorance of the scriptures among westernized, secularized children of the Indian middle class, and in some ways to accommodate their perceived proclivities towards the graphic rather than literary. Accessibility was the keyword in the concept of ACK, and from the beginning it was produced in English as well as several regional languages. I have reproduced for you the cover of the volume titled Valmiki’s Ramayana – notice the emphasis on the Sanskrit telling as the authoritative singular source-text – alongside the coronation scene, which is presented from a unique angle of a camera obscura hidden in the wings, as it were. It is also on the pages of these “comics” that we find the first “realistic” image of Sita being subjected to the fire test. I do not need to point out the similarities in representational strategies between calendar art and the hybrid “graphic epic.”
But while ACK was a relatively recent institution aimed at the middle class, the Ramayana remained a backbone of the formulaic Hindi blockbuster, produced in what is now termed Bollywood, which enjoys a truly nationwide audience across boundaries of class, language, region, and gender. The Ramayana has provided a steady repertoire of characters, narrative elements, behavioral codes, and value systems for Bollywood, no systematic study of which has been done to my knowledge.11 A vast number of films have heroes called Ram and brothers or sidekicks called Lakshman. Sita as heroine possesses rather more variations, morphing often to Radha, Krishna’s paramour (and here we must remember that Krishna and Ram are often thought to be two avatars of the same godhead, Vishnu), and Ganga, the river of purity. The plot often revolves around two exiled or estranged brothers and triadic relationships in which the heroine, paired with the older sibling, unknowingly initiates a dangerous disruption. A morphology of the Bombay film invariably reveals a combination of the following tropes: ailing father, evil stepmother, fatalistic obedient mother, exile and banishment through the offices of cruel relatives, abduction of the heroine (ultimately revealing that she has not been physically violated, in spite of rape being a steady staple for sisters and other side-characters), her rescue from the demoniac villain, death of the villain, and return to the family and rightful legacy of the heroes.
The films, in fact, actively create a self-reflexive system of references within the genre itself, where the semantic field of the plot and characters extends beyond familiarity with the iconography of the Ramayana into images and even songs from previous blockbusters, often featuring collaborations of the same actors and actresses. For the sake of brevity, I will only cite an example consisting of three well-known films, produced close to the time when the TV Ramayana was being aired, which illustrates the complex referential system I have tried to summarize. The 1993 film, Khalnayak, features Jackie Shroff as Ram. At the moment of triumph at its end, his brother, played by Sanjay Dutt, pronounces, “look, he is Ram himself,” and then for a long moment we see what is in effect the coronation scene is the calendar/poster: the hero and heroine on a higher plane and Dutt on his knees in the foreground. The scene immediately evokes an earlier film, made in 1989, featuring the same actors and portentiously called Ram-Lakhan, which narrated a tale of exile, revenge, and restoration of two aristocratic brothers. Madhuri Dixit, the actress who plays Ram’s heroine in Khalnayak, is named Ganga. In one significant scene of misrecognition, we see her disguised as a prostitute playing a game of antakshari with Ram. The parlor game, very popular in familial or friendly gatherings, consists of singing verses of popular songs, the end letter of which the next person takes up as the initial letter of his/her verse. Not only does Ganga in the film sing various couplets from the Tulsidas Ramayana that were included in the television serial, but also one from a 1985 Shroff-Dixit film, Ram Teri Ganga Maili (Ram, your Ganga is polluted), in which they played a pair called Ram and Ganga.
The heroine’s pollution and tests of chastity in Bombay films often metaphorically allude to the body or body politic of the nation, but Sita’s trial by fire, just as in calendar art, is not literally depicted in them. The scenario changes, however, with the television serial. The most controversial and climactic moment of Ramanand Sagar’s television production of the Ramayana was precisely this scene. Page 3 of your handout includes the coronation scene in the serial, whose elements by now would be thoroughly familiar to you, and a brief shot from the one-hour-long seventy-sixth episode dedicated to Sita’s trial by fire. This crucial episode, framed by Sagar’s telling statements about how he chose to dress Sita and represent her trial, helps us further understand the continuum of essentialized gender identities and the “zoontology” of othering -- to borrow a phrase from philosopher Naomi Zack – between calendar art, Bollywood cinema, and the television serial. You will notice that Sita in her ascetic garb in the fire is dressed very much like the contemporary north Indian woman, including the modest long-sleeved blouse. In spite of the serial’s claims to “historical accuracy,” Sagar is reported to have explained that “during that time women did not cover their torsos … it was impossible for him to allow that on the screen since the image of Sita as a pure, chaste, and ideal wife was so strong … that to show her without a blouse would violate the moral message of the serial.”12 The trial episode evoked so much outcry from liberal media and feminist organizations that Sagar had to abandon his original plans of “realistically” depicting Sita’s entry into the pyre. Instead, the storyline was changed to include Lakshman protesting Ram’s decision, only to know that Ram, with divine foreknowledge, had anticipated Sita’s abduction and even before the event put her soul in safekeeping with the fire-god Agni; Sita’s body indeed could not be polluted – as it could not be burnt – as it was only a “shadow” of her essence. Indeed, Sita’s trial is portrayed as a shadow-pyre, as you can see, although the camera continues to linger on her serene face amidst the flames for well nigh twenty-five minutes.
Ram’s imperturbable mien, especially at these moments of violence, reinforces not only the static iconography of the still image within the moving picture of the television serial – indeed, his every gesture and movement is slow and drawn out – but symbolically conveys his mastery over dharma, the code of conduct, which extends from the private familial sphere to public and political behavior. Discourses about the kshatriya code of masculinity he embodies is reinforced through the script, in which he is repeatedly addressed as maryada purushottam (the honorable man of men). More interesting to me, however, is the transformation of the dark Ram of the calendars and Amar Chitra Katha to a fair, upper-caste north Indian Ram in the serial. The physiological transformation, in my opinion, is not due to lack of makeup facilities. The masculinity of Ram is bolstered in the serial by frequent reinforcement of him and his clan as “Aryan,” a convergence of tropes that historians have traced to the nationalist appropriation of European Orientalism. The theory of the Aryan race, first legitimized and popularized through the work of German Indologist Max Mueller, imbued the nineteenth-century indigenous elites with a sense that they were of the “same stock” as their rulers – “a means by which all Indians of the upper strata could, in opposition to their colonial rulers, gain a sense of national identity.”13 In contrast, the vivid visuality with which both the ape and the rakshas or demon clans are rendered non- or sub-human recalls once more the iconographic rigidity of identification and difference. Mobility through the categories is determined strictly by loyalty to the ethnic/ caste hegemony. Hanuman’s self-mutilation is not rendered with the virtuality of Sita’s fire test: true to the Christlike bodily stigma he carries in the calendar picture, the television serial does not hesitate to represent a bit of blood and gore, followed by the transcendentally serene portrait of the divine couple reflected in the hole on Hanuman’s chest. Hanuman, by virtue of his mutilation, attains the epithet of “son” from Sita, whereas the rakshas in the serial, except for the royal family, remain exaggeratedly made up as dark, sexually rapacious, immoral men and women.
This “zoontology” intersecting nationality, race, caste, and gender may be examined in very intense terms through the newest medium in which the Ramayana has been visualized: gaming. In 2000, Image Infotainment Ltd., a software company based in Chennai, released a 3-CD “Interactive Ramayana” that juxtaposes written text and oral recitation in Sanskrit (with English translations) with vivid, 3-dimensional action in which the viewer can participate. Page 4 of your handout contains some of the key moments of the game. The attraction of gaming is the virtual environment in which the viewer literally enters the hero’s “body,” navigating through the narrative through his perspective and dealing with the contingencies he encounters. In the Ramayana game, the player can choose to be any of the good guys, but not Sita or the rakshas. He may, however, have the pleasure of slaying any number of evil fantastic monsters – all much darker, if you will notice, than the hero – with a twist not to be found in gaming as one understands it. The outcome of the narrative in which the player participates is not only predictable and scripted, but each step of it, unlike most computer games, is founded not on defamiliarization but familiarity with the iconography a child would have encountered on the wall of his home, Amar Chitra Katha comics, Bollywood film, and the television serial, which was released in a 12-DVD set in 2000.
The computer game of Ramayana hypostasizes the appeal of the endlessly reproduced visual that binds all the genres I have examined today in a web of interconnectedness: a relationship between iconographic image and viewer unmediated through text. For the semiotics of the intermedial, to borrow Timothy Lamar’s charaterization of Japanese anime, circumscribes the hierarchy between the “higher” narrative of the literary text and “lower” semiological systems of mass and popular culture. The intervisuality of the “recent tradition” of Ramayana in the media also negotiates a crucial disjuncture between past and present, the world of the epic and the world of everyday contemporary reality – a slippage that Erich Auerbach so elegantly demonstrated in his classic study of representation in European literature. The vocabulary of pictures rather than words, spanning the parallel lives of calendars, posters, graphic novels, Bombay films, and computer games, also demonstrates that by appropriating the very strategies and devices of postmodernity – pastische and simulacrum, to name only two – the epic has paradoxically acquired new ideological and political valence in the rhetoric of nationalism predicated on racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural purity.
The most convincing argument for this thesis can be found in rather chilling political imagery of the last decade, three examples of which I have appended on the last two pages of your handout. The first image depicts a scene from the 1991 rathyatra which culminated in the carnage of the Babri Masjid, and the second is a 1995 portrait of Lal Krishna Advani, the BJP leader, at a political rally during what was the peak of Hindu Right ascendancy in Indian national politics. In the first image, we see volunteers for the storming of Ayodhya dressed as the monkey army – indeed, the youth wing of the VHP calls itself “Bajrang Dal” or “the gang of Hanuman.” Advani, at a higher political echelon than such volunteers, performs Ram directly at the hero’s most militant, ready to eliminate both the Muslim minority and liberal enemies of the epic, “pure” national past. In the final image of your handout, an enormous profile of Ram the ascetic-warrior – by now familiar to you in all its iconographic power – looms tall over the diminutive, ineffectual army men sent in to maintain peace after a section of Babri Masjid had already been destroyed.
1 Paula Richman, “Introduction: The Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition,” Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: U of California P, 1991), 3-21.
2 Sheldon Pollock, “Ramayana and the Political Imagination in India,” Journal of Asian Studies 52, 2 (1993): 264.
3 A. K. Ramnujan, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” Many Ramayanas, 24-25 and 46.
4 Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986), vii. Such distinctions underlie not only Erich Auerbach’s work, but also Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1944), Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. J. Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1969), 120-167, and Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).
5 See, among others, Romila Thapar, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for Hindu Identity,” Modern Asian Studies 23, 2 (1989): 209-231; Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993); Peter van der Beer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley: U of California P, 1994).
6 Purnima Manekkar, “Mediating Modernities: The Ramyan and the Creation of Community and Nation,” Screening Culture, Viewing Politics (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999), 165-223, and Arvind Rajagopal, Politics after Television (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001).
7 Mankekar, 192-3.
8 Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1996), 42.
9 “Introduction,” The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983), 10.
10 Daniel H. Smith points out this two-way relationship in his study “Impact of God Posters on Hindus and Their Devotional Traditions,” Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia, ed. Lawrence A. Babb and Susan S. Wadley (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 24-50.
11 The psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, in noting the genre’s relationship to fantasy, has done exhaustive analyses of the fairy tale, but does not note the intersections of the tropes of exile, abduction, reunion, etc. with elements of the Ramayana. See Kakar, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (New Delhi: Pengiun, 1989), 29.
12 Amrita Chhachhi, cited in Mankekar, 212.
13 Uma Chakravarti, “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi? Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past,” Recasting Women, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Delhi: Kali for Women), 46.