Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Our many Ramayanas: Feminist writer Sarah Joseph and her son Vinaykumar KJ retell the epic

While Joseph looks at the Ramayana from a subaltern perspective, her son’s retellings are an “internal exploration”.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul | New Delhi |
November 8, 2015 1:00:10 am
 Vinaykumar KJ with the cast in a scene from The Tenth Head Vinaykumar KJ with the cast in a scene from The Tenth Head

In a land of many cultures, religions and languages, the three often overlap. Vinaykumar KJ believes that most of India’s youth is bound to, at some point, set out in search for their identity, to understand the complexities of their roots. “There is so much history and baggage that one has no choice but to stand atop it and negotiate. At such times, you turn to the stories of the land and wonder who are you really?” says Vinaykumar, who heads Adishakti, the acclaimed Pondicherry-based performance arts company, since renowned thespian Veenapani Chawla’s demise earlier this year.

Born and raised in Kerala, Vinaykumar, 43, is a Christian. In the late 1980s, as he was stepping into his 20s, the dilemma regarding his identity nudged him towards the Ramayana. The epic, which he continues to explore through his works, today forms a large part of the stories performed by Adishakti. Take, for instance, Nidrawatham, which looks at Kumbhakarna and Lakshman, the brothers of the two protagonists in the Ramayana; or their latest production, The Tenth Head, based on Ravan’s 10th head that has broken away from the rest and attempts to understand itself in isolation.

For Vinaykumar, the exposure to Hindu mythology came early. His mother, noted feminist and author Sarah Joseph introduced her young son to the texts. “Sometimes, there would be discussions on the characters between my mother and her friends,” he says.

book cover Retelling the Ramayana by CNS Nair and Sarah Joseph

Joseph, 69, is known for her subaltern retellings of Ramayana that include the Malayalam novel Oorukaaval (The Vigil, translated in English by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan), told from the point of view of Vali’s son Angadan. It begins with his father’s death and continues till Sita’s rescue; the narrative allows a different, and rather unflattering take on the events of the epic. “It looks at the war between Ram and Ravan as one based on caste and the gotras they both belong to,” says Joseph, who also looks at contemporary issues in India and the world and attempts to draw parallels with instances from the epic.

Joseph, who recently returned her Sahitya Akademi award for Aalahayude Penmakkal (Daughters of God the Father), explains that her interest in the epics is rooted in her own quest for an identity. Initially, she had wanted to be a nun, but Joseph turned to writing and went “in search of Christ outside of the Church”. In Othappu, she explores a woman’s yearning for the spiritual as well as the sexual and wonders if the two can co-exist. “The same quest led me to look at the epics,” adds Joseph.

One of the leading figures of the feminist movement in Kerala, Joseph examines women characters in Valmiki’s version of the epic as individuals in Ramayana Kathakal. In one story, Surpanakha meets Sita in the forest after Ram has banished her. She tells the former queen that the men who disfigured and humiliated her for merely expressing her sexual desires will not treat Sita any better.

While Joseph looks at the Ramayana from a subaltern perspective, her son’s retellings are an “internal exploration”. “Ramayana is the only story where one can find lofty ideas such as that of a just nation, notions of societal behaviour, leadership and a nation’s expansion. And they hold true even today,” says Vinaykumar. In 1993, he joined Adishakti, formed by Chawla in 1981, as a performance artist at the age of 22.

A large part of his understanding of Ramayana as well as Mahabharata, thus, is influenced by Chawla and their collaborations since. “We began to wonder if Ramayana looks at a dream nation and its collapse, and, when we look around us, why does it keep happening over and over again? The decay that begins in Ramayana in a way carries forward in the Mahabharata,” says Vinaykumar, who, through Adishakti’s performances has often attempted to explore the idea of a “collective”. He says: “A collective may be based on one single ideology, a utopian idealism, be it right wing or left wing. But is the collective really a singular identity or is it more complex because it is made up of many individuals with their own minds? And what happens when one individual decides to step away from the collective; does it then collapse?”

These questions, which seem relevant even today, have been explored in The Tenth Head. It borrows from the imagery of Ravan’s 10 heads that emerged in 17th century, where the first five are the same size, the fifth is the central head and the subsequent ones keep getting smaller till the last one is no bigger than a circle with three dots that represent the face with eyes and the mouth. “How does this 10th head feel as part of a powerful collective like Ravan? Can it negotiate space for itself?” says Vinaykumar.

While Vinaykumar’s ideas have been drawn up from his collaboration with Chawla for over two decades, the influence of his mother’s perspective remains, too. The artiste, who did his BA (Theatre Arts) from the University of Calicut and later trained in Kathakali from Krishnan Namboodri, plays the 10th head in the play. In its attempt to search for its own identity, the head ponders over his views on Sita and her abduction, which may not necessarily be the same as that of the collective. “The individuality of a woman, these are my early lessons and they often overlap with my own quest for identity,” says Vinaykumar.

The story was originally published with the headline Heads Will Roll

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