Archive for the 'interviews' Category

Samhita Arni – An Interview

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.


Stories Without Borders

Stories Without Borders has a simple mission: to use film to explore the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, throughout South and South-East Asia.  Simple but, like Hanuman’s many-yojana leap from India to Lanka, also overwhelmingly huge.  And all the more so when you consider that Stories Without Borders consists of just two people – Andrea Frazier and Jarrod Brown – who although clearly very talented probably lack Hanuman’s divine parentage.  The pair, with expertise in film and Asia respectively and plenty of shared passion, are busy fund-raising and grant-writing in preparation for a year-long documentary filming session that will take them through India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos (and hopefully Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar) to capture the artistic ‘manifestations’ which the epics have inspired in each. And this is only their first project…

The pair talks here about where the project came from and where it’s headed:

What is the story and the concept behind this project?

The story of how this project came about is a bit complicated. The concept as a whole is Andrea’s idea. Last year, Jarrod quit his job as the director of an Indian education dot-com and spent four months traveling in his old home, Southeast Asia (Jarrod lived in India and Malaysia for five years).  Andrea, who currently works in television, stumbled across his travel blog and was inspired to contact him.  She had been contemplating working on a full-scale documentary for nearly a year, and decided that Jarrod would make a good partner.  Jarrod and Andrea share a similar cultural background, both growing up rural Appalachia in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.  It made sense, and she contacted Jarrod about doing a travel documentary.

Little did she know that Jarrod was already at work on a side project, looking at the roles the Ramayana and Mahabharata play in Southeast Asia—how, for example, Muslim puppeteers in Malaysia are performing scenes from the Mahabharata. It was natural that the two projects should come together.

The medium for capturing these cultural articulations is film, and therefore to truly document it someone with Andrea’s skills and vision as a director and videographer was needed. Furthermore, both Andrea and Jarrod saw this as a way to explore shared cultural experiences that transcend nationality and even religion. The film should serve not only as an interesting visual documentary and something with academic value but also as something that can plant the seeds for a transformative experience in the viewer.

Charting the epics across Asia is a huge project – and presumably an almost overwhelming task – how are you going about it? Have you set certain parameters to make it more manageable?

We decided early on that it was the roles of the epics and their manifestations in culture that would define the parameters.  Therefore performances, art and architecture shape our explorations.  Although it is fascinating to study the Laotian version of the text, the Pra Lak Pra Lam, in which Rama is replaced by a Bodhisattva, we realised that wasn’t appropriate for film.  Whereas to see a performance of the Ramayana by a Laotion traditional dance troupe is appropriate only for the medium of film.

Jarrod’s expertise also shapes our agenda.  He lived for many years in South India, speaks Bahasa, and has close connections with Cambodia and Vietnam.  Given that, he can facilitate shooting and find the sorts of manifestations we are looking for more easily. Access, scheduling and budgets are realities that also constrain us. All these practical concerns played a role in our planning and managing the scope of the project.

What’s been the most striking thing so far? 

The classical Javanese dance of the Ramayana, the Balinese Kecak Dance (or “Hanuman Dance”) and the shadow puppet performances of S’bek Thom of both epics in Cambodia are some of the most visually stunning manifestations of these epics that we’ve come across. We both get giddy when we think about being present to film these.

What made these epics spread so far and have so much influence?

There are two ways to answer this. The first is like this: People often forget that India was and continues to be a major cultural force in Southeast Asia. Sumatra was conquered by the South Indian Chola empire; Malaysia’s first sultan was half Chola. Brahmanism exists today in a unique form only in Bali. Angkor Watt in Cambodia first housed a Siva-lingam before Buddhism came to Southeast Asia, itself another Indian import. We can go on.  So, cultural and political influence can account for their spread.

The enduring influence of these texts, however, cannot be explained by the account above as India is no longer a major cultural player in Southeast Asia outside its pop culture. We’d like to think that these epics, with their accounts of human perfection and imperfection, moral dilemmas and human wantonness as well as greatness, speak to something inherent in all of us. These are stories that speak to the fundamental questions of what it is to be a human in this world, and that is why today they continue to be retold time and time again by story-tellers, puppeteers, artists, musicians, architects and even filmmakers.

Is there a distinction to be made between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in terms of their influence and reach? 

Yes. The Ramayana is by far more prevalent and well known. Most striking is the valorisation of Hanuman as the faithful servant. Some will say this is because of machinations of the state, but the ever-faithful Hanuman seems to offer an archetypical figure of devotion that transcends cultural and religious sensibilities. Perhaps the sheer volume of the Mahabharata made it less popular, although episodes, particularly of Arjuna and Krishna in the chariot and the battle at Kurukshetra, are common in art, and the story of the five brothers is still told in song and shadow. The Bhagavad Gita does not have any particular value as a separate text apart from the Mahabharata except in places like Bali where they are still treated as fundamentally religious texts. The chariot and charioteer motif so common in India is notably lacking.  In most of the cultures we will be exploring, India and Bali being the exceptions, these texts are cultural artefacts, rather than a canon of religious truths.

When can we watch the film? 

We will complete the initial fund raising reel within the next three months, and it will be fund raising and grant writing for most the year after that. We’re also working on establishing a non-profit organization to support our work moving forward. We are now planning to shoot the film in mid-2012 and hope to release it in late 2013.  You can have a look at a very rough teaser here.  And we also have a Stories Without Borders YouTube channel here.

For more about Stories Without Borders, have a look at the blog or the website and you can email them at ‘info at’.  The project depends entirely on donations and supports by individuals and is actively fundraising; if you’d like to contribute, either financially or in any other way, visit the website or click here

The images used in the article show (in order):

– A mural scene from Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Thailand which depicts the monkey army crossing the sea to Lanka in the Ramayana

– Javanese Wayang Kulit performance (Wayang Kulit Jawa) of a section of the Javanese Mahabharata called Babad Alas Mrentani – The Opening of Mrentani Forest.

– A detail from the Ramayana bas relief at Angkor Watt, Kingdom of Cambodia, showing one of the army monkeys attacking one of Ravana’s demon’s horses.

The Speculative Ramayana

If there were to be a competition for the work of literature that’s inspired the most re-tellings, the Ramayana would win hands down.  Zubaan Books will soon add to this vast ocean of spin-offs with an anthology of speculative fiction stories called, appropriately enough, the Speculative Ramayana.  The editors, Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, are inviting submissions from anyone who can ‘surprise’ them.  Here they talk a bit more about the project and the epic.

How did the concept of the anthology arise?

Anil: Vandana Singh, Suchitra Mathur and I had conducted a three-week in-residence speculative-fiction workshop at IIT-Kanpur last year (June-July). One of the participants, Pervin Saket, wrote a great story that interpreted Sita in a totally different way. It got us thinking about how an anthology of such stories would look like. The Indian epics are often listed as early examples of speculative fiction, so we figured it’d be interesting to see what modern spec-fic writers could do with something like the Ramayana. Vandana and I approached Zubaan Books. Both Urvashi and Anita loved the idea, and we all ran down the rabbit hole.

How many stories do you plan to include?

Anil: Not less than 10 and not more than 20. It depends on several factors: the sizes of the stories, the number of quality entries we get, the book’s pricing… I know we’ll make an all-out effort to include as many great stories as we can.

 What kind of writers and stories are you looking for?

Anil: We are looking for spec-fic stories that use the Ramayana in an essential and innovative way. In other words, for those of us who know the Ramayana, the stories should immediately evoke some aspect of it, yet the stories should also have the essential flavor of spec-fic – an air of possibility that pushes into the unknown, beyond the obvious, the boring, so to speak. Vague?  Of course. If we’re not vague, how will we be surprised?

Who is the book aimed at?

Anil: Books tend to find their readers, so I’m hesitant to corral the critters. As a kid, I read many books not appropriate for my age. That said, the anthology will probably be best appreciated by young adults and above.

You list A. K. Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” as a resource.  Are you concerned that this project may invite a similar reaction from the Hindu right?

Anil: This anthology is not about Hinduism or any other religion. It’s a collection of stories, inspired by the Ramayana, by some of the best speculative fiction writers in India and around the world. If anything, we should be delighted that our epics continue to inspire so many writers around the world. We are. We hope others will be too.

Vandana: One of the great things about Hinduism is its embrace of a diversity of viewpoints, a sort of creative extravagance, a kind of generosity of spirit.  While this anthology is not a work of religion, it is a work inspired by this spirit, which is evident in the multifarious Ramayana traditions.  In a sense one can understand this spirit as being consistent with the notion of Leela, of divine play, where the divine transcends categories of good and evil, in order to truly know itself.  So again, while our anthology has no religious agenda or affiliation, it is in a sense continuing the glorious tradition of telling stories around the central story.  Of inventing new patterns from the warp and weft of the old.  Of asking questions about what a Ramayana of the future might be.  Of taking the rich metaphors of the epic and finding meaning from it that might be relevant to modern life, real or imagined.  One might imagine the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, as the poetess Molla did, or from Ravana’s perspective, or marry the old tropes to science –fictional futures, technologies, adventures.  Narrow minded people are everywhere and will probably find something to complain about no matter what we do.  So why worry about them?  

Should we read the Ramayana as a work of literature or a religious text?  Can it be both simultaneously?

Anil: For me, the Ramayana is a great work of literature. Valmiki is known as Adi-kavi (first poet) after all.

Vandana:  In my opinion the Ramayana can exist simultaneously as great literature and as a religious work.  Because Hinduism is so fluid, so creative in its expression of the divine, this allows for a wide interpretative range.  It allows also for a great stream of stories centered around the basic storyline, hence the proliferation of multiple Ramayanas.  So instead of Hindu works being divine words of god handed down by some authority, instead I see them as a conversation between the divine and the mundane, including the part of the divine that is considered to be within all of us.  Because in a sense the Ramayana is beyond categories, it is possible to see it as literature and/or to see it as a religious text, depending on who you are and how you are reading it.  

Entries must be written and they must be in English.  I can imagine the logistical challenges of accepting oral submissions and/or entries in other languages but given the rich oral and non-English tradition of Ramayana stories does this do full justice to the epic?

Anil: No, of course it doesn’t. But it’s because we realized our limitations, we decided to stick with English. Hopefully, this anthology will inspire efforts in other languages. The best response to a book is another book, isn’t it?

See the Zubaan page on the Speculative Ramayana for more details on submitting a manuscript and further background on the project:


 The Mahabharata on Twitter: the world’s longest epic poem, all 100,000 verses of it, condensed into a series of online posts of 140 characters, maximum.  Well not quite because Chindu Sreedharan, a lecturer at Bournemouth University in the UK, isn’t actually attempting a full rendition of the epic on Twitter but rather using the story as the basis for what he calls an experiment in social media.  Nevertheless, this is still a feat of compression that would have met the approval of Panini; it has certainly caught the attention of 1,472 followers to date as well as that of the international and Indian press.  In an email interview with Venetia Ansell, Chindu explains how he writes his ‘twiction’, epicretold, tweet by tweet. 

1. Do you have any idea how long the story will last, how long you’ll be tweeting for?

It is a question of months. Some of the readers do ask me, “Oh, so this is going to take decades?” Hold on, I am not narrating the original Mahabharata in its entirety. It is a version of a version of it. It is a series of selected incidents strung together to form a comprehensible narrative – to present the original plot from a limited perspective. So it is a question of months, not decades.

2.       So what is your base text? 

The fantastic characterisation of Bhima that M T Vasudevan Nair has achieved in Randamoozham is a foundational influence. I read the book first in Malayalam, when it was being published in a weekly. Then, later, I think I must have read Second Turn (the English translation) quite a few times. But my day-to-day source is Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen [a version of the Mahabharata from Bhima’s perspective – like the Randamoozham – which was written in a series of blog posts]. I use that as my main guide.

3. You’re writing this as you post and you only write three to four tweets day – how do you manage to make the narrative fit together so well and maintain an even pace? 

Thank you for saying that. Hemingway’s advice helps. I make sure I read the earlier bits, as many as I can, before I write. That helps (hopefully) with the continuity. Even then, it is quite easy to tap out something that will say what you mean to say, carry the story forward to the next juncture – but when I can, before I post, I take a second look. That helps too. Quite a few times, I have found that actually what I have got wouldn’t flow well, or I have used the same phrase, or the reader will get that bit without my really spelling it out – and accordingly made changes.

4. There’s a certain rhythm to Twitter posts because of the character limitation.  Do you think there are similarities between Twitter and poetry?

On Twitter not just every word, but every character counts – which forces you to write tight. There is rhythm to prose as well, of course, but that comes to the fore across more words, more sentences. Here, on the other hand, because of the character constraint, the writer packs in more sentences, more condensed communication in the same space. So the rhythm, the relation between every sentence/tweet, is more noticeable perhaps? Well, that’s my impressionistic take on it so far!

 5.    Do you have any idea who your followers are?  How do they like it?

The majority are Indians or people of Indian origin. There is a small but significant number of non-Indians as well – Portugese and Americans, mostly, very few from Britain so far as I can see. Most followers are here because it is the Mahabharata. It is the epic that brings them here, and they are quite interested in a contemporary retelling. A very small percentage follows the story because it is fiction on Twitter.

The reaction has been surprisingly positive. Sometimes they attribute a great deal of undeserving originality of interpretation to epicretold as well  – which, I must confess, I receive with only half-hearted protests. Very few criticisms, and none of what I would call harsh – a few people had written in, firm in their belief that Bhima was a vegetarian, so how come he’s eating meat here? And a couple of others felt that Yudhisthira was being portrayed as ‘casteist’. But apart from that, it has all been good. Possibly, the fragmented nature of storytelling has contributed to this happiness; I expect there will be more criticism coming my way when readers can read lengthy bits in one sitting.

6.       Does this episodic format mean that your readers shape the text in any way? 

I listen, and respond, intently to what readers say. Twitter provides for that very nicely. I doubt whether that changes the characterisation or the storyline in any significant way. But that has had some effects on my narration. For instance, followers wrote in to say the use of pronouns can be confusing as they are reading one tweet at a time. So I try to make sure that I use names where possible, or fairly frequently, so it is easier to understand who I am referring to. Indirectly, the interaction with readers allows me to get a feel of what they find attractive about the narration, and of course that does influence me when I write.

 7.       Sanskrit is famous for its brevity and concision – any thoughts on the potential for Sanskrit tweeting?

Could be very niche, given that the audience for the language – and this is only a guess, mind – is limited and only a small percentage of that audience would be comfortable on Twitter.

8.      And next, the Ramayana..?

Gosh, no. Not unless someone commissions me! This does become consuming, when you have other commitments to honour as well!

To read the first ‘chapter’ of Chindu’s epicretold, click here

To read and follow the story on Twitter, click here.

For more information on Chindu Sreedharan, see his website here.

Music and Kavya – An Interview with Dr TS Sathyavathi

Dr TS Satyavathi, a Sanskrit scholar and renowned Carnatic musician, is currently directing an ambitious – and popular – AIR programme which sets selected Sanskrit poetry to music.  She talks to Venetia Ansell about the programme, illustrating each point with snatches of beautifully lilting Sanskrit verse in a voice which fully justifies the cabinet behind her that bulges with awards and trophies.

12th May 2009

Mahalakshmi Layout, Bangalore

What was the impetus behind this programme?

Sampath Kumaran [who runs the Sri Tirunarayana Trust which is sponsoring the programme] was very keen to showcase Sanskrit literature and we decided that the best way to do this would be to present it through music as an audio experience.  A visual presentation might have proved a distraction to the actual kavya (poetry).   Music relates itself very quickly to people and there is no language, caste or any other type of barrier.  It heightens our ability to appreciate such poetry.  But we must be careful not to get so carried away by the music that we don’t listen to the actual kavya, just as we shouldn’t focus exclusively on the words alone. 


How do you set the poetry to music? 

I use a mixture of styles.  I set some of the shlokas with tala (the structured and repetitive musical units which are shown in notation) and for other parts I use improvisation, what you call gamakam (variations in a note’s pitch) or kavya-vacana (poetry recitation) style, which has no tala. 

All Sanskrit verse has a particular chandas, a metre, so it lends itself easily to music patterns.  You can set the same metre to different talas but you must do so without distorting the meaning or breaking words.  I have to match the melody to the rasa, the mood or emotion; I have to make the meaning felt through the rasa.  The tempo must also match the rasa – for the karuna (pitiful) rasa we need a slow tempo, a faster one for the vira (heroic) rasa and so on. 

I also select a raga for each section and this too must fit with the meaning of the kavya and its rasa.  Sometimes a kavi (poet) will tell us which raga should be used, such as Jayadeva does for his Gita Govinda, but even where this is the case we only have a name – there is no way of knowing what the vasanta (spring) raga for instance actually sounded like.

I direct a group of young musicians who sing the kavyas – both men and women who sing at times in a group, at times in pairs or solo.  I teach them the meaning of each and every word because they cannot sing the poem until they understand it, but there are still the occasional problems with pronounciation, for example the wrong stress on the word ‘nupura’ (anklet) can make it sound as if the second two syllables are actually a separate word – ‘pura’ (town).  The meaning must not get lost in the melody. 


Is this how these poems would originally have been performed?


Kavyas were not designed to be set to music but they were certainly never just read – they were always recited.  Recitation itself involves music and has an inherent rhythm.  In an oral tradition, recitation is an aide to memory – we can remember long texts because of the rhythm, the laya which is something different to the tala.  The laya is the natural rhythm of a text, you can’t show or denote it but only feel it – it runs between the tala. 


What kind of a response have you had to the programme?  Does it matter that most people are unable to understand high flown classical Sanskrit?


Indians have a great affinity and respect for Sanskrit – the language has endeared itself to them over so many thousands of years.  They may not understand every word but they can get a feel for the poetry.

The Ramayana certainly and to a lesser extent Kalidasa’s works are so familiar that people have no real trouble understanding them, but people are much less familiar with the other poets whose work we are presenting.

We have got fantastic feedback so far.  People eagerly await the next show.  AIR (All India Radio which is broadcasting the programme) tells us that they have had a very good response from both scholars and lay people. 


How can kavya be made relevant to today’s MTV generation in India? 


I think that people should at least be aware of their roots and then decide what path they want to follow.  We also have a responsibility to preserve these great traditions of ours.  They say that one birth isn’t enough to fully understand the great wealth of Sanskrit knowledge and literature.  Sanskrit is an amara-vani, an immortal language.  It is no longer a mass language of communication – replaced by regional languages all of which owe their strength to Sanskrit – but it will not die out.


Samskrita Kavya Sangita presents poetry from Valmiki, Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhana, Bhartrhari, Jayadeva, Adi Shankarcharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya.  The 13th episode will be broadcast tomorrow (14th May) at 7:30am on FM 1001.1, the Amrithavarshini Classical Music Channel, AIR (All India Radio).  There will then be a hiatus for a couple of months before the remaining 13 episodes are broadcast.  In the meantime, the 13 broadcast episodes will be repeated.  The Sri Tirunarayana Trust is hoping to bring out CDs of the programme, particularly the Ramayana ones.   


For more information on the Sri Tirunarayana Trust, please click here for their website.

An Interview with Simona Sawhney

Simona Sawhney is the associate professor of South Asian literature and critical theory at the University of Minnesota.  Her book, The Modernity of Sanskrit, considers diverse readings of the Sanskrit canon in modern India in an attempt to contest the appropriation of Sanskrit by Hindu nationalists in India.  Rejecting one-dimensional readings, Simona prefers a literary approach.  She talks to Venetia Ansell about why a more nuanced reading of these texts is so important for India’s past and future.

8th April 2009

How have Hindu nationalists appropriated Sanskrit texts?

Hindu nationalists have frequently been positioned as privileged heirs of these texts.  They are the ones who, at least in the public sphere, seem to be the most interested and the most passionate about Sanskrit texts. This interest stems partly from a desire to present a particular image of India’s past.  The Hindu nationalist focus is usually on a very small group of texts – predominantly the two epics – and for the most part their aim in invoking Sanskrit texts is to establish the Hindu community as the prior, the most legitimate, the most natural inhabitant of modern India. It is a push for exclusivity.

The Ramayana is perhaps the most obvious example: every attempt to look at it differently provokes a reaction from the Hindu Right.  Last year there was a violent reaction to the inclusion of an essay by AK Ramanujan about retellings of the Ramayana on the recommended reading list for BA Hons students at Delhi University.   The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP – the student wing of the BJP) predictably protested in Delhi. Now a protest in itself need not be a problem—it can even be the sign of an engaged and  active student body—but when such protests take the form of intimidation they become part of a violent political space, where minority voices are often quite ruthlessly suppressed. The message essentially is that you can’t discuss the Ramayana unless you do so with complete and utter veneration of the text, and unless it is approached in exactly the way that the Hindu establishment dictates.

So at the risk of being simplistic, I’d say that there is a difference, a very important difference, between respect and veneration for a text.  Respect means being attentive to the text and being careful about how you discuss it; in this regard, Ramanujan is, I think, completely respectful.   Veneration on the other hand leaves no room for historical or speculative discussion of the text.

For me this is the most troubling aspect of how some groups have appropriated certain texts; they allow no approach other than the one that they have determined. My argument is that only by way of an engagement can these texts have a life in modernity beyond the nationalist and the Hindu nationalist vision of India.


Why has the rest of India allowed them to do this?

The English speaking classes are deeply implicated in this. At times it seems that they—we—have simply let this happen, we have ceded ground without protest, perhaps because we have for a long time harboured a kind of anxiety about Sanskrit and what it represents. To that extent I think we have worked within the same code as the Hindu nationalists, in so far as we have also associated English with modernity, with liberalism and so on, and have perceived Sanskrit and perhaps, in a different way, even modern Indian languages as languages that are somehow not adequate for our times, as languages and codes of thought that have to be surpassed.  We have internalised the violent logic of colonialism and globalisation. I should say that though I am talking about these different groups as active agents—Hindu Nationalists, English-speaking secularists—and though of course agency is involved here, it may be more useful to think of these problems and questions in structural terms. The anxieties of those we are calling “Hindu nationalists”—too broadly and too crudely, it may even be a term we should let go of—in any case, these anxieties arise from the same matrix of historical and political structures that have produced the drive for westernisation in the English speaking elites. Both are twin sides of the same phenomenon, which has to be seen, I think, in the context of colonial history.


Sometimes these groups also mirror one another in practice. For example, where academia or the liberal secular voices are concerned, there is often a reluctance to recognise that others also have powerful stakes in these texts—that others might relate to them differently. It is a complicated situation. I would say that if Hindu groups cannot dictate how these texts are to be read, neither can academics or liberals. Of course, the ways in which a country’s cultural past is read determines how the future is envisioned, or indeed how the future will be shaped. So the stakes are very high, but precisely because the stakes are so high, there has to be some room for different kinds of negotiations. In the book I draw attention to those modern readings of Sanskrit texts that did attempt, in different ways, such negotiations—my concern is that the space for those kinds of negotiations has been steadily shrinking.


How can the balance be redressed?

I think we have to learn to keep open the question of the “meaning” of these texts. While it is important that academics, both in India and abroad, take up this challenge, the more urgent need is for more openness in the broader cultural and political sphere. 

The biggest challenge, for all of us, is the following: how to talk about these things so that we don’t replicate or produce violence. That has to be something we constantly keep in mind. It would mean letting go of some old suspicions perhaps? Secularists are often suspicious of anything that is ‘religious’, the other side are suspicious of anything that doesn’t take religion seriously—that is to say, is not oriented toward the question of religion in the way that the establishment dictates. The cultural sphere then begins to assume a strange shape. For example, it is sad that a remarkable artist like MF Husain—someone who actually does take Sanskrit texts very seriously— is in exile today because some people don’t like his work, or because his work provides a ready excuse to push a certain electoral agenda.


Our education system also bears a great deal of the responsibility here, although there have been some significant efforts recently to redress the balance.  My generation, the English educated middle class, grew up with a sense that English was somehow close to us—in the sense that it would be the most suitable vehicle for our movement into the future, but also in a more aesthetic way, in that it shaped our sensibilities in many ways. In shorthand, I’d say we were still part of a colonial, not a postcolonial world, though the British had left. Most of us read English novels when we were teenagers—those novels were closer to us at that time than modern Indian literature, though the landscapes and people they spoke of were quite removed from our lives. It seems to me that in urban English-medium schools, Sanskrit existed then, and still exists today, almost as a caricature. Students take it mostly to score high marks. Perhaps for some there is a “virtue” associated with it as well, or some kind of nostalgia. Sanskrit textbooks seem to be written in a very simplistic moral code—it’s as though that’s the only code they could possibly be written in.  But Sanskrit could be taught in a very different way, in a way that introduces students to the philosophical and literary diversity of Sanskrit texts, to the very complex political and historical contexts of this work, to the particular eroticism of Sanskrit poetry, and so on. Instead it’s treated like an old patriarch you have to respect and bear with.  Sanskrit may become most interesting if its study is closely integrated into the teaching of the history of early India, in a way that allows students to engage with problems of interpretation and actively demonstrates the political stakes of reading and of thinking historically.


How should ancient texts be read? How can we read them without allowing our own beliefs to colour that reading?


We can’t not allow our own beliefs to interfere – we always bring something to a text, our interests, our passion – nor should we  try to ward against it.  This is part of the condition of reading and it is this that keeps texts alive – every new generation, every individual brings their own world to the texts they read. Texts don’t exist in a pure unchanging space, or a vacuum.

The important thing is that we should try not to read the text only in terms of our own beliefs, we must make an effort to educate ourselves about the text and open ourselves to it and what it’s saying. The text says many things, often many contradictory or conflicting things. Some voices are dominant in it, others are silenced or marginal. Being attentive to this difference and tension within the text—to the uneven and differentiated world of a text—can also affect the reader. The text can also change the reader—that possibility must be kept open. 


Are we ever going to be able to read a text as it ought to be read if we read it in translation?

To read a text in the original is a very different experience.  Especially with a language like Sanskrit, where the literary language is extremely self-conscious and allusive, in a way entirely untranslatable. But it is not an easy language to learn. So if you can’t read in the original then you should read in translation. Not being able to read in the original language shouldn’t become an excuse for not reading at all. In a way, every reading is a reading in translation, because in reading we “translate” the text into different terms, into the terms that make most sense to us or are the most attractive for us.


With the Ramayana, many Indians believe that they know the text but in fact the version they know is Tulsidas, not Valmiki.  Is this a general problem? 

Yes, this is an interesting problem, again primarily because of the role these texts play in contemporary India. It is clear why Tulsidas would  have a broader appeal: his language is more accessible, and he speaks as a true devotee—his work is a work of love, in a way that is not so clear with Valmiki. In itself Tulsi’s popularity is not a problem at all. It is only a problem when the Tulsi Ramayana is taken to stand for the Valmiki Ramayana. Then it shows us that something about “Sanskrit” is being systematically repressed—because people want to trace a continuous line from the Sanskrit texts to the present day, they are forced to overlook everything about these texts that cannot be so easily accommodated within modern morality or aesthetics. People have an image of what the Vedas or Upanisads are like but I suspect many people would be shocked if they actually read a work like the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad. These are some of the issues I try to discuss in the book, especially with regard to literary adaptations of Sanskrit texts—for instance in modern Hindi theatre.


Why is it that Sanskrit literary texts in particular have been so long ignored in India?  What’s the best way to rectify this?

Some of this may have to do with this repression I mention—in order for official, nationalist “Sanskrit” to exist, Sanskrit literature itself may have to be marginalised, ignored. But this is a problem that’s also broader than Sanskrit – what space is there for poetry in general in today’s world?  Do we need to re-think what poetry is and why it is important? What is poetry in global capitalism, what can it do? Our old answers, the familiar answers of the literature departments, don’t quite suffice, in fact their inadequacy seems quite evident.

India of course has enormous economic and political problems to contend with, and the question of poetry can seem very quaint and marginal in the context of the very serious struggles of everyday life. The challenge is to make the arts speak to those problems, to relate them to how we think and how we live.  If the arts are seen as leisure activities only, then the battle is already lost. The question of what human life is, and what art or poetry is—these questions may not be dissociable.


What else are you working on at the moment?

I am just beginning work on a project on karuṇā, normally translated as ‘compassion’. It seems to me that karuṇā leads two different lives: It is a rasa, part of Sanskrit aesthetic theory.  And in this sense it is Bhavabhuti who gives it the most significance. And it is also an ethical Buddhist concept.  I want to think about these two together and to consider how a concept like this, which can’t easily be accounted for in terms of rationality and self-interest, came to assume a certain significance, and what it might signal about a possible relation between art and ethics.


The Modernity of Sanskrit was published last year in the US by the University of Minnesota, and is due to be released this month in its South Asian edition by Permanent Black.  More on the US edition here, and on the South Asian edition here.

An Indian Odyssey – Interview


Martin Buckley has re-traced, in a meandering fashion over 25 odd years, Rama’s journey south from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka on a Bullet, trains and buses.  He didn’t manage to fly back north in the Pushpaka Vimaana, but he did fly a Hanuman plane in Bangalore.  A British journalist and latterly travel writer, Martin recently published An Indian Odyssey, an exploration of the Ramayana based on his own extensive wanderings in India.  He talks to Venetia Ansell about Valmiki’s style – like Hemingway’s – and the echoes of Apocalypse Now in the Ramayana.

28th March 2009

Martin Buckley first came to the subcontinent in 1982.  “Like everyone else I came here to find myself” he quips, but adds more seriously that in fact he thinks he did.  His journey started in Sri Lanka, where he gradually became aware of the existence of the Ramayana through the latest Hindu-Buddhist conflict, the aftermath of which he had landed in, and the constant mention of a woman called Sita in the old British tea estates.  Arming himself with a battered copy of the Ramayana he travelled north and was surprised to see just how much conversation, and controversy, it provoked – like the Tamilian on a train who explained to him that the whole story was a Brahmin conspiracy, white invading Aryans against darker native Dravidians.  He followed the poem through its incarnation as the legendarily popular TV serial to its appropriation by the BJP and the notorious events of Ayodhya in 1992, an event Martin calls “the 9/11 of India”. 

Aware of the turmoil this epic has caused and of the reverence with which both the poem and many of its protagonists are held, he set out to capture something of the Ramayana in today’s India as well as to offer his own re-telling of the story.  “I tried to unpick the extraordinarily complicated web that is the Ramayana“.  The book delves into Ramayana traditions all across the sub-continent and South East Asia, and delivers some fascinating tidbits such as the belief (fed by a strain of Sinhalese nationalism which traces its roots to the Aryans) in Sri Lanka that Ravana, the dark and evil ‘Dravidian’ emperor whom the Aryan Rama battles, is not only a hero but an Aryan hero.

Martin wanted to go back to the Valmiki Ramayana, “I suppose because of my Western desire to get to the Ur Ramayana, as if there was such a thing”, despite acknowledging the one major problem with Valmiki’s version for modern India: it doesn’t really depict Rama as a god.  “Rama is not the perfect man”, he asserts, “he has doubts.”  The jungle tests Rama in ways he has never been tested before.   Martin’s Rama is uncompromising when he kills Vali and icy cold as he submits Sita to the fire test. Addressing a Bangalorean audience at a book reading recently, he tried to explain that it is possible for him for Rama to be a god and yet also be the very human character of the Sanskrit poem.  “I’m not a reductionist from the West who wants to come and lecture you on your own god; if he’s a god for you then he’s a god for me.  Simple.”  Not everyone seemed convinced, but the description in An Indian Odyssey of one or two of the author’s intimate religious experiences with Rama the god suggests that their scepticism is misplaced.

Martin’s version of the Ramayana is punchy and modern. “The history of the Ramayana is the history of trying to whitewash the text,” declares Martin, whereas he gives us Valmiki with all the “blatant sexuality” of episodes such as Shurpanakha meeting Rama, and the brutal reality of jungle warfare.   One woman at the book reading comments that the scene in which Rama and Lakshmana dispatch Khara’s 14,000-strong army reminded her of a well known video game, but in fact the grisly imagery is largely Valmiki’s.  The re-telling is though far too brief, delivered in sparse one page interludes in the main text of the travelogue.  Martin says that his publishers edited it incredibly heavily, perhaps concerned about the average attention span of the target audience. The unfortunate result of this is a narrative which although wonderfully fast-paced and vivid gives the reader no opportunity to really engage.  It’s rather like watching a film trailer – a series of dramatic flashes that give you a tantalising glimpse of the full story.

The travelogue itself is a wonderful romp through all sorts of Indias replete with a commentary whose barb is directed particularly at the ‘Kingfisher India’ as Martin calls it, epitomised in places like the air conditioned highway fast food joint, where a frog-faced family of seven silently stuff themselves – evidence of the developing world rich’s belief that “only systematic gluttony will keep poverty at bay”.   Often though, the keen-sighted Englishman makes way for a credulous traveller genuinely seeking to access India’s rich tradition of spirituality.  Martin’s journey is as much about using the Ramayana to discover Hinduism, which he wholly embraces, as to discover India.  All of which makes it odd that his Ramayana is almost totally rationalised.  Hanuman’s crossing to Lanka is exciting (and dramatic: you can’t help but picture a muscular Hrithik Roshan when Hanuman delivers lines like “I don’t believe in luck.”), but it involves a fishing boat and a low tide rather than a flying monkey, a talking mountain and a hungry sea monster.   Possibly this will endear it to Western readers, but the re-telling loses something in the process. 

 It is the human element of the “tortured central characters” that for Martin makes the Ramayana great literature.  And he is quite sure the West will think so too, when they realise the Ramayana exists.  He is perplexed at the complete ignorance in the West about the poem.  “Ask an educated, well read person in the UK about Indian literature, and they will most probably talk vaguely about the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita but nothing else.”  He wrote this book in part to create more awareness about the Ramayana, but although designed for the West – to be sold as India’s answer to Homer’s Odyssey – he was keen that it be published in India too.

Martin hopes to publish a much fuller version of his re-telling soon.  In the meantime, he recommends a slim volume by Purushottama Lal, who has ‘transcreated’ the text, published by Writers Workshop.  Martin’s full length version though will be eagerly awaited.  With any luck this energetic journalist turned storyteller who celebrates the “rawness (and) raunch” of Valmiki’s text will help win the Ramayana a new audience not just in the West but also in metropolitan India.  Hanuman: Boy Warrior has just been launched as India’s first ever desi-developed video game; the time is ripe.

An Indian Odyssey – Martin Buckley, Random House 2008 is available on the publisher’s UK and India websites, as well as Amazon.


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