During my final exams for Masters, Banaras Hindu University hosted a festival of Rāmāyana from other South-east Asian countries; everyday in the evening one country or the other presented a retelling of their version of the story in dance drama format. That was my first initiation to various versions of the epic Rāmāyana – the Rāmā Kātha.
AK Ramanujan in his controversial essay Three Hundred Rāmāyanas talks about various narratives flowing in South and South-east Asia through epic and mythological stories, folk lore, dance drama, plays and poems, through art and music. While the story and the plot have remained more or less similar to the original Vālmīki Rāmāyana, the nuances of the details differ in the various versions. But it is a story which permeates the very ethos of cultural India – it is there around us in various forms – a familiar tale for all Indians across all strata of the society.
Rāmā Kātha has transcended throughout the expanse of all art and story-telling forms in such a way that it is interwoven in the Indian traditions and life around us. The very first introduction is through the festivals around Rāmā and through the tales told by the grandparents. It is in the Rāmā Lílas performed in various cities, in the toys at various mélas and fêtes across the country. The story is reinforced through comic serials that children watch or the adult serials – the most popular one being the original Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana telecasted in 1980s by Doordarshan. Amar Chitra Katha’s Ramayana story or the inclusion of the story in one form or the other in the school syllabi ensures that the narrative continues to remain in the subconscious mind of the person.
The tryst with the Rāmā Kātha has also continued with Bollywood or other film genres taking inspiration from the age-old narrative and reinterpreting it for modern audiences. It is also being presented in a new avatar by famous writer Amish Tripathi in his new Ramachandra series. It is omnipresent through the celebration of faith by Hindus, through its songs and bhajans. Through the motifs in Indian art – the miniature paintings, sculptures, wall paintings in temples or homes across India. The story is even depicted in various textile traditions like Käntha, Madhubani, Baluchari or Kalamkari. It is in the phad or kaavad tradition of story-telling, it is in the musical traditions of Manganiyars and Bauls; and in the modern society it is in the theatrical enactment of the story during navratras in many cities.
The extent to which the story of Rāmā has pervaded the society is best seen at Banaras during month long celebration of Rāmā Lílas across various parts of the city – performed not by professional artists but by common people. Each episode of Rāmnagar Rāmā-Líla takes place at a different location and people travel from all over to witness the enactment of the epic. So much so that the regulars who attend these can recite along with the characters as they enact the tale – the whole city irrespective of caste, religion, gender celebrates the Rāmā Kātha in a way that it is difficult to say whether it is bhakti or utsav.