24 October 2016

Ram, Lokhon, Sinta. And Sabin.

My Mumbai Mirror column:

Altaf Mazid’s film on the Karbi version of the epic underlines why we need all our many Ramayanas.

It’s not yet Diwali, and the Ramayana season this year already feels more disturbing than festive. First, the Shiv Sena successfully prevented actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui from acting in the annual Ramlila in his hometown Budhana (which is in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, a district that was torn apart by Hindu-Muslim riots in 2013). So what if Siddiqui is the town’s most famous export by far and actually wants to return to fulfil a childhood dream? No Muslim had ever acted in the Budhana Ramlila, said the Shiv Sainiks, and there was no way they’d let one start now.

Then, timing it carefully to coincide with Dussehra, the Modi government announced a Ramayana museum with a Rs.151 crore budget. Part of a projected Ramayana tourism circuit, the museum - to be built in Ayodhya – clearly targets the BJP’s Hindutva voters in UP: building a Ram Mandir at the site where the Sangh Parivar demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 has been part of the BJP’s manifesto for years. While a Ramayana Museum is a wonderful idea in itself, the present project — to be carried out in UP’s most politically sensitive town, in an election year, by a pernicious and culturally insecure government — does not inspire confidence as being anything but a sop to Ram temple enthusiasts.

The Ramayana museum I’d love would be one that lets us marvel at how communities across our vast and varied subcontinent have made the epic their own. Such a museum is unlikely to get built in the near future — but it would have benefited greatly from the knowledge and enthusiasms of Altaf Mazid, the Assamese filmmaker, critic and restorer who died in April this year.

I say this because I recently watched Mazid’s striking 50-minute film Sabin Alun (titled ‘The Broken Song’ in English), about how the Ramayana story is told and lived by the Karbis, an ethnic group in the hill areas of Assam. Although screened as ‘documentary’ (at the 2016 Mumbai International Film Festival and at Delhi’s Open Frame festival organised by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust which also funded the film), Sabin Alun refuses to fit into a pre-established genre. It rolls around playfully between ethnography and storytelling; between serious-minded, unadorned documentation of the epic and a tongue-in-cheek contemporary staging (in which the geeky Ram keeps adjusting his spectacles while the dark-suited Rabon drives Sinta off in a big black car).

Mazid’s film assumes — correctly — that we know the epic inside out. He does not so much describe the Karbi version as draw us into it, demonstrating with quiet beauty and unspoken ease how a story can be entirely retold while still remaining recognizable as the same story. The extent of reimagining is apparent from the very name — of the Karbi story as well as the film. Sabin Alun means ‘Song of Sabin’, and Sabin is what the Karbis call Surpanakha, Ravan’s sister.

It seems both marvellous and fitting that Surpanakha, as Sabin, comes to occupy centre space in the Karbi narrative — rather than being stuck on the periphery as the snub-nosed, dark-skinned villainess so horribly rebuffed by Lakshman that the episode is what triggers Ravan’s revenge, the abduction of Sita. Marvellous, because to those of us raised on upper-caste Hindu tellings of the Ramayana, there is still a shock when we’re made to see the tale from the other side, to perceive our fair-skinned heroes as the arrogant, marauding, misogynist outsiders they are in Sabin’s forest home. Fitting, because as a Karbi woman explains, “Sabin has her nose chopped off, and there is no mention of Sabin. So it is ‘Song of Sabin’.”

Even more than Sabin, it is Sinta
 — the Karbi Sita — who demands our attention. Of course, there are many other Sitas stronger than the prettily useless version thrust upon us by Tulsidas and Ramanand Sagar — in the Oriya 15th century Vilanka Ramayana, based on the older Adbhuta Ramayana, Sita is the one who finally kills Ravana, having assumed the form of Kali, but lets the world believe that Rama did the deed.

But Sabin Alun gives us a truly earthy Sita (though ironically Sinta is not found in a furrow, but in an egg). In the song sung in the film, we hear Sinta ask her mother for a knife. “And holding it in her hands... Sinta while on a tour... Felled trees big and small... So mighty was she.” Mazid maps these words onto a staging: a modern-day Karbi woman riding angrily off on a tractor. Later, he reiterates the epic’s agricultural basis among the Karbis, by asking an interviewee why Ram, Lokhon and Sinta had to go into the forest. She responds without a moment’s thought: they had to take up farming, and there were no fields like there are now. “So they went to clear the forest... and then they stayed to supervise the farming.”

Perhaps the finest moment of revelation for me, though, was the quietest: an old lady sings of how Lokhon refused to leave Sita when she bade him go to Ram’s rescue. “I am not going, my brother is not dying,” proclaims Lokhon. But Sita is not one to give up so easily. “Oh Lokhon, if you do not go,” she says, “You want to marry me. And this is what you have in your mind.”

The line is delivered in the same drone-like monotone as everything before and after it, and one can only wonder why it is such a shock. It is, after all, a perfectly imaginable dynamic to emerge between a woman and her attractive (temporarily single) brother-in-law. Or perhaps it is too imaginable? There is probably a reason why a man’s relationship with his saali (wife’s younger sister) and a woman’s with her devar (husband’s younger brother) are categorised as ‘joking relationships’ across North India. It takes the matter-of-fact frankness of the Karbi telling to let us see this aspect of the Sita-Lakshman relationship that we have suppressed for years.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23rd Oct 2016.

1 comment:

scritic said...

I think Sita's line to Lakshman--about covering her--is in the Valmiki version as well. I remember coming across it in an essay by Irawati Karve (in Marathi).