Succumbing to political pressures for allegedly hurting religious sentiments, the Delhi University scrapped an essay by A. K. Ramanujan from its undergraduate history syllabus a month or so ago. This move sparked widespread protests not only from Universities in Delhi, but also elsewhere. The essay in question was titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples andThree Thoughts on Translation. As the title suggests Ramanujan discusses the various versions of the Ramayana, which he likes to call ‘tellings’, as well as the issues that crop up when this particular text is translated so many times.
Ramanujan was a versatile scholar, donning the hat of author, poet, translator and folklorist. Initially teaching at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda for eight years, he later moved to the U. S.
The whole trend and culture of banning/censoring books, film, paintings etc. that we witness in India – of which the Ramanujan fiasco is only the latest – has demonstrated how the precarious condition of the ideal of Free Speech is standing on shaky ground and also a gloomy future is facing not only the students of history (like my self) but to the whole country at large. The reason why I am deeply disturbed after the fiasco at Delhi University is because an attempt is being made to suppress the many voices of history, which in a way implies that there is only one possible way to interpret history in the world.
The news of the removal of the essay made me curious andurged me to explore the nature and content of the essay as well the politics ofbanning/censoring. I was skeptical whether I could locate a digital copy on the internet. But as luck had it, I could find it very easily. Talk about asking a child not to play with fire! In this essay, easily downloadable via the internet, Ramanujan tries “...to sort out for myself, and hope for others, how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages and religious traditions relate to each other: what gets translated, transplanted and transposed (italics mine).” Ramanujan prefers the term ‘tellings’ because in his opinion there is no such thing as an original Ramayana and the use of terms like ‘versions’ and ‘variants’ imply that there is an original text from which all subsequent texts emanated.
Kumkum Roy, a historian of Ancient India at the Jawarharlal Nehru University, writing for the Economic and Political Weekly says that “Ramanujan is an engrossing writer, drawing attention to a range of narratives related to the epic from Sanskrit to Kannada and Thai. Most importantly, he uses the different tellings of the Rama story as cultural artifacts that shape and are in turn shaped by our daily existence. Why then should young adult learners be prevented from learning about them?”
Ramanujan’s mastery over words as well as the subject over which he is elaborating, draws the reader immediately into the text. For instance, citing the example of Jain traditions, Ramanujan says, “When we enter the world of Jain tellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. Indeed the Jain text expresses the feeling that the Hindus, especially the brahmans, have maligned Ravana, made him into a villain.” When the Jains tell the Rama story therefore, Ravana comes off as a tragic hero, moving us to sympathy.
At this point it would be worthwhile to recall the animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. In this film, the narrative of Ramayana is woven with the personal story of Nina Paley, the artist who made the film (which can be downloaded for free). Like the unfortunately fateful essay of Ramanujan, Nina Paley’s delightful movie too had the spectre of ‘banning’ hanging over its head initiated by radical Hindu groups.
One thing that would strike anybody who has or will watch the movie is the brilliant animation to the accompaniment of jazz music. Like Ramanujan’s essay, this film too, engrosses the viewer in its narrative. What was striking about this film was the depth with which it interrogated the actions of the characters in the Ramayana. Questions that have no easy answers, not because they are entrenched in some profound and deep metaphysics, but simply because the contemporary political ramifications can be ugly. It was the only movie (as far as I know), where, at the end of the credits a list of recommended readings scrolled up one’s screen!
Kumkum Roy gets it right when she says, “If anything, young adult learners (the average undergraduate students) need to be encouraged to understand and appreciate these differences rather than be prevented from learning about them. The dangers of suppressing the text in particular and the implications of a policy of suppression of dissent in general are far more threatening than any comments Ramanujan makes about Indra and Hanuman.”
If the sole intention of banning the essay was to make students – particularly of the arts – read, then kudos to the fundamentalists! But clearly this is not the issue. The issue is about control. What is sickening is to note that, not only is an attempt made to control what we do or say, but also what and how we ‘think’. For the control of the mind is the easiest way to subjugate the masses. We can’t allow ourselves to be passive dupes who would accept anything that dominant ideologues and groups tell us to believe.
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: December 27, 2011)