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Ramayana Stories in Modern South India

An Anthology

Compiled and Edited by Paula Richman

Publication Year: 2008

While some religious texts may remain static over time, the Ramayana epic has been retold in a variety of ways over the centuries and across South Asia. Some of the narrative's most probing and innovative retellings have appeared in print in the last 100 years in the region of South India. This collection brings together, for the first time, modern retellings translated from the four major South Indian languages and from genres as diverse as drama, short stories, poetry, and folk song. The selections focus on characters generally seen as stigmatized or marginalized, and on themes largely overlooked in previous scholarship. Editor Paula Richman demonstrates that twentieth-century authors have used retellings of the Ramayana to question caste and gender inequality in provocative ways. This engaging anthology includes translations of 22 primary texts along with interpretive essays that provide background and frameworks for understanding the stories.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-xi

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Preface: Compiling a Ramayana Anthology

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pp. xiii-xvi

Veerappan, the mustachioed bandit based deep in the forests of Karnataka, abducted beloved film actor Rajkumar and held him prisoner for three months in 1998. When Rajkumar was finally released, a well- wisher asked how he felt. He was forced to remain in the forest only three months, he replied, but Lord Rama had to endure fourteen years there. As Rajkumar’s reply suggests, Indians ...

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pp. xvii-xx

During the ten years of this collaborative project, many people have helped to make this anthology richer, more wide- ranging, and more illuminating than it would have been otherwise. First, I thank authors and literary heirs who gave us permission to translate and publish their works (see list at end of acknowledgments). Second, I am grateful to the extraordinary group of translators who ...

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Note on Transliteration, Translation, and Pronunciation

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pp. xxi-xxiii

Because this anthology is designed to make modern South Indian retellings of the story of Rama and Sita accessible to English readers both in India and the United States, we have tried to translate Indian terms whenever possible, but have not done so when the Indian term is so dense with meaning that to translate it would be to drain it of complexity. Thus, we have kept, and italicized at ...

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Introduction: Whose Ramayana Is It?

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pp. 1-36

A striking literary phenomenon has been gradually gathering momentum over the last one hundred years. Although the earliest rendition of the story of Prince Rama and his wife, Sita, dates to before the common era, its incidents have inspired creative writers throughout the twentieth, and into the twenty-first, century. 1 Some of the most talented writers in the four major languages of South ...

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Part 1. Sita In Context

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pp. 37-42

Why haven’t we heard Sita’s own voice and viewpoint?1 Vijaya Dabbe’s poem (selection #1) begins part 1 by articulating this question and considering the consequences of Sita’s silence. While authoritative Ramayanas focus primarily on events in Rama’s life and his views of them, the selections in part 1 instead direct attention to Sita’s life and her perspective. Indeed, Ambai’s ...

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1. Asking Sita: The Questions Return

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pp. 43-44

Vijaya Dabbe (b. 1952) is a scholar, activist, and Kannada poet. Among her Ramayana interests is Nagachandra’s Ramachandra Charita Purana (also known as Pamparamayana), a Jain Ramayana in Kannada about which she has written a monograph. She has also played a leading role in Samata, a Mysore- based organization committed to the empowerment of women. The poem below, from ...

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2. Sartorial Dilemmas: Letters from Lady Sita

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pp. 45-49

Ranganayaki Thatham (1905–1986) wrote regularly for Tamil magazines in the 1930s and 1940s under the pseudonym of “Kumudini.”1 A follower of Gandhi, she shocked neighbors by wearing khadi (homespun cloth) even to weddings. Striving to achieve personal simplicity and self- reliance, she experimented with a stove that allowed air in on four sides to reduce consumption of fuel, wrote a ...

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3. A Mother-in-Law’s Support: Sita Locked Out

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pp. 50-54

This song shares some features with a genre of folksongs that are meant to be performed at the door of the house. Such songs are popular at weddings in the Andhra region, but those “open the door” songs depict the husband locked out by the wife, whereas the roles are reversed in the song translated here. In a series of strategically orchestrated sections, the song depicts how Sita extricates herself ...

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4. Sita’s Powers: Do You Accept My Truth, My Lord?

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pp. 55-57

This song, translated from Kannada, comes from a three- part collection of folk stories from Ramkatha where each part focuses on one aspect of Sita’s experiences: her birth, her marriage, and the tests of her fidelity to Rama. The editors of the collection inform us that they transcribed the song translated below, focusing on Sita’s tests, in 1972 from a performance by Honnajamma, a woman ...

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5. Talking Back: Sita Enters the Fire

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pp. 58-63

Gudipati Venkata Chalam (1894–1979), popularly known simply as “Chalam,” was a prolific and skilled writer of Telugu fiction. His social and literary contributions stemmed from his relentless advocacy of women’s social and personal freedoms (especially sexual freedom) and his talent for portraying women’s lives in their own voices as he imagined them. A master of spoken Telugu, he ...

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6. The Pensive Queen: Sita Immersed in Reflection

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pp. 64-87

“Sita Immersed in Reflection” by Kumaran Asan (1873–1924) consists almost entirely of Sita’s extended soliloquy, interspersed with a few descriptive verses that signal shifts in her train of thought. The poem, first published in 1919, presents Sita’s inner feelings at a pivotal moment between two of the epic’s most dramatic events: Rama’s ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) and Sita’s return ...

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7. Choosing Music: Forest (excerpt)

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pp. 88-90

C. S. Lakshmi (b. 1944) has been writing fiction under the pen name Ambai since the age of sixteen. In addition to being a prominent short story writer in modern Tamil, she is also a historian, critic, and archivist. “Forest,” one of her more ambitious stories, contains many layers, moving between two protagonists and their life- stories: Chenthiru living in today’s world, a modern Sita; ...

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8. Forest of Possibilities: Reunion

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pp. 91-98

“Volga” Popuri Lalitha Kumari (b. 1950) has combined feminist activism with writing, film work, college teaching, and publishing. A versatile author, she writes novels, essays, plays, short stories, literary criticism, and translations from English to Telugu. In addition to a number of novels, many of which explore the meaning of freedom in women’s lives, she has also published a study ...

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9. Union with Nature: Prakriti and Sovereignty in Aravindan’s Kanchana Sita

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pp. 99-107

In his film Kanchana Sita, Kerala filmmaker G. Aravindan (1935–1991) portrays Sita not in human form but as a representation of the philosophical concept of Prakriti, the animating force of the natural world conceived as female. In the film, Sita speaks only through movement in nature, such as when leaves rustle or the surface of the river ripples. Although Kanchana Sita touches upon ...

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10. Struggling with an Ideal: In the Shadow of Sita

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pp. 108-110

Lalitha Lenin (b. 1946) served as Reader in, and then Head of, the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of Kerala in Tiruvananthapuram until her retirement in 2006. Among her many publications are articles in the field of Library and Information Science, short stories, children’s books, television scripts, and several collections of poetry. ...

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Part 2. Stigmatized Characters

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pp. 111-118

Modern South Indian writers have paid particular attention to Rama’s relationship with two characters, each of whom was stigmatized for departing from religiously validated gender and caste norms: Shambuka and Ahalya. On the one hand, Valmiki’s Ramayana depicts Rama slaying Shambuka, a Shudra tapasvi (ascetic), because he violated the prohibitions against Shudras practicing ...

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11. Transforming a Brahmin: Shudra Tapasvi (excerpt)

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pp. 119-134

Kuppalli Venkata Puttappa, known as “Kuvempu” (1904–1994), composed innovative works in each of Kannada’s major literary genres, earning particular acclaim for rewriting epic narratives in fresh ways.1 After growing up in the Malnad district (Western Ghats) of Karnataka, Puttappa attended Mysore University for multiple degrees and rose through the ranks of academia to serve ...

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12. Shambuka’s Story Anew: Basavalingaiah Re- presents Shudra Tapasvi

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pp. 135-140

C. Basavalingaiah (b. 1977) became involved with drama through Samudaya, a street theater movement begun in 1975 during the Indian Emergency to combine messages of social activism with excitement about new theatrical forms.1 It organized performance festivals (jatras) to foster socio-political awareness among laborers in rural areas. Basavalingaiah entered Samudaya as a student ...

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13. Ahalya Later: Woman of Stone

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pp. 141-145

K. B. Sreedevi (b. 1940) was born into an orthodox Nambudri family, steeped in Vedic learning, in northern Kerala.1 After secondary school, she continued her study of music and Sanskrit and began her career as a writer. She has written four novels, one of which was made into a film. Among the many short stories she has published, she has shown particular interest in female characters ...

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14. Consequences of a Misdeed: Deliverance from the Curse

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pp. 146-157

“Pudumaippittan” C. Virudhachalam (1906–1948) employed many genres during the fourteen years of his writing career. Within the genre of the short story, he engaged with a range of themes and forms as he observed the social changes and shifting political affiliations of the times. His early stories tend to be short and stark, biting in their satire, and he invented a staccato style for them, single ...

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15. The Nature of Stone: Ahalya

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pp. 158-159

Sivasekaram, professor and head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, was born in 1942. He has been composing poetry in Tamil since the 1970s; he also writes critical articles on literature and politics as well as translating poetry into Tamil from English. In Sivasekaram’s poem, none of the four characters participating in the drama is named: the wife; the stony-hearted husband who curses her; and the ...

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16. Domestic Abuse and the Neurologist: Ahalya

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pp. 160-172

N. S. Madhavan (b. 1948) grew up in Cochin, where this short story is set. Soon after his first short fiction was published in 1970, he joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and has served since then in the Bihar cadre. Going on to publish many short stories, he became closely identified with the Malayalam modernist movement. Madhavan is known for subtle connections of ...

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Part 3. So-Called Demons

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pp. 173-180

Thinking about Ramkatha as depicting interactions between different categories of creatures (such as deities, humans, and rakshasas) reveals how each category provides specific imaginative resources for authors. The writers in part 3 reject binary oppositions between rakshasas and humans that drive older tellings of Ramkatha. Their rakshasas do not conform to clichéd images of ...

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17. Gender Reversal: The Horns of the Horse

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pp. 181-186

C. Subramania Bharati (1882–1921) worked in a number of capacities over the course of his life, including as court poet for a zamindar, high school teacher, journalist, cartoonist, and translator. Widely viewed as the greatest Tamil poet of the twentieth century, he received the title by which he is commonly known, “Bharati” (a Tamil name for Goddess Sarasvati), from an assembly of poets ...

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18. Male Rivalry and Women: Shurpanakha’s Sorrow

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pp. 187-192

Among those included in this volume, Telugu writer Kandula Varaha Narasimha Sarma (b. 1939) has utilized the strategy of contemporizing Ramkatha in a particularly masterful way. A retired professor of civil engineering who writes in Telugu under the nom de plume of “Kavanasarma,” he seeks to provide logical explanations and tell “a hard- core truth” in his writing.1 He has won particular ...

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19. Marriage Offers: Mappila Ramayana of Hassankutty (“the Mad”)

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pp. 193-200

The selections that follow are taken from an oral version of Ramkatha that was sung and possibly composed by an itinerant performer of the Muslim community of Kerala who wandered the northern part of that region (Malabar) some seventy years ago. The indigenous Muslims of Kerala are commonly known as Mappilas in Malayalam, and this version of Ramkatha was sung by one ...

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20. Sita Creates Ravana: Portrait Ramayana (excerpt)

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pp. 201-214

The play Chitrapata Ramayana [Portrait Ramayana] emerged from a unique collaborative endeavor inspired by a folk ballad. Chitra can mean a drawing, an illustration, a picture, or a painting. A pata is a scroll or single painting. Before mechanical reproduction of images, artisans would work in front of temples, creating quick paintings of the local deity (such as Kalighat paintings called ...

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21. Ravana’s Letter from Heaven: Come Unto Me, Janaki

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pp. 215-219

K. Satchidanandan (b. 1946), a poet and literary critic who writes in Malayalam and Tamil, completed his Ph.D. in post- structuralist literary theory at the University of Calicut, Kerala. After teaching for twenty-five years as professor of English at Christ College, Kerala, he began serving as editor of Indian Literature in 1992 and as secretary of the Sahitya Akademi (the Indian academy of arts ...

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Epilogue: Meta - Narrative

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pp. 220

A. K. Ramanujan once noted, “To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta- Ramayanas.”1 The Ramayana tradition has a long history of commenting on Ramkatha from within a particular telling of the story.2 The most conspicuous example in this volume is Basavalingaiah’s re- presentation of , in which the actors relate ...

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22. Everyone Has Anxieties: Lakshmana’s Laugh

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pp. 221-226

Rama has convened his entire court for the first durbar (royal assembly) since his exile. He sits surrounded by his newly crowned vassal kings, Vibhishana and Sugriva, and the monkey army. Suddenly, Lakshmana laughs out loud in court, a transgression of proper behavior. The cause of his laugh is innocent. According to a folktale, Lakshmana refuses to sleep during the forest exile because he wants to guard Rama and ...


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pp. 227-234


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pp. 235-242

List of Contributors

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pp. 243-248


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pp. 249-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780253000156
E-ISBN-10: 0253000157
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253349880

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 4 b&w photos, 1 maps
Publication Year: 2008