The other side of the tale:Feminist revisions of the epics

November 11, 2012

The princess retells her tale: Feminist revisions of Indian epics

Is it not an oddity that thousands of women all over our country are named Sita, but Draupadi is deemed inauspicious? It is a matter of culture and tradition, and also how the great epics and their politics are inextricably bound with our society. It is no secret that epics have not been kind to women. Bards have sung to the high heavens of the valour and sacrifice of men. Women have been marginalized members of a cast designed to eulogise certain heroic values.


There is no questioning the fact that all epics are great stories with layers of meaning. So much so, that each reader takes away something different. The re-telling of epics takes this idea to the next level. This begins with the realization that there is no absolute form of myth. It undergoes evolution over time and at the hands of people who interpret it in the light of their own values and ideologies. There is no Ur-text. In that sense these stories are not re-interpretations, rather they are different interpretations.


Women’s retellings of these stories have been a part of rural folk tradition for centuries. Not for them is Rama the righteous king who undergoes numerous trials with patience and virtue. Instead he is the reason behind Sita’s tribulations. Sita’s experiences of womanhood, marriage, pregnancy and child birth are the crux of these narratives. They identify with her pain, fear and loneliness. Speaking of it in narrative form affords expression to their voice which has been repressed by patriarchy.


Chitra B. Divakaruni’s narrative in The Palace of Illusions is in keeping with this general idea.  So is Samhita Arni’s beautifully illustrated graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana. These retellings become a case of heroism from the margins. Except, instead of the story being appropriated to speak for a repressed female multitude, the protagonist actively narrates the epic from her point of view. Divakaruni’s Draupadi is defiant, seductive and flawed. Retellings refocus the story around contemporary issues. Divakaruni has modernised and humanised her characters. The core of the story is not the absolute idea of dharma but everyday emotions of love, anger, jealousy and loneliness.


Samhita Arni’s Sita is a celebration of a heroism that is not confined to male notions of bravery on the battle field that epics laud. Sita’s insight into her own situation and the condition of women as pawns in a morbid game is poignant. She says, “War, in some ways, is merciful to men. It makes them heroes if they are the victors. If they are the vanquished – they do not live to see their homes taken, their wives widowed. But if you are a woman – you must live through defeat.” In Arni’s own words, “It’s important to see Sita not as a just a wife, or queen, but as a woman in her own right – and one who, at times in various retellings, displays a great of sensitivity, maturity and insight.”


Mahashweta Devi’s After Kurukshetra is a collection of 3 stories that explore the dimly lit back alleys that skulk in the metropolis that is the Mahabharata. The first story, “The Five Women” tells of five lower-caste war widows who are brought in as companions for the pregnant widow of Abhimanyu , the dead Pandava hero. “Kunti and the Nishadin” deals with a conveniently forgotten shameful act from the Pandavas’ past, drowned out by the cheers surrounding their battlefield victory … until now. And ‘Souvali’ is the story of the woman employed to service Dhritarashtra, patriarch of the Kauravas and father of her son, and her reaction to his death.


It is evident that the epics are not ossified monoliths but fluid stories that continue to have meaning today. These interpretations have added currency to what might have been deemed mothballed. They also reflect the situation of women in the country, atleast the urban centers. The concern has shifted from the home and the hearth to issues of individual expression. Sita’s and Draupadi’s self expression is a parallel to urban Indian women waking up to their existence as individuals. In making these characters speak, the writers indulge in the ultimate act of subversion. They use the bastion of patriarchy to hammer cracks into it from within.


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