EDITORIAL : Ramayana and the Art of Criticism / Johny ML
JohnyML, editor in chief of Art Tehelka, in this holy month of Ramayana analyses various visual depictions of Rama Pattabhisheka and comes to conclusion that artists make subtle additions and deletions to pack their critique of dogmatic religions, exactly the way readers delete lines and adds their own to the texts that they read.
The month of Ramadan is just over. Fasting has been purifying many minds and many bodies too. Closing the doors of the Islamic holy month, another pious month has just ushered in. All over India, especially in Kerala, the month that started just a day before (17th July 2015 marking the beginning of the month of Karkidakam) will be observed as ‘Ramayana Month’. I was about to write ‘celebrate’ instead of ‘observe’; but pious months are not celebrated. Like the fasting during the Ramadan month, reading Ramayana cleanses the body and minds of the Hindus. They believe that reading Ramayana would take them to heaven after death and those souls that have been denied entry to the heavens would also be allowed entry if the relatives living on earth read Ramayana regularly for a month. Observance of this holy month, like any other holy months has got something to do with the life style of the people who have lived ages ago. Their subsistence was mainly agriculture and this particular month was not so good for doing agricultural work. Drought and floods were common and people waited for this month to pass, reading the available Ramayana text and profusely appeasing the gods. Seen against the historical and textual evidences we could say that this practice in this part of the world was started only after 15th century CE, though the original Ramayana was written around 7000 years back.
Historical evidences pertaining to the Ramayana reading month also bring forth the visual representations of the same text or the versions of it and demand our attention. Ramayana, as seen today, should be treated as an ideological text, with certain groups of Hindus attributing supremacy to a homogenous Ramayana therefore disallowing the existence of other Ramayanas. In its ideological manifestation, Ramayana has got two predominant visual representations. One, the Pattabhishekam scene (could be translated as the Coronation Scene) and two, the mighty warrior Rama aiming his arrow at an invisible enemy. In the former visual text, as it is ideologically loaded, we read the strength of a successful family which has overcome all the adversities convincingly. In most of the depictions, we see Ram and Sita sitting on the royal throne flanked by brothers Laxman, Bharat and Shatrughan. At the right side of Ram, at his feet, the embodiment of selfless service, Hanuman sits in supplication. It is a photo op for the people who believe in the Hindu way of social life and morality, which many a Bollywood movie has worked on. The only flipside is that when the self less Hanuman transforms himself into a loyal servant in an ideal family he gets the name ‘Ramu Kaka’. This misnomer has been accepted by the audience by this time, just like any stock characters that appear and disappear in the Bollywood and Bollywood inspired movies in India.
In some rare depictions of Pattabhisheka, we see Sita and Ram holding their kids Luv and Kush on their laps. While ‘the’ Hanuman at Ram’s feet in general is shown young or middle aged, in this family portrait, we see an aged Hanuman who now has an additional responsibility of looking after two mischievous kids. This artistic license of bringing the kids to the perfect portrait of a successful family that has just overcome the adversities, also tells that the scene is not just after the defeat of Lanka and retrieval of Sita from there, but much later, after she was tested for her chastity, abandoned and finally brought back to the family along with the kids. Such artistic freedoms keep on trying to subvert the dominant readings of Ramayana, which the unsuspecting devotees devour without discerning the ideological thrust. It says that family should be solid despite the allegations of chastity, doubts, war, retrieval and many such calamities. The emphasis is on the final scene, a perfect photo opportunity, which millions of Hindus in India and elsewhere struggle to replicate in their lives, most often failing miserably in it.
The latter picture is rather new. The angry Ram is a new avatar. One could date him in late 1980s or early 1990s, when the right wing forces in India were demanding the demolition of Babri Masjid and the installation of a Ram Temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. The posters and hoardings that had come up in the Indian topography celebrated a mighty warrior Ram, blue in color with an arrow ready to be released at the enemy. A change of costumes and weapon attribute would make him a Sylvester Stallone in Rambo or the other way round. If Stallone was painted blue and given a saffron loin cloth and sacred thread, he would have been a perfect match for the Rama that the Hindutva forces were trying to eke out from the Maryada Purushottam concept of the original Rama. This muscular and angry Rama, like the later depictions of Shiva in many mediums (Amish, C.S.Rajamouli and many other graphic novelists are responsible for this), was an ideological need to establish an aggressive nation which would do anything to become a country of Hindu pride. In this depiction, unlike the conventional inclusion of Ravan or demons as villain, Ram is staring at a void, carrying the plan of ‘his’ temple within the ether of his body and the board. This clever visual ideation replaces the villain and in his place a new villain is introduced; the other, anything or anyone not a Hindu or not for the Ayodhya Temple. Villains are just suggestions now in our visual culture; the hero’s anger is just enough to do the job (of inciting the easily incite-able, who are no better than film club fans who would die or kill for a front row ticket on the first day first show of their idol).
However, fortunately for us those who still believe in secularism (though the word itself is debated and falsified at various forums) and unfortunately for those who want to convert the benevolent Ram into Samurai Class, the poor people who read Ramayana during this holy month still believe in that abstract Ram, who stood for goodness and welfare of his people. They obliterate all what they do not want. They shudder inside when they read about the villains who would abduct Sita. They, mainly old women who would recite the text for us ‘busy’ people for a pittance at the temple steps, like the widows in Vrindavan who eke out two rupees for calling out ‘Krishna, Krishna’ throughout the day, avoid reading the worst cantos and read only those cantos that narrate the happy scenes in Ramayana. This wonderful editing technique developed by people over a period of time without scholastic intervention, has helped us stay away from nightmares and social conflicts as the recitation not only avoids speaking about the other (read villain) but also does not give a chance of them coming to the vicinity.
Artists however, are tricky people. They incorporate their criticism and personal social views and critique of morality by standing close to the convention of depiction but cleverly deviating from it without giving a chance to be suspected by anyone. This is as similar as the editing techniques developed by the Ramayana readers themselves. If they remove a couple of lines while reading or even add a couplet of their making without deviating from the meter, none is going to suspect. But by that time the critique must have been up in the air and would become a part of the lore. Such interpolations are quite common and visual artists are the masters of such interpolations. Those artists who include their self portraits in the contemporary works and also those who include certain subtle references of difference and deference in their works, save the day for future. While they look meek in their visual narratives, the aggression of their critical attack reveals itself in each viewing. I was surprised to see a Pattabhisheka depiction by Chennai based Cartoonist Keshav, who does political cartoons for the Hindu.
In this Pattabhisheka, you see both Ram and Sita wearing unlikely crowns. The brothers who flank them wear different headgears that we have not seen in the dominant depictions. Hanuman who sits at the feet of Ram is all hairy and exactly like a monkey. He is seen playing with a pearl garland gifted to him by his master. There is vagueness and foolishness in his eyes as it obviously does not look like an aesthete’s considered view of those pearls. What makes this painting of Pattabhisheka, all the more important for me (for its subtle subversive tactics) is the gaze of the characters in the picture. In the generic Pattabhisheka pictures, we see the gaze of the people in the picture directed at the viewers. There is an interlocking of the gazes which develops some kind of intimacy between the gazer and the gazed. Scientifically it has been proven that when you look into someone’s eyes a hormone, oxytocin is produced in our brains that establishes a bonding. Though the study is based on the relationship between dogs and human beings, it seems to be applicable to pictures and people who gaze at each other. In the painting of Keshav, this gaze is not there. They all have diverted their gaze to this monkey/Hanuman who is seen playing with the pearls. Instead of the austere smile that we see on the faces of the characters in Pattabhisheka pictures, here we see a gleeful laughter on everybody’s face, including that of Sita and Ram. These self engrossed characters are least bothered about their devotees gazing at the scene of a grand Pattabhisheka. This is a cartoonist’s point of view; yet what a point of view! Keshav sees the whole scene with complete sympathy for Hanuman. He has done ethical and unethical for Ram and he is duly remunerated. But doesn’t the whole narrative reek of some injustice in Ramayana? Who is Hanuman? A South Indian? The artist leaves the question at it and moderates his strong views by giving each character dress and headgear so that they could resemble the courtiers of Krishnadevaraya who ruled Vijayanagara Empire in the 16th century AE, interestingly during the same time the Kannasa Ramayana became popular in South India!