A contemporary political thriller set in Ayodhya is never going to be an easy sell and Samhita Arni admits that publishers aren’t yet queuing up. But Samhita, who won international acclaim at the age of 11 with her version of the Mahabharata, is more likely to pull it off than most. In the meantime, she’s been keeping herself busy with Sita’s Ramayana, the first-ever graphic novel to use Patua art.
Samhita admits that she wasn’t initially enthralled with the Ramayana, which has few shades of grey especially in the “whitewashed versions” that have become standard fare today. It was the Mahabharata’s questions that really interested her as a child – for instance, Yudhisthira’s final ascent to heaven where we suddenly find ourselves wondering whether dogs can go to heaven too. In particular Sita, who tends to be a convenient depository of “all the ideal qualities” a wife and daughter-in-law should have, was not a figure to whom Samhita could relate. But two episodes in the epic suggested to her that perhaps there was something more to this cardboard cut-out: the first when Sita asks Rama why he’s carrying weapons in the forest; the second when she chooses to be swallowed up by the earth after Rama subjects her to a (second) public test.
This first incident appears right at the beginning of Sita’s Ramayana. The Patuas (or Citrakaras) of Bengal are itinerant painter-singers who illustrate a story frame by frame to form a scroll which is then displayed when they perform the narrative. Their Ramayana – just one element of their large and varied repertoire which includes modern themes as well as tales of Muslim saints, for the Patuas worship both sets of gods – tends to have three main sections: Sita’s banishment, rescue and exile. The graphic novel takes the images from these scrolls and starts, as the Patuas’ version does, in media res with a weeping Sita surrounded by flowers. Samhita worked mainly with the images – although she did also read transcripts of some song performances by the Patua – innovating where necessary, as here by investing the flowers with speech to help unfold the story (see image from opening page above).
Many subsequent versions of the Ramayana have, in retelling it, tried to rectify and improve parts of the epic, thus in effect re-creating it. Tulsidas burnished Rama’s divine credentials; Periyar celebrated Ravana as the true hero. Samhita’s contemporary novel is set when Rama and Sita have just returned to Ayodhya. In this it is similar to Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacarita, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts to try to grapple with the Ramayana’s troubling ending. Samhita smiles at the comparison.
An excerpt of the novel, called Searching for Sita, explains the smile. Ayodhya is a successful and wealthy country presided over by Rama, whom everyone adores. Beneath the posters of the white-kurta-wearing king and out of sight of the giant public televisions that beam his image across the kingdom, Ayodhya shines considerably less. The country’s most celebrated journalist, Valmiki, has penned an official biography of Rama and the media tows the party line. It is hard not to associate Samhita with our narrator, a young female journalist who identifies with the ostracised Kaikeyi and Sita. The narrator is summarily fired and has to make a speedy exit from the kingdom for asking Rama, in a live interview, what happened to Sita. Whether or not you see today’s India in this – especially now that the BJP’s glory days are long gone and the India Shining campaign derided into oblivion – it offers an insight into the kind of response this most politicised of poems invokes.
The Mahabharata: A Child’s View (below) was published by Tara Books in 1996; it is currently out of print but is being released again soon.
Sita’s Ramayana is being published by Tara Books and will be released soon.